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1979 1980 1981 Ford Mustang

The 1979 Ford Mustang Styling

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.

Ford'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 MPG

The 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.

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.