Curbside Classic: 1979 Ford Mustang – A New Hope

(first posted 3/22/2017)    The 1979 Mustang was A New Hope compared with the previous generation Mustang II, which . . . well, you know how sometimes a classic movie gets remade, and yes, the remake sells more tickets than the original, but the remake is really crap? Like, how The Grinch took a beloved Christmas special and made it into a live action movie?

The Mustang II was cramped, lumpy, humpy-dumpy, and slow. The original Mustang hid its Falcon roots quite well but the II was obviously a Pinto in disguise, quite heavy, and although it may have been a reasonable competitor for the much lovelier but poorly made Monza/Sunbird/Firenza/Skyhawk from GM and the . . . nothing from Chrysler, and the even uglier but well made Japanese cars, the II wasn’t a Mustang. Yes, I still think Ford should have adopted the Capri for American production and called it a Mustang or tweaked the Maverick.


I’m not really certain which year Mustang this is; I do know it’s a fairly early production car because of the chrome trim and Fairmont woodgrain dash. It also lacks the blue oval. Undoubtedly someone more familiar with Mustangs can enlighten us as to its exact year. You don’t see very many of these early Mustangs in Atlanta and they don’t have the collectible status that a later model 4.9 (NOT A 5.0!) would.

The third Generation Mustang was based on the Fairmont/Fox platform, which was Iacocca’s best attempt at dragging Ford kicking and screaming into the Futura. GM had seen the FWD future and was busily coming up with the X cars, Chrysler had debuted the Omnirizon and was soon to debut the K car, and Ford debuted the Fairmont, which was leaps and bounds ahead of its Falcon based predecessors in weight, handling, with rack and pinion steering and MacPherson struts, fuel and space efficiency, and styling, but still RWD and with one foot firmly in the past.

Y’all, think about this: The Fairmont would be the penultimate American RWD four door family car platform ever developed, the absolute last being Ford’s Panther.

The 1979 Mustang was a vast improvement over the II; well, nearly anything would be. It was 200 lbs lighter than the II, handled better, and was much more space efficient with room in the back for smallish adults whom you don’t like very much. it was 179.1 inches long on a 100.4 inch wheelbase, which was a little shorter than the original Mustang, which had a 108 inch wheelbase and measured 181.6 inches from stem to stern.

If it looks familiar, it is; it would run with styling changes until 1993, one of the longest runs for a Mustang, and the platform received significant improvements/was significantly revised for 2004. This Mustang did not carry over the side scoops and humps and bulges of the previous generation but presented a clean, straight-edged, uncluttered, aerodynamic look. There were no cues, not a cantering horse, not even three segmented taillights, to indicate it was a Mustang. A new look for a new hope.

Its crisp notchback, canted prow, plastic grill around the rear window, clean lines, and general proportions can be seen in various Celicas, 200SXs, Sapporo/Challengers, the Omni/024, Pulsars, and a host of other small/sporty coupes that followed. Ford pushed 369,963 Mustangs out the door in 1979, which was astonishing given the state of the economy at the time and the second oil crisis, although below the debut of the original Mustang and lower than, but close to, the first year sales of the II at 385,993. The Mustang would consistently outsell its GM competition even with the introduction of the new Camaro/Firebird/Trans Am in 1983.

The Camaro debuted-four years later- with snazzier, Ferrari-esque styling compared with the Mustang’s more upright and boxy profile; the Camaro was also considerably more expensive, somewhat more cramped, and was apparently built in anger rather than in the United States if you read early reviews of the thing. Weekly trips to the dealer for serious issues were not uncommon, let alone minor nuisances like squeaks and rattles. The Mustang was decently built if you avoided the early turbo cars.

Underhood were the 2.3L 4 making 88 Hp, a carbureted and turbocharged 2.3L 4, the 2.8L Cologne V6 making 105 HP, a 3.3L inline 6, the 302/4.9, or, in 1980, 4.2L/255 gas crisis inspired V8, which was a down-sized 302. The 4.2L/255 produced a thundering 119 horsepower. Whether these smaller V8 actually yielded better real-world mileage is a good question; the whole idea seems pretty questionable to me. And within a couple of years, they were all gone again. Good riddance.

The 2.3L Turbo 4 was new in the Mustang, and also available in the Fairmont/Zephyr. 1979 was a big year for inflicting turbocharging on the public; Buick made turbocharging available in the Century/Regal and the LeSabre as well; Chevrolet would install the Turbo Buick engine in its Monte Carlo and in 1980, and the Trans Am was available with a Turbo 301. But carburetors, lack of effective computerized engine controls and a few other shortcoming meant that turbos would not become reliable until Buick adopted fuel injection technology and the Mass Air Flow sensor in 1984.

Turbos are also expensive to manufacture, and customers didn’t want them due to their reliability and driveability issues. The 2.3L Turbo 4 would be dropped after 1981 to return in fuel injected and computer-controlled form in the 1983 T-Bird Turbo Coupe, and in the 1984 Mustang SVO, and the Merkur XR4Ti. Ford’s Turbo 4 was still not as smooth and powerful than the 4.9 HO V8 option, and would disappear after 1986 in the Mustang. Buick’s 3.8 V6 with its extra pair of cylinders, was seemingly a better turbo engine and would far outperform its V8 counterpart. Of course, nowadays, just about everything is turbocharged.

In 1979, the Mustang competed against a vast variety of small sporty coupes; the main competition, then as now were the by-then ancient but still more powerful Camaro/Firebird/Trans Am. Toyota Celicas, Plymouth Sapporos/Dodge Challengers, Omnirizon coupes, Honda Preludes, Mazda 626s, Datsun 280Zs and 200SXs, Mazda RX7s, Chevrolet Monzas, Pontiac Sunbirds, Oldsmobile Firenzas and Buick Skyhawks, AMC Spirits, Fiat X 1/9s all vied for consumer dollars against the Mustang. You could probably stretch this to include sportyish cars like the Malibu, Monte Carlo, other A bodies, Thunderbirds, Cougars, and sportier versions of the Aspen/Volare. Ford itself generated competition internally with the Mustang with the Thunderbird, Cougar, XR4Ti, EXP, and Probe. And of course the Capri.

The Mustang outlived almost all of them. Today, the Camaro and the Challenger is still with us, although the Dodge’s extra size makes it more of a midsized muscle car than a compact pony car and it has no convertible variant. If you want a hardtop and a back seat, the Challenger would seem to have a definite advantage over the Mustang. The Mustang when I was growing up in the ‘80’s had a definite mullet-Marlboros-and-Miller reputation although not quite as pronounced as the Camaro/Trans Am.

I’ve almost entirely forgotten to write about this particular example. When I first saw it a couple (couple meaning- anywhere from two to ten) of years ago, the paint was much better, but the clear coat is beginning to peel. I noticed the rubber trim on the passenger side door is beginning to come off. It has little tiny whitewall Uniroyals which make me insanely jealous; I live at the home of the Brougham with two Cadillac Broughams and an Oldsmobile station wagon and it is so hard to find whitewalls nowadays.

By 2017 standards, this would be a stripper with manual windows, its original AM radio, neat four lug factory alloy wheels, automatic transmission, very thick Naugahyde interior in very good shape for however old it is, and only a few cracks around the bolsters, and probably air conditioning. It has the plastiwood dash from the Fairmont. Someone has loved this car, and I hope he or she gets many, many more years of life out of it, and if they expire before it does, may it bring a new hope to someone else.