Guest Content: Turbo World

Today’s guest post is from John Zajac who comments on the auto industry over at

By John Zajac

When Detroit used to host the Grand Prix downtown, the family used to go for Free Prix Day on the Friday before the race.  Nancy and I would bundle up Kate and her buggy and head into the city for greasy food and glimpses of very fast cars twisting through the city streets.  The best part was just east of the Cobo Arena entrance where the turbocharged F1 racers would turn, twist and then dive under the tunnel to Atwater.

In 1985 when we did this sojourn, I had just picked up one my favorite cars, a silver Thunderbird Turbo Coupe with the 5-speed manual transmission.  When we were finished for the night, I drove along Larned next to Cobo Hall, and accelerated onto the Lodge with my window down.  I had the car in a low gear and I heard the turbo spool up as the soft screech echoed off the concrete wall just off the driver’s side.  The combination of power and control in that car was intoxicating as I quickly reached highway speed and powered home from there.

This was the first of many fond memories of that car which featured a relatively small 2.3L four-cylinder engine, but mated to the turbocharger it made “sufficient” power.  I was also fond of the car’s fuel economy, because despite its pulling power, I was still able to average about 25 mpg with it.

The Turbo Coupe managed to be a popular trim series for the Thunderbird.  If I remember properly, the “sport” version with its anthracite gray exterior trim, soft gray lower bodyside and GTI-inspired thin red stripe penetrated about 20% of Thunderbird market.  To be truthful, it was probably the trim, which made the body look like it was machined from billet stock that sold the car rather than the turbo engine.  The Mustang that featured the same powertrain as an option did not fare nearly as well, for example.  But still, that whistling turbo made the best sound as the car would fairly jump in response to a downshift and stab on the throttle.

And the best news is that those days are back.  At least for the turbo and the small displacement engine.

The small displacement engine boosted by a turbo is now getting its due as manufacturers struggle to power cars while preserving performance.  Ford raised several eyebrows when they announced that they would not have a V-8 available for their new Lincoln MKS (is it MKS? These anonymous names are so forgettable.)  Instead, there’d be an optional twin turbo version of the stock V-6.  I t is this engine, in slightly more breathed on form that serves to motivate the new Taurus SHO that has been received so well.

GM has been in on the action as well.  The new Buick Regal, based on the Opel Insignia, has no V-6 power, the base engine being a 2.4L four cylinder.  The upscale turbo engine will be 2.0L, but offer more power, and the “concept” GS that was shown at Detroit even came equipped with a manual 6-speed transmission.  Good news for the young at heart.

Ford promises more EcoBoost, that is, small displacement but turbo’d engines as their performance models going forward.  With luck there’ll be EcoBoost Focuses and Fusions.  I’m not sure if there’ll be a turbocharged Mustang, and I’m not sure if that’s a good idea, especially if Ford were to kill the V-8.  But that brings up a different, if related problem.

Having relatively fuel-efficient engines making good power and able to be shifted manually is a very promising sign for what may otherwise be a dismal automotive future.  But my Turbo Coupe had a couple of other strengths.  One was that it was, after all, a coupe.  No formality of a four door sedan there.  It was a proper, if large, sporting car.  From a design standpoint, it was hampered a bit by Fox platform huge overhangs in the front and rear, and Ford always seemed to have trouble getting “snap” into their C-pillars.  The original 1983 ½ and 1984 versions were little more then re-engined pedestrian chromed T-Birds, and it had to wait until 1985 and 1986 for the exterior to be cleaned up and interior retooled.

The “Car of the Year” 1987 version was a let down for me.  Its more monochromatic treatment was more flashy and less understated.  Its early electronically adaptive suspension lacked a Goldilocks “just right” setting, which the earlier version had without the complication and cost.  But the biggest negative to me was that the nose of the car got a point, proving for all time that if you name a car after a bird, sooner or later it will have a beak.

But other than the bodystyle, few cars are featuring the rear wheel drive that has always been the hallmark of prestigious automobiles, even including the Fox-platformed Fords.  Front drive cars have come a long way, and with modest power coursing through the driveline can be very entertaining.  Most Hondas, the MINI, most VW’s can be rewarding to drive.  But when real power is applied, front drivers are overwhelmed.  Band Aids like All Wheel Drive lash ups on an otherwise front drive layout can be made to work, but there’s a lot of needless monkey motion and 90 degree bends needed to make it work.

Two disparate commentators, Joe White of the Wall Street Journal and Robert Cumberford of Automobile Magazine both take the new Cadillac XLR, err, XTC, no, umm XTS (damn meaningless alphanumerics) to task for being front wheel drive, but for different reasons.  Mr. White reports on how purists prefer the rear drive chassis dynamics, despite how “most drivers” will never use the handling capability of a well balanced rear drive layout, and front drive will certainly serve the vast majority well.  Mr. Cumberford expresses his disappointment in that the front drive based package precludes a truly prestigious long hood proportion, de rigueur on premium automobiles.  While he likes the maturing of the “Art and Science” design theme overall, the XTS, and Cadillac by extension, will never be taken seriously as a front rank vehicle with an economy car look.  This prompts two thoughts.  First, Lincoln has the same issue with the MK (blank – you fill in the letter).  Secondly, I wonder if Ratan Tata would sell Jaguar XJ bits back to Ford to then form the basis for truly world class Continental?

One of many ironies in the business these days is that Cadillac’s “entry level” CTS as a rear drive layout, and can be had in CTS-V guise with a stonkin’ V-8.  I wonder how much handwringing went into choosing the front drive layout for the XTS, especially as the car replaces both the front-drive  DeVille/DTS and the rear-drive STS (formerly Seville – although the Seville wasn’t rear drive).

As it is, there’s one car that fits the small displacement turbo engine, manual transmission, coupe body and rear wheel drive brief.  And that’s the ironically branded Hyundai Genesis Coupe, available with all the high tech and prestigious attributes.  Apart from the slightly hokey DLO, the car fits the bill.  I hope it’s still on offer when I can afford it.

Ford had the opportunity to develop its “DEW-98” RWD chassis, but has decided to let that chance slip by.  It survives as the basis for the good handling Jaguar XF.  I often wonder why the Lincoln LS was never permitted to develop a prestigious and sporty mien.  And I wonder why the last two-seat Thunderbird was permitted to be the last word on the nameplate.  The convertible still shared the 107-inch wheelbase of the LS it was derived from, and either a two or four door coupe could have been spun off easily enough.  Sigh.

Sometimes the obvious misses the corporate product planners.  While not a coupe, but a rear-drive product, Ford announced good news when they said they would build the new version of the Explorer in Chicago, where the 500 and Freestyle were built, and derivative MKS and Taurus cars are built now.  In all likelihood, the new Explorer shares their platform and is thus more a restyled Freestyle than a true Explorer.  Of course, if Ford engineered and tooled a new front clip and turned the powertrain 90 degrees to make a proper boat and snowmobile towing Explorer, I’ll offer my apologies.

My small engined, turbocharged, rear drive, coupe body Thunderbird Turbo Coupe was quite a car.  It had power, style, handling and incomparable presence, at least in my memory.  Among all the antics of acceleration and handling prowess, I have another memory.  My daughter, Kate, was no more than three or four years old.  She was waiting for us to leave and she had casually turned on the reading light in the rear seat and was sitting there reading a children’s book.  She was calm and secure and happy and that image of her coddled there remains.

I heard later than cost cutters had removed that reading feature from the car.  That’s one reason I always fought against the cheapskates and chiselers who would deprive me and others of those sorts of memories.

Read more of John’s posts on ChromeSweetChrome

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