Photos Courtesy of Ford and Huw Evans
It was perhaps fair to say that the 1979 Mustang marked nothing less than the second coming for Ford’s ponycar. Styled by a team under Jack Telnack, it was based on the 1978 Ford Fairmont/Mercury Zephyr Fox platform cars, but boasted very clean, European inspired lines, with a sloping nose and Mercedes esque styling, making it one of the most modern looking Detroit cars on the road at the time. Like the II, both coupe and hatchback models were offered. Great emphasis was placed on aerodynamics and saving weight, in fact the new car was a number of pounds lighter than the Mustang II despite being larger in every dimension. A longer wheelbase (100.4-inches), thinner glass and improve ergonomics made the interior a far more pleasant place. Quick rack and pinion steering and all coil-suspension with modified MacPherson front struts and four-link live rear axle – offered huge improvements in handling and ride, as did an optional special suspension package with metric forged aluminum wheels and tires sourced from Michelin in France. Three trim levels, base, Ghia, and Cobra were offered and drivetrains were carried over from the Mustang II, though at midyear the old 200 ci straight-six was brought in to replace the 2.8 V6 which was in short supply. An intriguing new engine option was a turbocharged 2.3-liter four, rated at 131 hp. Standard in the Cobra, it was an interesting item for a mass-produced Detroit car, but none too reliable. The 302 V8 now rated at 140 hp, was optional, and equipped with it a ’79 Cobra could run the quarter-mile in 16.3 seconds. Mustang paced the 63rd Indianapolis 500 in 1979 and three cars were built for race duty, the actual pacer driven by former F1 champion Jackie Stewart. Ford built 10,478 replicas for sale through dealers. They featured a unique but non-functional cowl induction hoodscoop, special front air dam, rear spoiler and pewter paint with black inserts and orange striping and lettering. Drivetrain options mirrored those of the Cobra. In total 369,936 Mustangs were sold in 1979 the best one-year total since 1968.
1980 DARK DAYS
A second energy crisis, trigged by the fall of the Shah of Iran, plunged the North American economy into turmoil and rising inflation and lack of consumer confidence ate into new car sales, including Mustang. The Cobra adopted many features of the 1979 Pace Car and looked tough, but the optional V8 was downgraded to a small bore 255, with just 118 hp and teamed exclusively with the automatic transmission.
1981 MARKING TIME
There was little change, except four-cylinder cars got a new five-speed manual gearbox and a new shorter 3.45:1 axle ratio to go with it, plus a T-roof with lift-off panels was introduced as a $874 option for both coupes and hatchbacks. The Turbo four-cylinder engine was discontinued due to spotty reliability, though in Canada it remained an option into the 1982 model year. Otherwise that was about it on the regular Mustang production front. After sliding down to under 272,000 sales for 1980, demand dropped again to 182,552.
1982 THE BOSS IS BACK
Performance started making a comeback for 1982 and although Mustang trim levels were reorganized to comprise L, GL, GLX and GT, it was the latter that really got the blood racing. Looking a lot like the Cobra it replaced, except for a ’79 style hoodscoop, the GT packaged a reborn 302 dubbed the 5.0-liter H.O, with a double roller timing chain, special marine camshaft and low restriction exhaust. Rated at 157 hp and coupled exclusively with a four-speed manual gearbox and 3.08:1 final drive, it was the quickest Mustang in years and debuted to glowing press reviews. It signaled that Ford was back in the performance game. From here on things would only get better. The rest of the lineup was little changed, though non-GTs could be ordered with the new V8 and four-speed combo. The 255 V8, in its last year, was also available as a credit option but found few takers.
1983 TURNING UP THE HEAT
From a sales perspective, 1983 wasn’t great for Mustang, but performance and style was. A new intake manifold and four-barrel carburetor boosted power output on the 5.0-liter to 175 hp, making the car faster still. A new five-speed gearbox was a running change on V8 cars. Suspension settings were altered and bigger Michelin TRX tires aided grip. All Mustangs were given a mild facelift for 1983 with a smoother nose and taillights plus new Ford Blue Oval emblems. GTs featured a hood with a blacked out center section and reversed hoodscoop. Also new was a convertible, built by Cars & Concepts to Ford specs. Initially offered as a GLX it could be had with a new 3.8-liter V6 engine with throttle-body fuel injection, or the 5.0, plus the handling suspension. A GT version debuted in June. Perhaps even more intriguing was a new GT-Turbo that looked like its V8 brother but sported an updated version of the 2.3-liter blown four, now with electronic fuel injection and rated at 145 hp. However, a lack of air conditioning and low-end torque hurt this car’s appeal and only 483 were built for the model year.
