The car attached to it looked nothing like any Mustang before. Clean, taut, and crisp, it combined the best of American and European design thinking, yet had a uniquely "Mustang" kind of sporty elegance. Admittedly, some old shortcomings remained: problematic handling, a less-than-ideal driving position, limited passenger room, and workmanship that didn't compare well with that of European and Japanese cars like the BMW 3-Series and Toyota Celica. But no car can be faultless, especially one so affordable. By almost any standard, the '79 Mustang marked a second revolution for Ford's pony car.This basic design would be good enough to continue without fundamental change for no less than 14 years, an eternity in the auto business. Even more remarkable, a subsequent retooling enabled it to ride on another 11 years -- and outsell its two remaining rivals along the way. By 2003, Ford again had America's only pony car...but we're getting ahead of ourselves.Dearborn Changes CourseThe '79 Mustang was the result of a bold decision taken a good six years earlier. Even before the Middle East oil embargo, Detroit began to realize that many of its cars had simply grown too big. With Washington's endless stream of safety and emissions rules, the Big Three began to wonder if fuel-economy standards wouldn't be next. Indeed, April 1973 ushered in a new mandate for vehicle window stickers showing mileage figures for city and highway driving as calculated by the recently established Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The numbers weren't very accurate at first, but the implication was clear. Then the gas crunch hit. "Almost overnight," records historian Gary Witzenburg, "fuel-efficient cars were in and gas-hogs were out, maybe forever as far as anyone knew, and Detroit wasted little time in formulating future plans for a newly fuel-conscious America."
This early "concept" sketch by Fritz Mayhew pointed the way toward 1979 Mustang styling. Note the low, slim nose tapered sharply down from the windshield.
However, keep reading to learn how the oil barons would deliver another shock even as the '79 Mustang was reaching showrooms.
As with past Mustangs, '79 styling was chosen from proposals submitted by competing teams -- three in Dearborn, plus the Ford-owned Ghia studio in Italy.
The 1979 Ford Mustang DesignEven as Henry Ford II promised to push the latest economy imports "back into the sea," his company was embarking on a bold new project intended to serve fuel efficiency in the United States and save big bucks on a global basis. Code named Fox, it was initiated in early 1973 with the aim of devising a single foundation or "platform" suitable for a variety of future Ford models in the U.S., Europe, Latin America, even Australia.
The idea was "a new corporate worldwide sport/family four/five-passenger sedan" with "imaginative packaging and component application," plus adaptability to both rear-wheel drive and the space-saving front-wheel-drive powerteams long familiar in Europe. In October 1974, project responsibility was shifted from Ford's Production Planning and Research office to the Product Development Group at North American Automotive Operations in Dearborn. Two months later, company president Lee Iacocca green-lighted a 1978 Fox-based replacement for either the little Pinto or the compact Maverick -- and a new Mustang for 1979 or later.
Though a "world car" was soon deemed incapable of satisfying the diverse needs of Ford's many global markets, the Maverick-replacing Fairmont and the new Mustang were in the works by April 1975, now with top-priority status in the wake of the oil embargo. Per recent Dearborn practice, each would have a Mercury sister, respectively the Zephyr and a new domestically built Capri.
Mustang FirstThe key thing, as Witzenburg notes, is that Fox development "was tailored around the Mustang's needs as a sporty, agile, European-style product…." He quoted Gordon Riggs, planning manager for light and midsize cars, who was put in charge of the overall effort on special assignment: "We said, okay, we're going to have a series of cars off of a platform as yet undefined, and what should that platform be? We decided first off that it was going to be a sporty platform, because we knew the focal point of it was really Mustang. Anything we did…to help the Mustang would probably benefit any other car we took off of it. It was not planned just for the Mustang, but the whole platform was designed to accommodate it."
Though the mass-market Fairmont/Zephyr would bow a year ahead of Mustang, designers initially worked on both models more or less together under light-car design chief Fritz Mayhew and corporate design vice-president Gene Bordinat. Because Mustang was first seen as mainly just a sporty Fairmont, early proposals were sedan-like and slab-sided, not very "Mustang" at all.
A Mustang II look evidently still had a chance well into 1976, as suggested by this full-scale model photographed in early March.
Another Styling ShowdownBut not before another of Iacocca's intramural design contests. This one pitted Advanced Design and two other Dearborn studios against Ford's Ghia operation in Italy, where Don DeLaRossa was now in charge. All were given the same package parameters or "hard points" including length, width, wheelbase, and cowl height as the basis for sketches, clay models, and fiberglass mockups.
