by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide
The rapidly improved fortunes of the Ford Mustang from 1982 through 1986 mirrored those of Ford Motor Company itself. After teetering on the financial brink, Ford not only roared back to profitability, it became the most profitable outfit in Detroit. By 1987 it was earning more money each year than giant General Motors -- and on only half the sales volume. Critics were baffled, stockholders relieved, the automotive press impressed.
The basic look of the redesign for 1987 would last all the way through the 1993 model year.
There was no secret to this. Like Chrysler under Lee Iaccoca, Ford under Don Petersen (who moved up to chairman in 1985) became more efficient, closing old factories, modernizing others, slashing overhead, and laying off workers (only to rehire some later).
Though such steps were almost always painful, there was no choice in the face of unprecedented foreign competition. But where Chrysler put all its chips on one basic platform, the adaptable K-car, Ford trotted out a slew of new models with much broader sales appeal.
Part of that appeal stemmed from a new aerodynamic styling signature instigated by Jack Telnack. It proved so popular that he was promoted in mid-1987 to replace Don Kopka as design vice-president for the entire company. Telnack's passion for "aero" had a practical side.
As he had shown with the '79 Mustang, reducing air drag improves fuel economy. And as CAFE standards were not going away, that was still vital in the 1980s. But shapes born of the wind tunnel also gave Ford a way to stand apart from the herd at a time when design -- good design -- was again influencing sales more than EPA mileage numbers.
Sure enough, amidst a sea of mostly square-rigged Chrysler products and lookalike GM cars, buyers flocked to smooth, unmistakable new Dearborn offerings like the 1983 Thunderbird and especially the 1986 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, affordable midsize sedans that looked like pricey German Audis.
But the key to Mustang's success in these years was performance, not styling. Of course, it helped greatly that an economic recovery took hold in 1982, boosting personal income even as inflation, interest rates, unemployment, and especially gas prices all came down.
The 302-cubic-inch (5.0-liter) V-8 gave this generation of Mustang much of its identity and appeal.
As we've seen, Ford also helped Mustang's cause with the same sort of relentless refining that Porsche used to keep its Sixties-era 911 sports car so evergreen. This not only involved more power almost every year but also new features and options, plus much improved workmanship.
Yet the more things stay the same, the harder they can be to change, to paraphrase an old saw. Even as it got better and better, Mustang increasingly seemed a relic of Ford's past -- and ever more dated next to newer sporty cars. But sales were on the upswing, and nostalgia was a big factor, even for younger types who had missed "Mustang Mania" in the Sixties.
Still, Ford fretted over what would happen to sales should the market suddenly reverse again or if competitors mounted a strong new challenge. With all this, Ford reasoned, a next-generation Mustang ought to appear by 1989 at the latest.
In an unthinkable move, Ford originally sent the design duties outside of the country. Keep reading and find out how the Mazda-designed car that became the Ford Probe almost wore a Mustang badge.
Ford Mustang Survives Probe
With Mustang sales once again strong in the mid-1980s, Ford execs wanted to make sure they stayed ahead of any changes in consumer tastes. To keep momentum going, they decided a redesign was in order for the late '80s.
As it happened, work toward that car had been underway since early 1982, just as the reborn GT and H.O. V-8 were starting to rekindle the old Mustang excitement. Initiated as project SN8 -- "sporty car, North America, 8" -- this effort envisioned a smaller, lighter pony like the old Mustang II or European Capri, but with aero styling, front-wheel drive to optimize interior space, and high-efficiency four-cylinder engines instead of a thirsty low-tech V-8. Unfortunately, early proposals around this concept did not suit decision-makers.
When word leaked that Mazda was designing a Mustang prototype, fans were horrified. The capable model came to showrooms as the Ford Probe.
So just a year into the program, Ford turned to longtime Japanese partner Mazda, whose small-car expertise was at least equal to Ford's own.
Dearborn went calling at an opportune time. Mazda was then planning the next version of its front-drive 626 series, which included a coupe, one of Mustang's new-wave rivals. Ford figured to save money and get a better new Mustang by joining in. The result would be two models, each with its own styling identity and sales networks, but sharing basic chassis, running gear, and some inner structure.
The idea became even more attractive once Mazda decided to build a plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, near the historic River Rouge factory where Mustangs were made, and to make part of its output available to Ford.
It seemed a match made in heaven. Ford would get a new Mustang for far less money than by developing it alone. Mazda also liked the economics (the yen was very strong against the dollar) as well as the deal's "politically correct" image. With "Japan Inc." taking ever-larger chunks out of Detroit's sales hide, Congress was threatening protectionist legislation that the Japanese hoped to forestall with "transplant" factories employing U.S. workers.
Probe Shot Down
What Ford hadn't counted on was the near-universal outrage among Mustang fans once word of the plan leaked out. A new Mustang was a good thing, even overdue. But Japanese engineering? No way!