1984 HAPPY BIRTHDAY
Model trim designations were revised with L and LX replacing the previous GL and GLX models, plus the arrival of the specialty turbocharged SVO. A new addition was Ford’s four-speed Automatic Overdrive (AOD). It was teamed with a new 302 V8 that boasted throttle-body fuel injection and was rated at 165 hp. GT models now came without a hoodscoop and a new front air dam with integral Marchal driving lights, plus a new rear deck spoiler on hatchbacks were running changes, as were quad shocks on V8 cars to control axle wind up (traction bars had been used previously). The GT-Turbo was now available as a convertible, plus with Mustang was 20 years old in 1984, Ford decided to release an anniversary edition dubbed GT350 at mid-year, however Carroll Shelby, by then working with Chrysler, wasn’t too happy and filed a lawsuit. Still, Ford managed to build 5,000 of these cars, based on the GT and GT-Turbo hatchback and convertible, all equipped with Oxford white paint, Canyon Red interiors and special ID badging and anniversary plaques. On another note, Mustang GTs sold in Canada were now dubbed Cobra GTs – a designation that would last until 1992.
1985 SMOOTHER STYLING, MORE POWER
Mustang was facelifted for 1985, with new side moldings and front fascia – exterior trim on hatchbacks and convertibles was changed from black to charcoal gray. Regular GTs, were available with a new hood decal, while the GT Turbo and L trim level were dropped. The TRX metric wheel and tire option was discontinued, in its place, was a V8 handling package that included handsome cast aluminum 15-inch wheels shod in Goodyear Eagle GT Gatorbacks then one of the most performance oriented tires on the market. Engine changes centered around the V8s which got tweaks to the valvetrain, plus a set of tubular exhaust headers, these helped bump power to 210 on the carbureted version and 180 on the injected mill. In addition the V8 exhaust now split in two after the catalytic converter, culminating in a pair of handsome, polished stainless steel tips.
1986 NO MORE CARBURETOR
Outwardly the 1986 model looked virtually identical, except for a high-mounted center brake light and a trunk rack for the convertible. Under the skin, there were big changes for the V8 cars. The 5.0-liter engine received a new, stronger block, new pistons and a sequential fuel injection system controlled by Ford’s EEC-IV processor. It also featured a true dual exhaust with four catalytic converters and a cross over tube. Unlike previous years, this new H.O. engine was available with either the five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. The clutch on manual equipped V8 cars was enlarged from 10 to 10.5 inches and a stronger 8.8-inch rear axle, borrowed from Ford’s Ranger pickup was installed. Power and torque now stood at 200 hp and 285 lb-ft.
1987 THE 5.0 COMES OF AGE
This was one car that almost didn’t make it. Ford had planned to replace the Fox chassis Mustang with a new, smaller front-drive coupe developed with Mazda, but a storm of protest from loyal fans caused the company to change its mind. Instead it decided to revamp the existing ponycar and launch the front-driver in 1988 as the Probe. The ’87 Mustang received a slick facelift with aero touches, including smoother side glass, new moldings and flush euro style headlights. Inside was a very European oriented cabin with a new instrument cluster, seats, console and interior panels. Two trim levels were offered, the LX and GT. The latter was very boy-racer oriented, with a grilleless nose, prominent front air dam and rocker panel extensions, cheesegrater taillight lenses and a massive spoiler on hatchbacks. Special 16-spoke turbine 15-inch wheels were unique to GT models. The 5.0-liter V8 engine received new cylinder heads that helped hike power to 225 hp and increase torque to 300 lb-ft. As before, LX models could be ordered with the V8 driveline and handling suspension, but got the 1985-1986 style GT wheels. The other big news was the elimination of the 3.8-liter V6, the standard LX motor being the 2.3-liter four, now with fuel injection and good for 88 hp. Mustangs were also officially exported to the OPEC countries beginning with the 1987 model year.