This time, however, quarter-scale clay models were tested for up to 136 hours in wind tunnels. That's because aerodynamics was increasingly recognized -- actually rediscovered from the lessons of Thirties streamlining -- as crucial to maximizing fuel economy, a key program goal. That, in turn, meant engineering with a keen eye on weight.
In addition, the program aimed at improved space-efficiency, meaning more interior room for a given external size, plus lower manufacturing costs through careful engineering and maximum component sharing among the various Fox-based models. Planners said the platform could be shortened somewhat for Mustang, and it was: by 5.1 inches in wheelbase, to 100.4. Mustang II engines -- 2.3-liter overhead-cam four, 2.8-liter overhead-valve V-6 and 5.0-liter/302-cubic-inch V-8 -- would be retained.
A Ghia idea, also from early '76, shows a different take on the "formal" look ultimately rejected.
Like the original Mustang but unlike the II, stylists were directed to do a notchback first, then a fastback version of it. After reviewing several full-size fiberglass models, management chose the distinctive offering from Telnack's group.
Remarkably, the only changes made for production were substituting an eggcrate grille insert and adding simulated louvers behind the rear side windows. The fastback ended up with a vestigial rear deck instead of a full-sweep roofline. This shortened the hatch to reduce maximum opening height and make it easier to pull down.
The 1979 Mustang's styling was all about reducing the drag coefficient and improving mileage.
The '79 Mustang coupe shows how the design evolved into a subtle wedge: slim in front, with the hood sharply tapered from a rather high cowl.
The 1979 Ford Mustang StylingFord's in-house competition for the new Mustang resulted in a leaner design that emphasized aerodynamics. The result was so successful that the production model would end up looking remarkably similar to the winning design.
The Mustang's winning design team consisted of light-design chief Fritz Mayhew and executive director of design Jack Telnack. The team also included pre-production-design executive David Rees and pre-production designer Gary Haas. The shape they evolved was a subtle wedge: slim in front, with the hood sharply tapered from a rather high cowl -- actually an inch taller than that of the Fairmont/Zephyr.
"We were supposed to hold the Fairmont cowl…and radiator support," Telnack told Witzenburg, "which really stiffened the hood...made it much straighter. Bob Alexander was in charge of engineering at the time, and he had just come back from Europe, too. We had a lot of people who had just come back from Europe and who had a different feel for this type of car. We decided to pivot the hood around the air cleaner and actually raise the cowl to get the front end down. No Detroit designer ever asks to make anything higher, but we felt it was important aerodynamically to get the nose down lower. Of course, this would require a new radiator support and inner fender aprons but Gene Bordinat said to go ahead and try it."
Though all this added a sizable $1.4 million to total program cost, all involved agreed it was justified.
Witzenburg noted another advantage of Telnack's change: Drivers could see four-feet closer to the nose than in a Mustang II. Also helping "aero" -- and looks -- were a modest lip on decklids, a curved rear window on the notchback, a small spoiler built into front bumpers, and Mustang's first rectangular headlights (newly allowed by Washington), a quartet that also helped slim the nose.
"Normally we get the package hard points and adhere to them," Telnack recalled, "but we weren't accepting anything on this car as gospel." That included traditional Mustang styling signatures like the galloping grille pony and C-shaped side sculpturing. The latter was abandoned for smooth, slightly curved sides, while the horse was maintained in a small "pony tricolor" logo for a circular hood medallion just above the grille.
"Jack really wanted this car to have the impact of the original Mustang," said Fritz Mayhew, "so we [tried] to do a car that would look as different on the road as the original had. We felt, as management obviously did, that it was time for a change. We had done about as much as we could with those 1964 design cues."
Once approved, '79 styling was refined in the wind tunnel to trim air drag and thus enhance fuel economy.
Lower Cd = More MPGThe applied rear-roof slats hindered over-the-shoulder vision, but they weren't Telnack's idea. Indeed, he directed his team to always be mindful of the "form follows function" ideal. "We wanted to be as aerodynamically correct as possible before getting into the wind tunnel. In the past we have designed cars and then gone into the tunnel mainly for tuning the major surfaces that have been approved.... With the Mustang, the designers were thinking about aerodynamics in the initial sketch stages, which made the tuning job in the tunnel much easier. Consequently, we wound up with the most slippery car ever done in the Ford Motor Company: a drag coefficient [Cd] of 0.44 for the three-door fastback, 0.46 for the two-door notchback. [Aerodynamics is] probably the most cost-effective way to improve corporate average fuel economy. We know that a 10-percent [reduction] in drag can result in a five-percent improvement in fuel economy at a steady-state 50 mph....That's really worthwhile stuff for us to go after."
