The 1979 Mustang. From the beginning, the Mustang’s life was charmed. Each major generational change coincided with a big surge in sales for America’s favorite pony car. And once again, Ford managed to bring America the right new pony car at the right time.
I saw this car in August of 2011. It was for sale by someone living in my neighborhood. I knew immediately that I had to pull over to shoot it, and I did. It went away within a couple of days. And I am not sure I have seen a 79 (or close to it) Mustang since.
So why has it taken me nearly nine years to write about it? It’s like this: You know how there are cars that are significant and important? I knew that this was one of them. I also knew that I didn’t really like them much when they came out. Still don’t. So here we are, this Mustang and I, still in a sort of standoff after all these years. OK Mustang, you win.
Ford (as both a company and as a Division within it) has had more “watershed years” than most others. 1928 was one, when the Model A replaced the venerable T. 1932 with the first V8. 1949 with the first really new model in a generation (or two, depending on how we count). And then there was 1965, where we saw both a new Mustang in its first full year and a new “standard” Ford which included the trendsetting LTD.
1979 is another of those watershed years in my mind, with a lot of echo from 1965. Once again, we had brand new versions of the company’s two most important vehicles – LTD and Mustang. Who knew then how important both of these would be for the next twenty or more years.
Here was my problem in 1979, one which still lingers: I didn’t like what Ford was doing. Oh, I understood that some really good things were happening with chassis dynamics, and I was on board with that. So much else about the cars, though, just left me cold.
Were they too “European” for my tastes? Possibly. The cold, knife-edge styling was something I found off-putting. The stark interior aesthetic was looking forward instead of back, but I found it cold. Little things like the stalk to operate the horn and the oddball way the steering wheel tilted (at the wheel instead of at the base of the column) were touches I found disagreeable. This wasn’t the Ford I had grown up with and come to love. Perhaps this was one of the reasons I had become a big ChryslerDude – Chrysler was providing a more traditional car that I found more comfortable. If you could keep it out of the shop, anyway. And for what it’s worth, I didn’t like the ’79 LTD either.
I knew that I was an outlier – I have often found myself outside of the mainstream. And the mainstream loved the ’79 Mustang, with 369,936 of them finding buyers that year. Did you know that after the model’s initial 1965-67 megasplash and the 1974 “Right car, Right time” phenomenon, the ’79 was the highest production year?
Before looking it up, I would have suspected that the models from the mid to late 1980s would have matched it, but they come nowhere close. Even with the strong economy of the 80’s and the constant attention from the motoring press, the Fox body Mustang only cracked the 200K production barrier three times (1986, 88 and 89). In fact, even the strongest year of the “Peak Mustang GT” years (1986, with 224,410 cars produced) could not match the nearly 277,000 copies built in the terrible horrible no good very bad recession year of 1980.
But hindsight tells us that the Fox platform upon which this Mustang was based turned out to be the perfect starting point. For starters, the fully unitized Fox cars always felt tighter and stiffer than the somewhat jiggly body-on-frame Panther platform cars. And they were certainly mechanically stouter than the front-wheel drive platforms that would follow.
Could 1979 and the two or three years after have been the very end of the Mustang-As-Mainstream car? It is hard to argue against the superiority of the post-1985 versions with their ever-improving 5.0 V8s, but the basic four and six cylinder “secretary specials” were becoming increasingly outclassed by the fast-improving competition for the segment, no small number of which were coming from Japan.
Another way this car was very much back to the concept of the original 1965 model was the way Ford would offer a wide array of choices. Coupe or fastback, four, six or V8 power, and a host of options and packages that ran from an economy car with some style to a fairly potent (for the day, anyway) hoss that was probably a better road car than the Mustang had ever been. Ford knew that it was an important car when it made its play to pace the Indianapolis 500 race for the first time since the 1968 Torino GT.
I can look back now and see a purity of concept in these cars that was lacking by 1985 when I seriously considered buying a new Mustang GT. Though I must admit that I find these wheels to be an improvement over the choices offered originally on these early Foxstangs.
This car did not make me want to buy it when I saw if for sale in the neighborhood in 2011 and does not today make me wish I could find it again. But I am glad that I stopped to photograph it because it is a great opportunity to think about the Mustang and how it has been an influence in ways that have nothing to do with production figures.
This generation seems to differ from the earlier ones in the way stock versions seem to be unloved. I have never seen it since, and have to suspect that whomever bought it stuffed a 5.0 into it and turned it into a prequal of the notchback Mustang LX from the end of the original Fox body era. But I hope not. It is nice to look at the original concept for one of Ford’s most important products of all time, and to appreciate it for what it is. And for what it was – among the most successful reboots in Ford’s history.
1979-82 Mustang – William Stopford
1979 Mustang Indy Pace Car Replica – Jason Shafer