Marketers had put a Roman numeral on the 1974-1978 Ford Mustang II to emphasize just how different it was from previous Mustangs. For the same reason, they removed the suffix when they launched the new generation with the 1979 Ford Mustang. To drive home the point that this was a new Mustang with renewed spirit, they also came up with a freshened running horse emblem that looked more like its muscular old self.
"New Breed" Mustang styling, introduced in 1979 and little changed in this 1980 model, had a uniquely "Mustang" kind of sporty elegance.
He was born to be a Ford man, and when Dearborn needed to bring its pony car back to its lean, sporting roots, it turned to Jack Telnack: Chief Designer of the 1979 Ford Mustang. Here's that fascinating story, in Telnack's own words.
The car attached to it looked nothing like any Mustang before. Clean, taut, and crisp, it combined the best of American and European design thinking, yet had a uniquely "Mustang" kind of sporty elegance. Admittedly, some old shortcomings remained: problematic handling, a less-than-ideal driving position, limited passenger room, and workmanship that didn't compare well with that of European and Japanese cars like the BMW 3-Series and Toyota Celica. But no car can be faultless, especially one so affordable. By almost any standard, the '79 Mustang marked a second revolution for Ford's pony car.
This basic design would be good enough to continue without fundamental change for no less than 14 years, an eternity in the auto business. Even more remarkable, a subsequent retooling enabled it to ride on another 11 years -- and outsell its two remaining rivals along the way. By 2003, Ford again had America's only pony car...but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Dearborn Changes Course
The '79 Mustang was the result of a bold decision taken a good six years earlier. Even before the Middle East oil embargo, Detroit began to realize that many of its cars had simply grown too big. With Washington's endless stream of safety and emissions rules, the Big Three began to wonder if fuel-economy standards wouldn't be next. Indeed, April 1973 ushered in a new mandate for vehicle window stickers showing mileage figures for city and highway driving as calculated by the recently established Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The numbers weren't very accurate at first, but the implication was clear. Then the gas crunch hit. "Almost overnight," records historian Gary Witzenburg, "fuel-efficient cars were in and gas-hogs were out, maybe forever as far as anyone knew, and Detroit wasted little time in formulating future plans for a newly fuel-conscious America."
This early "concept" sketch by Fritz Mayhew pointed the way toward 1979 Mustang styling. Note the low, slim nose tapered sharply down from the windshield.
As it happened, General Motors was already planning to "downsize" its cars, starting with 1977 full-size models. Chrysler, with far less capital, would bank on updating its popular compacts and offering smaller "captive imports" from overseas partners. Ford had different ideas. In public at least, chairman Henry Ford II staunchly defended tradition. The gas crunch was an aberration, he said. Once it passed, most Americans would again want big cars with big engines and "road-hugging weight," just as they always had. He was right -- to a point.
The oil embargo was short-lived, and much of the public did swing back to big size and power.
The 1979 Ford Mustang Design
Even as Henry Ford II promised to push the latest economy imports "back into the sea," his company was embarking on a bold new project intended to serve fuel efficiency in the United States and save big bucks on a global basis. Code named Fox, it was initiated in early 1973 with the aim of devising a single foundation or "platform" suitable for a variety of future Ford models in the U.S., Europe, Latin America, even Australia.
The idea was "a new corporate worldwide sport/family four/five-passenger sedan" with "imaginative packaging and component application," plus adaptability to both rear-wheel drive and the space-saving front-wheel-drive powerteams long familiar in Europe. In October 1974, project responsibility was shifted from Ford's Production Planning and Research office to the Product Development Group at North American Automotive Operations in Dearborn. Two months later, company president Lee Iacocca green-lighted a 1978 Fox-based replacement for either the little Pinto or the compact Maverick -- and a new Mustang for 1979 or later.
As with past Mustangs, '79 styling was chosen from proposals submitted by competing teams -- three in Dearborn, plus the Ford-owned Ghia studio in Italy.
Though a "world car" was soon deemed incapable of satisfying the diverse needs of Ford's many global markets, the Maverick-replacing Fairmont and the new Mustang were in the works by April 1975, now with top-priority status in the wake of the oil embargo. Per recent Dearborn practice, each would have a Mercury sister, respectively the Zephyr and a new domestically built Capri.
The key thing, as Witzenburg notes, is that Fox development "was tailored around the Mustang's needs as a sporty, agile, European-style product…." He quoted Gordon Riggs, planning manager for light and midsize cars, who was put in charge of the overall effort on special assignment: "We said, okay, we're going to have a series of cars off of a platform as yet undefined, and what should that platform be? We decided first off that it was going to be a sporty platform, because we knew the focal point of it was really Mustang. Anything we did…to help the Mustang would probably benefit any other car we took off of it. It was not planned just for the Mustang, but the whole platform was designed to accommodate it."
