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Ford's Mustang II: Tragedy or Triumph?

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author photo by Aaron Gold May 2017

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.

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