The Once and Future Mustang
A look at the future of America's best-loved—and only—pony car.
Car and Driver
BY TONY SWAN
The Mustang has been one of the top automotive icons from Detroit since the end of World War II. A lot of Camaro owners would disagree, but of them we ask, "So where's your Camaro now, sport?"
Requiescat in pace, that's where.
Now, as the Mustang moves nearer to its first floor-to-ceiling makeover since 1979, it does so as the descendant of a family (Pony carus americanus) established by its great-great-grandfather back in the mists of the mid-20th century—April 17, 1964, to be exact. The competitors it inspired have all succumbed, leaving the species progenitor alone at center stage.
And as far as the Ford Motor Company is concerned, center stage is no exaggeration. Philip R. Martens, V-P of Blue Oval Vehicle Programs (Ford's product engineering and development group), calls this new Mustang "the critical linchpin in bringing Ford back into the public eye on the car side of the business.
"What we need now on the car side is some buzz. It's going to bring people back into Ford showrooms."
This is a survival story to rival Robinson Crusoe's. Ford wasn't known for its quality or continuity during the long reign of Henry II, and on at least two occasions the corporate sachems laid plans that seemed conceived to consign the Mustang to history. Imagine Dr. Moreau turned loose in the product planning department, and you've got the essential flavor.
The first of these episodes led to the 1974-78 Mustang II, essentially a Pinto in wolf's clothing, a particularly graceless and slow wolf at that.
A new platform and new sheetmetal restored respectability in '79, but by the mid-'80s the product planners were contemplating infanticide once again: an all-new Mustang on a front-drive platform. With no V-8 engine. This heresy stopped only when then-president Donald E. Petersen was deluged with outraged mail from Mustang faithful, much of it, according to the folklore, using the same salutation: "Dear Asshole." Petersen was moved to rescue the Mustang from impending oblivion, and the front-driver went on to become the Ford Probe, since deceased.
So as we contemplate a long-awaited Mustang renewal, we find ourselves wondering whether the keepers of the faith are going to keep the faith. So far, it looks like a definite maybe.
Big question: Will the production car look like these concepts? Richard Hutting, head of the concept design team, will say only that "the concepts have had an impact on the production vehicles."
Hutting is chief of Ford's design facility in Valencia, California, and his team also created the Forty-Nine concepts, head turners of the '01 and '02 shows. It's clear at a glance that the Mustang concepts also reach into the past, a trend in recent Ford creations that design chief J Mays calls "retro futurism." In this case, Hutting and his team drew their inspiration from the late '60s.
"We went back to the beginning, 1964 to '69," he says. "We stripped that early vehicle down to its bare essentials—long hood, short deck, front wheels far forward. It all combined to give the vehicle a sense of motion and direction."
Perhaps the strongest tie with those early Mustangs, particularly the '67-to-'69 cars, is the forward-leaning grille shell, accentuating the classic profile.
"I like to think of it as having the leading edge of the hood becoming the most powerful element of the vehicle. It pulls the rest of the car along. Everything else sweeps off that leading edge, creating a motion trail," says Hutting.
It appears there will also be some retro futurism beneath the new skin. For example, Martens reveals that the powertrain will culminate in a traditional live axle, rather than an independent rear suspension.
"Affordability is a key issue," he explains, "and so is weight. It's almost impossible to keep the same size greenhouse and keep cost down without going up in weight.
"This will be a pretty substantial vehicle, because you've got to have a rock-solid body structure—for coupe and convertible alike."
Although Ford has managed to keep the current Mustang's underpinnings more or less viable for more than two decades—the Fox platform, which debuted on the 1978 Fairmont, is the oldest in the U.S. industry—those ancient bones will finally be laid to rest.
"The structure is going to be at least 85 percent new," says Martens. "And no more Fox bits."
But if it's not Fox, then what? Mays, Martens, Hutting, and everyone else connected with the new Mustang are cagey on this point. The concept cars use the platform on which the Lincoln LS, Jaguar S-type, and Ford T-Bird are built, but insiders hint that won't be true of the production Mustangs. The LS platform is too expensive. Besides a well-located live axle, the new Mustangs will probably have struts up front rather than a control-arm suspension, and the body shell will be new.
We think the new Mustang will have bigger chassis dimensions—wheelbase and track—than the current car. Its length—now just over 183 inches—probably won't change much, but it should lose the chunky looks, via a longer wheelbase (perhaps by as much as six inches over its current 101.3 inches) and reduced front overhang. Although the concept cars are two-seaters, we expect the production Mustangs will seat four.
"We plan to have defined seating positions back there, which isn't really true of the current car," says Martens, "but it won't go beyond two plus two in terms of space."
Martens and his crew are also mum on the issue of power. We know that like other gee-whiz elements—the adaptive headlamps, the convertible's aluminum roll bar, the gear-drive watch-movement instruments, the 20-inch wheels—the concept car's 400-hp supercharged DOHC 32-valve V-8 foretells the top-dog Mustang.
The base Mustang engine will continue to be a V-6—"about 200 horsepower," says Martens—but probably not the current 3.8-liter pushrod motor. What of the V-8? Our spies suggest it won't be the current 260-hp, 4.6-liter SOHC V-8. More likely it will be a variation of the 300-hp, 24-valve V-8 from Ford's truck group.
"What you're going to see is an engine you've seen before," Martens says, "but maybe in a different Ford product. And I guarantee you will not be disappointed with the standard V-8."
We expect a high-output V-8—at least 400 horsepower—as well as an independent rear suspension on the next SVT Cobra, due within a year or so of the new Mustang.
And when will that be? We expect a first drive about a year from now, and don't expect to see cars in showrooms before late spring of 2004. Does that seem like a long time to you? Considering Ford has had almost 25 years to work on the new car, it seems that way to us, too.
Then again, at least the Mustang has a future. That alone is worth celebrating.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....