Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mustang II, de novo

From its birth in 1964, the Ford Mustang was destined for stardom. With its timeless lines, promise of fun and thrifty price tag the popularity of this “personal coupe” caused such a stir upon its debut that it became the template for a new genre of automobile. Soon every other American auto manufacturer was prepping their assembly lines to churn out similar machines. These machines - whether they were Camaros, Firebirds or Barracudas - were all in essence a variation of the same formula, a formula that combined style, prowess and affordability into a small chassis with a big engine. The era of the Pony Car had begun.

The first Mustangs sold superbly. Ford moved a million units during the first two years of production. This rush to Ford’s show rooms was undoubtedly helped by movies like the James Bond flick “Goldfinger,” which featured English model Tania Mallet behind the wheel of a White ’65 Mustang drop-top, or the legendary “Bullit” with Steven McQueen chasing down the baddies in his iconic, green ’68 Fastback. Without that trademark Mustang, Lt. Frank Bullit would have been just another badge in a Dodge Police Interceptor. Movies like these and later ones such as the original “Gone in 60 Seconds” – which gave top-billing to a ’73 Mach I named Eleanor – cemented the authenticity of the Mustang as a staple of Americana.

Hollywood, however, had little to say about the generation of Mustangs produced between 1974 and 1978. (Well, Farrah Fawcett drove a ’76 Mustang Cobra in the "Charlie's Angels" TV series. That counts for something, right?)

Likewise, collectors and enthusiasts regard this iteration of Ford’s pony car – known as the Mustang II – with something less than disinterest. Critics are quick to condemn the Mustang II as an underpowered, undersized, re-badged Pinto lacking of the class and sport of the original. Even late model, fox-chassis ponies from the ‘90s and ‘80s - with their boxy lines and horseless grills - get more respect. Perhaps, judgment has been passed to eagerly for the facts, when considered, reveal the much reviled Mustang II to have been – like its older brethren - a popular and sporty car for its time and – unlike its predecessors – to have been a worthy offering by Ford during that dynamic time in the American auto market when Muscle cars diminished and sporty imports reigned.

So, let us now praise the unloved and overlooked Mustang II. This often forgotten and disregarded pony car roamed the American landscape during the mid to late ‘70s, a time when spiking oil prices and newly contrived emissions laws had dropped the curtain on the American Muscle Car era. As unemployment rates and fuel prices spiked, Americans found themselves facing the inevitable headache that follows a decade of free love, drugs and horsepower. The good times were over and so too were the days of K-Code Mustangs and special GM RPO cars like the 454 Monte Carlo SS. The iconic, high-powered cars of the 60s were fading away. By 1974, the Barracuda, Charger and Challenger were dead as were the AMX and GTO.

Meanwhile, the once svelte lines of the Thunderbird and Cougar bulked up to lumbering RV-like proportions. Worse yet, as the bloat continued power dwindled. The ’74 Cougar XR-7 (they were all XR-7s that year) came standard with a 148hp 351 cubic-inch V8. Going large was no help either. The high option for the Cougar, a big block 460 cubic-inch V8 produced a paltry 216 ponies.

Even America’s premiere sports car, the Corvette, suffered drastic power deflation. With the mandated change to unleaded fuel and the addition of emission controls and catalytic converters, the output of the Corvette’s strongest engine dropped from 425hp in 1973 to 205hp in 1975. To think, today, a ho-hum grocery-getting V6 Honda Accord comes with more than 240hp. Indeed, these were dark days.

It was out of this era that the scaled-down, redesigned Mustang II emerged. With an advanced suspension, lighter body and improved fuel economy, the Mustang II offered sporty fun during a time when the other domestics only offered swollen and uninspired clunkers.

It would, however, be an exaggeration to claim that the Mustang II was the light at the end of the tunnel during what was, perhaps, the grimmest of times in automotive history. It is more reasonable to argue that the innovative Mustang II was, like the original ’64 1/2 Mustang, an avatar for a new design philosophy and a necessary link between the asphalt kicking, big-block brandishing brutes of the ‘60s and the more sophisticated, leaner and eco-friendly performers to come during the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond.

It is interesting to note that Lee Iacocca - best known for his work at Chrysler and recently for his book Where Have All the Leaders Gone - not only oversaw the design of the original Mustang but was the lead man behind the development of the Mustang II. In the late ‘60s, Iacocca set out – like he had with the first Mustang - to create an exemplary automobile.

Since its inception in 1964, the proportions of the Mustang had been swelling. What once had been a compact – the original ‘64 ½ weighing in at 2605 pounds - had, by 1973, grown into a 3500 pound fat boy. In fact, preliminary design sketches for the ’74 Mustang called for an even larger, well-appointed coup with vault-like cabin space.

But, Iacocca steered the direction of the Mustang design team toward producing a compact, fuel efficient, sports coup long before there was any hint that OPEC would stoke up oil prices.

Perhaps, he divined that consumer interest was shifting from large, pony cars and toward sporty, ultra-compacts that were often imports. In fact, sales for sporty compacts like the Toyota Celica, Opel Mantra and Ford’s own Capri were up during the early ‘70s, meanwhile, Mustang sales were down.

