MN12 Changes by year

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Sep 12, 2023
Tinton Falls, NJ
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Over the years the MN12 Thunderbirds and Cougars were refined and, for the most part, improved. Some changes were obvious, and others less noticable. Below is an overview of some of the most notable changes made to the Thunderbird and Cougar over the model run from 1989 to 1997

This was the first year for the new MN12 platform. This was a completely new chassis, and hardly anything was shared with the previous platform. It would be impossible to list every difference between the 88 and 89 cars here, however the most significant improvement was the suspension with independent rear suspension (IRS) replacing the solid rear axle, and a Short/Long Arm (SLA) front suspension replacing the strut setup. This gave the new car much better ride and handling characteristics than the outgoing model. The new model also had significantly more interior room, especially rear seat room, due to an almost 10" increase in the wheelbase, while actually being almost 4" shorter overall. For 1989, there were only 2 engine options, the base 3.8L V6 producing 120hp, and the supercharged 3.8 V6 SC producing 210hp.

For 1990, both Thunderbird and Cougar were mostly carryovers from the previous model year. A black interior option became available in 1990, which was not an option on 1989 models. Other changes included changing the HVAC control buttons from silver to black, and changing the rear lower control arms from stamped steel to cast iron.

1991 saw the re-introduction of a V8 to the engine lineup. The 5.0 was once again available in the Thunderbird and Cougar, now the HO version producing 200hp. 1991 also saw the first Thunderbird Sport. The Sport package included the 5.0 V8, 3.27 rear gears (standard was 2.73), the stiffer springs and sway bars of the SC, and stiffer shocks. The base 3.8V6 saw an increase in power to 140hp thanks to an upgrade to a mass air system instead of the speed density system. Inside remained mostly unchanged, except for the removal of the "glove box" on top of the passenger side of the dashboard. Unfortunately for the Cougar, the 3.8SC option was dropped, and the XR7 was now only available with the 5.0/AOD automatic. The Cougar did also get some external redesign. The front bumper, grill, hood, headlights, and tail lights were changed.

1992 was again mostly a carryover from the previous year. The Sport package now included the SC style front bumper, but without "SC" embossed in the front. The Cougar XR7 received a more luxurious interior with burled wood trim, and a one-year only set of turbine style wheels. Thunderbirds got a redesigned trunklid to accommodate redesigned tail lights that now light up all the way across, instead of just the corner lights.

1993 saw a few significant mechanical improvements. For starters, the problematic Teves ABS system was gone, replaced with a conventional brake booster and master cylinder with an external ABS unit, which is much more reliable than the Teves setup. The steering knuckles were re-designed to include a more modern brake setup, and the rear brake rotors and calipers were also revised. Both Cougar and Thunderbird also got new wheel castings. Standard for Thunderbird were the 15" "Fan-blade" wheels, and the SC got a 16" wheel similar to the previous style, however now a directional casting. For the Cougar, there was some bad news. Cougar got new 15" "Lace" wheels, however the look was not an improvement. The Cougar LS was gone, all Cougars would now be badged as XR7s. Unfortunately the performance of the XR7 was also gone. Cougar could no longer be had with the SC style seats, adjustable suspension, 16" wheels, or monochromatic paint scheme. Basically the XR7 got downgraded to what was LS spec the previous year.

For 1994, there were some big changes! For starters, the 5.0 was gone. So was the AOD automatic. In their place was the new 4.6 SOHC engine producing 205hp, and the new electronically controlled 4R70W transmission. All 4.6L cars were also equipped with Ford's new EEC-V OBD2 computer. The 2.73 rear gear was no longer available, and 3.08s became standard, with 3.27s still being an option. The interior was also completely redesigned. A new dashboard came with wrap-around cockpit styling. The center console and door panels were also revised to work with the new dash. The automatic seat belts were gone, replaced by conventional seat belts and dual front airbags. The base and digital instrument clusters were also gone, replaced with a standard 6 gauge analog cluster. On the outside, Thunderbird received an all new nose with different hood, bumper, and headlights. The Cougar exterior was tweaked slightly with different tail lights, grille, and the front bumper had the body side molding shape removed from it, so it was now a smooth transition from the sides of the bumper to the fender. Both cars also received a slightly revised rear bumper. For the SC, the engine was tweaked with an upgraded supercharger, full floating pistons, and revised cylinder head castings. The power in the SC was now up to 230hp. The SC also received a revised rear bumper cover.

1995 was mostly a carry-over year. Slight changes were made to the 4R70W transmission, and to computer parameters. Engines, interior, and exterior all remained the same across all models.

Both Thunderbird and Cougar received a facelift for 1996. The hood, headlights, and bumpers were revised. Instead of thin body side moldings, both cars now had 6-8" wide cladding going down the sides. Door handles were revised to a smoother painted style. Thunderbird's tail lights were now the all red style that was previously reserved for only the SC. Speaking of the SC, that was discontinued. The only engine options were the base 3.8V6 and the 4.6SOHC. No manual transmission was available in Thunderbird anymore. The base 3.8 was now upgraded with a DIS distributorless ignition system, and power was now up 5hp to 145. The 4.6 received a new intake manifold and air intake system. Cylinder heads on the 4.6 were also revised to include longer valve stems due to early versions developing oil burning issues from worn valve guides. Horsepower remained at 205hp, however torque was up slightly due to the new intake design. The 4R70W transmission also received some upgrades for 96, including a revised oil pan to prevent fluid starvation on hard turns. Starting in 96, all cars received EEC-V and OBD2, not just the 4.6. The 3.08 rear gear was also dropped for 96, and all cars received the 3.27 ratio. 1996 also saw the return of the Sport option, which had been absent since 1992. Sport cars all got the 4.6V8, 16" wheels (93-95 SC wheels with a different center cap for Thunderbird, and 89-91 XR7 7-spoke wheels for the Cougar) as well as the SC springs and sway bars, stiffer shocks, and larger front brakes from the Lincoln MarkVIII.

1997 would be the last year of the MN12 platform. As such, 97 became an interesting year for options. The rear seat lights in the interior quarter panel trims were removed. The light at the bottom of the door was removed, replaced with just a reflector. The locking glove box was removed, as well as the shock absorber to soften the opening of the glove box. The instrument cluster was replaced with one similar to the Taurus. Ironically with all the options being removed, the one thing that had been missing all these years was added for the final year: USABLE CUP HOLDERS! 89-93 cars had no cup holders, and 94-96 had something installed under the armrest that could allow you to hold a cup, however it required the armrest be left open when in use, and the positioning of them made it awkward to stow and retrieve your drink. For the first time in 97, we got a cup holder that could actually be used normally. Luckily this is easily retrofitted to all the 94-96 cars.
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