Though the mass-market Fairmont/Zephyr would bow a year ahead of Mustang, designers initially worked on both models more or less together under light-car design chief Fritz Mayhew and corporate design vice-president Gene Bordinat. Because Mustang was first seen as mainly just a sporty Fairmont, early proposals were sedan-like and slab-sided, not very "Mustang" at all.
A Mustang II look evidently still had a chance well into 1976, as suggested by this full-scale model photographed in early March.
But April 1975 also ushered Jack Telnack into the program after a tour of duty as design Vice President for Ford Europe. From his new post as executive director for North American Light Car and Truck Design, he would soon put his stamp on the emerging pony car.
Another Styling Showdown
But not before another of Iacocca's intramural design contests. This one pitted Advanced Design and two other Dearborn studios against Ford's Ghia operation in Italy, where Don DeLaRossa was now in charge. All were given the same package parameters or "hard points" including length, width, wheelbase, and cowl height as the basis for sketches, clay models, and fiberglass mockups.
This time, however, quarter-scale clay models were tested for up to 136 hours in wind tunnels. That's because aerodynamics was increasingly recognized -- actually rediscovered from the lessons of Thirties streamlining -- as crucial to maximizing fuel economy, a key program goal. That, in turn, meant engineering with a keen eye on weight.
In addition, the program aimed at improved space-efficiency, meaning more interior room for a given external size, plus lower manufacturing costs through careful engineering and maximum component sharing among the various Fox-based models. Planners said the platform could be shortened somewhat for Mustang, and it was: by 5.1 inches in wheelbase, to 100.4. Mustang II engines -- 2.3-liter overhead-cam four, 2.8-liter overhead-valve V-6 and 5.0-liter/302-cubic-inch V-8 -- would be retained.
A Ghia idea, also from early '76, shows a different take on the "formal" look ultimately rejected.
Recalling 1965, curb weight was pegged at a comparatively lean 2700 pounds. The interior would be larger than Mustang II's but still planned for comfortable seating in front and "occasional" seating in back for children or smaller adults.
Like the original Mustang but unlike the II, stylists were directed to do a notchback first, then a fastback version of it. After reviewing several full-size fiberglass models, management chose the distinctive offering from Telnack's group.
Remarkably, the only changes made for production were substituting an eggcrate grille insert and adding simulated louvers behind the rear side windows. The fastback ended up with a vestigial rear deck instead of a full-sweep roofline. This shortened the hatch to reduce maximum opening height and make it easier to pull down.
The 1979 Mustang's styling was all about reducing the drag coefficient and improving mileage. Keep reading to learn how the design team sculpted a sleek, aerodynamic Mustang.
The 1979 Ford Mustang Styling
Ford's in-house competition for the new Mustang resulted in a leaner design that emphasized aerodynamics. The result was so successful that the production model would end up looking remarkably similar to the winning design.
The Mustang's winning design team consisted of light-design chief Fritz Mayhew and executive director of design Jack Telnack. The team also included pre-production-design executive David Rees and pre-production designer Gary Haas. The shape they evolved was a subtle wedge: slim in front, with the hood sharply tapered from a rather high cowl -- actually an inch taller than that of the Fairmont/Zephyr.
"We were supposed to hold the Fairmont cowl…and radiator support," Telnack told Witzenburg, "which really stiffened the hood...made it much straighter. Bob Alexander was in charge of engineering at the time, and he had just come back from Europe, too. We had a lot of people who had just come back from Europe and who had a different feel for this type of car. [We decided] to pivot the hood around the air cleaner and actually raise the cowl to get the front end down. No Detroit designer ever asks to make anything higher, but we felt it was important aerodynamically to get the nose down lower. Of course, this would require a new radiator support [and inner fender aprons] but Gene Bordinat said to go ahead and try it."
The '79 Mustang coupe shows how the design evolved into a subtle wedge: slim in front, with the hood sharply tapered from a rather high cowl.
Though all this added a sizable $1.4 million to total program cost, all involved agreed it was justified. Witzenburg noted another advantage of Telnack's change: Drivers could see four-feet closer to the nose than in a Mustang II. Also helping "aero" -- and looks -- were a modest lip on decklids, a curved rear window on the notchback, a small spoiler built into front bumpers, and Mustang's first rectangular headlights (newly allowed by Washington), a quartet that also helped slim the nose.