It's worth noting that the drag figures Telnack cited were good for the time but would soon seem mediocre. The Fox-based 1983 Thunderbird, for example, arrived with an altogether more impressive Cd of 0.35. While the difference may not seem dramatic, it represents a reduction of more than 20 percent, and shows just how quickly standards can change. Incidentally, Telnack directed that effort too.
In the end, the '79 Mustang was some 200 pounds lighter on average than Mustang II despite being slightly larger in every dimension. Keep reading to learn how Mustang designers explored the use of lightweight materials to enhance both fuel economy and performance.
Unlike the Mustang II, the '79 was designed as a notchback. The rear window was modestly curved to reduce wind resistance, one of several decisions approved by management despite higher cost.
The 1979 Ford Mustang: Materials and FeaturesFor performance as well as fuel economy, engineers working in the 1979 Mustang used lightweight materials wherever feasible, including plastics, aluminum, and high-strength/low-alloy (HSLA) steel. A significant new plastics technology appeared in color-keyed bumper covers of soft urethane made by the reaction-injection molding (RIM) process. HSLA steel was used for rear suspension arms and the number-three frame crossmember, while aluminum featured in drivetrain components and the bumpers of some models.
Slimmer-section doors saved more pounds. So did thinner but stronger glass (even though there was more of it), a lower beltline, and taller "greenhouse" allowing much larger windows. With all this, the '79 Mustang was some 200 pounds lighter on average than Mustang II despite being slightly larger in every dimension -- quite an accomplishment for the age of downsizing.
Interior design received equally careful attention. Total volume rose by 14 cubic feet on the notchback and by 16 cubic feet on the hatchback. The thinner doors opened up 3.6 inches of front shoulder room and two inches of hip room.
Back-seat gains were even more impressive, with five inches of added shoulder width, six more inches of hip room, and more than five extra inches of leg room. Cargo volume expanded too, adding two cubic feet in the notchback and four in the hatch.
New Features, New FunctionTelnack's European experience also showed up in standard full instrumentation including trip odometer, tachometer, ammeter, and oil-pressure gauge. Another "foreign" touch was the use of steering-column stalks to control wipers/washers and turn signals/headlight dimmer/horn; these came from the Fairmont/Zephyr, as did the basic dashboard and cowl structure. A third lever (on the right) adjusted a tilt steering wheel, one of several new extras.
Among other new options were an "ultra fidelity" sound system with power amplifier and, for hatchbacks, a rear-window wiper/washer. Still another first-time convenience option was a console-mounted "vehicle systems monitor." This used a Honda-style graphic display with warning lights placed on an overhead outline of the car to signal low fuel, low windshield-washer fluid, and failed headlights, taillights, or brake lamps. A pushbutton allowed checking that the display itself was working. The console also housed a quartz-crystal digital chronometer showing time, date, or elapsed time at the touch of a button.
The "New Breed" interior showed as much European influence as the exterior, with standard full instrumentation and handy steering-column stalk controls for wipers and lights.
Designers were hard at work updating the Mustang chassis for '79.
Mustang's basic '79 styling was the work of a team lead by Jack Telnack. Note the applied vertical slats aft of the rear side windows on this Sport Option hatchback, one of the few changes made before production.
The 1979 Ford Mustang ChassisThe 1979 Ford Mustang offered three suspension setups for broadest possible market appeal: standard, "handling," and "special," each designed for and issued with its own set of tires.
As planned, basic hardware came from the Fairmont/Zephyr, which meant switching the front end from upper A-arms to modified MacPherson-strut geometry. Unlike similar layouts in many contemporary European and Japanese cars, the coil spring here did not wrap around the strut, but mounted between a lower control arm and the body structure. This eliminated the need for an expensive spring compressor when replacing shocks.
A front antiroll bar was standard across the board, with diameter varied to suit engine weight and power. At the rear was a new "four-bar link" system, also with coil springs, lighter and more compact than Mustang II's leaf-spring Hotchkiss arrangement. V-8 cars included a rear antiroll bar that was more for lateral location than controlling sway, but it effectively lowered the car's roll center, allowing commensurately softer rear springs for ride comfort.
