1976 Ford Mustang II
1976 Ford Mustang II. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

When the original Ford Mustang was introduced in mid-1964, it was a sensation. Although based on modest Ford Falcon components, its success set a first model year sales record of 680,989. Admittedly it was a long year running from April ’64 to August ’65. It caught the industry so flat-footed that it took arch-rival Chevrolet until the 1967 model year to respond with its Camaro.

The Mustang was new and exciting, and it made Ford’s general manager Lee Iacocca a household name, getting his picture on the cover of both Time and Newsweek magazines. It also spawned a whole new class of vehicle dubbed the Pony Car.

Inevitably, however, the Mustang grew bigger and heavier. By 1973 it was about 305 mm (1 ft.) longer, 152 mm (6 in.) wider and some 272 kg (600 lb.) heavier than the original model. The Mustang had outgrown its original appeal as an affordable, nimble sporty car. Iacocca summed it up succinctly when he said: “The Mustang market never left us, we left it.” The market confirmed this assessment. Mustang sales slid from more than 600,000 in model year 1966, to just 134,267 in 1973.

What’s more, new lighter, imported 2+2 “mini-Pony Cars” that combined four-on-the-floor shifting fun with upscale luxury, were becoming increasingly popular. They were, in effect, filling the segment the Mustang had created, then abandoned.

Cars like the Toyota Celica and Ford’s own German Capri (sold by Lincoln-Mercury dealers), that ironically, had been inspired by the original Mustang, would be the stimulus for a new, smaller Ford vehicle to recapture the first Mustang’s magic.

Plans to return to the smaller 1974 Mustang began in 1970. Just as the original Mustang had been based on mundane Falcon components, Iacocca and company decided to use some of the parts from the new-for-1971 subcompact Ford Pinto as the basis for the Mustang II, as it was to be called.

Iacocca had specified a wheelbase of 2,438 to 2,540 mm (96 to 100 in.) in notchback and fastback coupe bodies. This precluded a long engine, so a 2.3-litre, overhead cam inline four was the base powerplant. A 2.8-litre, overhead valve V6 was optional, and standard in the upscale Mustang II Mach I. The four was the U.S.-built Pinto engine, while the V6 was a stretch of the German 2.6-litre used in the Capri.

Ford’s engineers took the downsizing mandate seriously, making the Mustang II even smaller than the original. Compared with the 1965 model, the wheelbase was down from 2,743 mm (108 in.) to 2,443 mm (96.2 in.), and over-all length reduced from 4,613 mm (181.6 in.) to 4,445 mm (175 in.). And it was a full 508 mm (20 in.) shorter and 102 mm (4 in.) narrower than the bloated ’73 model it replaced.

In spite of its smaller size, additional safety equipment made the unit construction Mustang II a little heavier at an average of 1,270 kg (2,800 lb), compared with the original’s base weight of 1,179 kg (2,600) with the six-cylinder engine.

The Mustang II’s attractive all-new styling was influenced by coachbuilder Ghia of Italy, which had recently been acquired by Ford. It carried through the long-hood, short-deck theme of the original, and as Iacocca requested it came as a notchback and hatch-equipped fastback.

The Mustang II was no match for the original in performance. Road & Track (8/64) tested the original Mustang with a 4.7-litre (289 cu in.) V8 and recorded zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 9.0 seconds and a top speed of 177 km/h (110 mph). When they tested a Mustang II Mach I with the 2.8-litre V6 (9/73) the zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time was 13.8 seconds and top speed was 161 km/h (100 mph). The four was, of course, even slower.

When Ford advertised the new 1974 Mustang as “The right car at the right time,” they couldn’t have known how right they would be. In November, 1973 events changed dramatically in the Mustang II’s favour. That’s when the Arab oil embargo precipitated the first “energy crisis” of the 1970s. Not only did gasoline prices spike up, but its very supply looked to be in jeopardy. Economy immediately became a hot item, and this helped boost the smaller Mustang’s first calendar year sales to 385,993.

With oil crisis memories starting to fade by 1975, Ford offered a 5.0-litre V8 in the Mustang II, which returned performance to respectable levels. Although it didn’t equal the original’s performance, it did come closer; R & T (1/75) recorded zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 10.5 seconds, and a top speed of 171 km/h (106 mph). A Cobra II option with such items as extra trim, a black grille, front air dam and rear spoiler came in 1976. Then for ’78 the even more garish King Cobra could be had with a deeper air dam, stripes, and even a cobra snake decal on the hood.

The Mustang II was built through the 1978 model year, and was replaced by the evergreen 1979 Fairmont-based, third-generation Mustang.

Many Mustang enthusiasts disdained the Mustang II as an aberration, not a “real” Mustang. It was, however, a product of its time, and many find it a desirable collectible today.

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