"Normally we get the package hard points and adhere to them," Telnack recalled, "but we weren't accepting anything on this car as gospel." That included traditional Mustang styling signatures like the galloping grille pony and C-shaped side sculpturing. The latter was abandoned for smooth, slightly curved sides, while the horse was maintained in a small "pony tricolor" logo for a circular hood medallion just above the grille.
"Jack really wanted this car to have the impact of the original Mustang," said Fritz Mayhew, "so we [tried] to do a car that would look as different on the road as the original had. We felt, as management obviously did, that it was time for a change. We had done about as much as we could with those  design cues."
Once approved, '79 styling was refined in the wind tunnel to trim air drag and thus enhance fuel economy.
Lower Cd = More MPG
The applied rear-roof slats hindered over-the-shoulder vision, but they weren't Telnack's idea. Indeed, he directed his team to always be mindful of the "form follows function" ideal. "We wanted to be as aerodynamically correct as possible before getting into the wind tunnel. In the past we have designed cars and then gone into the tunnel mainly for tuning the major surfaces that have been approved.... With the Mustang, the designers were thinking about aerodynamics in the initial sketch stages, which made the tuning job in the tunnel much easier. Consequently, we wound up with the most slippery car ever done in the Ford Motor Company: a drag coefficient [Cd] of 0.44 for the three-door fastback, 0.46 for the two-door notchback. [Aerodynamics is] probably the most cost-effective way to improve corporate average fuel economy. We know that a 10-percent [reduction] in drag can result in a five-percent improvement in fuel economy at a steady-state 50 mph....That's really worthwhile stuff for us to go after."
It's worth noting that the drag figures Telnack cited were good for the time but would soon seem mediocre. The Fox-based 1983 Thunderbird, for example, arrived with an altogether more impressive Cd of 0.35. While the difference may not seem dramatic, it represents a reduction of more than 20 percent, and shows just how quickly standards can change. Incidentally, Telnack directed that effort too.
In the end, the '79 Mustang was some 200 pounds lighter on average than Mustang II despite being slightly larger in every dimension. Keep reading to learn how Mustang designers explored the use of lightweight materials to enhance both fuel economy and performance.
The 1979 Ford Mustang: Materials and Features
For performance as well as fuel economy, engineers working in the 1979 Mustang used lightweight materials wherever feasible, including plastics, aluminum, and high-strength/low-alloy (HSLA) steel. A significant new plastics technology appeared in color-keyed bumper covers of soft urethane made by the reaction-injection molding (RIM) process. HSLA steel was used for rear suspension arms and the number-three frame crossmember, while aluminum featured in drivetrain components and the bumpers of some models.
Slimmer-section doors saved more pounds. So did thinner but stronger glass (even though there was more of it), a lower beltline, and taller "greenhouse" allowing much larger windows. With all this, the '79 Mustang was some 200 pounds lighter on average than Mustang II despite being slightly larger in every dimension -- quite an accomplishment for the age of downsizing.
Unlike the Mustang II, the '79 was designed as a notchback. The rear window was modestly curved to reduce wind resistance, one of several decisions approved by management despite higher cost.
Interior design received equally careful attention. Total volume rose by 14 cubic feet on the notchback and by 16 cubic feet on the hatchback. The thinner doors opened up 3.6 inches of front shoulder room and two inches of hip room.
Back-seat gains were even more impressive, with five inches of added shoulder width, six more inches of hip room, and more than five extra inches of leg room. Cargo volume expanded too, adding two cubic feet in the notchback and four in the hatch.
New Features, New Function
Telnack's European experience also showed up in standard full instrumentation including trip odometer, tachometer, ammeter, and oil-pressure gauge. Another "foreign" touch was the use of steering-column stalks to control wipers/washers and turn signals/headlight dimmer/horn; these came from the Fairmont/Zephyr, as did the basic dashboard and cowl structure. A third lever (on the right) adjusted a tilt steering wheel, one of several new extras.
Among other new options were an "ultra fidelity" sound system with power amplifier and, for hatchbacks, a rear-window wiper/washer. Still another first-time convenience option was a console-mounted "vehicle systems monitor." This used a Honda-style graphic display with warning lights placed on an overhead outline of the car to signal low fuel, low windshield-washer fluid, and failed headlights, taillights, or brake lamps. A pushbutton allowed checking that the display itself was working. The console also housed a quartz-crystal digital chronometer showing time, date, or elapsed time at the touch of a button.
The "New Breed" interior showed as much European influence as the exterior, with standard full instrumentation and handy steering-column stalk controls for wipers and lights.