As before, the stealthiest way to go fast in an '87 Mustang was to optionan LX with the $1885 V-8 package, as in this hatchback.
Mustang was an all-American icon. How dare they put the name on a "badge-engineered" import. And looky here, Ford. Front-wheel drive may be OK for little econoboxes, but real performance cars put power to the pavement with the back tires.
Dearborn got the message and released the "626 Mustang" (which Mazda sold as the MX-6) as the 1989 Probe (named after Ford's recent series of aerodynamic show cars). The decision wasn't made until the last minute, but it was both wise and correct.
Though capable and spirited in turbocharged GT form, the Probe was too just "foreign" to pass as a pony car -- an American invention, after all -- even if it was styled in Dearborn.
Meanwhile, rising demand had convinced Ford to rejuvenate the aging Mustang, something it could well afford amid record profits. The aim was not just bringing the old warrior in line with the new design theme but to make it more competitive in an increasingly tough sporty-car market, especially against the newer Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird.
The result was a thoroughly new car, inside and out.
The 1987 Ford Mustang
Responding to public outrage, Ford wisely decided not to base the next-generation Mustang on the front-wheel drive Mazda platform that eventually became the Ford Probe.
The decision led to the 1987 Ford Mustang, the most thoroughly changed Mustang since the Fox generation's debut. The slow-selling SVO was gone, but LX notchback, hatchback, and convertible returned along with the popular GT hatch and ragtop. Significantly, Ford planners also decided to axe Mercury's Mustang, the Fox-based Capri, after eight years of curiously disappointing sales.
Flush-mounted headlamps, a legacy of the late Mustang SVO, gave all '87s a smoother, more coherent face.
Despite a familiar basic shape, Mustang looked slicker than ever for '87. A smoother nose sandwiched flush-mount headlamps between triangular inboard parking lights and wraparound turn-signal lamps. Rear side glass on coupes was pulled flush with surrounding sheetmetal, with a wide black band where the vertical slats had been.
Though the side windows looked larger, the "daylight openings" they covered were unchanged, so over-the-shoulder visibility remained a bit constricted. Restyled taillamps were evident, and most exterior moldings were finished in black. Beside a more contemporary appearance, these changes lowered drag coefficients: now 0.40 for notchbacks, 0.42 for convertibles, and 0.36 for the LX hatchback; the three-door GT tested out at a slightly blockier 0.38.
The restyle had little effect on dimensions inside or out. Wheelbase remained at 100.5 inches, while overall length measured 179 inches, width 68.3, and height about 52 inches. Track widths were 56.6 inches fore, 57 aft. Curb weights did change, for the worse, adding about 100 pounds on average.
Opinions were divided over the style merits of deep perimeter "skirts" but mostly the redesign was well received.
LXs remained more visually restrained than GTs. Their grille, for instance, was a simple slot with a horizontal bar bearing a small Ford oval. Below was a body-color bumper with integral spoiler and wide, black rubstrips that wrapped around as body side protection moldings to a color-keyed rear bumper.
GTs wore sculpted rocker-panel skirts that looked like the add-ons they were, plus a dummy scoop ahead of each wheel, a burly spoiler on the hatchback, and busy "cheese-grater" taillamps instead of the LX's simple tri-color clusters.
At least the grille-less GT face was aggressively handsome -- rather like the SVO's, with a wide "mouth" intake in a forward-jutting airdam with flanking round foglamps. So you shouldn't miss it, large "Mustang GT" lettering was molded into the rocker extensions and rear bumper cover.
The 1987 Mustang Interior
Because instrument panels are among the costliest components for a carmaker to change, the brand-new '87 dashboard implied the foxy Mustang might hang on for more than a few years (as indeed it would).
The design could have come from Mazda. The right side was cut away on top to form a useful package shelf and lend a greater sense of interior spaciousness. Drivers faced an upright instrument pod with side-mount rocker switches for lights, hazard flasher, and rear-window defroster. Column stalks again looked after wipers and turn signals, while cruise-control buttons remained conveniently in the steering wheel spokes.
Mustang's new instrument panel was international in appearance and function, with its useful package shelf, rotary climate control, and BMW-style air vents.
Dropping down from dash center was a broad console housing rotary knobs for temperature, fan speed, and air distribution, all lifted from the new Euro-style Taurus. A quartet of large, square vents marched across the middle of the dash, BMW-fashion. Modernization was also evident in a new-design steering wheel, armrests, door panels, and seat adjusters.
There were improvements under the hood, too, which made acceleration feel like it did in the good old days.
1987 Ford Mustang Engines and Acceleration
The most noteworthy mechanical alterations to the 1987 Ford Mustang involved the venerable small-block V-8, no surprise, as it was pulling even with the 2.3-liter four in customer preference.
