Retro styling, so beloved in the early 2000s, lives on in the pony car segment. The bulging fenders and swooping rooflines of the newest Mustang and Camaro and the slavish homage that is the Challenger show the Big 3 aren’t taking any chances with the designs of their sporty offerings. Their styling plays like a Greatest Hits compilation, even if underneath the sheetmetal is all manner of modern technology like magnetorheological shocks and cylinder deactivation. But let’s cast our minds back to a time where Ford was far more willing to subvert the design orthodoxy in the segment they effectively created, when they launched the clean-sheet 1979 Mustang.
Its predecessor, the 1974-78 Mustang II, had represented a dramatic change itself. Drastically downsized and riding on a platform derived from the subcompact Pinto, the Mustang II attempted to appease Mustang enthusiasts by employing classic design cues like the scalloped sides and segmented taillights. Initially a tremendous success on account of the 1974 OPEC oil crisis, sales slid considerably during the car’s run. Given the Mustang II’s declining sales, Ford didn’t want to do another rehash of the same design.
Ford had also realized they had milked about all they could from the venerable Falcon platform, although it had enjoyed another burst of life in the popular Granada compact. Development had started in 1973 on a new platform with the codename ‘Fox’. Although initially conceptualized as a global platform, the Fox platform would eventually see life as a North American market linchpin with limited export sales. Despite this, Ford engineers and executives insisted the platform employ a European design ethos. Most interestingly, the platform was designed with the Mustang as the highest priority.
Despite the Mustang’s prioritization, the Ford Fairmont and Mercury Zephyr debuted the platform in 1978. There was a great deal of commonality between the family-oriented Fairmont and the Mustang, with both using the same suspension set-up: McPherson struts at the front and a four-link system with coil springs, trailing arms and a live axle at the rear. The Mustang’s wheelbase was trimmed by 5 inches from the Fairmont, although the new model was still 4 inches longer than the Mustang II.
Although the new Mustang overall had a larger footprint than its predecessor, Ford successfully shaved 200 pounds of curb weight while simultaneously increasing interior room by 20%. The base model weighed just over 2500 pounds, and these weight savings were accomplished without any extensive modifications of the engines. The Mustang was also rebadged as the Mercury Capri, available only as a hatchback and replacing the previous European-sourced model.
The entire engine range was carried over for 1979, including the Lima 2.3 OHC four-cylinder (88 hp), Cologne 2.8 OHV V6 (109 hp; a $273 option) and Windsor 4.9/302 cubic-inch 2-bbl V8 (140 hp; a $514 option). Transmission options were a four-speed manual and a three-speed automatic.
There was something fresh on the engine front, however: a turbocharged version of the Lima 2.3 with 132 hp at 5500 rpm and 142 ft-lbs at 3500 rpm. This was the most expensive engine option, with Ford charging $542 for the privilege, but the turbo was said to offer four-cylinder fuel economy with V8 performance. Car & Driver tested both and found the V8 sprinted to 60 mph faster: 8.5 seconds versus 9.1 with the turbo, although the turbo was found to be blissfully free of lag if not noise. Other reviews contradict this impression, however.
Other than the presence of both notchback and hatchback body styles, the ’79 Mustang shared little, design-wise, with its predecessor. By allowing designers a clean sheet approach, there was no ham-fisted attempt at making the new Mustang look like any that had come before it. Despite being only 4.6 inches longer in total, the new Mustang was blessed with drastically improved proportions as 4.3 of those inches were in the wheelbase. It no longer looked stubby or comical, a complaint often levelled at the Mustang II notchback. Perhaps this was the result of the instruction to the designers, working under the stewardship of design director Jack Telnack, who were requested to style the notchback first.
The new design banished the sins of the Mustang II. Designers used urethane to integrate the bumpers much more harmoniously with the body, the front bumper blending seamlessly with the sharply angled eggcrate grille. A lower beltline and taller greenhouse improved visibility. The sides were devoid of extraneous and messy feature lines, while a gently curved backlight prevented the notchback from looking too anonymously angular.