Planners decided on three trim levels for the two body styles: standard, Sport option, and Ghia. The Mach 1 was history, but lived on in spirit with a new $1173 Cobra package for the hatchback that was virtually a separate model. Recalling the late King Cobra, this "boy racer" kit featured black-finish greenhouse trim and lower body sides, color-keyed body moldings, and an optional snake decal for the hood, plus sportier seats and cabin appointments -- and a new engine that we'll get to shortly.
Deigners were hard at work updating the Mustang chassis for '79.
The 1979 Ford Mustang Chassis
The 1979 Ford Mustang offered three suspension setups for broadest possible market appeal: standard, "handling," and "special," each designed for and issued with its own set of tires.
As planned, basic hardware came from the Fairmont/Zephyr, which meant switching the front end from upper A-arms to modified MacPherson-strut geometry. Unlike similar layouts in many contemporary European and Japanese cars, the coil spring here did not wrap around the strut, but mounted between a lower control arm and the body structure. This eliminated the need for an expensive spring compressor when replacing shocks.
A front antiroll bar was standard across the board, with diameter varied to suit engine weight and power. At the rear was a new "four-bar link" system, also with coil springs, lighter and more compact than Mustang II's leaf-spring Hotchkiss arrangement. V-8 cars included a rear antiroll bar that was more for lateral location than controlling sway, but it effectively lowered the car's roll center, allowing commensurately softer rear springs for ride comfort.
The basic chassis was tuned for standard 13-inch bias-ply tires. The mid-level "handling" package (just $33) came with 14-inch radials, higher-rate springs, different shock valving, stiffer bushings, and, on V-6 cars, a rear stabilizer.
Mustang's basic '79 styling was the work of a team lead by Jack Telnack. Note the applied vertical slats aft of the rear side windows on this Sport Option hatchback, one of the few changes made before production.
The "special" suspension was engineered around Michelin's TRX metric-size radial tires, which Ford had been offering in Europe for several years on its large Granada sedans. These tires had an unusual 390mm (15.35-inch) diameter and so required matching wheels, which ended up as forged-aluminum rims with a handsome three-spoke design done in Dearborn. Priced at $117-$241 depending on model, the TRX suspension came with its own shock-absorber valving, high-rate rear springs, a thicker (1.12-inch) front stabilizer bar, and a rear bar. It was the best choice for handling, engineered "to extract maximum performance" from the 190/65R390 rubber according to puffy press releases.
Precise rack-and-pinion steering continued, but housings for both the manual and power systems were changed to weight-saving die-cast aluminum. As before, a variable-ratio rack was included with optional power assist. Brakes were again front discs and rear drums, but of slightly larger size.
The '79 Mustang had an exotic new engine option -- a turbocharged "Lima" four-cylinder engine.
The 1979 Ford Mustang Engines
The powertrain choices for the 1979 Ford Mustang showed an intriguing new engine option. The heart of the racy new Cobra package, it was a turbocharged "Lima" four-cylinder rated at 132 SAE net horsepower against only 88 horsepower for the unblown version. Though common now, turbos were pretty exotic in the late Seventies, especially for a mass-market Detroit product.
With four-speed gearbox, the blown-four was good for a claimed 8.3 seconds in 0-55-mph acceleration (Detroit wasn't quoting 0-60s with a "double nickel" national speed limit still in force), plus mid-20s fuel economy -- an excellent compromise overall.
The '79 Mustang's turbocharged "Lima" four-cylinder option, the heart of the racy new Cobra package, rated at 132 SAE net horsepower.
Turbocharging, of course, was nothing new. Like the similar supercharger, it's a simple bolt-on means to improve volumetric efficiency. A small turbine plumbed into the exhaust manifold uses exhaust gases to turn an impeller that drives a pump near the carburetor. In normal running, the turbine spins too slowly to boost exhaust-manifold pressure or affect fuel consumption. But as the throttle is opened and the engine speeds up, so does the flow rate of the exhaust gases.
The increased flow spins the turbine, which speeds up the impeller to boost the density (pressure) of the air/fuel mixture, resulting in more power. To prevent damage, engineers set maximum boost at six pounds per square inch via a "wastegate" relief valve that allowed gases to bypass the turbine once that pressure was reached.
Carryover engines weren't neglected for '79. The veteran 302 V-8, now rating 140 horsepower, gained a new low-restriction exhaust system, more lightweight components, and an accessory drive with a single "serpentine" V-belt for greater reliability. The German-made V-6 was down to 109 horsepower -- and in short supply, prompting Ford to replace it during the model year with the hoary 200-cubic-inch inline six, which now rated just 85 horsepower.
