Curbside What If? CC Builds A Better Mustang II

(first posted 2/13/2012)         Take a close look at this 1976 Mustang II. Notice anything different? Does it look less like a Pinto in a clown suit; with that ridiculous long overhanging nose? Does it look a bit less impotent, having ditched its 13″ training wheels for some proper wheels and rubber? Yes, it’s easy (and fun) to rip apart a poorly designed car like the Mustang II, as we did the other day. But George Denzinger (geozinger) and I have teamed up to turn the clock back, and do it right.

The first step is to take a closer look at what Ford did. As is all-too obvious, the (real) Mustang II started out as a Pinto, the cheapest little car that Ford could possibly build. Although its mechanical aspects were simple and reasonably durable (unlike its main competitor, the Vega), the Pinto’s body structure came in for pretty thorough criticism.

The big question is why Ford went with the 94″ wb Pinto platform, and not the 103″ wb Maverick platform, for the MII. Some have suggested that Ford seriously considered just that route. Stay tuned.

Some have pointed out that the MII was a response to the energy crisis. If so, it must have appeared like magic, because the MII arrived in the fall of 1973, exactly when the Energy Crisis started. Even if the MII’s development time was shortened because of its Pinto basis, it still would have taken a couple of years. But there’s no doubt that the MII’s arrival was highly fortuitous: 1974 sales soared (386k), but crashed again by over 50% in 1975, and stayed at that lower level for the rest of its run. The energy crisis was its short-lived boon.

Was Lido clairvoyant? More likely just cheap. He specifically wanted the MII to chase after the new small sporty coupes that were hot. Ford’s own Capri, sold at Mercury dealers, had arrived in 1971 and was the second best-selling import car in the US during part of its run. The Opel Manta was selling fairly well too.

But the growing threat was of course from Japan, which had discovered that the sporty car market was ripe for the picking, one size below the American pony cars. The Toyota Celica, with its Mustang-esque fastback, was hot. Datsun was also moving in, and some of the others too.

According to one source, Lido said he wanted the MII to ride on a wheelbase of 96-100 inches. By designing a new front suspension and subframe for the MII, they were able to add two inches to the Pintos 94″ wb.  Any more would probably have compromised the Pinto body’s known weakness. The result is a significantly shorter wb than the Capri’s 101″. The Capri was able to recreate the iconic long-hood, short tail that the original Mustang established as the pony-car “look”; the MII didn’t.

I’ve already argued that ideally, the MII should have been a properly “Americanized” Capri, with Mustang styling cues. The wheelbase and excellent chassis were all there, ripe for the picking. It might have cost more to invest in new tooling. Or more likely it was just the usual “not invented here” syndrome.

We could have based our Better MII on the Capri, but for this exercise, let’s assume that Ford had chosen the more realistic Maverick alternative. The Maverick was itself a development of the original Mustang/Falcon platform, and the cost of adapting it would have had to be very low indeed. The Maverick body would only need a fairly light re-skin, as the basic proportions and shape are all there.

The new front suspension and rack and pinion steering Ford developed for the Mustang II could have been scaled easily to the Maverick platform, potentially endowed the resulting MIIv.2 with superior handling. The real MII was cursed with severe understeer, among other handling shortcomings. Much of that was due to its nose-heaviness, because of the short wb and the long front overhang. The V6 Mach I had a 57/43 weight distribution; the V8 probably pushed that to 60% in the front. And with the Pinto chassis’ small wheels and tires, the MII was simply overwhelmed.

But what about weight? A key design/marketing goal was to offer a four cylinder in the MII, for economy and competitive reasons. Not really a problem: the 1974 MII weighed 2700 lbs for the four, and 2900 for the V6. The Maverick, in 1974 form with big bumpers, weighed 2700 lbs, the same as the four cylinder MII, and that’s with the straight six. It’s quite obvious that the (real) MII had no weight benefit from its heavily re-worked Pinto platform. Based on the Maverick, a four cylinder “What If MII” would actually have weighed less than the real thing.

And there’s certainly no doubt that the V8 would have worked much better with a Maverick-based MII. It appears that Ford didn’t intend to make a V8 MII, as they had to re-work the front end of a brand new car to do so, resulting in the v8 appearing a year later. That undoubtedly ran up costs too.

Engine line-up of our “better” MII: the 2.3 four, either or both of the 200 and 250 inch sixes, and the 302 V8. Bigger tires, brakes, rear axles, and other upgrades were all in the old parts bin. And the 351 would also have fit like a glove, with that new front suspension. The Cobra II would have had teeth instead of gums. Even with only 162 hp, the 351 would have been more than a match for the 155 hp 1975 Camaro 350.

So there it is, a better Mustang II, and one that would undoubtedly have enjoyed much greater long-term following by the go-fast/collector/Mustang crowd.

I’m not claiming it’s as beautiful as the Camaro, But it has a certain raw charm and puppy-like eagerness that makes it a worthy competitor. Oh; just one more change: call it just “Mustang”. The “II” affirmed that even Ford didn’t think this was the real deal. This one is.

Dave Skinner did a similar forward stretch of the front wheels on this coupe, and the results speak for themselves.

Ford initially planned to build the MII on the Maverick platform, and there are several styling concepts including this one, which of course is lacking the shortcomings of the Pinto-based version. Nice hefty wheels, properly placed in relation to the body. CC didn’t have to build a better Mustang II; Ford already did.

[thanks, George and Dave, for realizing my ideas so faithfully]