Despite the critical drubbing it now receives from the collector community, Ford sold more than 1 million Mustang IIs over its five-year run during largely awful economic times. It would be easy to screw up that kind of sales record, so any new Mustang had a hard act to follow. Luckily, Ford developed a winner that lasted a decade and a half with relatively minor alterations with bones that lived under Mustangs clear into 2004.
Much as the original Mustang had Falcon underpinnings, the new-for-1979 Fox-platform Mustang used new-for-1978 Ford Fairmont chassis basics, including MacPherson strut front suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, and sections of the Fairmont’s floorpans. Fairmont was Ford’s new bread-and-butter sedan and had been met with strong positive reaction from both the press and consumers for its overall package of cost, room, efficiency, and driving pleasure; it was a no-brainer to base the redesigned 1979-’93 Ford Mustang upon it. Unusually for the era of gas-crunch-influenced downsizing, the Mustang (no Roman numeral attached) managed to be bigger than the car it replaced: Its wheelbase and overall length stood 4-plus inches larger, while overall height, plus front and rear track, all grew an inch. And yet the new Mustang, without the use of exotic materials like aluminum in the body or engine, weighed 200 pounds less than a comparable Mustang II.
One of the reasons the Mustang II caught so much flack is that, despite wild-looking stripes-and-spoilers versions like the Cobra II and King Cobra, the top engine was a 134-horsepower 5-liter V-8 —a far cry from the Mustang’s ’60s performance image. In truth, the V-8 was more or less a carryover for 1979, and the hot high-tech turbocharged 2.3-liter four made 132 horsepower. But the style and driving dynamics won customers over. Once the GT reappeared for 1982, Mustang never looked back: It renewed its cross-town rivalry with the Camaro, which was going through its own downsizing and performance renaissance, and quickly became the choice for hometown-hero hotshoes. Mustang’s second life, post-1987 as a late-model cheap-thrills machine, was furthered by its combination of robust simplicity and forward-thinking, high-tech, easily manipulated components. It’s fair to say that these cars are still affordable: Even clean examples of the hottest performance models (bar the limited Cobra R, and the best examples of the ’93 Cobra) remain at or below their original sticker price, and if you go the restoration route, there are plenty of unwanted boneyard specials to donate parts to one that will be improved and cherished. But its legacy, serving as a highlight among generations of Mustang, remains strong today. The Fox Mustang lasted for such a long time and sold so many copies over its 15-year life (2.6 million, not including the hundreds of thousands of Fox-based Mercury Capris built from 1979-’86) that breakdowns for individual model years will be impossible. It also means that there are plenty of examples out there in the wild to choose from, and doubtless plenty more that can be scored for a bargain and picked for parts.