The V-8 and both sixes offered an optional four-speed gearbox developed specifically for them -- essentially the base three-speed manual with a direct-drive third gear (1:1 ratio) and an overdrive fourth (0.70:1) tacked on. Final drive ratios were 3.08:1for automatics, four-speed V-6, and the standard four, 3.45:1 for other combinations. Three-speed Cruise-O-Matic, also carried over with minor updates, was optional at $307.
In 1979, the veteran 302 V-8, now rating 140 horsepower, gained a new low-restriction exhaust system, more lightweight components, and an accessory drive with a single "serpentine" V-belt for greater reliability.
Significantly, the '79 Mustang bowed in the second year for CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. A Congressional response to the energy crisis, this law mandated specific mpg targets for all automakers selling in the U.S. In brief, the EPA-rated fuel economy for all cars sold by a given manufacturer had to average so many miles per gallon for a given model year, initially 19 mpg, rising progressively to 27.5 mpg by 1985.
Companies whose "fleet average" fell below a yearly target were fined a set number of dollars for each 0.1-mpg infraction, multiplied by total sales for that model year. Obviously, failure to comply could be costly indeed. However, the law provided credits for exceeding a given year's target that could be used to avoid or reduce penalties for non-compliance in another year, past or future. All rather complicated -- and highly political, of course.
Still, CAFE achieved its goal of spurring Detroit to develop smaller, lighter, thriftier cars in most every size and price class. The effort took on new urgency with the onset of another energy crisis in spring 1979, when the Shah of Iran was deposed by a fundamentalist Ayatollah who cut off the country's oil exports and held Americans hostage.
But the ensuing oil shortage soon became an oil glut. That, plus a fairly quick economic rebound and the new Reagan Administration's more relaxed attitude toward restrictions on business, rendered CAFE almost meaningless by the mid-Eighties.
For the first time since 1964, a Mustang was chosen to be the Indy 500 pace car in 1979.
1979 Ford Mustang Performance
As in previous models, powerteam determined the character of any particular 1979 Mustang. The V-8 was a drag-race engine by '79 standards, doing 0-60 mph in 8-9 seconds. A V-6 still took around 11 seconds with manual four-speed, while a like-equipped turbo-four needed 11-12 seconds. The straight-six took close to 13.
Standing quarter-mile times ranged from 17 seconds at 85 mph for the V-8 to 19.2 at 75 for the 200 six.
Press reaction also still depended on engine -- and who was in the driver's seat. Some writers thought the V-8 had too much power for its chassis and was out of step with gasoline prices that were starting to rise again.
Don Sherman of Car and Driver judged the V-6 Mustang as the best choice for handling by dint of "the best power-to-front-end-weight ratio." But he was also impressed with two other cars he sampled for a preview report. "The lightweight revolution has arrived in performance land. Rejoice."
The intriguing turbo-four naturally garnered much "buff book" attention. Said John Dinkel in Road & Track: "The TRX turbo would seem to be an enthusiast's delight. I just hope that the design compromises dictated by costs and the fact that Ford couldn't start with a completely clean sheet of paper don't wreck that dream.... There's no doubt the new Mustang has the potential to be the best sport coupe Ford has ever built, but in some respects [it] is as enigmatic as its predecessor."
The 1979 Ford Mustang TRX turbo was greeted as an enthusiast's delight with the potential to be the best sport coupe Ford had ever built.
1979 Ford Mustang Pace Car
Highlighting the Fox Mustang's debut year was its selection as Indy 500 pace car, the first Mustang so honored since 1964. Doing the deed was a colorfully striped hatchback with a special T-bar roof and a V-8 massaged by tuner extraordinaire Jack Roush to attain the Brickyard's required 120-mph minimum track speed.
As so often happens with Indy pacers, the public was offered a replica. This had the same striping, pewter/black paint scheme, unique hood and three-slat grille, and premium Recaro bucket seats, plus flip-up sunroof and a choice of turbo-four or regular V-8 engines. Race-day decals were included for dealers to apply if the customer wished. The mists of time seem to have shrouded original price, but Ford built about 11,000 of these Replicas, unusually high for the genre.
Mustang was chosen pace car for the 1979 Indy 500. Ford celebrated the honor by running off some 11,000 replica hatchbacks like this. The replicas looked much like the actual pace car but had a flip-up sunroof instead of a T-top.
Lee Iacocca Leaves Ford
In June 1978, as the 1979 model year was in full swing, Ford set industry tongues a-wagging with word that Lee Iacocca was out of a job after 32 years. Officially, he was taking early retirement (on October 15, his 54th birthday).
