Page Revised: 10 May 2019
One of the more common issues on the 1983-88 Cougar and Thunderbird is faded or curled beltline molding. We hate to say it but this has pretty much been an issue from the cars' introduction and time has not been kind to it. Fortunately there are some solutions for you, even if you feel the condition of yours is bad. Over the years we've seen some DIY-type fixes that were, well, less than professional. In this section we'll explore the molding types on your car and how to properly repair and maintain them.
In general, these moldings were the same thickness from top to bottom. The very top of the molding was dedicated to a chrome strip that was protected by a thin clear plastic layer. The bottom of the molding was then painted in a unique dark grey color that was specific to the Cougar/T-Bird. All side pieces were made from vinyl. The bumpers were urethane.
BUMPERS (FRONT AND REAR)
The bumper molding for your car (front and back) is formed into the bumper cover itself; it is not removable or replaceable. If the paint on the molding is faded or you see the yellow bumper cover material showing through, then it just needs a simple repaint—see Refinishing below.
The chrome strip—technically called a "rub strip"—is replaceable, however. Finding correct NOS rub strips is pretty much futile at this point, but there is an excellent substitute for them. Under the Sherman Brand, p/n 547-354, is a universal rub strip meant for a mid-1990s Grand Marquis. It is an identical profile and fit for our cars, both front and rear. The only caveat is that the pre-applied double-stick tape is actually on the wrong part of the rub strip. You may have to remove it and reapply using a good (3M) double-sided tape. And it's missing the factory-style metal clips, which you really don't need. But that's it…otherwise it is 100% the same as what we had from the factory. We've seen it applied in person and it's perfect. So this should be considered a permanent solution. You can find it on eBay, Summit Racing, or possibly Rock Auto.
Thanks to Matt for the info.
SIDE MOLDINGS (ALL)
All of the side moldings used on these cars were applied with double-sided tape from the factory. On the back of the molding was an aluminum strip, and that's where the tape was applied. This aluminum strip kept the molding flat and also prevented it from expanding and contracting with the elements. But we'll be honest: even from the factory the molding started to curl up in places. We know original owners who have cars with curled molding since back in the 1980s. So this isn't a new issue but it is something that everyone likely deals with at some point. (And please don't put a screw through the molding and into the sheetmetal to hold the molding on. That's just wrong on so many levels).
To make things worse, a majority of cars had a chrome accent piece on the top of the side moldings. Even though there was a clear factory protective layer applied on top of the chrome, the sun's UV rays eventually breaks down the chrome into powder, and fading is quite common. Unlike the bumpers, however, this chrome piece was not replaceable. So even if your molding is somehow not curling on the ends, it's possible that your chrome has disintegrated, which leaves you still in need of replacement molding.
We hate to say this but all of the side moldings are getting increasingly difficult to find new, or even used. If you do find good used pieces, you have about a 50% chance of having good aluminum strips still attached, and about a 100% chance that you'll have to painstakingly scrape the old adhesive off said aluminum strips. No other cars shared our molding, and no aftermarket replacements have been made.
That being said, we are big proponents of reusing your existing molding if at all possible. The grey part is usually pretty easy: repainting is simple enough, even if you have to use a little flexible bumper filler. For shorter pieces you can technically reapply them without the aluminum strip(s). It then just becomes an issue of how to fix the chrome situation.
And therein lies the problem. Despite the different 3/4" chrome accent tapes out there, we have never found a perfect one. The tape likes to peel off or come loose, and around curves it tends to pucker or bunch up. Even if, somehow, you get it to lay flat, the chrome is still going to fade under UV rays and weathering. A lot of people give up and paint the old ones. We don't know of any flexible chrome paint that would work. So it's usually silver paint for the solution (or body color, or the same dark grey as the molding, or even a completely different color altogether).
We wish there was better news for the chrome strip because all other parts of the molding can usually be salvaged. For handling the chrome strip situation, it's really your call as to what will look best. But we will say that chrome tape is still more uniform than anything else. Using a heat gun to gently melt the edges will help give it better adhesion and a smoother overall look (be careful not to burn it though).
FRONT FENDER SIDE MOLDINGS, WIDE
This molding is found between the front bumper and the front wheelwell. There were two kinds: a solid molding, and one with a cutout for the cornering lamp. A solid molding can work on a fender meant for a cornering lamp, if you've had your fender replaced that way. There are two aluminum strips on these moldings, one on the top and one on the bottom.
