COAL: 1979 Mustang Turbo – The “Old” “All New” Mustang

Mustang 1979 turbo

The announcement of the “all new” 2014 Mustang brought back my memories of another “all new” Mustang, which was my first new car purchase in late 1978.

As virtually everyone knows, the original 1964 ½ Mustang was an unprecedented success, with over 20,000 orders coming in the very first day, and over 400,000 sold the first year.  But even a fresh, innovative design was subject to the good old American “bigger is better” mantra and we watched over the next decade as it grew into a bloated caricature of itself.  Ford’s answer was the automotive equivalent of gastric bypass surgery with the 1974 introduction of the new “Mustang II.”

The iconic car lost more than size.  No one I knew considered the newly dubbed “Mustang II” cool.  Can you really imagine the Chase scene in Bullitt with Steve McQueen at the wheel of a Mustang II?  Instead it was derided as the dressed up Pinto it actually was.


Ford did a good job creating anticipation for what was a truly new model upgraded to the Fox platform.  The brochure is here, and includes this cutaway illustration:


I had not quite completed a full year’s employment as a flight attendant for Ozark Air Lines, but with deregulation around the corner and the company growing more quickly than it ever had in its history, I was feeling pretty optimistic and after three used Volkswagens I was ready for my first new car.


We had a good family friend who was a salesman at a local Ford dealer.  I went in to see him and he came back with the news that the dealer was going to make a flat $350 profit on the car, but I was free to order options from the cost list.  For what I was looking for, I could have easily just ordered the Cobra, but the exterior colors did not extend below the belt line and interior color combinations were limited.

1979_mustang tan interior

I wound up with a Dark Jade Green three door with tan interior, equipped with the 2.3 liter turbocharged four, a four speed, the much-trumpeted TRX tire, wheel and suspension system, and literally every available option except power steering and power brakes.  I learned to drive without these amenities and as I used to joke, people get in their cars with power steering and brakes and drive to the gym to exercise.  Go figure.  To me, the decision to go without power assisted steering at the very least was a good one.

I wish I had a better memory for figures, but I’m pretty sure the total was less than $7,000.  I placed the order in October of 1978 and obtained a loan from the OAL credit union.  I’ve also forgotten what the interest rate was, but we’ll return to that later.

Back in those days, you could generally expect delivery in six to eight weeks.  My first clue that things had gone awry was that the dealer could not come up with a solid date after that time had elapsed.  I still had my 1969 Karmann-Ghia convertible so as far as transportation I was covered, but it was a bit disconcerting.  The next word was the Garrett TO-3 turbocharger units were in short supply.


Christmas came and went as did New Year’s and St. Patrick’s Day and I was getting more and more impatient, though not impatient enough to cancel my order.  I had high hopes.  Ford was really pushing the image of the new Mustang as a performance car and it was chosen as the official pace car for the 1979 Indianapolis 500.


Thankfully my new car arrived on April 4th, almost two months before the Memorial Day Weekend motorsports event.  As I mentioned, I had obtained a loan from the airline’s credit union and had locked in my rate when the car had been ordered. For those of you old enough to remember interest rates at the end of the 1970s you may not be surprised that in the five months between order and delivery I was now getting a higher rate on my passbook account than I was paying on my new car loan.  Within a year of purchase I could have paid off the loan, but of course that would not have been the best economic choice.


But back to the car itself.  To this day I love air-cooled Volkswagens but after three I was really happy to have a car that had some power, and in this area the Mustang delivered.  Not necessarily off the line, but when that turbo began its vacuum cleaner whine and the green “Boost” light illuminated, it was time to hold on.  Thanks to a well-designed suspension system, lightweight alloy wheels and the Michelin TRX tires (and also I think because of the lack of power steering) it handled very well except when the pavement became uneven.  Then the live rear axle hopped around and the rear tires lost their grip.  And when it came to snow, well, best to just hope the road had been plowed.  Gas mileage was somewhere in the 25 mpg range, but was greatly effected by how hard the car was driven.  However, with a fuel capacity of 11.5 gallons range was limited, something that became a concern following the second oil embargo, when the price of a barrel of crude went from $15.85 to $39.50 and the gas station lines first seen in 1973 returned for a time.

