(first posted 7/28/2015) The 1971-73 Mustang has probably never been called “ahead of its time”, but this sometimes forgotten, sometimes maligned generation could have been just that. With just a few tweaks, Ford could have fielded an immensely popular version of this big Mustang… as a personal luxury coupe.
Think about it: this Mustang had an increasingly luxury-oriented focus and poor space utilization. The 1970s was the nadir of performance but the zenith of cushy, luxurious personal cars.
By 1975, the market was saturated with mid-sized, personal luxury offerings: Elite, Monte Carlo, Cordoba, Grand Prix et all. It was America’s hottest segment, and although these cars often had large footprints, packaging efficiency was no priority. It was all about style, a smooth ride and plush trim.
And then there was the Mustang. Its even more maligned successor, the Mustang II, coincidentally arrived in time for a fuel crisis that had Americans rushing for more fuel efficient cars. The Mustang nameplate’s sliding sales had been arrested.
But while Ford’s Mustang II launch proved to be serendipitous, they had been caught embarrassingly behind in the mid-size personal luxury segment despite having created, or at least popularized, the personal luxury concept with the Thunderbird. The Thunderbird by now was too large and too expensive to hit the market sweet spot that GM had harnessed with the Monte and Grand Prix. The Elite was a day-late, dollar-short attempt, a placeholder until the 1977 Thunderbird would arrive and quickly become one of the segment’s best-sellers.
Across town at Chrysler Corporation, the Dodge Charger had fallen behind in an increasingly luxury-oriented market. Its attempts, like the ’71-74 SE, were striking in appearance but not what most buyers were after. They wanted upright rooflines and opera windows. When Dodge finally delivered, Chrysler’s Cordoba stole all the thunder and the Charger line withered and died. Dodge would make further attempts with the Magnum and Mirada but for various reasons could never field a successful personal luxury car.
The Mustang had experienced a similar sales slide in 1971-73. The bigger Mustang – albeit only eight inches longer, six inches wider and on an inch longer wheelbase than the 1970 – had been developed in the big-block crazy late 1960s to pack a variety of thundering V8s. With rising insurance premiums, that era came to an end (and even if it hadn’t, the gas crisis would have killed it). But the Mustang nameplate had very quickly captured the public zeitgeist, not just with performance offerings but with humble six-cylinder coupes and convertibles. Shareholder Anna Muccioli may have famously complained it got “fat”, but are we to believe not a single first-generation Mustang owner ended up buying a Monte or some such personal luxury car despite their girth?
Ford had recognized the need for a more luxurious Mustang and launched the Grandé option, which carried over into the ’71-73 generation. Although the Grandé option added niceties like Lambeth cloth trim, chrome mouldings and unique wheel covers and mirrors, perhaps Ford didn’t go far enough.
Imagine this: a 71-73 Mustang with a formal roofline, instead of this swoopy, flying buttress hat. You have the allure of the Mustang name with the more formal appearance and luxury accoutrements of a Thunderbird. Given the basic platform carried on until 1980, Ford could have eked out a few more years of this Mustang, too. There would be Mustang II and Mustang I (Mustang Grandé?), exploiting the power of the name and tackling two immensely popular segments. Engine offerings could have been limited to the 250 six and the 302 and 351 V8s. The fastback would likely have been dropped – after all, there would probably have been a “sporty”, tape-striped notchback trim – and the convertible would have been history because of the proposed rollover safety standards that the government never implemented. But this bigger Mustang, as sacrilegious as it sounds now, could have been a golden goose. Ford had the “right” idea, they just didn’t execute it fully.
Or, maybe, like the Charger it might have been a ‘near enough, but not quite’ offering. However, one must consider the reason the luxury ’71-74 Charger SE faltered was because of its wild coke-bottle styling that Chrysler just couldn’t conceal. When they did, shoppers could buy the same car for slightly more but with a more prestigious nameplate: the Cordoba.
Mustang sales had fallen with this generation, dropping 40k units for 1971 to around 150k units. They fell by a further 20k units for 1972 before rebounding slightly for 1973, but that may well have been because Ford was targeting the same, sport-oriented customers that had bought Mustangs before. Those seeking cheap performance could now be served by the swoopy Maverick, or they were off buying Dusters.
The Grandé trim’s proportion of Mustang sales dropped each successive year in this generation, too. But many of the features that came standard with the Grandé were available on the lesser Hardtop, which was the lineup’s best seller by far, outselling the sportier fastback by a comfortable margin.
Would the Mustang I have needed more than a Thunderbird roofline? Was a Rolls-esque grille a pre-requisite? We will never know for sure whether this dual Mustang strategy would have worked, but it’s entirely possible it could have. Cougar sales rebounded when Mercury dropped all sporting pretenses and slapped the name on a Montego, and the Cougar name was younger than the Mustang and nowhere near as popular. Ford could have advertised a range of personal luxury coupes in the “Thunderbird tradition”: big daddy T-Bird, Mustang I and Elite.
Nothing lasts forever. The Mustang I could have stuck around until the Fox-body, and a fancier derivative could have been made on that platform. As the personal luxury segment started running out of steam in the 1980s, Mustang Grandé could have been retired and perhaps returned to being a trim level on the regular Mustang. After all, Chevy had the Camaro Berlinetta and Pontiac had the Firebird SE but Ford eventually deep-sixed its Mustang Ghia and GLX trim levels as well as mystifyingly axing the six-cylinder option.
Cars like the ’74 Cougar and Mustang II tend to be anathema to enthusiasts, despite their immense popularity at the time. It’s likely the Mustang I/Grandé would be held in similar regard today if it had existed, but would it have experienced the same success as the ’74 Mustang II and Cougar? Or would it have been Ford’s fat folly?
Note: I photographed this gorgeous Mustang Grandé not ten minutes from my current home here in Brisbane. Bravo to the enthusiast who had a 71-73 Mustang imported here instead of one of the ubiquitous 64-66 models. Neither generation was officially sold here, and yet the early models are so common I don’t even turn my head to look anymore.