Like the Mustangs it powered, Ford's 302 V-8 had become a modern classic --and a favorite of hop-up artists who developed speed equipment for it.
A return to freer-breathing, pre-1986 cylinder heads and other induction changes added 25 horses for a total of 225, thus matching the top Chevy Camaro/Pontiac Firebird option, a 5.7-liter Corvette mill. Torque also improved, swelling to a stout 300 pound-feet. The 302 remained standard on GTs. Ford called this the "5.0-liter," but its actual displacement was closer to 4.9 liters. GT also received larger front-disc brakes (10.9 inches versus 10.1) and recalibrated suspension.
The four-cylinder engine wasn't overlooked for '87, exchanging a dull one-barrel carburetor for state-of-the-art multipoint electronic fuel injection. Though the engine was little more potent at 90 horsepower and 130 pound-feet of torque, it now teamed with the V-8's five-speed manual and optional four-speed automatic transmissions. That was compared to the previous generation's four-speed stick and three-speed automatic. The new gearboxes helped maximize what grunt the four-cylinder had.
A big surprise was deletion of the 3.8-liter V-6, leaving a huge power and performance gap between the four and V-8. With that, Consumer Guide®'s Auto 1987 predicted, "Ford plans on selling mostly V-8-powered Mustangs this year."
A growing number of Mustangers took their V-8 in one of the less-showy LX models like this 5.0 notchback.
Ford did, only a lot of them were LXs with an $1885 V-8 package that also included the GT's uprated chassis and tires. In fact, demand for 5.0-liter LXs proved so strong that Ford ran short of engines during the '87 season. Buyers were told that if they wanted a V-8 Mustang, it would have to be a GT.
There were reasons for this. Many people thought the new GT either too ugly, too outlandish, or both, which must have dismayed Jack Telnack. Others simply preferred their V-8 in the quieter-looking LX because it was less likely to be noticed by the law. Besides, it cost less that way.
1987 Mustang Acceleration
LX or GT, the fortified small-block delivered straight-line performance reminiscent of the good old days. Ford claimed 0-60 mph took 6.1 seconds with manual shift, and most magazine tests got close to that.
AutoWeek, for example, clocked 6.5 seconds, "well into Corvette, Porsche 928S and Lotus Turbo Esprit territory. Two years ago it was about a second slower. Top speed of the new Mustang GT has also risen from the mid 130s to just under 150 mph. Not only is that faster than the high-tech coupes from Toyota, Nissan and Mazda, it beats Ferrari's [V-8] Mondial and closes in on the [six-cylinder BMW] 328. This is the cheapest car in America that will even come close to the revered one-five-oh."
Straight-line performance recalled the days of yore, although not everyone was a fan of the cheese-grater taillights.
Obviously, new technology was allowing Ford (and others) to deliver the kind of performance that had previously been achieved only through big displacement. For example, to get around 225 net horses in, say, a '72 Mustang, you had to order an optional 351 V-8 rated at 168-275 net horsepower. Yet the '87 small-block was thriftier and smoother running, needed less upkeep, and was more reliable--pure, unadulterated progress.
The Mustang had plenty of show and go, but there was more.
1987 Ford Mustang GT Handling
The redesign that resulted in the 1987 Ford Mustang wasn't all about styling and power. For such a familiar and relatively simple chassis, the '87 GT earned unusual praise for its driver-pleasing road-carving ability.
"The Mustang is a hedonist's car," declared AutoWeek's Phil Berg, "one that makes you want to go somewhere -- anywhere -- alone. Somewhere out in the tules with little road-hogging traffic.... You look forward to cornering with a passionate grip on the steering wheel. You start to believe the only reason for the quick [V-8] is to keep you from wasting valuable time on straights so you can find more rewarding section of two-lane. It's a very personal thing."
A smoother new nose helped lower the '87 GT hatchback's drag coefficient to 0.38, and it had other commendable performance numbers as well.
Britisher Mel Nichols, testing a new GT for Automobile magazine, thought "the SVO did not come and go in vain…. At the front, caster changes reduce camber loss in the corners, and [there are SVO] plastic ball joints, retuned bushings, and better mounts for the antiroll bar…. The Special Vehicle Operations development of a new crossmember allowed different front suspension pickup points, which in turn permit the fitting of decently large P225/60VR15 Goodyear Gatorbacks running 35 psi for reduced rolling resistance."
Nichols described GT handling as "predictable and progressive, so effortless and enjoyable…. The car turned into the bends cleanly, with understeer never passing the point of pleasing stability, then nudged through a long period of neutrality into progressive oversteer, talking all the way. A nudge of opposite lock held the tail. A touch more power pushed it out farther, with a little more lock balancing that, too.
Mustang's trusty 302 V-8 was again muscled up for 1987, tacking on 25 horsepower for a total of 225.