REAR QUARTER SIDE MOLDINGS, WIDE
This molding is found between the rear bumper and rear wheelwell. There are no variants. Same as the front, there are two aluminum strips per piece.
DOOR SIDE MOLDINGS, THIN
Ford used thinner door side moldings on most Cougars, whereas the majority of Thunderbirds had the same size moldings as the rest of the car. We still have never found the exact reason why the Cougar got the skinny moldings, but needless to say they're tougher to find. There are six pieces total, three per side, between the front and rear wheelwells. There was only one aluminum strip per piece. We have never found any variations on them so they're the same from 1983-86.
DOOR SIDE MOLDINGS, THICK
Other than the aforementioned Thunderbirds, the only Cougar models to get wide side moldings were the 1984-86 XR-7s and the regional 1985-86 Cougar RS. All of the thicker moldings had chrome accents at the top; none were painted or molded in red, like the Turbo Coupes. The 1985-86 XR-7 models had front fender molding with the "XR-7" insert and they're considered pretty rare. Otherwise the door and side rear moldings were just like those used on non-turbo Thunderbird models. Each piece used two aluminum strips.
Be aware that there are variants of these moldings. Some earlier Thunderbird models had two indented "stripes" in the molding itself that made them look ribbed. All six pieces (3 driver side, 3 passenger side) had the ribs. Those moldings were never used on a Cougar.
Sometimes you can get lucky and repair a curling piece of molding. Virgil writes: "I noticed some time ago that my trim was flaring out at the edges and asked several people how to fix this. I didn't get too many good ideas. Then, I saw how paint shops use a strong glue to affix certain chrome, etc. I waited for a hot day (80º F+). This particular spot needs a C-clamp that is large, which I don't have. So I propped up some studs as you see in photo #2. I used Locktite glue, but I suppose there are many good glues out there. I put the glue in place (I wasn't stingy) and let it set overnight. This morning the trim was back in place, photo #3. We'll see if the weather, rain etc., will cause it to separate again ... but for now, it looks better. I got so excited because something I tried actually worked. I'll finish gluing and clamping all the other edges this away."
We have to say, Virgil's method seems to be a pretty good solution, at least in the short-to-medium term. A large C-clamp would definitely help out with a situation such as we have with curled molding. This method sure beats removal and messing with the aluminum backing, not to mention the double-sided adhesive, that is for certain.
For all of the above, the correct way to refinish the molding on 1983-86 cars is by repainting. Ford used a unique dark grey paint on our molding and it is not shared by any other Ford vehicle to the best of our knowledge (the Mustang/Capri is close but no cigar). We have tried to match it as closely as possible to NOS factory pieces using common aftermarket spray paint as well as automotive paint. After much debate on the message board and experimentation, this is what we can definitively say is the best color match:
SEM "Medium Smoke" - 39163
PPG, listed as "BLACK OUT COLOR":
Flat Gray (Cougar and T-Bird) - 33717
Dark Gray (Cougar and T-Bird) - 33696
(Note: we've had a little trouble getting these PPG numbers mixed at the auto paint shop, as there appears to be no formula for them. Just FYI.)
DuPONT, listed as "BLACKOUT Gray Ford" - C8436
As always, the finished product will be a direct result of your prep work. If your bumpers or molding has a deep gouge or nicks/scratches, you can use a flexible urethane filler to take care of those areas. We've used a two-part filler commonly found in parts stores and it seems to work well enough for the money. It takes patience and multiple fills, but the end result can be very good. Be sure to do these areas first before any primer/paint is applied.
To paint the bumpers (and even the molding while it's on the car), you'll just need good masking tape, newspaper to cover up areas you don't want painted, and red Scotch-Brite scuffing pads (the green are too fine and won't let the paint bite in enough). The good news is that you can use your factory paint as a sort of primer; there is no need to totally sand it off. Prep work should only take a few hours, and remember to remove all sanding dust before painting. We'd recommend a light topcoat of grey or black flexible primer before applying the paint.
The SEM spray paint is lacquer and is flexible. For the PPG/DuPont paint, you will need to make sure it's mixed as flexible paint. The finish should be satin and there is no topcoat necessary. This is one-shot paint with the finish pre-applied; it will not require additional sanding once dry. Basically, spray the paint, let dry, remove tape, and enjoy. We love the idea that you can do this on a good day one weekend, outside if you wish, and there's not much worry about anything falling or blowing into the paint since it dries so quickly.
