You have no idea how old it makes me feel to be waxing nostalgic about a ’96 Mustang. I was a young adult in the fall of 1993 when seemingly every car magazine I’d pick up in the college bookstores featured large, two-page advertisements for the new SN-95 generation that arrived for model year ’94, proclaiming, “It is what it was… and more”. I was personally invested in what was going on at Ford with this celebrated nameplate, having purchased my own ’88 hatchback that summer as a used car, and with my own money. In the meantime, the fourth-generation Chevrolet Camaro had been introduced for ’93 and was a gorgeous piece of sculpture, and the Fox-platform Mustang’s would-be replacement, the Probe, was already on its second generation. I remember thinking, “Ford. Dude. Come on. What’s the hold-up?”
A print ad for the 1994 Ford Mustang, as sourced from the internet.
I did like that my ’88 Mustang, save for its old-style polycast wheels and black, lower-body rub strips (the latter of which would be made body-color for ’91), looked just like the new ones still being manufactured up to that point. However, when the ’94 Mustang came out with production starting in October ’93, it instantly made my car look like a big Escort or some other generic compact car. The new SN-95, to my eyes, combined the absolute best of both modern design and classic Mustang visual cues, save for a few wonky elements. I’m still not a fan of how the roof on the fastback models still looks like a detachable hardtop that was glued onto a convertible, and it looked a bit stubby at the time sitting next to the low, long, wide Camaro. But while the competing Chevy looks a bit large today for my liking in my somewhat dense, urban environment, the Mustang of this generation still seems perfectly sized and proportioned by comparison.
Indeed, the numbers confirm what would seems apparent by a side-by-side comparison of these two cars. Among the fixed-roof cars, the Camaro was 11.7 inches longer (193.1″ vs. 181.5″), 2.3 inches wider (74.1″ vs. 71.8″), and 1.6″ lower (51.3″ vs. 52.9″). The already one-year-old Camaro looked a bit like a rocket parked next to the brand-new Mustang, which made this then-#TeamFord guy a little salty… until I sat in both cars. Not only did the Mustang’s interior, with its beautifully executed, twin-cockpit styling look better to me, the front passenger’s seat was actually usable, with its flat floor versus that awkward, intrusive hump in the front footwell of the Camaro under which its catalytic converter was housed.
The Mustang fastback’s trunk also had more usable cargo space with its rear seat up, with 10.8 cubic feet of luggage capacity against the Camaro hatchback’s 7.6. The Mustang’s overall combination of style and utility seemed to satisfy both the right and left halves of my brain, so I was okay with its relatively few shortcomings and thrilled with the rest of it. I remember much being made of the fact that the new ’94 was the Mustang’s first major redesign since model year 1979. I was a very young kid when the Fox-platform Mustang made its debut, and though I would start paying attention to makes and models of cars maybe even within a year of that car’s introduction, I was still far too young to understand how impactful it was when it replaced the smaller Mustang II.
By my college years in the ’90s, my love of all things ’70s which had been born when I was in high school had entered full bloom. With the introduction of the SN-95 Mustang, I fixated for a long time particularly on the year 1979 and what a lot of things prominent in United States popular culture looked like at the time the last new Mustang had been unleashed on the world. I have heard it said that trends take about twenty years to come back into vogue (a time span which I’m sure is shorter now with the advent and ubiquity of the internet and its influence), but I’m pretty sure I was the only guy on my dormitory floor who owned a copy of the vinyl double-album A Night At Studio 54, also from 1979.
My college buddy Trevor with whom I am still friends today, a record aficionado and budding DJ at the time, had a turntable on which I was able to tape these records onto cassette and play them often in my Mustang, sometimes to the chagrin of my passengers. My imagination would run to how people of all stripes had been bumping this double-album in their new ’79 Mustangs, probably on the optional AM/FM stereo with eight-track which cost $255 on the option list (almost $1,000 in 2021). I’d think of this from the driver’s seat while wearing my nicest pair of polyester slacks or vintage jeans and “Sea Monkeys” t-shirt. I didn’t care then what people thought of the music or clothes I liked, and I don’t care now.
Getting back to our featured car, the big news for the third-year ’96 models from a visual standpoint was a ninety-degree rotation of the taillamp segments, which gave the rear of the car less of a Probe-like appearance (one of which I’d own after my Mustang) and made it look more like a “proper” Mustang. I can’t remember where I had first seen the new taillights, whether on the road, in a magazine, or at Sam Galloway Ford in Fort Myers, Florida, but I had a genuine moment of thanksgiving. These days, I can appreciate the back-end look of the ’94 and ’95 models as I just never see them anymore, but this tiny detail change made me think that this is how the ’94s should have looked in the first place.
The other thing I remember about the ’96 models was the introduction of Bright Tangerine Clearcoat as a newly available color. This car was a stunner in orange, and I would often drive past Galloway Ford in the hope of catching a glimpse of an orange Mustang parked under the front canopy. “Yeah”, I’d think. “My car is related to that.” Little did I know at the time just how much of the Fox platform had been carried forward or modified for implementation in the SN-95. (You can read about that here.)
This base-model convertible was originally powered by a 3.8L V6 with 150 horsepower. When new, its list price started at $21,060 (roughly $36,800). I couldn’t find a production breakout between base-model and GT convertibles for ’96, but soft-top Mustangs accounted for over 33,000 sales that year, out of 135,600 total. One source listed a 0-60 mph time of 9.2 seconds for the fastback, so I imagine the convertible, roughly 200 pounds heavier (at 3,300 pounds) might be about a second slower.
The original, first-year ’65 Mustangs were roughly thirty years old at the time the SN-95s were introduced, and I remember it seeming like there was a widespread sense of nostalgia about this even outside of those who were car fans, given the Mustang’s nearly unapproachable brand recognition. Looking at this ’96 convertible, which is now twenty-five years old, it would be really hard for me to explain to someone who wasn’t aware of them when they were new why I have such a strong, positive, emotional reaction to it. Would someone twenty to twenty-five years younger than me see this car as classic? Would it look as good to them as the ’64 1/2 model looked to me back in the ’90s? Granted, this generation wasn’t classically beautiful like the original to merit the receipt of a Tiffany Award, but it was still a darned good-looking car in its day. For me, anyway, the ’96 Ford Mustang still is what it was… and more.
Edgewater Glen, Chicago, Illinois.
Friday, October 8, 2021.
Ford Mustang brochure photos were sourced from the internet.