Americans have never been much for the metric system. We love our country miles and our cups of sugar, and we’re happy to tell you what an ounce of prevention is worth. There’s one metric measurement, however, that’s as American as the ten-gallon hat, one that sets aflutter the hearts of Ford Mustang aficionados coast to coast: 5.0 liters – “five-oh” to the faithful. Cheekily rounded up from 4942 cubic centimeters, it’s the engine displacement – denoted by an iconic emblem behind the front wheel arch – that defined Mustang performance for more than a decade, one so fundamental to the nameplate that Ford has brought it back to huge fanfare for 2011.
Despite some notable racetrack successes for Ford, the old 5.0 (302-cubic-inch) V-8 had a rather unremarkable debut in the production Mustang. It showed up in 1968 as the successor to the 289, the smallest of four eight-cylinder engines and a $171.77 upgrade from the standard 120-hp in-line six. The mystique of the 302 really took hold during the 1969 and ’70 model years, with the limited-production Boss 302. Rated at 290 hp but likely packing close to 350, the car was conceived for the Trans-Am racing series and was successfully campaigned by a roster of drivers that included Parnelli Jones and George Follmer. America might not have been ready for the metric “five-oh,” but a U.S.-standard “three-oh-two” worked just fine.
Fast forward to 1979, when Ford introduced the third-generation Mustang, built on the Fox platform that underpinned the flaccid Fairmont sedan and its Mercury alter ego, the Zephyr. No matter: after five years with the truly god-awful, Pinto-based Mustang II, the handsome new ‘Stang had fans of the original pony car heralding the return of the king. In 1982 (after a 140-hp false start in ’79 and OPEC-inspired downsizing in ’80 and ’81), the 5.0 V-8 returned with 157 ponies. The GT – a model that appeared in 1982 after a twelve-year absence – had the glam appeal, but in 1984, Ford introduced a surprising sleeper to the range. With a check of an option box, the buyer of an entry-level Mustang LX could ditch its standard 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine in favor of – you guessed it – the 5.0.
The LX 5.0’s modification readiness made it the ideal Mustang for would-be racers, and its unfussy appearance made it just right for nonracers who wanted GT-level performance without GT-level flash. Its appeal was simple – literally. In coupe, hatchback, and even convertible forms, it eschewed the GT’s occasionally questionable style sense in favor of blessed restraint: no ground-effects add-ons, no huge wings on the deck lid, no cheesy cheese-grater taillights. Only a pair of broad exhaust tips, performance rubber, and the 5.0 fender badging gave away its eight-cylinder secret. The LX 5.0 was the perfect pony-car Q-ship – or it would’ve been if the fuzz weren’t driving them, too. A memorable print ad featured a charging LX 5.0, equipped with Ford’s cop-exclusive Special Service Package, in the black-and-white livery of the highway patrol. Below the picture were the words, “This Ford Chases Porsches For A Living.”
Florida electrician Dave McCoy owns the 1991 LX 5.0 you see here. He bought it new. “I wanted a GT convertible,” he says, patting the A-pillar of his silver hatchback, “and I was sitting in one on the dealer lot, and this car was next to it. I asked the sales guy, ‘What’s the difference between these two?’ He replied, ‘Well, the LX 5.0 is about 200 pounds lighter, about $6000 cheaper, and a few tenths quicker in the quarter mile.’ And I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ ” He paid $14,000, including his trade-in, a ’71 Oldsmobile 442 that he called “the sled.”
Because McCoy has relied more on his work truck than his Mustang these last nineteen years, his LX is a 15,000-mile time machine, essentially showroom-new inside and out. He’s changed the battery and the tires; that’s it. “It just doesn’t get out much,” he says.
Naturally, the opportunity to get behind the wheel of such a stupendously unblemished example of semiclassic Mustang-dom was not one to miss. “This is the first time anybody but me has ever driven it,” McCoy said as he handed over the key. “In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve ever even been in the passenger seat.”
Output for ’91, unchanged since the ’87 model year, stood at a healthy 225 hp – not bad for a car that tipped the scales at a modest 3100 pounds. The five-speed shifter’s throws are long, and the clutch travel is even longer, but there’s a notchy precision to the process of changing gears that encourages a little enthusiastic rowing. Steering, as it was on all Fox-bodied Mustangs, is pretty wishy-washy, and in the curves, the car imparts the disquieting sense that its MacPherson-strut front end has no clue what its live-axle rear end is up to at any given moment. In a straight line, though, the magic shines.
Long stainless-steel exhaust pipes resonate with a sweet baritone as revs rise, and 300 lb-ft of torque, peaking at 3200 rpm, adds ample fury to the sound. When new, cars like McCoy’s could sprint to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and run the quarter mile in 14.9 seconds at 96 mph – respectable, if a far cry from the 5.0-powered 2011 Mustang’s 4.6 seconds and 12.9 seconds at 112 mph. Ah, progress.
Of course, unmolested originality has its downsides, and a ’91 Mustang isn’t a ’31 Duesenberg. McCoy is realistic – almost nostalgic – about his pride and joy’s rough edges. “The fit and finish on these cars is, well . . . ” He shrugs. He points out a broad swath of orange peel along the door and shows me a spot on the fender where a human hair is embedded in the paint. “These are the things guys go nuts for at the shows,” he says. “If the paint’s too good, it’s not original. And originality is what it’s all about.” And he should know. McCoy’s LX has taken first place in thirteen of the last fourteen Mustang shows it’s entered.
“This car wasn’t supposed to be a show-winner,” he says. “It was supposed to be a surf car. I bought the hatchback because my surfboard fit in the back. I planned to use it as a beach runner – sandy feet and wet board shorts, you know?”
“Where would it be today?” I wonder aloud.
“Gone,” he says. “Like most of them.”
ENGINE: 4.9L V-8, 165-225 hp, 245-300 lb-ft
TRANSMISSIONS: 5-speed manual, 4-speed automatic
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Live axle, coil springs
BRAKES F/R: Vented discs/drums
WEIGHT: 3000-3250 lb (all body styles)
196,185 (between 1987 and 1993, including 48,669 notchbacks, 98,880 hatchbacks, and 48,636 convertibles)
(1991 LX 5.0 hatch)
(all body styles)
It’s an American muscle car from an era when the species was endangered. Unlike the hatchback- or convertible-only Mustang GT, the LX 5.0 could be ordered as a very tasty notchback coupe, too. A not-insignificant 60 pounds lighter than the hatchback, the notchback was the five-oh of choice for drag racers (if not for autocrossers, thanks to the Ford’s famously iffy handling). Finding any LX unfettered by forced-induction engine mods or Batmobile bodywork can be tricky, but at least stock sheetmetal and most trim pieces are plentiful.