But many observers assumed he'd be dumped before Henry Ford II's scheduled retirement as chief executive in 1980 and as chairman in 1982. As usual, the head man didn't say much, though he reportedly told Iacocca, "It's just one of those things." Iacocca wasn't bitter, at least in public. "You just surmise that he doesn't want strong guys around," he said later.
Ironically, and as Iacocca was careful to note, June 1978 was the biggest single sales month in Ford history, capping a first half that netted the company its largest six-month profit on record. "They probably won't be at this peak again, so I guess it's a good time to go." As we know, Iacocca rode off to Chrysler, which he eventually saved from extinction.
Iacocca's successor, Philip Caldwell, was happy to count a strong 369,936 sales for the redesigned Mustang. Though that was slightly less than the Mustang II's first-year total, it bested the company's forecast of 330,000, and represented a startling 92.2-percent jump from model-year '78.
Buyers must have liked the new models, because Ford charged a lot more for them. Aggravated by stubborn period inflation, base sticker prices swelled a whopping $500-$700 -- a 15-17 percent jump -- ranging from $4071 for the four-cylinder notchback to $4824 for the Ghia hatch.
For the 1980 Mustang, designers were still concerned with fuel economy.
The 1980 Ford Mustang
Fuel economy it was still very much a factor when the 1980 Ford Mustang was introduced. Indeed, Ford replaced the Mustang's hallowed 302 V-8 option with a debored 4.2-liter/255-cubic-inch version.
Though this seemed an amazingly quick and prescient response to "Energy Crisis II," it had been planned well before. Ford claimed an average 1.2-mpg improvement over the "five-point-oh," but speed freaks groaned at losing 10 horsepower and being forced to take automatic transmission. As the rest of the powertrain chart was basically a photocopy of late 1979, Don Sherman reluctantly recommended the turbo-four to Car and Driver readers as "the only choice…that even comes close to delivering on last year's performance promise…." Optional vinyl roof, wire-wheel covers, and whitewall tires spiff up this 1980 notchback.
As usual, there were other sophomore-year tweaks. Base models adopted high-back bucket seats and full color-keyed interior trim, and all 1980 Mustangs came with brighter halogen headlights (replacing less-efficient tungsten sealed-beams).
The options list added a roof-mounted luggage carrier ($86), a "window shade" cargo-area cover for hatchbacks ($44), and -- shades of Boss 302 -- hatchback liftgate louvers ($141). A pricey new notchback extra was a $625 Carriage Roof, a diamond-grain full vinyl covering set off by black window frames and moldings so as to simulate the top-up appearance of a true convertible.
"New Breed" Mustang styling was little changed for sophomore 1980, but this "carriage roof" was newly available to give notchbacks the top-up look of a true convertible -- right down to a simulated rear-window zip.
Still available for notchbacks and newly standard on hatchbacks was the Sport Option, again comprised of styled-steel wheels with trim rings, black rocker-panel and window moldings, wide body side moldings, striped rubstrip extensions, and a sporty steering wheel. The luxury Ghias returned with color-keyed seatbelts, mirrors, body side moldings, and hatchback roof slats, plus new low-back bucket seats with adjustable headrests, door map pockets, visor vanity mirror, thicker pile carpeting, deluxe steering wheel, roof-mounted assist handles, and a full complement of interior lights. Leather or cloth-and-vinyl upholstery was available in six different colors.
Cheering enthusiasts, the Pace Car Replica's Recaro bucket seats were optional for any 1980 Mustang. Though not cheap at $531 per set, they were genuine Euro-car furniture with reclining backrests and adjustable thigh and lumbar supports -- all much preferable to the fixed-back stock chairs that road-testers still often lamented.
Last but not least, Cobra styling was updated with a Pace Car-style slat grille, rear-facing hood scoop, and front and rear spoilers. Standard foglamps and TRX suspension continued, but the package was no longer available with optional V-8 (sensible with the weaker 255 engine), and its price was up by $309, to $1482. As before, a big hood snake decal was available separately (at $88, up $10).
"Buff book" testers still paid scant attention to the base four-cylinder engine because it just didn't have the muscle to be very interesting in a car like Mustang. The 200-cid six was also widely ignored, doubtless because it was so familiar (old, in other words) and far from exotic: seven-main-bearing crankshaft, overhead valves with hydraulic lifters, cast-iron block, a simple one-barrel carburetor.
Even so, the straight six still had a place in 1980, being efficient and easy to live with. It had less horsepower than the V-6 it replaced but compensated with greater displacement and torque, so "real-world" performance wasn't that different. And by Ford's "Cost-of-Ownership" formula, where required maintenance for the first 50,000 miles was averaged according to dealer parts and labor prices, the inline six cost less to operate than the V-6, an appreciated plus for inflation-weary buyers.
