Flip This Car: 1989 Ford Taurus SHO – Part Two

By Christopher Smith

May 04, 2010

Getting to know the SHO

Buying a cheap used car for daily duty—especially a sub-$1000 performance ride—is almost always a roll of the dice, but that’s exactly what I did in part one of this series. For some reason, the masochistic side of my personality loves the risk. Chalk it up to adrenaline or the thrill of the challenge, but it’s definitely part of what makes cheap car challenges so much fun. There are always surprises to be had. And, as with any new relationship, it takes time to uncover all those little mysteries and secrets. The Old ’89 is no exception, though I’m pleased to offer a positive report after nearly a month behind the wheel.
First things first—what was the “minor” issue that allowed me to get this car for less than a grand? The symptoms were pretty much just as the previous owner described—a severe miss after about a half hour of operation, though the miss was more like a severe bucking of the engine similar to someone learning to drive a stick for the first time. It would occur at any speed and get worse with lower revs, and the condition was so severe that it was all I could do to limp six miles back to the homestead once it finally started to act up. In the process of trying to return home, I discovered the car would usually work normally for a couple minutes after a shutdown and restart; I say usually because this procedure failed to work when I was faced with a quarter-mile ascent up a 10-percent grade. There was no way around this hill of hills, so I gave myself a run-up with the hopes of having enough speed to coast the distance if necessary. I managed a pathetic 65 miles per hour in the space of a half mile, at which point the car—as if suddenly realizing the consequences of losing momentum en route to the top—magically returned to normal operation. I charged up the hill without issue, and once I cleared the crest, the bucking promptly resumed. If ever there was a case of an inanimate object displaying sentience, this would be a top contender.
Safely back home, I ran a full EEC diagnostic and found not a single trouble code in the system, nor did I have a check engine light during the drive. I did have an important clue, however—the tachometer failed a couple times during the trip, and after a quick check through some of the online Taurus SHO archives, I ordered a new camshaft position sensor from the local parts store. The sensor arrived the next morning to the tune of $41, and the Old ’89 has been running great ever since. The sensor could’ve been replaced easily in about an hour, but I took the opportunity to spend a day digging around the engine bay while refinishing that glorious intake manifold. Be sure to catch the photo gallery for plenty of visuals and commentary on the procedure.
As for surprises, the good outweighs the bad thus far, such as finding new A/C lines and a conversion to R-134. I picked up a couple cans of refrigerant and oil last week, and the system is still blowing ice cold. I counted three extra ground wires in various parts of the engine bay, which helps explain why the radio has such great reception. And then there’s the radio itself, a rather nice Kenwood CD player powering speakers that most definitely aren’t factory units. A closer look at the front end revealed the lower control arms, stabilizer links, and outer tie rod ends had been replaced. I previously mentioned the Eibach springs, Tokico struts, and aluminum subframe bushings, which really contribute to the solidity of this old ride. There is some creaking from the subframe area though; the front subframe bolts have just a bit of movement to them, but since they were actually installed upside down, getting them tighter could be a bit of a challenge.
That leads to the few bad surprises encountered, the most notable being a weak third-gear synchro. Shift normally at low revs and the box is fine. A quick shift to third during spirited driving is a different story, one with a decidedly metal-to-metal sound akin to sharpening lawn mower blades on a stone grinder. I have discovered, however, that a quick, full-throttle, 2-3 shift north of 7000 rpm (the circumstances leading to this discovery are classified) generally works without drama, so I suppose the moral of the story is to either drive it gently, or go bonkers. I don’t have a problem with bonkers.
I do, however, have a problem with an inoperable fuel pump. This only happened once, on a particularly cold morning with below-freezing temperatures. The car cranked but did not fire, and after a couple attempts I noticed the fuel pump was not priming. Whether it’s a problem with the pump or one of the control modules sending signals to it, I’m not sure. It only happened that one time; I took the other car that day and the problem never returned. As with the camshaft sensor, no trouble codes were set, but it’s something I’ll be paying close attention to as the days get longer. Aside from that, the power switches on the passenger door are non-op, one of the CV boots is torn, the wiper motor groans like Chewbacca getting a colonoscopy, the timing belt looks a bit thin, and all the spark plugs on the rear bank have oil in the wells. A full-on 60,000-mile service is on my to-do list for this car, but as long as it’s running well, I’m not too concerned.
A good pair of used Kuhmos for $70 replaced the mismatched front tires that came on the car (a process made more interesting thanks to a missing locking lug key; see the photos for details), and an unused set of halogen off-road lights sourced locally replaced the busted factory driving lamps up front. I’ll be the first to admit that off-road lights might be a tad bright for this particular application, but I’ll also be the first to admit how nice it is to see crickets crossing the road while traveling at speed. I’m not sure if they’re too much light for the existing electrical system, but hey, that’s what fire extinguishers are for. Aside from the cam sensor and a bit of touch up paint, these are my only expenses thus far.
Finding the replacement front-end components combined with the upgraded suspension are paying dividends in the fun-to-drive department. A more thorough road test will be up in the next installment, but for now just know that this 21-year-old car has enough handling poise to rival or surpass many current sport sedans, and the ride is still supple enough to handle northern Michigan frost heaves without rearranging your spine. And despite an admittedly heavy foot, fuel mileage is well into the mid-20s for the first month of operation; not bad considering every acceleration run is usually at least three-quarter throttle or more.
Getting to know the SHO this past month has given me the confidence to say this was a good purchase with plenty of potential. The question now is what to do next, and that’s where the Winding Road readers come in. I have the minor mechanical issues mentioned above to consider, and I also have some nasty rust that needs to go away. I’m good with the mechanical stuff, but body work is still a skill-in-progress. Both areas are on my to-do list, but with the SHO running and driving so good, there’s a strong desire to have it looking as good as it goes. I’m already working on that aspect to a degree (see the photo gallery for some teaser shots of the new wheels), but should I try my best with limited bondo and paint experience, or seek out some professional assistance to make this car shine? Or, should I forego the body work for right now and make sure those mechanical technicalities are tied off?
Look for a comprehensive road test of the Old ’89 for part three, complete with photos of the new wheels on the car and a few other tweaks I have in the works.

1989 Ford Taurus SHO
Vehicle status: Running/driving like a car half its age
Miles driven: 736
Observed fuel economy (80 percent highway): 27.1 mpg
Tire tread depth: 8/32 rear, 7/32 front (fronts replaced on 4/30/10)
Broken parts since the last article: None
Total parts investment to date: $122.37