Undated (AP) _ (For release Sunday, 3-12)

By John R. White

Boston Globe

Thunderbird. The very name conjures up the image of power. It's a name that's been in the Ford auto lexicon for 35 years. It's a name that has been attached to some very different automobiles.

In the beginning, Thunderbird was a daring departure, a two-seat sports car from a manufacturer of family transport and trucks - a dandy from a maker of the dowdy. In its day, it was pretty good; its day, however, was a day unmarked by anything resembling a domestic sports car in more than name and general appearance.

The original T-bird was a lead sled that handled more like a truck than a sports car. Still, it was flashy and it was daring - and it was popular. The old original, for all its faults, is a classic, a collector's item.

Thunderbird didn't stay a two-seater very long; two-seaters weren't volume cars and Ford was more interested in volume. It was the age of bigger is better - every year the cars got longer, wider, etc. The Thunderbird eventually evolved into a big, boxy, high-powered, four- to five-passenger gas guzzler bedecked with chrome. But the 'Bird retained a substantial following through reincarnation after reincarnation.

In the early '80s, Ford redefined Thunderbird. Its edges melted into a more aerodynamic shape, a radical styling departure. It became a more sophisticated package; a turbocharged T-bird coupe became the top-of-the-line model. The 1988 edition of Thunderbird was good - very good. Its 2.3-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged engine was intercooled and powerful; T-bird was fast, even allowing for some turbo lag. At the time, one wondered what Ford could possibly do to improve it.

Ford didn't improve it; Ford lifted the Thunderbird badge and slipped a whole new car underneath it. The top of the 1989 Thunderbird line is the SC, aka. Super Coupe, with a supercharged 3.8-liter V-6 engine. The new car has a few problems, the most important among them being that nobody can find the SC (the auto writer being an obvious exception). The normally aspirated versions of the 'Bird are very good, very satisfying both in the power department and in handling, but the Super Coupe is just that: super.

The SC was unveiled last October in Cambridge, Mass., in a bungled press introduction. Bungled event or not, it was obvious then that Ford had something, but, at the time, nobody was quite certain what. Now, after living with a normally aspirated T-bird, then a Super Coupe for a couple of weeks (and also driving the Lincoln-mercury version of SC, the Cougar XR7), I'm certain what Ford has: the best T-bird yet.

The prototype version of SC/XR7 shown in October was a bit noisy, a growly engined beast that responded well and handled well in the rain. But prototypes are not finished cars, not production models that people buy. Prototypes wind up in museums sometimes, crushers more often. It was a long wait for the production SC.

While the normally aspirated Thunderbird was rolling off the line at regular intervals, the SC wasn't. In January, at the Detroit International Auto Show, the SC was awarded the Road & Track gold caliper as Car of the Year. That award is always a shot in the marketing arm for the winning manufacturer and, although Ford had the billboards up and the newspaper ads on the presses almost before the congratulatory handshake was ended, it didn't have any SCs to take advantage of the award hoopla. Why?

Ford had a supply problem, or, more specifically, a supplier problem. There weren't enough crankshafts available for the SC to build more than a handful of cars. Well, there were crankshafts - not enough good crankshafts. The supplier was casting the cranks rather than forging them, and a lot of the castings were deficient in quality - junk. A supercharged engine puts a lot more strain on a crankshaft than a normally aspirated engine - that sudden surge of fuel and air forces a sudden increase in rpm that puts an extraordinary load on the crankshaft - the one piece of the engine that is connected to all of the cylinders and the part that transforms the up-and-down motion of the pistons to the rotary motion of transmission and wheels. The casting process was yielding only a trickle of cranks that could be expected to withstand the punishment of a high-powered supercharged engine.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the process of casting crankshafts, but drop-forging - literally hammering the piece into shape from a hot blank - is quicker and more consistent, yielding a stronger finished piece than the usual casting process. Rather than ship the cars with deficient cranks, Ford elected to wait, to lose the opportunity for quick sales, in order to gamble on the long view. That is quite different from what was formerly done in Detroit - and may still be done by some companies. The old way was to sell the junk and fix it later, or blame it on the customer.

You've got to like a company that acknowledges it has a problem and fixes it before shipping the car to a customer. That's the best idea that Ford ever had, and this glitch in the Thunderbird SC production could prove to be a useful tool for building customer confidence rather than just a marketing inconvenience. The car is worth waiting for, if you are in the market for a coupe with looks, speed, exceptional road manners and pizazz.

There is no turbo lag; press the accelerator and the SC leaps out smartly. There is still some growl and whine as the SC revs up, but it is more subdued than the writer remembers in the prototype. And the car is reasonably stable on slick surfaces, even with all the power (210 h.p.). It is not the car for a teen-ager in the winter, but it won't get you into trouble unless you're really asking for it.

The problem with its speed is the lack of a sense of speed under way. Accelerating out of a toll booth is one thing - you know you're moving - but cruising on the turnpike is something else. The SC is deceptively comfortable; you tend to relax and the car tends to go faster. Part of this may relate to engine speed. if your ear is attuned to the modern four-banger that's turning 3,000 r.p.m. at 60 or so, recalibrate your ear because at 1,700 r.p.m. in top gear, an SC is breaking the speed limit in every state in which readers of this paper are likely to drive. You take it to 3,000 for the sake of your ear, and soon you will be meeting one of those civil-servant persons who travels with a badge, book and gun, and signals attention with blue lights. Automatic speed control is a must for ticket-free turnpike travel.

The handling is first-rate; the SC has speed-sensitive power steering that translates into quick, nimble and predictable handling no matter how fast or slow you care to go. The SC is good in the corners, good on the back roads, good on the highway. The 'Bird remains a rear-drive car, the drive choice of racers, with good weight distribution.

The SC is a mite shorter than the previous T-bird, but the wheelbase has been lengthened so the ride improves. It takes the bumps neatly. The sample SC has an electronically controlled suspension selector and, although I'm not normally fond of these things, this one works well, probably because it was designed for drivers rather than as an engineering exercise. In hard cornering or braking, the suspension automatically firms up to keep the nose from diving or to avoid excessive lean. In normal driving it is fairly soft, soaking up the bumps - you can lock it on firm all the time.

The car has a drawback; its sleek design and its derriere-grabbing seats pose an entry/exit problem for many people. The seats have outboard wings that come up around the posterior somewhat - one doesn't slide around in these buckets. The windshield has a sharp rake and the roof curves down to meet it, beginning about where a normal driver's head might be. The sides of the roof curve downward into the door. If you are short-legged and long-waisted and over 5 feet 10, you have a problem. You may be so close to the dash that your headroom is all but gone and you will just about have to push the seat way back to climb out. And, you may still strike your head on the edge of the door opening - this writer did and he's just a smidgen taller than the national average.

Rear-seat passengers in the T-bird may find knee room tight and head room scarce - the XR7 rear passenger fares scarcely better on headroom despite the different rear treatment. Legroom in the front is good, and the driver has a footrest for the left foot.

There are pockets in the seatbacks, bins in the front doors and a reasonable glove box; the trunk is large enough for a lot of luggage, but stashing grocery bags upright is problematical.

There's a choice of transmission, a very smooth manual 5-speed or the 4- speed automatic. With the 5-speed, the SC is rated 17 miles per gallon city, 24 highway by the EPA. The writer managed better than 20 in a lot of driving, all of it aggressive.

At a base price of just under $20,00, and a $22,290 sticker for the fully equipped test car delivered, the SC may not be everybody's choice, but it does pose a question: Why would anybody buy one of those more expensive foreign jobs when there's a domestic like this loose?