The vehicle identification number (VIN) is one of the first codes you’ll experience, usually when you purchase the car and obtain license plates and insurance. Located on the lower corner of the driver’s side dash and visible through the windshield, the VIN simply explains who manufactured the car and where, the original engine, government check codes, and approximate production sequence number. Beginning with the 1981 model year, all VIN numbers of autos sold in the U.S. and Canada have 17 characters; however, Cougar models imported into Mexico from the U.S. have their own Mexican-derived VIN code.
Here is how to decode the VIN on your car, using this fictitious example of a 1986 Cougar coupe:
|World manufacturer code. Mercury USA = 1ME; Ford USA = 1FA; Ford Canada = 2FA.
|Passive restraint system. B = seat belts; P = active belts. Beginning in 1987 this character changed to M.
|Car line, series and body type. 92 = 1983-86 Cougar 2-door (all models); 60 = 1987-88 Cougar LS 2-door; 62 = 1987-88 Cougar XR7 2-door.
|Engine code. F = 5.0L V8; 3 or 4 = 3.8L V6; A or T or W = 2.3L turbo 4.
|Internal Ford check digit. This simply assured that the VIN was properly recorded at the factory. Can be a letter or number.
|Model year. D = 1983; E = 1984; F = 1985; G = 1986; H = 1987; J = 1988.
|Assembly plant. H = Lorain, OH; A = Atlanta, GA; W = Wixom, MI.
|Begin Mercury sequence. Ford begins with 1. If more than 100,000 in production sequence per model year, Mercury = 7, Ford = 2.
|Scheduled production sequence.
In the above example, you have a Mercury Cougar passenger car with seat belts, 5.0L engine, 1986 model, made in Lorain, OH, and is approximately Cougar number 10 for that model year at that plant.
One thing to remember is that during the 1985 model year, the Cougar and Thunderbird were made simultaneously at both the Lorain, OH and Atlanta, GA plants. Lorain-built cars were exported to Canada and Europe. In 1986, Cougar/Thunderbird production moved exclusively back to Lorain and remained that way until the rear-drive Cougar’s demise in 1997.
Paul shares this information: “In the Ford system, the sequential VIN number for the last 5 digits is based on the vehicle order, not the order in which they go down the line. So it is possible that there are gaps, due to canceled orders. The factory uses a system called a ‘rotation number’, the order in which they are introduced to final assembly, which is independent of the VIN number.” So it is possible that your VIN number can actually be higher than the total number of cars produced that model year.
Rear Axle Codes
Ford originally outsourced Dana to build all the rear axles for the 1983-88 Cougars (the continued production of these axle assemblies has since shifted to Visteon). To find out what type of axle you have, you can look in two places.
The first is the driver’s door tag; there will be a one-letter or one-numeral axle code listed there. You can then compare it to the chart below:
Rear Axle Ratio
The second is the axle tag, attached to the lower lefthand bolt on the rear axle itself. The bottom left line will give you the gear ratio, and the type of rear end (S for limited slip non-locking, and L for locking).
There were two different sized rear axles used in the Cougar: a 7.5″ and an 8.8″. Most cars had the 7.5″ rear; only some 1988 V8 models had the 8.8″. To check which type is under your car simply look at the center section shape itself (note: this will not give the axle ratio):
This is a 7.5″ rear axle. Note how the height is shorter than the width and the shape appears “oval”.
This is an 8.8″ rear axle. Note how the dimensions are more symmetrical and the shape appears “round”.
