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Ford’s Mustang II: Tragedy or Triumph?

I love the Ford Mustang II. Not enough to buy one, mind you, but enough to say I love it in public. Not only does it epitomize the 1970s, but it’s a great source of arguments among car fans — and if you know me, you know I love a good argument. In my opinion, the Mustang II is one of the most brilliant products ever to come out of Dearborn.

Now, I’m sure there are at least a few people who are already screaming at their monitors: “What the hell is wrong with you, Gold? That car ruined the whole Mustang franchise!”

Er, no. If you ask me, the Mustang had already ruined itself.

I think we can agree that Ford got the original 1964-and-a-half Mustang completely right. It was the right size, right power, right price, right everything. It was a perfect product, and a timeless one at that — to me, those first Mustangs are among the most handsome cars to come out of the Ford factory. (Not bad for a parts-bin special.)

But once they started to fiddle with it, things went wrong.

Ford first began to expand the Mustang in 1967 — just a few inches, mind you, but that marked the first year a Mustang did not outsell its predecessor. The Mustang got bigger again in ’69, and sales dropped again. A pattern was establishing itself: When the Mustang got bigger, sales got smaller.

In 1971, we got what I think of as the Fat Elvis Mustang — longer, wider, about 800 pounds heavier and nowhere near as good-looking. Sales plummeted to 125,000 in ’72 — a long fall from the 600,000-plus sold in ’66. (They picked up a bit, to 135,000, for ’73; perhaps diehard fans knew what was coming.)

The Mustang II came along in 1974, and it must have been a shock to the purists. Based on the Pinto, the new Mustang was downright tiny, with a choice of 4- or 6-cylinder power (and one anemic V8). It’s easy to look back and think people would have hated the new Mustang … but they didn’t. Because right around the time the Mustang II hit the showrooms, the OPEC oil embargo was hitting our gas stations.

This is the part of 1970s history a lot of people forget. They remember men with blocky hair, bell-bottom trousers, and sports jackets with patterns that today would be used for curtains, but they forget the gasoline rationing, the blocks-long lines at filling stations and the fact that the average American car at the time got about thirteen and a half miles per gallon. Lee Iacocca and his gang in in Dearborn must have had a crystal ball, because they decided to downsize the Mustang in 1970, when gas was still cheap, the muscle-car market was still strong, and the phrase “energy crisis” had not yet entered the American lexicon.

The Mustang II was an instant hit: 386,000 sales in 1974, the Mustang’s best year since 1967. Not bad considering it was sharing showroom space with Ford’s even-smaller Pinto. No question: The Mustang II was the perfect car for the time.

That said, from here on my argument pretty much falls apart. The OPEC oil embargo was over by the summer of ’74, and by 1975 Americans were back to buying full-size cars. (Critics who complain about Detroit’s lack of response to the small-car revolution seem to forget this part of history; two years after the crisis, Detroit couldn’t make enough full-size sedans to meet demand.) Mustang II sales skidded to well under 190,000 for 1975 and continued to drop, though there was a slight increase in 1978 as gas prices began to rise, a prelude to the 1979 energy crisis (which led to more lines and the threat of gas hitting — oh, gracious me! — one dollar per gallon).

By that time, though, Ford had “fixed” the Mustang. 1978 saw the introduction of the third-gen Fox-platform car, which was another genius move. If the ’64-and-a-half was perfect for the ’60s and the Mustang II was perfect for the ’70s, the Fox car was the perfect blending of the two — small enough to make do with a decent-size 4-cylinder engine, and slim enough to get respectable power from a small-block V8. Sales, once again, exploded; the Mustang had its best year since ’75. But that’s another story for another time.

History would treat the ’75-’78 Mustang II harshly. Stable gas prices, the rise of the third-gen Five Point Oh, and people’s seemingly magic ability to forget the Fat Elvis Mustang made the II seem like little more than a bad dream. The cars were unrespected and unloved, and those that didn’t rust out went to the crusher. Despite strong sales, there are few survivors — and finding a Mustang II in decent shape is a job and half. The one bit of good news is that they generally aren’t that expensive, aside from the garish tape-stripe specials like the Boss and King Cobra. That could be because, other than their place in history, there really isn’t much to love about the cars. Even by 1970s standards, they’re pretty terrible to drive.

Love it or hate it — and I suspect most Mustang purists will hate it — one cannot deny that the 1974-78 Mustang II was the perfect car for the times. It showed up exactly when Ford needed it and disappeared precisely when they were done with it. If that’s not a brilliant product, I don’t know what is. Find a used Ford Mustang for sale

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  1. Absolute triumph. Presentism need not enter the discussion. Growing up in mid America in the 70’s these cars were all the rage. The 75 V8 Mustang was rated at 140hp but 250ft/lbs torque in a 2800lb package. The 140 was due to a restrictive 287cfm carb used by Ford for MPG…even with this penalty box sitting atop the engine a V8 Mustang was formidable in its time. A review of a 75 with the “rallye pack” reported a 9 second 0-60 with very good handling. Removing the POS carb made a huge difference as the engine was a Ford 302 at heart. Great car for the time and nary a shred of Pinto DNA. The II shared more parts with a Granada and looked more like A 72 Gran Torino Fastback.

  2. My first car was a 1976 Mustang II Ghia, but was a sport edition with the V-8 302 engine, moon roof and spoiler on the back.  It actually looked more like the Cobra, but without the fastback.  
    You want to talk about a FUN car with lots of power?  It was all stock, but with the optional (and not so common) V-8 302 engine.  You take this same engine that the previous year mustangs had and then put it in the this lighter and smaller car…  Let me tell you, I won my share of street races during the day.
  3. I had a black on black 74 Ghia version. In the stock trim, it had the 2.8 L V6 with 4 speed manual. I bought it used from a dealer in 76. It was in perfect shape with only about 20K miles on it. I don’t know if anyone else had issues with the windshield leaking like sieve when it rained or not, but mine did when I bought it. I took it to a paint and body guy I knew and they resealed the windshield. On the highway, I could get an average 25 to 27 mpg running at 55 mph, the new speed limit at the time. I traded it in 78 on a new Datsun B210 Hatchback due to changing jobs and increasing drive time/distance plus fuel cost increasing at the pump. My new wife loved the little Mustang almost as much as I did, but she understood the economics in trading it in on something more fuel efficient.

    • PS: The air-conditioner in the Mustang could just barely could keep up with the 98-100 degree days with 100 percent humidity that is experienced in Southwest Georgia at times. Also, the Datsun B210 also didn’t have air-conditioning either, but, I was leaving for work at 7:00 AM when the air, even in the summer was fairly cool and getting home around 6:30 PM. I put over 140K miles on the Datsun before selling it to a private party. The job I had at the time had me driving a service truck and working from home servicing commercial two-way radio equipment, i.e., police, fire and business radio systems.

  4. I had a Mustang II around 1978, paid $1200.00 and a man came by and saw it and gave me $1200.00, that was around 1985. Wish I had kept it. I loved that car but my mom gave me hers.

  5. -I remember when the Mustang II first came out also.  Say what you will about it good or bad.  But when I drive around town these days and can’t tell the difference between 85% of the cars I see 

    on the road, all with black interiors, it would be cool to see any kind of a return to that ” 70’s Flare ” for Styling and 
    Design that at least you could either love or hate.  How would you like a Chevy Cruze 1 point nothing turbo charged four door sedan in white, gray or black with white gray or black racing stripes sitting on your drive way.  Wait,
    or is that a KIA or a Dodge Dart ? Whatever ……

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