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

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.

    1. The cat’s there for when you want to argue about the extra fees on the contract. It just looks away and pretends that you’re not there.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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..

  5. 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.

  6. Can I vote again on the dasher/5000? ::shudder:: I went ramcharger because 70s land yacht is my least favorite genre of car, but it’s a poisoned chalice either way

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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

  14. 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.

  15. 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).

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