Beginning with the 1983 model year, the Cougar and Thunderbird shared a common-width 7.5″ rear axle housing with the Mustang/Capri. Therefore, all 4 cars have the same rear end housing, but the Cougar/T-Bird had longer axle shafts. Most Cougars had the 2.73 open-end gear (non-locking). The 1984-86 XR7’s had the locking rear with Quad shocks and a 3.45 gear. This Mustang/Capri style rear end was used until part way through the 1985 model year (approx. 11/84), when the Cougar/T-Bird got a unique width axle housing. It was approximately 1″ wider than the Mustang housing and about 1″ narrower than a Mark VII rear axle housing. However, due to a different offset rear drum, the overall width was the same (thus keeping the same rear track dimensions). This configuration was used until 1988 on all Cougars and Thunderbirds. Again, most were equipped with the non-locking 2.73 unit. However, on some models it was possible to order a 7.5″ rear with a 3.08 gear for towing. Almost all 7.5″ rear ends had the 9″ rear drum brakes, which have a finned side profile. Some had the optional 10″ drums, noted by their smooth side profile, which came later cars (primarily 1988) with the optional towing package or heavy duty suspension package.
Most Ford owners look down upon the 7.5″ rear but it is a fairly tough unit. People have used them in 12-second cars without problems, and they’re not nearly as weak as people make them out to be. If you’re thinking about upgrading your 7.5″ economically, you shouldn’t have any reservations so long as you’re not drag-racing heavily. The 7.5″ rear is about 40-80 lbs. lighter than a comparable 8.8″ rear. Keep in mind that while you can indeed swap in a locking center section on the 7.5″ rear, it’s tough to find one.
The only known Fox Cougar to sport the factory 8.8″ rear axle is the 1988 Cougar XR7. It came equipped with Traction-Lok and at least a 3.08 gear with Quad shocks. A good extimate is that less than 15,000 8.8″ rears found their way into Fox Cougars through 1988. Of importance to this axle is the standard larger 10″ rear drum brakes. This 8.8″ axle housing is identical to those from the 1987-88 Turbo Coupe and the Fox Mustang.
Turbo Coupe 8.8″
The 1987-88 Turbo Coupes had their own unique 8.8″ axle equipped with rear disc brakes. The width of the axle housing itself was identical to the Cougar 8.8″ with drums. All TC 8.8″ rears had Quad shocks and Traction-Lok. Cars with 5-speed transmissions had a 3.55 gear; automatics had the 3.73 ratio (a clue while searching for on in salvage yards is that all 1987-88 5-speed Turbo Coupes had dual exhaust, whereas the automatics had single exhaust). All TC’s had standard ABS brakes which necessitated several sensors to be installed on the rear end, along with an exciter ring on each rear axle shaft, thus making the rear axles wider. Installing a Turbo Coupe rear as-is requires conversion to rear disc brakes and modifications to the existing brake system. However, all ABS-related hardware will not work. It is possible to convert this axle to drum brakes using other Ford drums and hardware. Since there were quite a few TC’s made, the TC rear is plentiful in supply but usually costs a bit more due to the rear discs. If you cannot find a stock 8.8″ Cougar rear end with drum brakes, then making one out of a Turbo Coupe rear is indeed a viable alternative.
Ford started using the 8.8″ rear in the Mustang starting in 1986 and was the V8’s exclusive rear end. All had Quad shocks and a locking center unit. Cars with 5-speed transmissions generally had a higher (numerically lower) gear—2.73 or 3.08. The overall axle width itself is approximately 1″ per side narrower than a 1985.5-88″ Cougar/T-Bird axle, meaning that the tires will be in toward the body more. While it is entirely possible to use a Mustang 8.8″ in a Cougar, be aware that tire or rim clearance problems may occur. Or, if ordering new rims anyway, you will need to adjust your offset to maintain the correct rear track. Also, there seems to be a bit of difference where the emergency brake cables and rear brake lines from your Cougar/Thunderbird hook into the Mustang rear end.
