Two-Door V8 Dinosaurs: 1978 Ford Thunderbird vs 1989 Dodge Ramcharger

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On today’s edition of Shitbox Showdown, it’s another Two-Door Tuesday as we consider a couple of V8 monsters from days gone by: a great big bird, and a 2WD SUV that’s neither fish nor fowl. But before we get to those, let’s see which piece of my childhood was more appealing to you:

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Poor old Dasher diesels get no love at all. Really, it was an awesome car, just leisurely. But you chose the Audi, and as a reward, allow me to present to you a photo I came across a while back, of another red Audi, long ago. This is your humble author, in May of 1990, on the way to prom:

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Oof. That hair. What were we thinking? But notice the sweet General XP2000 white-letters, my dad’s tire of choice at the time. This is just a few minutes before I was showing off at a stoplight, accelerated hard, forgot I was driving the only automatic in the household, and stomped on the “clutch” (read: brake) to shift. She wasn’t impressed. At least there was no one behind us.

Ahem. Anyway, moving on: Today we’re looking at a couple of substantially less fuel-efficient ways of getting around. One is that epitome of ’70s bloat known as the personal luxury coupe, and the other is that cool but kinda useless truck you don’t see anymore: the 2WD 2 door SUV. Let’s dig in.

1978 Ford Thunderbird – $1,995

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Engine/drivetrain: V8 of unknown displacement, 3 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Lake City, WA

Odometer reading: 106,000 miles

Runs/drives? Presumably

I was surprised to discover, when I researched this car, that Ford sold nearly a million of this generation of Thunderbird between 1977 and 1979. I remember them being pretty common, but that popular? I had no idea. This baby blue number was one of more than 350,000 sold in 1978 alone. Which means that while Andy Gibb was busy “Shadow Dancing” and Richard Dreyfus was sculpting mountains out of mashed potatoes, a whole lot of folks were choosing to buy this car, brand new. The mind reels.

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Though really, compared to some other cars of the era, it’s not a terrible-looking car. It’s just so big. Introduced in the lull between two fuel crises, it was technically downsized from the previous generation. Still a monster, though. There’s no indication of which engine this particular Thunderbird has, but it would have been a 302, 351, or 400 cubic incher, all backed by a nice mushy 3 speed automatic. None would have moved this big heavy car with any respectable degree of alacrity.

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This Thunderbird looks all original, a “survivor” as they say. What they used to call a “cream puff.” Owned by a little old lady, only driven to church on Sundays, all that jazz. And maybe that’s all true. But they could have at least washed it. And pulled that one eyelid shut for the photos.

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For some odd reason, all we get for interior photos are close-ups of the upholstery. Nice to see it’s in good shape, but can we see the rest of it, please?

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But if these photos are at all accurate, this is the second-nicest Thunderbird of this style that I know of. The nicest is owned by my friend Scott back in Illinois; it was his first car in 1989 and he still has it.


1989 Dodge Ramcharger – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 318 cubic inch V8, 3 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Beaumont, TX

Odometer reading: unknown

Runs/drives? Yep, according to the ad

The Dodge Rambcharger was Chrysler’s answer to the Ford Bronco and Chevy Blazer, a shortened truck chassis with a 2-door SUV body based on the pickup truck’s sheetmetal. Like the Bronco and the Blazer, early Ramchargers had a removable roof, but this second-generation model has a fixed steel roof. It’s powered by a throttle-body fuel injected 318 V8, backed by a heavy-duty A-727 Torqueflite automatic.

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Disappointingly, this rock-solid powertrain drives only the rear wheels in this particular Ramcharger. Two-wheel-drive versions of SUVs are sort of an odd breed, and they’re far more common in less-snowy parts of the country. Nobody would buy a 2WD Ramcharger in Minneapolis, for example. Without four-wheel-drive, trucks like this are basically just less-practical, cooler-looking station wagons.

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This Ramcharger is in good shape mechanically, for the most part, but cosmetically it needs some help. It has some rust, and the replacement doors that have been installed need shimming to open and close properly. The seller has also done quite a few workarounds and kludges to keep it on the road, including a push-button start and some aftermarket gauges.