"From the outset, the Mustang felt like a car that could driven fast and safely and satisfyingly. It had all the right sporting attributes, yet there was also something quite nice about its character. It came down to one word: forgiving…. Even on the narrow stretches and where the bends were visibly off-camber, there was nothing intimidating about driving it hard and fast."
No one griped about the GT's standard "articulated" front seats.
Motor Trend's Rick Titus did take Ford to task over brakes, at least for racing purposes. "Ford's designers chose to enlarge the front vented discs, but continued to use leftover Pinto drums on the rear…. It seems [rear disc brakes] died with the SVO. This is appalling, considering the Ford flies the tall flag of performance over the Mustang, yet doles its best brakes out to whiney little four-bangers and their luxo lines."
Nichols also decried the small rear drum brakes but approved a stronger axle, retuned rear suspension bushes, rear antiroll bar, and premium gas-pressurized shock absorbers all around.
The reviewers also felt the price was fair.
1987 Ford Mustang GT Prices and Sales
While progress often exacts a price, the 1987 Ford Mustang remained an exception.
Motor Trend's Rick Titus took note of the "sizeable effort [made] to improve the sound deadening…. Corrugated firewall panels and sound-deadening adhesives give the '87 Mustang a rock-solid feel. It is, in fact, one of the first things you notice when you close the door. Road noise and engine vibration are cut nearly in half, and yet you still get the benefit of race-bred Ford small-block, as the Mustang's exhaust note puts that certain little magic in the air."
A fully loaded Mustang GT could be had for less than $15,000 in 1987.
Consumer Guide also found value beyond the car's price. "Though far from perfect -- or perfected -- the Mustang GT is put together well enough and offers a ton of go for your dough," said Consumer Guide®'s Auto Test 1987. "Despite a full option load -- air, premium sound system, cruise control, and power windows, door locks, and mirrors -- our [hatchback] came to $14,352, which is an exceptional value when IROC-Z Camaros, Toyota Supras, and Nissan 300ZXs can go for $5000 more."
It's striking how often reviewers mentioned Mustang's high "bang for the buck" value, as indeed they still do. Even General Motors didn't argue with that.
As a Chevy engineer told AutoWeek's Christopher A. Sawyer in early 1988: "We're stuck now in (the rut) that the Camaro costs more from a production standpoint…. If you want a T-roofed IROC that's pretty close to loaded, you're going to be over twenty grand. An equivalent Mustang is about $3500 cheaper."
The T-Top Mustang, last available in 1987, went for about $3,500 less than a competing Chevrolet Camaro Z28 IROC model.
But that's the beauty of hanging on to a basic design. Once tooling and development are paid off, and assuming no costly changes later, you can usually keep the lid on price and still make good money with every sale.
But a better car and "best buy" status don't necessarily guarantee better sales. Despite the extensive '87 remodeling, Mustang volume crumbled by over 65,000 units. Still, 159,000 total sales was good going, all things considered. (One problem was tax reform, which took effect on January 1, 1987, and eliminated the time-honored deduction for interest on car loans.) The facelift wasn't cheap at some $200 million, but it included upgrading the Dearborn assembly plant and would be soon paid off.
And sales promptly recovered. Indeed, Mustang widened its lead over GM's pony cars despite only token changes through decade's end.
As popular as the 1987 redesign was, it was no surprise that there were few changes in store for 1988.
The 1988 and 1989 Ford Mustang
As Dearborn prepared to unveil the 1988 Ford Mustang, it was evident the Fox was getting on in years. But it was also clear that Ford's makeover artists were hiding its gray hairs well, and Mustang's combination of low price and high performance was more irresistible than ever.
Ford spent some $200 million on Mustang's '87 restyle, so no one was surprised when the '88s arrived looking exactly the same.
"Mustang was born a legend, but it is value for the performance dollar that really draws the customers through the door," said AutoWeek's Christopher A. Sawyer. "Grudgingly or not, there is something that folks at both Ford and GM can agree on, the Mustang is the best value for the money in its market segment."
Other magazines also recognized this. In 1988 the GT was named one of Road & Track's "Ten Best Cars in the World" and made Car and Driver's "Ten Best" cars list. The following year, Motor Trend named the GT a "Top Ten Performance Car."
There were just two changes for '88: a higher-capacity battery for LXs and deletion of the T-bar roof from the options list. The latter really wasn't needed anymore, as convertible sales remained strong.
Model-year sales jumped to 211,225 for '88. The '89s did almost as well with 209,769. These totals were all the more impressive in light of prices that were bounding upward, by some $900 for '87, another $700-$1100 for '88, then $300-$400 more.
Looking for the Silver
For 1989, Ford acknowledged recent buying patterns by making the LX V-8 package into a distinct model trio called LX 5.0L Sport, and throwing in the GT's multi-adjustable sports seats. The only other news of consequence that year was standard power windows for convertibles.
Among the few changes for 1989 was that power windows were made standard on convertibles, such as this LX.