Mark VII 8.8″
The Lincoln Mark VII also began using its own unique width 8.8″ rear end around 1986. The Mark 8.8″ is approximately .75″ per side wider than a Cougar/T-Bird rear end. Again, wheel offsets may need adjusted, although it is usually better to have a bit more width than less. All Fox Lincolns had 5-lug axles. There have been reports of Mark VII’s with 7.5″ rears and drum brakes as well, so if you are shopping for a Mark axle be aware of this. The safest bet is to look at 1988-1992 LSC’s (look for the third brake light in the rear window and LSC badges). Beginning in 1989, all Marks had standard ABS brakes. It is not worth the time and effort to try to make ABS brakes work on a Cougar. The rear end gear for all Mark VII’s was 3.27 (locking) or 3.08 (non-locking).
Door Tag Codes
On the inside of the driver side door jamb there is a tag which contains the following information:
DATE: Date of manufacture (month/year)
GVWR: Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (lbs. and kgs.)
Front / Rear GAWR: Gross Axle Weight Rating (lbs. and kgs.)
VEH. IDENT. NO: VIN number
TYPE: Vehicle type (passenger)
EXTERIOR PAINT COLOR: Two character code. You will need this code when buying paint for the car. It is usually printed ABOVE the line on the door tag. If you have a two-tone car, both codes are listed, with the leftmost code being the main color and the rightmost code being the secondary color.
BODY: Body type code
VR: Vinyl roof
MLDG: Body side molding
INT. TRIM: Interior trim code (first letter = fabric and seat type, second letter = color)
TAPE: Tape stripe/pinstriping
R: Radio type
AX: Axle code (click here for more information)
TR: Transmission type (click here for more information)
There are also 4 additional letters after the transmission code. These denote all 4 springs for the car (first = front L; second = front R; third = rear L; fourth = rear R).
From 1987-up, there is an additional calibration code sticker in the door jamb as well. This relates to the computer and engine management system for your particular car. You will need this number when buying emissions or electrical parts for your Cougar.
Unfortunately this tag was susceptible to water damage, fading and discoloration despite Ford’s best efforts at the time of manufacture to prevent damage. You may find that your door tag is damaged or unreadable, an occurrence that’s happening more and more as time goes on. Fortunately, most of the information might be found elsewhere on the vehicle (see below). It may also be possible to get a reproduction tag through Marti Auto Works.
The build sheet is a piece of paper which contains codes about every single original equipment item or option at the time of manufacture. In essence, it was a set of instructions that accompanied the car down the assembly line to ensure that all items were correctly installed. It contains the information that is on the driver’s door tag, and a whole lot more.
On most Cougars built between 1983-88, the build sheet is located on the underside of the passenger front seat, trapped between the seat cushion and the wire seat frame. It is very difficult to remove and keep intact; if you are retrieving yours you will find it easier to unbolt the seat from the car, unclip the fabric, and pull up the foam to get the build sheet out. Remember that they are very, very brittle and can easily rip or disintegrate.
If you cannot find the build sheet in that location, there are several other locations where you can look:
- Underneath the rear seat cushion
- Behind the rear trim panels (with the armrests, beneath the sail panels)
- Underneath the trunk carpeting
- On the top side of the fuel tank (requires dropping the tank; this seems to have occurred mostly with turbo models)
It is also possible that your car simply does not have a build sheet, or that a previous owner removed it.
It is possible to obtain reproduction door tags, build sheets, and original window stickers for the 1983-88 Cougars from Marti Auto Works. The owner, Kevin Marti, has purchased all of Ford’s original production documents from the 1980s, including those concerning the Cougar and Thunderbird. Please check his website for more details.
Radiator (“Buck”) Tag
Bolted to the top of the radiator core support, toward the passenger side, is a metal tag which contains certain information about the vehicle. Among that information is a repeat of the last 6 digits of the VIN, and any major options such as MOONROOF, KEYLESS entry, and ANNIV for 20th Anniversary Cougar models.
As of right now, we do not have a practical way of decoding the buck tag. If we do find one we will provide a link so that you can decode yours.
Tire Information Tag
On the inside of the passenger side door jamb is a silver tag which contains important information about tire size and load ratings, and recommended air pressure. This tag changed every model year due to different tire and rim sizes available.