1988 RUNNING CHANGES
Only a few detail improvements were on the cards for 1988. LX four-cylinders got a more powerful battery, while V8 cars destined for California got a new Mass Air metering system. The T-top option was dropped mid-year and convertibles gained a power lock group and new door mirrors as a running change. Mustang production reached 211,225 units, the highest total since 1986.
1989 STAYING THE COURSE
Originally planned for Mustang’s silver anniversary, was a very special hot-rodded GT outfitted with a 351 V8 and twin-turbos, put together by Jack Roush. Rated at 400 hp, the car was an absolute screamer. In the end, it proved too expensive and just one prototype was built. Instead, the Mustang’s 25th year proved decidedly low key – a small 25th anniversary dash plaque was affixed to cars built between March 1989 and January 1990. Mechanical changes included the adoption of Mass Air Metering on non California bound V8 cars, a new camshaft for the 5.0-liter V8 and a 140 mph speedometer on U.S. cars, a 200 km/h and then 220 km/h unit on Canadian and Export cars. Signaling the popularity of the 5.0 V8/LX combo, the package was turned into a distinct model called LX 5.0L Sport with hatchbacks and convertibles getting the GT’s adjustable sport seats.
1990 NEW DECADE, NEW CHALLENGES
By the time 1990 rolled around the Fox based Mustang was getting rather long in the tooth. Changes included the adoption of a driver’s side airbag (eliminating the tilt steering column in the process), door map pockets and deletion of the center armrest. Clearcoat paint was also adopted across the board. Ford released a special LX 5.0 convertible, finished in Emerald Green with a white interior and the Mustang GT’s wheels and tires. Just 4,301 were built. Other than that and a modified dash plaque with the words 25 Anniversary were removed after January 1990.
1991 BIGGER WHEELS AND TIRES
This year, after customer complaints, Ford re-introduced the center console. LX four-cylinder models also received a new split-plug cylinder head and ignition that boosted power to 105 hp The V8 cars (LX and GT) got larger 16-inch five-spoke wheels with a running Pony embossed in their center caps. Wrapped around these were bigger Goodyear Eagle GT P225/55/VR16 tires, which necessitated larger fender openings. Because of a recession sales were on a downward slide.
1992 SUMMER SPECIAL
Save for colors and minor options, there was little new for ’92. A four-way power driver’s seat became standard, as did a new interior dome light. Four-cylinder cars could no longer be optioned with wire wheel covers and whitewall tires and on LX models, the previously black exterior rub strips were now body color. Another limited edition convertible, the Summer Special, debuted, with Vibrant red exterior paint and window moldings, white interior, pearl white wheels and unique rear deck spoiler.
1993 FINAL HURRAH
It had been 15 years since the Fox Mustang made its debut and with a new design on the way, the venerable Fox gave one last stand. LX four-cylinder cars could now be optioned with handsome 15-inch aluminum wheels originally found on 1985-1986 GTs and 1985-1990 LX 5.0 cars. Speaking of the V8 models, on North American spec cars, power ratings on the regular 302 were adjusted to 205 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque. The engine also received new hypereutectic pistons, though the change in horsepower was believed to come from a new method in which Ford rated output of all its engines, plus it reflected the loss of power over the years due to camshaft, Mass Air and other calibrations in the engine’s electronic system. An in-dash compact disc player was offered for the first time and also debuting in North America were two limited edition LX 5.0 feature convertibles finished in Oxford White or Chrome Yellow and, for the U. S. market only, a limited production Cobra model.
My experience: Rob Pacione, 1988 GT hatchback
“When I was attending dental school in Washington D.C, I needed to get my hands on a car. I found this 1988 Mustang GT for sale in New Jersey and drove it back. I’d never experienced one of these cars before and I just couldn’t believe how fast it was. Guys would want to race me all the time and their jaws would drop when I stepped on the gas – I remember one time a guy in a Porsche challenged me to a race and was surprised when that little Mustang blew his doors off. That car was amazing – I drove it everywhere and had a ton of fun. It ran strong and hard and never let me down. I eventually moved to Pittsburgh and took the car with me, ultimately selling it. Owning that car gave me a tremendous appreciation for the 5-liter Mustangs which continues to this day. I’ve owned a bunch of them since.” – Rob Pacione
Mustang Historical Timeline – 1964 - 1973
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Mustang Historical Timeline – 1979 - 1993
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Mustang Historical Timeline – 2005 - 2009