By 1989, only the four-cylinder LX notchback and hatchback still started below the psychologically important $10,000 mark. GTs were up to $13,272 for the hatch and $17,512 for the ragtop, so the new V-8 LX Sports looked like very good buys at $13,000-$17,000. The '89s did almost as well with 209,769.
Most everyone expected a very special Mustang during 1989. After all, the original pony car had been around for 25 years, and Ford had issued a 20th anniversary package for '84.
Yet no silver-anniversary special appeared right away, which only fueled speculation that Ford was working up something truly spectacular. Rumors circulated through most of '88 about a tricked-out GT with extra-heavy-duty suspension to handle a 351 V-8, borrowed from the Ford truck line and fortified with twin turbochargers for a Ferrari-baiting 400 horsepower.
At least one prototype was engineered and built by longtime Ford contractor Jack Roush, but the project ran afoul of development delays, fuel-economy concerns, and excessive costs for the planned 2000-unit run.
As before, comfortable "articulated" front seats were standard on '89 GTs (shown) and V-8 LXs.
There was also talk of a less radical hot one with 260-275 horsepower, suspension upgrades, distinct bolt-on body pieces, and possibly four-wheel disc brakes left over from the SVO. Also whispered was a transplant of the supercharged 3.8-liter V-6 from the '89 Thunderbird Super Coupe. But none of this came to pass.
Ford did mark the anniversary, but with events rather than a model.
The Ford Mustang 25th Anniversary Celebration
With the icon in the middle of a popular run, many fans expected Ford to come out with a high-performance Mustang on its 25th anniversary in 1989. But news of such models turned out to be nothing more than rumors.
Shortly before the actual April 1989 anniversary of the launch of the original 1965 Mustang, a Ford spokesman told AutoWeek why there wasn't a silver-anniversary Mustang model for Mustang's silver anniversary.
A 1989 GT ragtop sidles next to a classic '65 in a photo announcing Mustang's
25th anniversary. The math may be confusing, but 1964 is Mustang's birth year.
"First, we wanted to do more than a paint and stripe job. If we couldn't do a proper vehicle, we weren't going to do one at all. Second, the company doesn't feel that it would be honest to put its name on someone else's work" -- meaning the hot-rod Mustang proposed by longtime Ford contractor Jack Roush.
"We never really considered that car," the Ford man said, "because we felt that it was overkill." In fact, AutoWeek noted, "Ford never considered going outside for [any] help with the anniversary Mustang."
Still, it's fair to ask, was a golden marketing opportunity squandered through poor planning? Was it really better to do nothing if a "proper vehicle" wasn't possible?
Mustangers still debate the answers, but they were certainly disappointed at the time. Ford's only gesture at a 25th Anniversary Mustang was small indeed: a passenger-side dashboard emblem with galloping-horse logo affixed to all models built between March 27, 1989, and the end of model-year 1990.
Of course, a milestone Mustang birthday was too important for Ford marketers to ignore, and they didn't. Highlighting the celebration was the American Pony Car Drive, a six-week, 7000-mile coast-to-coast trek involving over 100 European Mustang owners and their cars.
Convening at the port of Jacksonville, Florida, participants headed west to Southern California for a big all-Dearborn classic-car show, "Fabulous Fords Forever." This was staged on Sunday, April 16, just a day shy of 25 years from the original New York World's Fair debut.
Ford's only change to the car for Mustang's 25th anniversary was an almost imperceptible emblem on the dashboard.
The group then headed back east toward Dearborn for a tour of the Mustang plant and other festivities. From there it was on to Baltimore and a boat back home. Along the way, the Pony Car Drive stopped in some 25 cities, where local Mustangers rolled out the red carpet. Some individuals even joined the rally, which had been suggested by a Mustang enthusiast in Switzerland.
That same April Sunday, Ford threw a big birthday bash at the Dearborn plant, which had recently built the six-millionth Mustang. The party generated wide media coverage, including a Wall Street Journal piece on the rather touchy matter of inviting the Mustang's "father," who by then was chairman of Chrysler.
The story quoted a Ford official saying the company came very close to asking Lee Iaccoca, "but we just couldn't bring ourselves to do it." Instead, the Journal reported, "Ford relied on surrogate fathers. The main was one Jack Telnack [who said] 'I'd like to stand here and tell you I was the father' of the original Mustang, 'but my biggest contribution was designing the wheel covers.' So, he was asked, who was the father? 'Well, there were several…Joe Oros and Dave Ash, who headed its design. There was a team of six or seven product planners, including Don Petersen.... And then there was Lee Iacocca.'"
Ford Chairman Petersen himself gave Iacocca a "more generous mention" in Southern California, the Journal quoting him as saying, "Fortunately, Lee Iacocca kept our spirits up" early in the program.