In 1980, the original pony car turned 15.
The 1980 Ford Mustang versus the 1965 Mustang
As the original pony car turned 15 years old, it was natural to compare the 1980 Ford Mustang with the one that started it all, the 1965 Ford Mustang.
Looking at vital statistics, it was tempting to say little had changed. Though the newest pony was 7.6 inches trimmer in wheelbase, it was only 2.5 inches shorter overall (at 179.1), about an inch wider (at 69.1), and less than 100 pounds heavier (2516 pounds at the curb). Front passenger space was about equal, but the '80 was much roomier in back, suggesting Ford had learned something about space utilization in all that time. And unlike the '65, the Fox-platform car was burdened with all manner of safety features mandated by the federal government, such as reinforced doors and five-mph bumpers, so Ford had apparently learned something about weight control too.
The 1980 Ford Mustang was similar in many respects its predecessor,coming in a little shorter, a little wider, and a little heavier.
Engine comparisons were equally interesting. While the 2.3-liter four-cylinder was a Seventies invention, the six cylinder was exactly the same powerplant that was standard in '65 Mustangs (save early cars with the 170-cubic-inch unit). The 255-cubic-inch V-8 was based on the 302, which, in turn, evolved from the 289 that itself was enlarged from the original Mustang's 260. Yet both the six and V-8 now returned much better fuel mileage than their 1965 counterparts.
What such comparisons couldn't convey was how much Mustang had changed over 15 years. As we've seen, the stylish sporty compact that won all America's heart was allowed to become too large, too unwieldy, too wasteful. Ford knew that as well as anyone, hence the far more rational Mustang II. But the Fox generation was far better, deliberately designed to be even closer to the '65 in size, if not character. And why not?
Then as now, it was the original that defined Mustang for most people. Of course, the Fox-platform version couldn't be a retro copy, because automotive realities had changed greatly since the Sixties. All the more remarkable, then, that it ended up so nimble, attractive, and efficient -- and with a winning charm all its own.
Early Mustangs, like the 1966 model seen here, remain a favorite with car lovers, but can't match the safety requirements and interior space of the 1980 model.
A Sales Setback
What the 1979 Mustang couldn't match was the sales success of its 1965 counterpart. Times had changed from the wide-open 1960s, that much was clear.
With a new gas crunch triggering another sharp recession, total U.S. car sales plunged for model-year 1980. Mustang was not immune but fared reasonably well, tallying 271,322 units. Not surprisingly, demand for four-cylinder models shot up from 54 percent to nearly 68 percent of total deliveries. Sixes declined a little over a point to just below 30 percent, leaving V-8s at fewer than three percent. These shares stayed about the same for 1981, but on much lower volume of 182,552 units. Sharp price hikes didn't help. The base four-cylinder coupe went up to $6171, the top-line Ghia hatchback to $6729.
The 1980 Mustang was poised to get its performance groove back, and Ford was ready to prove it on the racetrack.
Racing the 1980 Ford Mustang
Just as the original Mustang enjoyed a high-profile competition career, Ford gave strong indications during 1980 that it was about to get its performance act back together, with Mustang the star of the show. Hinting at what might lie ahead was a tantalizing "concept" attraction for that season's auto-show circuit: the Mustang IMSA.
Powered by a much-modified turbo-four, this buff hatchback crouched low on ultra-wide Pirelli P7 tires hugged by outlandishly flared fenders. Also featured were a grille-less nose, deep front air dam, loop rear spoiler, and competition-inspired pop-riveted plastic covers on the side windows and taillight panel. In name and appearance, the IMSA strongly suggested that Ford was more than just thinking about a return to competition -- and about the International Motor Sports Association GT series in particular.
A decade after abandoning motorsports, Ford hinted at an imminent return with the 1980 Mustang IMSA comcept. This one-of-a-kind hatchback looked competition-ready.
September 1980 brought more racy news as Ford announced formation of a Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) division headed by Michael Kranefuss, summoned to Dearborn after serving as competition director for Ford Europe. SVO's stated purpose was to "develop a series of limited-production performance cars and develop their image through motorsport."
The new outfit quickly got down to business with a turbo Mustang to be driven by former Porsche pilot Klaus Ludwig in selected 1981 IMSA GT events. Ford also provided direct support to other Mustang racers, backing a Trans-Am mount for Dennis Mecham and an IMSA Kelly American Challenge car for Lyn St. James.
