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1979 1980 1981 Ford Mustang

The 1979 Ford Mustang Design

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.

Even 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 First

The 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.

But April 1975 also ushered Jack Telnack into the program after a tour of duty as design Vice President for Ford Europe. From his new post as executive director for North American Light Car and Truck Design, he would soon put his stamp on the emerging pony car.

Another Styling Showdown

But 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.

Recalling 1965, curb weight was pegged at a comparatively lean 2700 pounds. The interior would be larger than Mustang II's but still planned for comfortable seating in front and "occasional" seating in back for children or smaller adults.

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. Keep reading to learn how the design team sculpted a sleek, aerodynamic Mustang.

Want to find out even more about the Mustang legacy? Follow these links to learn all about the original pony car:

  • Saddle up for the complete story of America's best-loved sporty car. How the Ford Mustang Works chronicles the legend from its inception in the early 1960s to today's all-new Mustang.
  • With Lee Iacocca back in the saddle, Ford's pony car revisited its roots in the mid '70s. Learn about the dramatically smaller, lighter design of the Mustang II in 1974-1978 Ford Mustang.
  • When the going gets tough, the tough go racing -- or so said the new hard chargers who took command at Ford in the early '80s. Learn more in 1982-1986 Ford Mustang.
  • The Ford Mustang is central to America's muscle car mania. Learn about some of the quickest Mustangs ever, along with profiles, photos, and specifications of more than 100 muscle cars.