Typical of the man, Iacocca got in a little dig at his old outfit. As the Journal reported: "Ford feared that [he] might have stolen the spotlight and hawked Chrysler products. In fact, that's exactly what he did in a short prepared statement on the anniversary. 'Just like our minivans,' Mr. Iacocca said, 'the Mustang pushed all the right buttons for the customer.'" The story concluded on an amusing note. "One Ford official put the reason for not inviting Mr. Iacocca this way: 'Hell, he might have come.'"
But fans still longed for an anniversary model, and many adopted a heavily customized Saleen as the unofficial one.
The 1989 Saleen SSC Ford Mustang
Though Ford itself didn't do a 25th-birthday Mustang, Steve Saleen did, introducing his SSC on April 17, 1989. Based in California, Saleen was a veteran SCCA Trans-Am and Formula Atlantic racer. He also had a business-school degree -- and several Shelby Mustangs.
Introduced on April 17, 1989, Mustang's exact 25th birthday, the Saleen SSC Mustang packed 292 horsepower but was street-legal in all 50 states.
Encouraged by the H.O. V-8's 1982 revival, he decided to follow in Shelby's footsteps and make stock Mustangs into personal high-performance cars. For the first five years he focused on everything but the powertrain to avoid costs involved with emissions certification for a tuned engine.
Saleen developed suspension upgrades under the Racecraft brand and installed special wheels, tires, aerodynamic add-ons, racy cosmetics, and cockpit features like extra gauges and better seats.
He managed three cars in 1984, all GT hatchbacks, but then worked with Ford to supply him conversion-ready hatchbacks and convertibles. These cars got a special factory order code because Dearborn decided to sell Saleen Mustangs through select Ford dealers and to maintain the factory warranty on unmodified components. Saleen guarantee its modifications and components. Saleen Autosport turned out 132 cars in calendar '85, 201 the following year, and 280 in 1987.
Few Saleens were built exactly the same way, which made prices highly variable, but 1985-86 Saleen models started the $17,000-$20,000 range for coupes, $25,000 for a '88Saleen convertible. Sales hit 708 units in 1988.
Saleen Super Car
Up to 1989, Saleen's cars were simply Saleen Mustangs with basically unaltered powertrains, but that changed with the '89 SSC: "Saleen Super Car."
Saleen built only 161 SSCs in 1989, all hatchbacks.
Starting with a V-8 LX hatchback or convertible, Steve enlarged the ports and added a larger throttle body, a new intake plenum, different rocker arms, stainless-steel tubular headers, Walker Dynomax mufflers, and heavy-duty cooling system. The result: 292 horsepower. And it was street-legal in all 50 states, remarkable for a "tuner" David against a Goliath EPA.
Other SSC features included heavy-duty Borg-Warner five-speed with Hurst linkage, all-disc brakes from the late SVO, three-way electronically adjustable Monroe Formula GA shock absorbers with cockpit switch, and fat 245/50R16 tires on five-spoke eight-inch-wide DP wheels.
Inside were bolstered FloFit leather seats and matching door panels, a 200-mph speedometer, and a booming CD stereo instead of a back seat. According to Mustang chronicler Brad Bowling, "the asking price for this 'unofficial' 25th anniversary model was $36,500."
Tony Assenza tested an SSC for the May 1989 Car and Driver. After noting the suspension "evolved from Steve Saleen's years of racing Showroom Stock Mustangs" in SCCA, Assenza explained how "the chassis is subjected to considerable stiffening by what Saleen calls a 'Chassis Support System.' This includes a triangulated tube arrangement that ties the front strut towers to the firewall, a rear chassis support in the hatch area that looks like half of a roll cage, and a K-member under the front box section…. The chassis and suspension changes make the Saleen SSC a stiff piece that never stops reminding you that it's very much a single-purpose car. That purpose being to carve up twisty roads and terrorize fellow motorists at red lights."
Special bracing in the engine (shown) and cargo bays made for a solid driving feel and more precise handling.
That it could do, with an observed 0-60 of 5.9 seconds and a standing quarter-mile of 14.2 at 98 mph. Sure, the SCC was stiff riding, noisy, and not much fun in traffic.
But as Assenza summed-up: "If you can live with some of this car's less refined qualities and can justify the big asking price, you'll be able to make the biggest noise on your block since Carroll Shelby's GT350 came to town." Few got the chance. Saleen built only 161 of the '89 SSCs, plus 734 "standard" models.
Ford failed to ride the high note produced by the anniversary, as a sputtering economy battered sales in 1990 and 1991.
The 1990 and 1991 Ford Mustang
Ford marked its Mustang's 25th birthday with special events, and fans marked it with a high-performance model from customizer Steve Saleen. But the good times were not destined to last long.
With its birthday party over, Mustang carried on for the next three years without major change -- except on the sales chart, where the numbers plunged alarmingly. The two were not unrelated, but the real culprit was the onset of a sharp recession.