It does have some sweet three-spoke wheels as well:

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If you really want one, you’re not going to have a lot of other options. Ramchargers were never as common as Blazers or Broncos, and they’re getting really thin on the ground now. The rust might be a problem, but you also might be content to drive it as-is.

Neither of these cars is the sort of thing you’re going to buy on a whim. You have to want one of them to put up with the shortcomings: the size, the mileage, the inevitable repairs. But either one would be a conversation starter at any car gathering. So which conversation would you  rather start?


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63 Responses

  1. This was a tough choice. The T-bird; nothing more pleasing than a 4200 lbs “Sports-Car”. I think every one of these had a 351 with a 3-speed trans. The only differences in trim levels were the seat covers, and the hub-caps. The 351 can really be built up with cheap parts. It’s like a NASCAR track-car, waiting to happen. And to think this barge was the computer-designed, down-sized, mini-version of the prior model years.
    The Ramcharger; In the mid-Eighties they transferred production of these to Mexico. The produced a ton of them, and they were loss-leaders, with prices way below GM and Ford. Cheap Mexican labor and nixing the remove-a-roof, allowed them to sell these for around $5995. GM and Ford Competitor Models were like $8k and above, for stripped ones. Lee Iacocca wanted to be “Class Leader” in every class of cars they sold, by price and features,and he did. This was before Chrysler’s “double-side galvanized” steel, and the 7/100 rust-through warranty, so the body on this one shows it(rust in Texas?). They were kind of top-heavy, and Mexican wiring brought all kinds of issues. The final straw was like 10 MPG in a major economic Recession.
    I went with the Underbird. It has some real potential to inject some obnoxious levels of Thunder. And those Bias-Ply tires create a ground-hugging smoke-fog, that chokes everyone, when used right.

  2. 2WD on a Ramcharger is like a grilled burger without salt and pepper. Why bother?

    I’m sure this is the the only landbarge of the 70s I’ve ever seen without leather, real or otherwise. Usually in the 60s, you had that taut, furniture-grade upholstery, but then that was eschewed for the finest Corinthian letters and their ilk. So yeah, this is pretty cool. Rare, right up there with a W123 I once saw with…gasp, upholstery.

    Plus, it’s winking at me!

    1. I’m sure you need to see more 70s land barges, then. My mom’s 1974 LeSabre? Gold paisley cloth/vinyl-weave weirdness. My dad’s 1977 Thunderbird, this exact car except black? Sumptuous red velour. The 1979 Grand Marquis that replaced the LeSabre? Sumptuous burgundy velour. Most that you saw with “leather” interiors were vinyl. Cloth upholstery was an UPGRADE, especially in the Alabama sun. Leather was for Lincolns and Cadillacs and whatever Chrysler Ricardo Montalban was shilling, but it was a very uncommon interior material.

  3. I picked the Ford. It’s the Devil I know (my first car was a ’78 Mercury Zephyr wagon, so I am familiar with many of this era Ford’s sins and peccadilloes), plus it’s ever so slightly more practical than the Dodge. If absolutely nothing else, it’s comfier and has the potential to get about 2 more mpg than the Dodge, and I am not at all proud of the fact that I have finally reached the age where those two considerations carry any weight whatsoever.

    Also the Dodge is rusty and beat-up. But I do confess myself amused at the sooty gas-stains surrounding the Ford’s gas-hole. Looks like somebody habitually topped off and now the car looks as incontinent as its former owner.

  4. I had a 1978 LTD 2 door Coupe, which was this Thunderbird’s slightly downmarket twin. It had a 351 Windsor, and I’d rate the power as “enough”. The version with the 305 must have been pretty sad. When I stomped the gas, the engine would rattle like shaking a coffee can full of leftover nuts, even if I filled it with premium.

    My LTD was a smooth, comfortable ride that turned out to be very reliable, other than the starter and the AC. It was occasionally tough to start in the deepest cold of winter, but that’s not any different than anything else of its era. Lots of young adult memories were made in that car.

    Although I currently want a rolling couch with a huge trunk, I don’t miss the LTD in any way specifically. It was a pretty “meh” version of a US luxo-barge.

    I’d take the Ramcharger. I don’t specifically want one but I do want something pull a trailer with between March and November.