The hatchback was just as elegant. Both looked athletic enough to be Mustangs without looking out of place on a European street. The ’79 was also the most aerodynamic Ford yet, with a drag coefficient of 0.44 for the hatchback and 0.46 for the notchback. The designers had been given a wide berth and they had created a successful and attractive design.
The only clumsy design elements were the louver treatment on the C-pillar, which resembled the same treatment on the Mercury Zephyr, and the awkwardly applied optional vinyl roof. A vinyl roof rarely enhances a design but it was especially bad on the notchback Mustang, sitting discordantly with the subtly angled trunk lid and backlight and ending abruptly.
As with Mustangs prior, the 1979 could be specified in myriad different ways with various luxury and performance options available. This included a striking Cobra option, complete with colorful hood graphic and pinstriping, as well as a luxury Ghia trim. There was even an available carriage roof to make the notchback resemble a convertible, a body style that was still some years away (t-tops arrived first in 1981). All Mustangs came standard with full instrumentation and bucket seats, as would be expected from any coupe with European aspirations, but fake wood trim was also standard fitment.
If your tastes turned more towards performance than luxury, you would have been pleased to find three different suspension options on the options sheet: base, handling and TRX. The base suspension came with a front anti-roll bar. The handling suspension option added radial tyres, stiffer springs and shocks, and a rear anti-roll bar. The most expensive option, the TRX, was designed around the Michelin TRX tires and included a front anti-roll bar, a bigger one out back, and special spring and shock rates. Added to the options list in 1980 as well were Recaro bucket seats.
Consumers were impressed. Mustang sales surged, with 369,936 sold in 1979. This was a whopping 92% increase from 1978 and fell just shy of the Mustang II’s exemplary debut year sales. Critics were also impressed with the improved design, inside and out. Many waxed lyrical about the TRX suspension option and the effect it had on Mustang handling, an increasingly valued attribute in a time of wide gear ratios and tall axles. Although dynamically acceptable with the standard and handling suspensions, Mustangs with the TRX suspension were the best-handling Mustangs yet.
In 1979, it looked like Ford was really turning a corner, ridding their lineup of overstuffed, oversized, poorly-packaged cars and replacing them with trim, clean, new models like the Fairmont, Fiesta and Mustang. Then 1980 arrived and the next phase of the Fox platform was introduced: the downsized Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar. They landed with a thud, their baroque styling elements ill at ease with their trimmer dimensions. Perhaps those project leads should have followed the Mustang team’s example.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the Mustang either in 1980. The Cologne V6 was axed from the lineup before the 1980 model year due to demand in Europe, replaced with the venerable but stodgy 3.3 inline six. Laughably, this old engine produced 3 fewer horses than the Lima four, albeit with more torque. It was a shame to see the V6 go, as it had acceptable performance and fuel economy as well as superior handling to the V8, owing to superior weight distribution on account of its 80-pound lighter motor.
Then, a second oil crisis and government-imposed fuel economy requirements led to the retiring of the 302 V8. In its place was a smaller-bore version, displacing 255 cubic inches (4.2 liters) with 10 fewer horses, mated only to an automatic transmission. The turbocharged four was then retired in 1982, a victim of unexpectedly slow sales and disappointing reliability.
The ’79 Mustang had opened a new book but halfway through the first chapter it had encountered obstacles, including weaker engines and a fierce rival in the shape of the new Camaro and Firebird. But the Mustang had always staved off extinction and kept on ticking, and the performance would return with the 1982 GT hatchback. This new performance flagship featured the 302 2-bbl V8 (or “5.0”) with 157 hp and an available Borg-Warner T-5 five-speed manual. The turbocharged four would also return, in a prelude to the cult classic SVO. Although sales had tapered off significantly from 1979’s tally, down to a disappointing 130,418 units for 1982, the next chapter in the long Fox Mustang story would once again start off on a promising note. Instead of a dramatically overhauled design, the next chapter would see the triumphant return of performance.
The Fox Mustang had an exceedingly long run but even by the end of its run in the 1990s, it didn’t look like an embarrassing relic. Perhaps some of the credit for that accomplishment can be given to Jack Telnack’s fresh, new design direction. Could the Mustang ever have a clean break like this again?
Featured Mustangs photographed in Mexico City and Santiago de Querétaro