Curbside Classic: 1994 Mustang – The Car That Almost Wasn’t

This Mustang is the car that almost wasn’t. If Ford had stuck to its original plans, a very different Mustang would have been on the market by the mid-1990s.

The original Fox-bodied Mustang was looking long-in-the-tooth by the late 1980s. When it debuted in the fall of 1978, the Fox-platform Mustang was a breath of fresh air for the industry in general, and Ford in particular, which seemed determined to turn every coupe into a smaller version of the Lincoln Continental Mark IV. After a great first year, a combination of the second fuel crisis, a severe recession and Ford’s substitution of the miserable 255 cubic-inch-displacement V-8 for the venerable 302 sent sales tumbling.

For 1982, Ford crowed that the “Boss is back,” as the 302 V-8 returned for the GT version, and the 255 V-8 was mercifully dispatched. Build quality improved as Ford really did work to make quality control Job 1, and the convertible reappeared for 1983. Mustang sales rebounded as gas prices declined and the economy improved.

No good thing lasts forever, and it soon was time to think about a new Mustang. Ford’s bean-counter driven management thought that it had the perfection solution – base the next Mustang on a front-wheel-drive Mazda platform. Ford could spread costs over a larger volume of cars, and reap the benefit of Mazda’s engineering prowess.

This actually wasn’t a bad idea. Ford would use the same strategy with good results for the second-generation American Escort. Unfortunately, in this case, it was applied to the wrong car.

Basing an American icon on a Japanese front-wheel-drive compact touched a raw nerve in the 1980s. A furious backlash ensued, as Mustang fans inundated Ford headquarters with letters decrying the possibility of a “Maztang” and accusing Ford of performing a “Mazdectomy” on the original pony car.

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During this era, electronic mail was largely limited to government employees and computer buffs, meaning that most Mustang fans who wanted to vent their frustrations to Ford actually had to sit down, type or write a letter, stamp it and drop it in the mailbox. Faced with this level of passion, Ford quickly changed course, and the car originally proposed as the next Mustang appeared in 1989 as the Ford Probe.

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This left a big question unanswered – what to do about the next Mustang? Ford management formed a special team dedicated to the new Mustang, with instructions to deliver it quickly and under stringent cost targets. This can be a formula for trouble – the bittersweet saga of original Dodge/Plymouth Neon is proof of that – but in the case of the Mustang, it worked. It helped that the new car was based on an updated version of the old Fox platform, and carried over the 5.0 V-8, while dropping the 2.3 four in favor of the standby 3.8 “Essex” OHV V-6 as the base engine.

When the new model debuted for 1994, it looked fresh while still looking like a Mustang. The side vents from the original Mustang returned in modified form, as did the galloping chrome pony on the front. There were enough improvements to keep loyalists interested and the general public intrigued. Even more importantly, in that curious way Ford has when it does it right, its vices seemed to be part of the charm. A few rough edges made it seem authentically American, or least something that would have pleased ol’ Henry.

Buyers responded enthusiastically–not with “Mustang fever” as they had in 1964, but enough to keep the car viable in an increasingly difficult marketplace. The Mustang soldiered on through the 1990s and early 2000s, triumphing over its GM foes. (The Ford Probe, meanwhile, died after 1997, as the market swung away from front-wheel-drive sport coupes.) By the time GM threw in the towel on the Camaro and Firebird at the end of the 2002 model year, the Mustang was outselling both of them combined.

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The Fox-based Mustang would receive one more styling update, along with structural improvements, for the 1999 model year, before its ancient platform was finally retired for the even more nostalgically styled model that debuted for 2005.

What about this specimen? Unlike San Francisco or Eugene, a 15-year-old daily driver is considered an “old car” in Harrisburg, where road salt is regularly used in winter. It is not uncommon to see 10-year-old vehicles with signs of rust. Cars from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s have largely disappeared from the streets–they are either show queens or in the scrap yard, waiting for their next life.

It was thus surprising to see this 1994 or 1995 GT coupe regularly parked in a reserved parking space in Harrisburg’s Capitol complex. Particularly since Mustang GTs from this generation are now popping up at local classic car shows, either in modified form or as lovingly preserved originals.

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For 1994 and 1995, the GT sported still sported old but trustworthy 5.0 V-8–the overhead cam 4.6 V-8 would not arrive until 1996. By this time, the 5.0 V-8 had the level of aftermarket support and enthusiasm that had largely been reserved for the Chevrolet small-block V-8. It only took Ford about 40 years to figure out how to achieve that goal.

Ford took the trademark Mustang taillights and laid the dividers on their side for 1994 and 1995. These taillights were criticized for their similarity to the taillights on a contemporary Pontiac Grand Am. By the mid-1990s, having your styling compared to that of a Pontiac was not compliment. How the mighty had fallen.

This car has patina galore. The black paint is peeling from the roof,

and the front bears a few battle scars. It obviously is used as a daily driver, something that would also probably please ol’ Henry. Like its more numerous V-6 powered brethern that are also still spotted on the road around here, it soldiers on. Not too bad for a car that almost wasn’t.