Or, perhaps, as Randy Leffingwell - author of Mustang: 40 Years - relays, Lee Iacocca was all but asked to downsize the Mustang. It was at the May 23, 1968 Ford stockholders meeting – a meeting that Lee Iacocca, then executive vice president of North American Operations, attended - when Anna Muccioli – an artist married to a Ford employee with 600 shares of the companies stock - badgered Chairman Henry Ford II about the company’s policy of transforming sporty compacts into large-scale sedans. “I have just one complaint,” she stated, “Thunderbird came out years ago. It was a beautiful sports car. And then you blew it up to a point where it lost its identity. Now the same thing is happening to the Mustang…Why can’t you just leave a sports car small?”

The Chairman assured Mrs. Muccioli that her opinions would be kept in mind and that Ford – by the time she was ready to purchase her next car - would have a product for her.

To which Muccioli responded, “Just leave the Mustang small. Let’s not blow that one up.”

Indeed, Iacocca’s final product was pocket-sized when compared to it predecessors. The Mustang II was 20-inches shorter, four inches narrower, one inch lower and about 500 pounds lighter than the ’71 to ’73 model. It was even shorter than the original ’64 ½ Mustang by nearly 7 inches, as well, it was two inches thinner and about an inch lower. Despite being a much smaller car than its forerunners, Ford’s new two-plus-two was still very much a Mustang in appearance with its short trunk/long hood layout that featured the signature tri-facet tail-lights, canting pony embellished grill and faux side vents.

It was Andy Warhol who said, “Success is what sells.” By this measure, the 1974 Mustang II was a success for it sold. Ford moved 385,993 copies of the diminutive Mustang II, which was more than the combined sales of the “blown-up” ’72 and ’73 model. Further, first year sales of the Mustang II were not that far off of first year sales for the original Mustang. In fact, the car was so well received by all – including the motor press - that the editors of Motor Trend named it their Car of The Year (Their only complaint being the lack of a V8 engine on the option list.) Incidentally, the only other Mustang to earn Car of The Year was the 1993 model.

But, in 1975, Ford pardoned the V-8. Instead of having to chose between the anemic 88hp, 139 cubic-inch, four-cylinder or the wheezy 105hp, 169 cubic-inch, six-cylinder, buyers could now opt for a 139hp 5.0 liter V-8. This, Ford's first "metric" engine, would evolve into the premiere power plant of the Fox chassis Mustangs of the 80s and 90s. (By the way, the 5.0 liter V-8 - for those of you who refuse to give up the Imperial system - had a displacement of 302 cubic-inches.)

In 1975, however, acceleration was far from brisk, but the V-8 was back to offer at least the essence of sport. And, to enhance this essence, Ford went all out with its new King Cobra II option package.

No, this package did not include a tire-cooking 429 cubic-inch V8 like the '72 Mustang Cobra, but it did feature flashy mesh rims, flamboyant body cladding and elaborate tape work that made the Pontiac Trans Am's Eagle-embellished hood appear mild.

Garish spoilers and paint aside, the Mustang II was a sporty, well-handling car for the time - this due to the incorporation of a front-mounted sub-frame and redesigned compact, front suspension.

The impetus behind this redesign was space. The Mustang II was, after all, dramatically smaller than previous Mustangs. In order to accommodate Ford's line up of power plants, room needed to be created under the hood. The engineers removed the space consuming strut towers from the engine bay by replacing the old strut set up with an independent, coil-over strut assemble that was mounted between the upper and lower control arms. The result, when coupled with rack-and-pinion steering, was a smooth riding and well-handling design. Hot rodders discovered this versatility of design and began employing the Mustang II suspension on applications as varied as early '50s Chevys to '32 Ford Coupes. As the salvage yards sold off their last Mustang II front ends demand for these dwindling parts spawned a niche-like after market. Even today, after market performance companies do lucrative business supplying modern hot rodders with reproductions of this now thirty-year-old design.

But, the Mustang II is more than just a parts car. In order to reduce the vehicle's emissions, Ford deliberately de-tuned the Mustang II by fitting it with a small, two-barrel carburetter and restrictive catalitic converter. With a bit of tinkering and a few parts, these handicaps can be undone.

It was 1986 and I was nine-years-old the first - and only - time I rode in my cousins black '78 Mustang Cobra II. And though he throttled me on a regular basis, I so wanted to be him or at least to have his car. Under normal circumstances, I was not allowed near his car, unless of course, he was forcing me to clean its tires with my tongue. This particular day, however, he had taken a break from abusing me in order to demonstrate just how cool his Mustang really was. With duel un-muffled straight pipes - there was certainly no catalytic converter - and a transplanted 351 cubic-inch Cleveland that barely fit under the hood, that car hauled. Now, I can't tell you what that car's best quarter-mile trap speed was, but I can clearly remember my cousin unleashing that Mustang at a street light and - with unnerving clarity - I recall - as we accelerated - the oppressive sensation of my face going numb because all the blood in my head was being squeezed into the hinter-portion of my brain. I have never since felt anything like this. Well, there was that time over Germany in a sailplane. The last I heard of my cousin, he was going to jail for stealing a load of plywood, and the flat bed truck under it. Sadly, I know not what became of that car.

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