    1. My Cougar rattled too, and it turns out it wasn’t knocking, it was the timing chain hitting the inside of the timing cover – these had plastic cam gears, which thankfully were molded over a sheet metal core for safety, unlike GM cars of a similar time period. The plastic had all chipped away on mine. I found that out when I was doing an (ill-advised, in retrospect) cam upgrade to mine. Double roller timing chain, problem solved. 🙂

  5. Have to go T-bird, my first car was a ’78, $800 in 1986. 351W, Champagne Metallic with a brown interior. Great High School car, could carry 7-8 people and hide a case of beer in the trunk between the frame rail and quarter panel. And I had a similarly tragic haircut.

  6. We see all kinds of questionably staged sale pics, but what’s up with that structure behind the Ramcharger? Assuming the truck moves under its own power, as indicated, why snap your shots in front of Cousin Jed’s ‘Shine Shack? Better off with the abandoned lot across the street. This is the opposite of driving to an upscale neighborhood to tart up your posting.

  7. I voted Ramcharger for sentimental reasons. I had one, 4×4, 318, auto, with a bad rod knock that I picked up for $350 many years ago. Ran it around like that for awhile and it proved it’s worth one snowy evening when my Ford Ranger 5spd RWD couldn’t make it up the hill to my house. I parked in the ditch and ran home, woke my little brother up and jumped in the Ramcharger with a tow rope. I put my brother in the Ranger to steer, got the Ramcharger and hooked it up. Then proceeded to drive up the extremely slick steep hill, fishtailing like the Mercedes SUV in Jurassic Park 2, pulling that dumb Ranger along. Made it home with everyone and everything intact. A few weeks later threw a rod and that was basically it for the Ram charger.

  8. Voted for the Ram Charger since it can actually have some value with either minor repairs or a restoration.
    Came close to voting for the Thunderbird simply because I’ve always had a desire to chop of the front and rear of the roof, including rear glass, and just leave the handle over the top. I’ve had the same desire for the Ford LTD Coupe. At that point I’d have to go full low rider custom. Only way to make those cars cool.

  9. “Location: Beaumont, TX”

    Holy shit, my mom lives in Beaumont! So I had to vote for the Ramcharger even though this one looks a bit “dodgy”.

    Get it? Dodgy? Come on, laugh at my stupid joke and maybe I’ll ask my mom to go check on the Ramcharger for you.

  10. Also, that model T-bird was the least known of the Townsend Agency’s fleet.

    Sure the Angels had their various Mustangs (and a Pinto), but Bosley needed something more executive, and clearly a light green emerald T-bird fit his wide-tie, sit-behind-the-desk mojo.

    I can relate. T-bird for me.

  11. At that price the Bird is ready for one of my favorite stupid customizations, the mega-roadster with carry handle. All of the vinyl roof and rear window structure leaves, the blue band stays to act as a roll hoop that will probably just crush inward and hurt you more than if you’d removed it too.

    Does it ruin the whole car structurally? Of course! Did 13ish year old me think it looked awesome on a few examples at car shows? Heck yeah!

  12. This is a tough one. On the one hand, I hate Fords. On the other hand, I respect Bill Stephens and he absolutely HATES that Chrysler put the Ramcharger name on a freakin’ truck.
    If the rest of the T-Bird’s interior is as clean as that seat, I’ll take it.

  13. The bird is the word! At least you’d have a Shitbox with some style, dated as it may be. I have a soft spot for these giant 2 doors that had a deceptively small interior. Passenger space? Screw that, this is my personal luxury car. Are you going to ask to share my personal pan pizza as well? Tough shit, this one’s all mine.

  14. I went Thunderbird. I went looking for under hood pictures because it’s so expansive that it seems like literally anything would fit under there. I don’t know if it’s an optical illusion or what but every picture I could find makes it look fairly cramped in there. It seems like there is about a foot and a half of hood in front of the radiator.

    I did find one with 545 bbf set up as a drag car which looked pretty sweet.

  15. The red interior is cooler, even if it doesn’t have that awesome ram hood ornament that was available.

    The sideways Lincoln logo is kinda lame for a hood ornament, and the winking sleepy headlight kinda sucks, too

  16. T-brid all the way.

    Once you get to “push button start” levels of hackery it is pretty much guaranteed that you are going to spend more time and effort on unhacking shoddy work than you do enjoying or improving your ride.