The basic chassis was tuned for standard 13-inch bias-ply tires. The mid-level "handling" package (just $33) came with 14-inch radials, higher-rate springs, different shock valving, stiffer bushings, and, on V-6 cars, a rear stabilizer.
The "special" suspension was engineered around Michelin's TRX metric-size radial tires, which Ford had been offering in Europe for several years on its large Granada sedans. These tires had an unusual 390mm (15.35-inch) diameter and so required matching wheels, which ended up as forged-aluminum rims with a handsome three-spoke design done in Dearborn. Priced at $117-$241 depending on model, the TRX suspension came with its own shock-absorber valving, high-rate rear springs, a thicker (1.12-inch) front stabilizer bar, and a rear bar. It was the best choice for handling, engineered "to extract maximum performance" from the 190/65R390 rubber according to puffy press releases.
Precise rack-and-pinion steering continued, but housings for both the manual and power systems were changed to weight-saving die-cast aluminum. As before, a variable-ratio rack was included with optional power assist. Brakes were again front discs and rear drums, but of slightly larger size.
The '79 Mustang had an exotic new engine option -- a turbocharged "Lima" four-cylinder engine.
The '79 Mustang's turbocharged "Lima" four-cylinder option, the heart of the racy new Cobra package, rated at 132 SAE net horsepower.
The 1979 Ford Mustang EnginesThe powertrain choices for the 1979 Ford Mustang showed an intriguing new engine option. The heart of the racy new Cobra package, it was a turbocharged "Lima" four-cylinder rated at 132 SAE net horsepower against only 88 horsepower for the unblown version. Though common now, turbos were pretty exotic in the late Seventies, especially for a mass-market Detroit product.
With four-speed gearbox, the blown-four was good for a claimed 8.3 seconds in 0-55-mph acceleration (Detroit wasn't quoting 0-60s with a "double nickel" national speed limit still in force), plus mid-20s fuel economy -- an excellent compromise overall.
Turbocharging, of course, was nothing new. Like the similar supercharger, it's a simple bolt-on means to improve volumetric efficiency. A small turbine plumbed into the exhaust manifold uses exhaust gases to turn an impeller that drives a pump near the carburetor. In normal running, the turbine spins too slowly to boost exhaust-manifold pressure or affect fuel consumption. But as the throttle is opened and the engine speeds up, so does the flow rate of the exhaust gases.
The increased flow spins the turbine, which speeds up the impeller to boost the density (pressure) of the air/fuel mixture, resulting in more power. To prevent damage, engineers set maximum boost at six pounds per square inch via a "wastegate" relief valve that allowed gases to bypass the turbine once that pressure was reached.
Carryover engines weren't neglected for '79. The veteran 302 V-8, now rating 140 horsepower, gained a new low-restriction exhaust system, more lightweight components, and an accessory drive with a single "serpentine" V-belt for greater reliability. The German-made V-6 was down to 109 horsepower -- and in short supply, prompting Ford to replace it during the model year with the hoary 200-cubic-inch inline six, which now rated just 85 horsepower.
The V-8 and both sixes offered an optional four-speed gearbox developed specifically for them -- essentially the base three-speed manual with a direct-drive third gear (1:1 ratio) and an overdrive fourth (0.70:1) tacked on. Final drive ratios were 3.08:1 for automatics, four-speed V-6, and the standard four, 3.45:1 for other combinations. Three-speed Cruise-O-Matic, also carried over with minor updates, was optional at $307.
In 1979, the veteran 302 V-8, now rating 140 horsepower, gained a new low- restriction exhaust system, more lightweight components, and an accessory drive with a single "serpentine" V-belt for greater reliability.
CAFE JittersSignificantly, the '79 Mustang bowed in the second year for CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. A Congressional response to the energy crisis, this law mandated specific mpg targets for all automakers selling in the U.S. In brief, the EPA-rated fuel economy for all cars sold by a given manufacturer had to average so many miles per gallon for a given model year, initially 19 mpg, rising progressively to 27.5 mpg by 1985.
Companies whose "fleet average" fell below a yearly target were fined a set number of dollars for each 0.1-mpg infraction, multiplied by total sales for that model year. Obviously, failure to comply could be costly indeed. However, the law provided credits for exceeding a given year's target that could be used to avoid or reduce penalties for non-compliance in another year, past or future. All rather complicated -- and highly political, of course.
