Curbside Classic: 1979 Ford Mustang Indianapolis 500 Pace-Car Replica – The Painted Lady


As you were growing up, you likely heard the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” to the point of tedium.

It’s sound advice that’s applicable to so many things in life.  Cars that have had some life experience are certainly items that should never be judged by the superficiality of their exterior appearance.

Recently, JPCavanaugh ran a terrific piece covering model year 1979 (here) as part of his series on Indianapolis 500 pace cars.  The Mustang you see above is one of roughly 10,000 examples that were made that year.

Oh, how the shrieks of disbelief can be heard all over cyberspace: “Somebody is just making that claim, Jason.  Surely you aren’t falling for it!”  In this case it’s not merely a claim, so let’s jump into what makes a ’79 Mustang a pace car instead of just another run-of-the-mill Mustang.

Let’s start with the outside.


All pace cars were painted in this color combination, which is certainly more tasteful than those of some of its predecessors.  And yes, now you skeptics are saying, “Dude, the car you are showing us is red–can’t you tell the difference?”

Well, Earl Schieb paints cars everyday, so getting hung up on paint color is pointless.  Let’s look at a few elements that are more difficult to change, including the door jamb.


See? The right colors!  If you haven’t already guessed, this particular Mustang, which is owned by CC reader Jake, has been repainted.  Although you can’t tell by these pictures, the paint was applied over the decals in some spots along the car.  (Please note: This was done prior to Jake’s purchasing the car; he is much too smart to do something so silly.) Now let’s continue our exploration.

This particular pace-car replica is powered by a 302 cubic inch, 140-hp V8, one of 23,675,984,248 that Ford would ultimately build.  Buyers of a 1979 pace-car replica could also opt for a 131-horsepower, 2.3-liter turbocharged four-banger.  Of course, neither engine generated enough power to make an overzealous driver’s eyeballs sink into their head; it was 1979, after all.

Buyers of the 302 version could choose either a four-speed manual or a three speed automatic, but the 2.3 turbo was restricted to shifty people due to its unavailability with an automatic.

This particular example has had a wheel change. Like all pace-car replicas, it originally came equipped with TRX wheels and tires, making such a swap quite wise.  The story of Michelin’s TRX tires can be found here.

Let’s look inside:


All the pace car replicas received Recaro seats up front…


and this pattern on both the front and rear seats (just don’t stare at it too long)…


and this nifty logo on the passenger side of the dashboard.


No one here at Curbside Classic is very geeky about cars being numbers-matching, decoding VIN tags or documenting whether a car optioned a certain way is one of however-many.  That just ain’t our thing.  However, this one’s an exception to the rule, so beware:  This part of the essay is where numbers geeks will have very positive physiological reactions; for the rest of us, here’s something to elicit a different positive reaction.

Yes, that is an ID tag, also known as a “data plate” or “VIN tag” (please, don’t say “VIN number”–it’s redundant), might well be the first one ever pictured on Curbside Classic.  Treasure it, as you won’t see them on here with any frequency!

So, what does this tag tell us?  Let’s start at the top.  It says “MUSTANG”, so we are good.  Now, go down a line, to the number starting with “48”.  The “48” indicates this is a pace car replica, and the last four numbers in the series indicate its birth order.

These cars were built in both Dearborn, Michigan and in San Jose, California.  Interestingly, one source claims that due to the way the cars were denoted, it’s theoretically possible for two pace-car replicas that were built at different plants to have the same VIN. That could certainly make for a lively title-history search.


The Mustang was new-for-’79, and serving as the Indy 500 Pace Car was a terrific way for Ford to showcase it.  Offering more interior space than the outgoing Mustang II (so couldn’t this be called a Mustang III?), the new ’79 Mustang had been designed by a Jack Telnack-led team.  Built on the Fox platform that also underpinned the Ford Fairmont / Mercury Zephyr (as well as a host of other early-’80s models), the new Mustang was on average 200 pounds lighter than the previous Mustang.

Eventually selling over 330,000 units in its first year, the Fox-bodied Mustang was a car that seemed to get better as the 1980s progressed, as GT, SVO, LX 5.0 and Saleen versions were unveiled.  Quite the versatile chassis, indeed.

So there you have it, folks, a genuine 1979 Ford Mustang Pace Car.  As so many of these pace-car replicas are pampered, many kudos to Jake for driving his Mustang around the hills and curves of the Ozark Mountain foothills.