  17. Normally, I’m a land yacht guy, but Doug did a profile of a (MUCH nicer) Ram Charger recently and it’s got me curious. Plus, I can’t be sure, but it looks like it has the pop-up vent over the rear cargo area.

  18. Ramcharger.

    Those side windows have to hard to find at this point so put them on ebay. Sell the doors and tailgate too, cause we’re not gonna need ’em. The roof is already done for, so hack it off. Throw in a roll bar with some Hella’s on top to reinforce and look boss. Finish it all off with a rattle can camo job to A. get rid of that pesky chrome, and B. make it look boss. Beef up whatever suspension there is under there, big-up those tires that’s that.

    Really there’s no good choice here, so you might as well make the most of a bad one.

  19. Defintely Ramcahrger.
    The only thing I don’t like about it is the rear portion, where the glass sticks up higher than the door glass…… I think that’s hideous and ruins the whole thing.

  20. Oof, inflation is a cruel mistress! I voted T-bird since my first car I bought was a 1978 Cougar XR-7, which was a platform-mate with this Thunderbird. I paid just over $1000 for it in 1998, and mine was a lot better shape – with a 351 V8 and ‘polysteel’ wheels! I still have it… it is undergoing a ‘restoration’ at a glacial (decades…) pace.
    That said, I know from first hand experience that these are good cars. They may be malaise era, but their bones are made out of The Good Stuff – Windsor v8’s, C4 transmission, 9 inch rear axle, coil sprung front and rear. Front discs/(huge) rear drums, dual master cylinder – these cars have great brakes, and I never dealt with a hint of fade. 5 mph bumpers, crumple zones, collapsible steering column, 3 point seatbelts… these cars had all the muscle car goodies, just de-tuned (which is reversible) combined with most of the important safety advances that weren’t available in the 60’s. Basically all the ‘passive’ safety tech is there – just not airbags and ABS, and honestly I never missed either.
    If you want to improve fuel economy, a Ford AOD 4 speed transmission slips right in, you just have to rig up and adjust the TV rod – I re-used the kickdown linkage from the C4 and it worked well. If you put a 4 barrel intake and carb on and have the stock Duraspark distributor re-curved you’ll pick up 80% of the performance and fuel economy that was lost to 70’s emissions tech. AC works awesome in these cars, too.
    Though the car is big, it really isn’t very heavy, especially when compared to modern cars – 4000-4200 pounds, max. You’ll likely never find a more comfortable highway cruiser.

    1. I am with you, but only because that particular T-Bird roof style makes for a cool sawzall full time convertible with a California bar if the opera window portion is left intact. That was a 90’s Old Navy Commercial thing I think. the ramcharger is the better choice of course, but I always wanted one of those T-Birds just to cut the roof off of.

  21. The Ramcharger’s time is neigh, the Ford and Chevy versions are pretty much all snapped up by now, so the Ram is the investment piece, even if it sits.. This could triple your money in a few years or if you pick away at restoring it, by the time you’re done, some whacko on BAT will give you $50k for it.

  22. I’d rather have a Ram but considering the conditions I voted Ford. I think those Rams actually cam with doors a different color than the body because everyone I’ve seen has them a different color. What is it with the doors crappin out early. That has to be the hardest part to get damaged.

  23. Call me crazy, but I voted for the T-bird for three reasons:

    -First, it seems to be in better shape than the Ramcharger (cleaner, less visible rust/dings, all the panels share a color). The interior may or may not be in better shape, but I’ll give the seller the benefit of the doubt based on what we can see.

    -Second, the seller mentions needing to have done some questionable fixes to get it running, such as aftermarket gauges and a pushbutton start. While this may get it running for the time being, future repairs may end up having to sort through a rat’s nest of electrical wiring, depending on how they were installed. You can’t really tell without looking through it in person. Meanwhile, the only visible issue with the Thunderbird is the wonky headlight cover, which they all do after long enough.

    -Finally, they’re both 2wd. This would be a non-issue if both were sedans, but buying a Ramcharger without 4wd is like buying a Jeep with 4wd; it misses the whole point of the thing.

