The second-generation Camaro and the Fox-body Mustang have one fundamental similarity–their unlikely longevity. Both cars trembled under the long ax of their respective corporations at some point during their tenures, and both sold reasonably well throughout their respective model runs. Mustang v. Camaro has long been America’s most lasting battle between nameplates, but one must wonder if they were truly competing for the same buyer in the late-’70s and early ’80s. The “American as Apple Pie” Camaro overlapped what was perhaps the most European Mustang ever, and both tasted success.
By the time this ’78 Z28 saw the light of day, the second-generation bodystyle was really an anachronism, a byproduct of the “wasteful” muscle car era, a dinosaur. Against the prevailing wisdom of the time, however, they continued to sell in numbers that would make Chevrolet weep tears of joy these days: 272,631 units in 1978, 54,907 of them Z28s.
Those are heady numbers for a vehicle introduced during the Nixon administration and living in the disco malaise. The Camaro’s success is directly attributable to its “still-attractive after all those years” styling and reasonable power, two things that were harder to come by in the late 1970s.
As a performance car, the Z28 was stout, if not as stout as a similar Trans Am. It was also pretty big, longer than even a 2015 model at 197.6 inches. At under 50 inches, the ’78 model, however, sat about one floor lower than a current Camaro. The Z28 came standard with a 350 four-barrel, muscle car axle ratios, and a choice of four-speed or automatic. In a way, it was like the good old days, minus about 100 net horsepower. At least it handled well.
And the interior still looked the part. A brushed aluminum gauge cluster surrounded actual gauges, the old Chevy rally wheel still looked just right, and the console and four-speed could have been right out of a ’71 Camaro. The high-back buckets made the interior that much more cocoonish, but people expected that in their pseuso-muscle cars, at least for the time being. All in all, the second-generation ponycars lasted as long as they did because they were inherently good cars, but as the cliche goes, the times were changing.
The ’79 Mustang had as much in common with the ’78 Camaro (and the hapless Mustang II, for that matter) as a butter knife has with a machete. In retrospect, this is the car Bill Mitchell could have designed during the ’70s; it has the “sheer look” written all over it. Angular and spare, lean and taut–it was everything the Camaro wasn’t in 1979.
Much has been made about the 2015 Mustang’s “world-car” qualities, but the ’79 was truly the first European-style Mustang. The Cobra was equipped with a turbocharged four-cylinder (that was actually marginally quicker than the optional 302), strange metric wheels with matching metric tires, and the slickest drag coefficient of any Ford ever sold to the public (to that point).
This uncommon, original Cobra is a bit of a throwback, powered by the two-barrel 302, which produced a fair 140 horsepower in ’79. The 302 took a hiatus in ’80 and ’81 in lieu of the woeful 255 CAFE special, only to return in fighting trim in the ’82 GT. The 302 was a good decision, as the turbo-four did not come with an intercooler, and was rough and rugged on a good day. The 302 also produced more turbo-lag free torque in day to day driving.
In comparison to the Camaro, the Mustang is obviously more lithe and lean, and it’s no optical illusion: the Mustang measured 179.1 inches from stem to stern, a whopping 18 inches shorter than the Z. Maybe because of this, the public took to the new Mustang in a big way, buying 369,936 Mustangs in ’79, of which only 47,568 were 302-propelled. It certainly was a new, fuel-conscious world out there in 1979.
The interior in this automatic-equipped example is equally enthusiast-oriented, with numerous gauges on a black surround. The steering wheel pales in comparison to the Z28’s, but a sportier steering wheel was available optionally. One of the more awkward aspects of the ’79 was the low-mounted interior door handle, located way down under the window crank. Needless to say, that was a “better idea” that didn’t last too long. One striking point about this interior is how airy and open it looks compared to the Camaro’s. That same ethos continues today: the Camaro is somewhat bunker-like to drive, while the Mustang feels a little less constricting in comparison.
While our featured Camaro was nearing the end of its life cycle, the ’79 Cobra would culminate as the fire-breathing ’93 Cobra pictured above. While the second-generation Camaro continued to sell well even into its twilight years, Mustang sales were dropping by ’93, finally being replaced by the SN-95 model late in that calendar year.
Considering all its success, it seems odd to think that the Fox Mustang was almost replaced by the Ford Probe, which was a nice enough looking car for its time, but certainly no Mustang. The Camaro too was almost axed; Camaro/Firebird sales were so low in 1972, partially as a result of the 1972 strike at the Norwood assembly plant, that GM considered dropping them altogether.
Thankfully for ponycar fans, cooler heads prevailed, and we’re left with two vehicles that covered a lot of ground over their long lives. Today, although many butchered examples of both have led to dubious reputations (drag cars and “mulletmobiles,” anyone?), they were right for their times, and looking at these two nice examples is a treat for any car fan.