Ozark Airlines 727-200

In what should have been a hint as to what the future of the airline industry held for me, the Ozark Air Lines flight attendants went on strike in August of 1980.  Having time on my hands and a friend who had a winter home (a double-wide trailer) in Sarasota I decided a road trip was in order.  The two of us departed St. Louis with the intent to overnight in Atlanta.  However the Mustang proved to be an above average “road machine” and we made Atlanta early in the afternoon, postponing our overnight stop to perhaps Macon.  Macon, then even Valdosta were put in the rearview mirror and ultimately we shut it down in Lake City Florida.

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The next morning, refreshed, full of coffee and with perhaps a three hour drive ahead of us, nearly unlimited visibility and very little traffic, I decided to see just how fast this thing would go.  For those of you old enough to remember, for a period of time that included that year’s model, speedometers were limited to read a maximum of 85 MPH.  I will leave it to others to debate the purpose of that particular regulation, but suffice it to say, “burying the speedometer” as we used to say, was not a challenge.  Later, after calculating speed based on the RPMs, I think we reached a high of around 110 mph.  This was my first experience with a turbocharged engine and while at steady normal highway speeds it was not operating in a “boost” condition, it certainly was as we were holding speeds above the century mark.  There was still pedal left, but it felt as if the car was beginning to float.  I could literally feel the steering effort and control decrease as the car seemed to ride slow waves of air current.  That’s when I lost my nerve, and after all we really weren’t in that much of a hurry.

Another Mustang memory of that trip that had little to do the intrinsic value of the car took place on Turtle Beach, located on Siesta Key.  Jimmy Buffett’s “Volcano” was about to debut, and one of the local radio stations played the entire album (with of course a break in between as it was flipped; these were the vinyl days after all) and I sat on the beach with the hatchback open, listening to the new sounds.  Any time I hear a tune from that record I’m back on the beach with my feet in the sand.

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Some of the things that stand out, good and bad: to honk the horn, you had to push a stalk identical to the turn signal inboard towards the steering column.  VERY counter intuitive.  The windshield washer was a single outlet that oscillated a single stream back and forth 60 times a second.  A great improvement over the old single stream nozzles.  The optional glass moon roof had to be manually removed and stored in back, like T-tops. Kind of a pain, but at least you didn’t lose headroom as you did in many other cars if you wanted that option.  It was not, however, a well-engineered option.  I was waiting for someone one sunny afternoon, following a rainy day, and killing time reading a John MacDonald paperback (The Empty Copper Sea) until she emerged from the building and I tossed it behind the passenger seat.  When I retrieved it later that day, it had swelled to three times its size, soaking up water from the rear carpet that had been drenched by leakage from the moon roof.


That pretty much described the car as a whole.  Some thoughtful design and engineering coupled with some slapdash execution and assembly.  No surprise that a few years after this Ford adopted the advertising slogan “Quality is job #1” because in 1979 it was probably job # 17.  As an example I went through three throwout bearings in the first 10,000 miles, always questioned by the service manager about my clutch habits until on the third go around they discovered the pressure plate was warped.  The four-speed transmission had to be rebuilt at around 25,000 miles and the engine (thankfully covered under the extended warranty I had wisely purchased) had to be rebuilt north of 35,000 (to be fair what was initially diagnosed as piston slap turned out to be a faulty fuel pump cam).

I owned it for over four years and had some fun with it, but sold it when the first generation Rabbit GTI hit the market in 1983.  I still see a lot of eighties versions of the Fox platform Mustang on the road, but it has been a long, long while since I’ve seen what I half jokingly call my trial and error car.  Ford’s trial and my error.