Still, CAFE achieved its goal of spurring Detroit to develop smaller, lighter, thriftier cars in most every size and price class. The effort took on new urgency with the onset of another energy crisis in spring 1979, when the Shah of Iran was deposed by a fundamentalist Ayatollah who cut off the country's oil exports and held Americans hostage.
But the ensuing oil shortage soon became an oil glut. That, plus a fairly quick economic rebound and the new Reagan Administration's more relaxed attitude toward restrictions on business, rendered CAFE almost meaningless by the mid-Eighties.
For the first time since 1964, a Mustang was chosen to be the Indy 500 pace car in 1979.
The 1979 Ford Mustang TRX turbo was greeted as an enthusiast's delight with the potential to be the best sport coupe Ford had ever built.
1979 Ford Mustang PerformanceAs in previous models, powerteam determined the character of any particular 1979 Mustang. The V-8 was a drag-race engine by '79 standards, doing 0-60 mph in 8-9 seconds. A V-6 still took around 11 seconds with manual four-speed, while a like-equipped turbo-four needed 11-12 seconds. The straight-six took close to 13. Standing quarter-mile times ranged from 17 seconds at 85 mph for the V-8 to 19.2 at 75 for the 200 six.
Press reaction also still depended on engine -- and who was in the driver's seat. Some writers thought the V-8 had too much power for its chassis and was out of step with gasoline prices that were starting to rise again.
Don Sherman of Car and Driver judged the V-6 Mustang as the best choice for handling by dint of "the best power-to-front-end-weight ratio." But he was also impressed with two other cars he sampled for a preview report. "The lightweight revolution has arrived in performance land. Rejoice."
The intriguing turbo-four naturally garnered much "buff book" attention. Said John Dinkel in Road & Track: "The TRX turbo would seem to be an enthusiast's delight. I just hope that the design compromises dictated by costs and the fact that Ford couldn't start with a completely clean sheet of paper don't wreck that dream.... There's no doubt the new Mustang has the potential to be the best sport coupe Ford has ever built, but in some respects [it] is as enigmatic as its predecessor."
1979 Ford Mustang Pace CarHighlighting the Fox Mustang's debut year was its selection as Indy 500 pace car, the first Mustang so honored since 1964. Doing the deed was a colorfully striped hatchback with a special T-bar roof and a V-8 massaged by tuner extraordinaire Jack Roush to attain the Brickyard's required 120-mph minimum track speed.
As so often happens with Indy pacers, the public was offered a replica. This had the same striping, pewter/black paint scheme, unique hood and three-slat grille, and premium Recaro bucket seats, plus flip-up sunroof and a choice of turbo-four or regular V-8 engines. Race-day decals were included for dealers to apply if the customer wished. The mists of time seem to have shrouded original price, but Ford built about 11,000 of these Replicas, unusually high for the genre.
Mustang was chosen pace car for the 1979 Indy 500. Ford celebrated the honor by running off some 11,000 replica hatchbacks like this. The replicas looked much like the actual pace car but had a flip-up sunroof instead of a T-top.
Lee Iacocca Leaves FordIn June 1978, as the 1979 model year was in full swing, Ford set industry tongues a-wagging with word that Lee Iacocca was out of a job after 32 years. Officially, he was taking early retirement (on October 15, his 54th birthday).
But many observers assumed he'd be dumped before Henry Ford II's scheduled retirement as chief executive in 1980 and as chairman in 1982. As usual, the head man didn't say much, though he reportedly told Iacocca, "It's just one of those things." Iacocca wasn't bitter, at least in public. "You just surmise that he doesn't want strong guys around," he said later.
Ironically, and as Iacocca was careful to note, June 1978 was the biggest single sales month in Ford history, capping a first half that netted the company its largest six-month profit on record. "They probably won't be at this peak again, so I guess it's a good time to go." As we know, Iacocca rode off to Chrysler, which he eventually saved from extinction.
Iacocca's successor, Philip Caldwell, was happy to count a strong 369,936 sales for the redesigned Mustang. Though that was slightly less than the Mustang II's first-year total, it bested the company's forecast of 330,000, and represented a startling 92.2-percent jump from model-year '78.
Buyers must have liked the new models, because Ford charged a lot more for them. Aggravated by stubborn period inflation, base sticker prices swelled a whopping $500-$700 -- a 15-17 percent jump -- ranging from $4071 for the four-cylinder notchback to $4824 for the Ghia hatch.
For the 1980 Mustang, designers were still concerned with fuel economy. Learn more about how the 1980 Mustang was tweaked and refined (and how performance suffered).