  24. Thunderbird I guess. Ramcharger is closer but looks like too much work to me. Interestingly, the center console in that Dodge looks like it is from an 88-94 Chevy pickup. My 92 has the same one, just blue.

    Other reason to go with the Thunderbird was the wall of text in the Dodge ad, a line break or two wouldn’t have hurt anyone..

  25. Had to vote for the ‘Bird, even though I never drove or even rode in one. Later ‘Birds yes, these barges, no.

    But it wins because I DID drive a Ramcharger or two. I barely remember the utility-grade interiors or the not-so-swell riding “qualities.” Watching the gas gauge’s needle fall rapidly from “F” to “E” will always be stuck in my mind, though.

  26. Hard pass on the Ramcharger. According to the dealer sticker on the tailgate it’s an original Beaumont car, and that much rust means that it spent much if not all of its life within a short distance of the Gulf – the Texas version of Michigan levels of salt. It’s also a relatively new license plate, meaning that it’s a project purchase that didn’t work out.

    OTOH, the Bird’s nautical connection is just a theme – it’s blue, and its ride and handling are so close to a Bayliner’s that you’ll likely get seasick driving it.

  27. I wouldn’t buy either of them, but if you force me to choose it would be the Ramcharger. You could probably figure out a way to make something cool out of it. The T-Bird? I just remember it having more vacuum lines than horsepower (maybe not literally).

  28. My dad had a T-bird of that era! I remember that as you drove along, there was a constant background din of hisses, whirrs, whistles, and wooshes because most of the HVAC system was vacuum operated! Usually if something stopped working on the HVAC, like not being able to redirect the flow from the floor to bi-level or dash or not being able to adjust the temperature or something like that, it was because one or more vacuum lines had come loose under the dash again. Ironically, I think the headlight doors were electric.

  29. If the Ramcharger was a 4X4, I might have given it the nod. In 2WD form, it just has no redeeming qualities that offset driving something that hideous. For that little money, I’ll take that baby blue boat, give her a deep cleaning and polish, and provide some comic relief at the local car show.

  30. If a Ramcharger SUV only has 2wd, is it really a Ramcharger SUV? Add on it all the ‘work arounds’, and it’s not really an attractive offer. Take the T-Bird, put some air ride suspension on it, and totally dick around with it. No one’s going to get pissed off that you messed with a ‘messed up’ a late 70’s T-Bird.

  31. That Ramcharger brings back memories. When I worked for my dad’s plumbing shop during the summers when I was in college, there was a laborer, Wayne, who had one of these. It was a 4X4 “Prospector”. Ugliest damn thing, and he owned up to it, winning “Ugliest truck” at the county fair one year. I think the cash prize was more than he paid for it. Thinking back, I saw a lot of great shitboxes working construction. The smarter guys who didn’t have a company vehicle always bought a shitty old “runner” to get to/from work, instead of blowing money on gas in a bro-rig.

  32. I have an irrational love for the Ramcharger so I voted with my heart.

    But since this has been in my head again and we have a T-Bird, wondering if anyone else has had a “what if” about Ford deciding to keep the T-Bird as a direct competitor to the Corvette and what it would have looked like through the years. Seems like an Autopian thought experiment. Posted the same thought in the Matt Hardigeee welcome comments as well.

    1. I would have loved to see how that played out in the ’70s especially.

      Ford’s mid-’80s T-bird got some of its performance mojo back as the Vette was still coming out of its malaise-era doldrums, so perhaps that was as close as match up as we ever actually got post-50s?

      What’s intriguing to me is the synergy the two models had in the beginning. As in, the original T-bird was a better Corvette than the C1, which prompted GM to rethink it all and then give us the vehicle we’ve since thought of as a proper Corvette.

    1. I figure barn find ethos. I get it…an attempt to show an enthusiast buyer that they haven’t touched anything, made it seem nicer than it is, or (the worst) tried to make it “better”.

      I was immediately turned off of the Ramcharger when I saw “…and some aftermarket gauges.” Especially when you see what looks like an added tach on the column. What’s the point of that?

      Other people’s customization tastes rarely fit our own, right?

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