I had purchased a used 1988 Ford Mustang LX 2.3L hatchback from the lot of the local Ford dealer when I was a young adult. It was five years old and in great shape for its 60,000 or so miles. It had a five-speed manual transmission, got great gas mileage, was comfortable both to drive and ride in, had superb utility with its wide hatch and fold-down rear seats… and was painfully slow for what I thought even an economy-oriented Mustang was supposed to be like. A high school buddy was visiting from out of town during spring break one year, and I was proud to show him how far I had come from my days of driving the ’84 Ford Tempo GL my parents had given me following seven years of regular use as the main family car. I can still hear my friend’s loud hyena-laugh when a stoplight had turned green and a Plymouth Horizon next to us at the intersection promptly left a widening gap between us… and held it there. Plymouth. Horizon.
“I’m still getting used to the shifter.” “I didn’t see the light had turned green.” “It’s not what you think.” “The air was on!” (Which it wasn’t.) My mind raced through a litany of increasingly desperate excuses as to why, despite my best efforts and reasonable skill with the shifter, I was unable to not only out-accelerate, but keep up with the little Chrysler L-Body five-door econobox. It would have been pointless for me to have said any of those things to my friend, though, because we were both from Flint, Michigan and thus have an innate ability to recognize and call out what we’ll call nonsense. I honestly don’t remember how I handled responding to my bud in that moment, and despite my generally excellent memory for detail, I was probably just that embarrassed that I blocked it out. This Mustang-Horizon story is one that still comes up in his and my occasional text message exchanges. It refuses to die.
My former ’88 Mustang LX 2.3L hatchback.
This stoplight incident probably set the tone for me thinking that something had to be done about this car’s performance. One of the main reasons I had bought the four-cylinder variety of Mustang in the first place was that I was on the hook for most of its expenses – the regular checks I made directly to Ford Credit with my payment book, gas, repairs, and maintenance. Insurance was a different story, and my parents had told me that they would pay for it up to a certain point if I kept my driving record clean… but not for a 5.0L V8 version. Mom and Dad would fund my insurance only if I got the four-cylinder LX, or I would have to insure it myself. The annual premium difference was that huge for someone my age – a young, adult male, albeit with no adverse activity. I was a college student and didn’t really want to work that hard for a car I didn’t really need to get around campus. I did love that Mustang. With the air conditioner off and just me in it, it was at least fun to drive with the five-speed, and it certainly wasn’t the absolute slowest thing on wheels. It was a Mustang, though. More was expected.
My former ’88 Mustang LX 2.3L hatchback.
I started scouring Mustang performance magazines for any glimmer of hope that there might be something that might add a little power. Was there a gasoline additive that would provide a few extra horsepower, or that would clean out the injectors that might have been affected by slow buildup of gunk? I didn’t know. I was not, and am not, mechanically inclined. I just love cars. Predictably, most car magazines were geared almost exclusively toward V8-equipped models, but I found one catalog that had a small section of a page devoted to something called a Superchip that could boost the horsepower of the base 2.3L-equipped cars by a substantial double-digit percentage. I never quite understood why Ford had put the 3.8L V6 out to pasture with the ’87 refresh instead of the four, but maybe their thought process was that the remaining engine options should do at least one thing really well – either get the most miles per gallon possible in a car like this, or go very fast. The V6 did neither.
The Superchip was to be my savior. It was Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ house, and my widowed aunt had just remarried. It was going to be the first time my new uncle was going to be with much of the extended family for a holiday meal. I hadn’t really gotten to speak with him that much at the wedding, but I did know he was something of a car guy and that he seemed like an all-American joe with a lot of manly interests and the tendency to know things. He and I started talking about cars at the table at some point, which might have been the only common topic that he and I might have shared in conversation. Sensing rightly or wrongly that maybe I just wasn’t his type of guy, I started extolling my Mustang’s good qualities, despite its slow acceleration. When I got to the part about my discovery of the Superchip and my plans to obtain one, my uncle looked at me with dead eyes and said, “Save your money,” before asking for someone to pass the gravy. He and I never got particularly close.
Our featured Mustang notchback is unique in a lot of ways. From a license plate search, I determined that it’s a ’93, from the very last model year of the Fox Mustang’s fifteen model year run. It’s also the last year for any fixed-roof Mustang with the more upright, notchback-with-a-trunk roofline we see here. The Mustang sedan was also the least popular body style by the dawn of the ’90s, being outsold by even the much more expensive convertible, at least through the final three years of this design. The lion’s share of sales went to the hatchbacks. Following the Mustang’s then-low water mark for sales in ’92 with only just over 79,000 units sold, the ’93s sold appreciably better, with 114,000 sales. Of that latter number, a little under 25,000 were fixed-roof notchbacks like this one. Over 27,000 convertibles found buyers.
This example was also born with a 2.3L four-cylinder engine under the hood, which blew my mind when I read the results of the license plate search. Never mind the giant hood. The dual exhausts out back are the real clue that someone went to the trouble to yank, replace, and enhance the innards of what had started out as a much more sedate car and give this Mustang sedan an organ transplant. I realize I keep using the word “sedan”, but so did Ford in the ’93 sales brochure depicted above.
The ’79 trunk-backed models definitely looked more coupe-like in their day compared to what else was out there, but by even the mid-’80s, the notchback had started to look like a generic economy compact. I’m not saying I don’t like it, which I do in present day. I find it to be a refreshingly light, crisp, and handsome shape in 2022 among many modern, overwrought monstrosities. Those police-issue 5.0L notchbacks had also looked so intimidating, and I think that may have been part of the rationale of this car’s owner for giving it such extensive surgery. It has been my experience that the hatchback versions are the ones that usually get all the love. I think I might actually like the notchbacks / sedans better now.
With that said, it’s hard to know exactly what’s under the hood. The ’93 edition of the “5.0L” (which actually displaced 4.9 liters) V8 had a horsepower rating from the factory of 205, which was down twenty horses from the 225-hp figure at which this engine had been rated since ’87. I’m not sure if the 1993 appearance of the SVT Cobra model with its 235-horse V8 had anything to do with that, but I doubt it, since only 4,993 (or 4,994) Cobras were sold for street use, not counting an additional 107 “R” models that were built for competition. Given that the owner of this one modified its components with at least an engine swap also makes it likely that whatever Ford V8 is under the hood is also hopped up.
I suppose the moral of this story, to some, might be to really commit to something or not do it at all. To be clear, my research into trying to make my slow Mustang faster wasn’t to try to make it the match of genuine performance cars of the late-’80s through the mid-’90s. I just wanted a little extra something under the hood so as not to get left in the dust of a wheezy Plymouth Horizon or another car like it ever, ever again. I felt that a little more power than came standard in a base model Mustang II from close to fifteen years before my car was built wasn’t too much to ask. I never did pull the trigger on purchasing that Superchip.
The fact that our featured, low-ish production ’93 Mustang LX notchback was still on the road last fall when I snapped these pictures seemed all the more remarkable, given that it had started life with the mill that churned out only 105 fuel-sipping ponies. Had it originally been somebody’s grandma’s car that was sold in an estate sale? Regardless of its story and trajectory, this car surely seemed to have beat the odds against its survival. That, along with its genuinely good looks, earned it my respect.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Saturday, November 6, 2021.