Why Ford got the Mustang Wrong for so Long
Like any upright human being with a brain and a heart, I adore the early first generation Mustang. It’s still a beautiful car to look at and there is absolutely no denying its impact on the automotive industry as well as popular culture as a whole. I also love the new Ford Mustang. It’s the car that will ensure that in another 50 years' time, people will still be looking back at Mustangs fondly while spending crazy amounts of cash on minty fresh examples at televised auctions.
The problem is the meat in the Mustang history sandwich isn’t very good – and it’s the filling that defines a sandwich.
The problem started later on during the first generation when the Mustang was developed under the management of Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen. The Mustang strayed from being a powerful compact sports car as consumer demand went up for luxury and size.
The reality is that if a car company asks for consumer feedback it’s inevitably going to be requesting comfier seats, a smoother ride, a little more room and more cup holders. Electric windows would also be nice. All the kinds of things that turn a wonderful small sports car into a big, bloated, and heavy 2-door car.
Ford so very nearly caught itself and prepared to go down a better road. The second generation Mustang was looking promising as it was put together with Lee Iacocca at the helm of Ford. Being a smart man, Iacocca wanted the Mustang to go back to its roots as a small, lightweight car. What he got was indeed smaller but, due to new emissions and safety regulations, it still got heavier and sluggish.
To be fair, of course, all manufacturers suffered in the 70s to the point the muscle car was close to being killed off completely. It took a long time for technology to catch up with legislation and start producing real horsepower again. The Mustang very nearly became a permanent casualty of the 1970s energy crisis.
The third generation of Mustang was just in time for the 1980s, and Ford introduced the Fox Platform Mustang to America. Frankly, the Fox Mustang wasn’t terrible for its time but if it wasn’t named as a Mustang it would be populating listicles of forgotten pony cars. It was fairly quick, had enough torque for its time and sold very well indeed. But take off those rose-tinted spectacles and you can see it was a product of the very end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties. This Mustang was built to cost with the very cheapest of plastics and a lack of any real style.
The good news is that the Foxbody was still a return to the full ethos of the pony car. It was all about the engine and anything else was a sideshow. It's still an excellent platform to build a tuner car from due to their low cost on the used market mixed with a massive aftermarket. In stock form, they are nothing but disappointing unless you simply want a time capsule and “Word to your mother!” means something to you.
However, we can’t judge a car too much on how good you can make it now by completely changing and upgrading the car. We are judging the Mustang on how it rolled out of the factory. The Fox platform Mustang wasn’t the worst Mustang. It did, however, come very close to being the worst as, during a big sales slump amid high fuel prices, Ford actually had plans to make a front wheel drive version. If that doesn't send chills down your spine, a Japanese designed front wheel drive Mustang four-banger without a V8 option was also on the table.
So, thankfully, the fourth generation didn’t have four-cylinder engine when introduced in 1994. Instead, it got a common V8 version cranking 260hp. The Fox platform was tweaked underneath a little for this generation from a platform not much improved upon since 1979 and would run for a total of 25 years. On the outside Ford's “New Edge” style language was also introduced and applied to the Mustang, taking it as far away in style and individuality from the original as it got.
The reality is Ford was phoning in on the Mustang now. It became a bland version of itself as Ford did just enough, then let things be so they could trade on the name for the next twenty-five years.
This brings us to towards the rebirth of the Mustang in 2005 with a design recapturing the raw essence of the Mustang. This had to be a big impact as the Mustang name by this point had been so heavily diluted. To that degree they did an excellent job for the most part, and enough to capture people's imaginations once again with a muscle car.
Unfortunately, the rear end was hampered by a live axle rear suspension design. A weird sacrifice of handling over cost in a time when fully independent rear suspension (IRS) had become normal in a performance car. Ford claimed IRS would have added five thousand dollars to the cost of the car... But then went ahead and made power windows, dual power mirrors, and power door locks with remote keyless entry all standard. The result is that the muscle car ethos of power being most important looked like it was being upheld, but then luxury items were added as standard.
The fourth generation Mustang was a huge step towards bringing us an actual full-blooded Mustang, and in 2015 it finally arrived. The 5th generation Mustang is a truly modern design but with styling that called back to the original car and gives it a real feeling of a heritage, albeit not actually earned. It got independent rear suspension to match the front, and even the V6 is a decently quick engine. It looks good, it’s fun to drive and holds its own as a fully rounded sports car. The Mustang has now reached the point where it’s not just a great car in the US, it’s now a contender on the world stage.
The point here is this:
In the long history of the Mustang, only the first and the current generation have been great cars. We can argue the toss over the fifth generation but we will agree it was a decent stepping point to this generation. The reality is that for the bulk of its life, the Mustang simply didn’t improve upon the original. The first and fifth generation Ford Mustangs are two slices of excellent bread. Unfortunately, the filling is a bit tasteless and watery.