When Ford redesigned the Cougar/Thunderbird for 1987, one of the areas that got a revision was with the molding. It is not the same as earlier cars, and in fact more closely resembles molding from the Taurus/Sable program in that respect. The chrome strip was moved more toward the middle of each piece, which better protects it from sun fade. The door molding between the front and back was now wide on the Cougar for a much more uniform look. Overall, the molding was rounded, top to bottom, for a slight bubble appearance. Bumpers were again urethane; door side pieces were vinyl; and front and rear panel pieces were ABS plastic. All LS models, as well as the 1987 XR-7, had chrome rub strips. The 1987 20th Anniversary Cougar had gold-colored rub strips. The 1988 XR-7 models had body color molding and rub strips (no chrome), available in white, red, or black.
BUMPERS (FRONT AND REAR)
Once again, the molding was formed into the bumper covers. And once again, the rub strip was removable so it can be replaced. See the 1983-86 information above for the solution.
FRONT FENDER SIDE MOLDINGS
Unlike the earlier cars, these moldings were made of ABS plastic and were bolted onto the fenders from the back side. Ford actually made replacement somewhat easy on us, for a change! Again, there was a version for the cornering lamp, and another for without. Aside from the body-painted XR-7 versions and the gold-inset 20th Anniversary cars, there were no other variations.
One semi-common problem with the ABS moldings is that the built-in threaded mounting tabs can snap off. If you happen to have this issue and also the snapped-off piece, it is possible to reattach it using Gorilla Glue or similar strong adhesive. Otherwise you may need to hunt down a replacement molding to get two good mounting tabs. It also may be possible to secure the molding to the car using two-sided 3M tape or even small dabs of silicone when applied carefully. While either method can work, both will make molding removal a little more difficult.
REAR QUARTER SIDE MOLDINGS
Just like the front moldings, the rear quarter panel moldings were ABS plastic and bolted right on, with access to the bolts from the trunk. No major variations. See above for repair information.
DOOR SIDE MOLDINGS
These were all wider on 1987-88 models so no real variations on that part. They all, however, were still applied using double-sided tape and they also had the aluminum backing strips as well. It might just be our imagination but we swear that these moldings seem to lie a lot flatter than on the earlier cars.
General prep work for the 1987-88 cars is the same as outlined above for the earlier cars. It seems as if the bumper molding paint was somehow even thinner on 1987-88 cars so you've probably got quite a bit of yellow urethane bumper color showing. Ford wisely didn't use a unique color for these moldings (even though it's listed as "Midnight Smoke", it's really just a satin black). So refinishing them with spray paint is extremely easy. We always recommend SEM Trim Black (#39143), as it holds up incredibly well and gives the perfect factory finish.
Also, when sanding, be careful not to use too heavy of a sandpaper grit on the ABS fender moldings. It's really easy to go too deep and really scratch things up badly. For those we would recommend a grey Scotch-Brite pad. All other vinyl/urethane molding can be sanded with a red Scotch-Brite pad.
So that's the easy part. It gets a lot more difficult when it comes to the rub strip. It seems as though the fading problems from the 1983-86 cars were mostly resolved with the 1987 redesign, which is a great thing for these cars as they age. But that doesn't mean it will never happen.
We still feel that 3/4" chrome tape is a decent solution here. That can be applied and trimmed rather easily. If you have a 20th Anniversary Edition, all of the rub strips are finished in a gold color but it's not a real intense gold; it's a little more subtle. We are still looking for a gold tape that isn't so "bling" but we're sure it's out there. We've seen people attempt to paint the gold and it while nice looking from a distance, it never quite comes out looking like the factory finish.
For 1988 XR-7 models with the monochrome finish, both the rub strip and the moldings themselves will need color-matched to the body paint. We say this because it's incredibly difficult to find NOS pieces pre-molded in the color you need. We've looked for years and have found very few. Painting them is going to be much simpler and more accurate. You can indeed use regular LS molding and paint it, if you so wish. There is no shame in that.
GENERAL MAINTENANCE (ALL)
To keep your newly refinished molding looking great, all that's really needed is a good washing with car wash solution and water. We prefer to keep the finish natural...in other words, not waxing the molding. That makes the finish stay factory-looking for life. Some people like to wax the molding and that's fine, just keep in mind that it can make the finish too shiny over time. Bug and tar remover shouldn't affect a fully-dried finish if you need to use that.