The main attraction of this "Limited Edition" LX 5.0L convertible, which arrived in January 1990, was its "deep emerald green" clearcoat metallic paint.
Model-year 1990 ushered in federally required "passive restraints." Mustang complied with a driver's airbag mounted in the steering wheel, which eliminated the tilt-wheel option, unfortunately. Door map pockets and clearcoat paint were also standard across the board, while options expanded with the addition of leather interior trim.
Announced in mid-January was a special "Limited Edition" LX 5.0L convertible, of which 3600-3800 were built. Base-priced at $18,949, this featured "deep emerald green" clearcoat metallic paint, color-keyed bodyside moldings, GT aluminum wheels, white convertible top, and a white leather interior with the GT's "articulated" sport buckets. An available "special value package" added air conditioning, cruise control, premium AM/FM/cassette stereo, and a clock.
To its credit, Ford didn't try to pass this off as a belated birthday present, though a company press release did try to make a connection, saying the "entire Mustang lineup, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1989, continues a tradition of value leadership in the 1990-model year."
Actually, prices were still going up but remained competitive: under $9500 for a four-cylinder LX notchback, less than $19,000 for the top-line GT convertible. Even so, model-year volume plunged nearly 50 percent to 128,189.
The '91 GT hatchback started at $15,034. Most people paid extra, as V-8 sales were now roughly twice that of four-cylinder models.
Sales dropped again for '91, skidding to 98,737. More detail updates occurred. The anemic four now claimed 105 horsepower via a new eight-plug cylinder head, but only rental-car fleet managers cared. Convertibles sported a power top that folded closer to the body for a neater appearance, and automatic-transmission cars met yet another new federal edict by adding an interlock that required pushing the brake pedal before the shifter would move out of Park.
V-8 models got pretty new five-spoke alloy wheels of 16-inch diameter, an inch larger than before. LX 5.0s switched from tough-looking but rough-riding Goodyear Eagle GT+4 tires to more compliant 225/55ZR16 all-season Michelins. GTs retained the unidirectional Goodyears in that same size but offered the Michelins as a no-cost alternative.
Prices rose a bit more, the base LX notchback going just above $10,000, but V-8 convertibles still started below $20,000.
Plummetting sales bottomed out in 1992 -- and then had nowhere to go but up.
The 1992 Ford Mustang
As it had been since the 1988 model year, the pace of change was slow for the 1992 Ford Mustang. In the only news of note, color-keyed bodyside moldings and bumper rubstrips enhanced LX appearance. And wonder of wonders, those old optional favorites, whitewall tires and wire-wheel covers, vanished from the list.
But sales now really tanked, hitting an all-time low of just 79,280 units for the model year. The only comfort for Ford was that the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird had been sinking even faster, allowing Mustang to stretch its sales lead. More telling is the fact that even in a slump, Mustang was consistently outselling the Probe, its one-time replacement.
The 1992 Performance Red Limited Edition 5.0L LX convertible had styling cues that carried over into 1993.
Though you might think otherwise, Mustang's "vintage" character had actually become a sales asset. Buyers were starting to lose interest in high-tech sporty imports, perhaps because they were all so much alike. But Mustang remained unique: big, bold, and brash, old-fashioned and flawed certainly, but mighty appealing for precisely those reasons.
By standing still, as it were, Mustang now stood alone. This unique character came through clearly in two 1989 "buff book" tests.
Running a new five-speed LX 5.0 hatchback, Motor Trend praised "its limitless supply of rich, creamy torque at any rpm, and all the wonderful things that it made possible."
That comment came in a "Bang for the Buck!" showdown of 16 contestants, including the Plymouth Laser RS Turbo, Nissan 300ZX, Ford's own supercharged Thunderbird, and even a 245-horsepower Chevrolet Corvette.
In acceleration, braking, and handling, the Mustang finished as high as fourth only in quarter-mile performance, with an ET of 15.38 seconds at 91.5 mph (a 20th Anniversary Pontiac Trans Am turbo was fastest with 14.18 at 98.8 mph). Mustang was mid-pack or lower in the skidpad, slalom, and road-course contests, and dead last in braking, taking 159 feet to stop from 60 mph (the 300ZX was shortest, 120 feet).
A new four-way power driver's seat joined the options list for 1992.
But with a base price of only $12,765, nothing could match its all-round performance for the money, and MT declared it the winner. "Mustang truly defines the concept of Bang for the Buck. It's probably the most fun for the money in America today."
In a similar vein, the July 1989 Car and Driver gathered up eight sporty coupes to answer the question, "What's the most fun you can have for $20,000?"
All the cars were Japanese built or designed save a five-speed LX 5.0, which finished fourth in cumulative rankings of performance, ergonomics, styling, utility, and driving fun. Though not the most polished contender, the LX was the most affordable -- and the quickest, running 0-60 mph in 6.2 seconds and the quarter-mile in 14.8 at 95 mph.