As if to signal its return to the track, Ford introduced the McLaren Mustang in late 1980. The work of designers Todd Gerstenberger and Harry Wykes, it was another heavily modified hatchback with enough built-in potential for easy adaptation to race duty. Looking somewhat like the IMSA show car, the McLaren sported a grille-less nose above a low-riding "skirt" spoiler, plus functional hood scoops, tweaked suspension (mostly a mix of heavy-duty off-the-shelf components), massive fender flares, and premium German BBS alloy wheels wearing broad-shouldered 225/55R15Firestone HPR radials.
Announced in late 1980, the McLaren Mustang teamed Ford Design with McLaren Performance of Formula 1 racing fame. Just 250 were built, all
with turbo-four engines featuring a competition-style variable boost control.
Power was again provided by the turbo-four, but it was newly fortified with a variable boost control having a range of 5-11 psi vs. the regular engine's fixed 5 psi. Rated output was 175 horsepower at 10 psi, a big jump over the 132-horse stock mill. A $25,000 price tag and virtual hand construction limited McLaren production to just 250 units (including the prototype), but at least they were for sale.
Few changes were made to the '81 Mustang, which was well-received overall.
The 1981 Ford Mustang
Changes to the 1981 Ford Mustang were modest. Interior trim was shuffled and slightly upgraded, and an optional T-bar roof with twin lift-off glass panels was revived for both body styles at a hefty $874. The 131-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine was restricted to manual transmission, and then was quietly phased out, reportedly due to persistent driveability and reliability problems. The Cobra package was a near rerun except for a stiffer $1588 price.
The Cobra package for the 1981 Mustang was nearly identical to the previous year's package, but with a higher price tag.
Mustang's main '81 news involved full availability of an optional five-speed overdrive manual gearbox for four-cylinder models, an item that had been phased in the previous season. Engineers sensibly specified a "shorter" 3.45:1 final drive versus the four-speed tranny's 3.08:1 cog for better off-the-line snap. The overdrive fifth was geared at 0.82:1 for economical highway cruising.
It was just what the base Mustang needed -- almost. As Consumer Guide noted at the time: "Our biggest objections to the five-speed are its linkage -- stiff, yet vague -- and its shift pattern. As with the four-speed, first through fourth are arranged in the usual H-pattern. But fifth is awkwardly located at the bottom of the dogleg to the right of and opposite fourth, instead of up and to the right.... Why Ford did it this way is a mystery, but it makes getting into or out of fifth real work. Our guess is that the engineers wanted to prevent inexperienced drivers from accidentally engaging overdrive and needlessly lugging the engine, as well as to prevent confusion with the often-used third. If so, they've succeeded admirably."
At the time, one transmission engineer noted that Ford thought most drivers would want to downshift from fifth directly to third, bypassing fourth. A more logical reason was that putting fifth over-and-up would have entailed excessively long arm reach. The "official" explanation was that the U-shaped shift motion better emphasized the economy benefits of the long-striding fifth gear. Whatever the reason, it just didn't work.
An optional T-bar roof with twin lift-off panels had been offered on late Mustang IIs, but the "New Breed" did without one until 1981.
Overall, though, the "New Breed" worked beautifully, another Mustang just right for its time. But the turn of the Eighties was another unhappy time for car lovers of every persuasion, and the future promised to be no better as far as anyone could see.
It was in this dour atmosphere that Motor Trend picked Mustang to kick off a series of nostalgic "Now Vs. Then" comparisons in its November 1980 issue. After driving a modestly optioned V-8 notchback against a classic hardtop of similar spec, writer Tony Swan concluded on a wistful note: "Mustang '66 is one of those automotive immortals that's earned a special niche. It is a car of distinctive character…produced in a manufacturing community blithely free of today's frequently conflicting regulations.
"Mustang '80," Swan continued, "is also a car of distinctive character, an achievement made more remarkable in view of [those] regulations…. [It's] contemporary in every sense and perhaps suffers from this in contrast to its ancestor. In an age of behemoths and excess, it wasn't particularly difficult for something as trim as the original Mustang to stand out from the crowd. But in the age of the Big Shrink, it is much more difficult for a designer to achieve something truly striking. Thus, we are comparing not only two cars but two eras. On a straight point-for-point comparison, each contender scores…. But in the perspective of today's world, the 1966 Mustang is an anachronism -- a collector's item. Of course they don't build 'em like they used to. [E]ven if they wanted to…there's this problem: They're not allowed to."
Maybe not, but that didn't rule out building 'em better -- which is exactly what would happen. More immediately, performance was about to make a surprise comeback in embattled Detroit. Not surprisingly, Mustang would lead the charge.