A Mitsubishi Eclipse GS Turbo won this showdown, but it cost $16,000 and was only two mph faster than the LX all-out. "If the Mustang sold for $20,000, we would probably be put off by its age and accompanying disadvantages," C/D concluded. "But at $13,671, including a generous load of creature comforts, the LX 5.0 is an incredible performance-car bargain."
Mustang was selling on performance more than ever. Among '91s, for example, V-8s outpolled four-cylinder models by two-to-one, with LXs accounting for almost half. Moreover, fully 49 percent of V-8 buyers chose five-speed manual transmission, a very high rate for an American car. By contrast, manual transmission accounted for just 13 percent of '91 Camaro sales and only 30 percent of Corvette's.
By 1992, the current Mustang generation was getting a little old for a pony. The run ended on a high note in 1993 with the Cobra.
The 1993 Ford Mustang Cobra
Ford Mustang sales hit an all-time low in 1992, and the current generation was starting to get long in the tooth. But the economy started to perk up by model-year 1993, and Mustang sales rebounded to 114,228. In a way, this shouldn't have happened.
Ford sent out the current generation of Mustang with a Cobra model developed by the new Special Vehicle Team.
Mustang was virtually unchanged, yet now faced a swoopy all-new Camaro/Firebird offering a 275-horsepower version of the latest 5.7-liter Corvette V-8. Worse, having admitted to literally overrating the Mustang V-8, Ford adjusted outputs down to 205 horsepower from 225. Torque decreased, too.
But a hot new Cobra hatchback more than made up for that. Road & Track called it the "best of an aging breed," and by most any measure it was.
Developed by Dearborn's new Special Vehicle Team (SVT, the successor to SVO), it packed a new higher-output Cobra 302 producing 235 horsepower via special big-port "GT40" heads, tuned-runner intake manifold, revised cam, and other muscle-building measures. Torque, a stout 285 pound-feet, was channeled through a beefier five-speed manual gearbox -- the sole transmission choice --and corralled in corners by sticky 245/45ZR17 Goodyear Eagle performance radials.
Also on hand, or rather under foot, were rear disc brakes instead of drums, the first factory Mustang since the SVO to have them. Ford also touted "balanced" suspension tuning that went against conventional hot-car wisdom by using softer springs, shocks, and bushings and a smaller front stabilizer bar versus the GT.
Interior furnishings were basically GT stock, while the exterior was almost LX modest. Spotter's points included SVO taillamps, handsome seven-blade alloy wheels --and specific nose with a small running-horse emblem. An hefty rear spoiler was the one arguably jarring note to this speedy, sophisticated package.
The Cobra 302 engine produced 235 horsepower via special big-port "GT40" heads, tuned-runner intake manifold, and revised cam.
Did we say speedy? Try 5.9 seconds 0-60 mph, according to R&T, whose test Cobra also clocked 14.5 seconds at 98 mph in the standing quarter-mile and less than 16 seconds from 0 to 100 mph.
As for sophisticated, Car and Driver's Don Schroeder termed this "a nicer-riding, more supple car [than the GT]. Although it can feel less buttoned down...the Cobra makes better use of its tires and rewards coordinated hands and feet with clearly higher limits and cornering speeds...."
Nevertheless, a few cynics thought this Cobra just a ploy to keep Ford's old pony car from being completely eclipsed by GM's newer Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. Motor Trend, in fact, called it a "shake-and-bake bridge to '94." Still, it was eloquent testimony to the Fox platform's stamina and versatility. And with only some 5000 built, the '93 Cobra will be a prized example of this long-lived breed.
The 1993 Ford Mustang Cobra R
More collectible still is the Cobra R, which saw only 107 copies. Of course, the "R" stood for racing, which meant track use only. Alterations to the street-legal Cobra included much larger front brakes, competition-caliber cooling system and suspension tuning, appropriately wider wheels and tires, and added structural reinforcements.
In yet another echo of Carroll Shelby, Ford omitted the back seat, air conditioning, and most power accessories to trim curb weight by some 60 pounds. not much on the road but crucial for the track. Ford sold every R-model for the full $25,692 sticker price vs. about $20,000 for a regular Cobra, itself a bona fide bargain.
At Long Last, Time to Move On
Either way, the '93 Cobra was a happy surprise for the Ford Mustang, a car that had stayed so much the same for so long. Life at Ford had been anything but static. Another historic changing of the guard occurred in 1990 when Donald Petersen took early retirement, ushering in Harold A. "Red" Poling as chairman and Philip E. Benton, Jr. as president.
Though the R model was for racetracks only, the standard Mustang Cobra was street-legal.
By the end of 1993, however, Alex Trotman had taken over both positions, outlining a bold new vision for Ford's future. Part of that future would soon arrive in the car everyone had been waiting for: the next new Mustang.