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Terrible Cars that Weren’t Actually Terrible: The Ford Mustang II

The truth about the Mustang everyone loves to hate.

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographer

It is widely accepted that the 1974-78 Ford Mustang II represented a low point in Mustang history. No question, the Pinto-based subcompact was a terrible Mustang—but was it a terrible car? We say no. Like the AMC Gremlin of a few years before, the Mustang II was really a much better car than history remembers.

The Incredible Expanding Mustang

From 1967 onward, the Mustang had a problem: it was getting bigger and fatter. At a 1968 Ford stockholder meeting, Anna Muccioli, an artist who owned 200 shares of Ford stock, famously addressed CEO Henry Ford II.

"I have just one complaint," she said. "Thunderbird came out years ago. It was a beautiful sports car. And then you blew it up to the point where it lost its identity. And now the same thing is happening to the Mustang. I have a '65 Mustang, and I don't like what's happening. They're blowing that one up. Why can't you just leave a sports car small?"

Muccioli was not alone in her opinion. The small-car segment was growing rapidly, and yet the Mustang had been gaining weight every year since 1967. The bigger and heavier the Mustang grew, the fewer Ford sold.

"The Mustang market never left us," Lee Iacocca, father of the original Mustang, often said. "We left it." In December 1970, as Ford's new president, Iacocca ordered a smaller, trimmer Mustang for the 1974 model year.

Ford Mustang II: Let's Get Small

What Ford came up with was really small and really trim—a car derived not from the mid-size Torino or even the compact Maverick, but from the subcompact Pinto. Compared to the outgoing 1973 Mustang, the new Ford Mustang II was more than a foot shorter, 4-inches narrower, and 900 pounds lighter.

In order to keep weight and costs down, Ford took a gamble: It offered only four- and six-cylinder engines.

"I've driven a V-8 in this car, and it's fantastic," Iacocca told MotorTrend in September 1973. "But to keep some discipline in the system, we kept it down to the smaller engines. Otherwise it'd be overweight before we got it on the market."

Still, he saw the potential issues.

"It'll be compromised. It's not gonna slam you back in the seat. And if you put air and automatic on a [2.3-liter four-cylinder], you do not exactly have a bomb on your hands."

Instead, Ford trusted the market research and spent money on an upscale interior and two body styles—notchback and fastback—both of which did well in California clinics.

The Ford Mustang II and the Energy Crisis

Would buyers accept a small, pseudo-luxury Ford Mustang II without a V-8 engine as a sporty car? We may never know for sure. In October 1973, less than a month after the 1973 Ford Mustang II went on sale, the Middle East's oil-producing nations announced that, in retaliation for supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War, they were cutting production. They were also banning oil exports to several countries, including the United States. Oil prices skyrocketed, gasoline was rationed, and blocks-long lines formed at filling stations.

For Ford, this was serendipity wrought huge. MotorTrend named the Mustang II its 1974 Car of the Year, writing that it was "the right size at the right time for the greatest number of motorists. Not small enough to be cramping, and not big enough to be excessive."

Iaccoca was more succinct.

"Sometimes I think we're luckier than we are smart," he said. "Here we come up with a 20-mile-per-gallon car in the middle of a fuel crisis." Sales for 1974 Ford Mustang II totaled 386,000, the best year for Mustang since 1967.

But what if the OPEC embargo and the ensuing energy crisis hadn't happened? Would the Mustang II still have been a hit? It's impossible to say for certain, but we think the evidence points to an overwhelming yes.

What Did Mid-1970s Car Buyers Really Want?

MT published its Car of the Year decision after October, but even before the energy-crisis kicked off, both MT and other publications praised the new Ford Mustang II. It was universally acknowledged that the car wasn't terribly quick; the equine-aware will note the Mustang II's chrome-horse logo was reconfigured from a gallop to a canter. Still, its trim size and rack-and-pinion steering made the Ford Mustang II feel nimble compared to traditional American cars. And the public liked its upscale (by standards of the day) interior and luxury-themed Ghia model.

Remember, in the early 1970s, the oil crisis wasn't the only factor influencing consumer attitudes. Baby boomers, a focal point of both the Vietnam War and 1960s cultural revolution, now faced adulthood amid the realities of a crashing economy and rampant inflation. The unfolding Watergate scandal further eroded confidence in authority. Environmentalism was starting to take hold, and increasing numbers of women were joining the white-collar workforce. This was the birth of the "Me generation", young adults who rejected the idea of "Keeping up with the Joneses" and who looked inward toward their own self-satisfaction. Popular trends included self-help, jogging, and small "personal luxury" cars.

On the automotive front, automakers rushed to shed their muscle and pony cars, sales of which had been stagnating since the decade began. The Dodge Challenger, Plymouth Barracuda, and AMC Javelin were all discontinued, and the Mercury Cougar, once a Mustang clone, moved to the mid-size Torino platform. The Chevrolet Camaro was nearly axed, saved only through the efforts of company enthusiasts and dealers.

Just as Ford had derived the Mustang II from the Pinto, General Motors developed a similar-sized car from the Vega, though it wasn't marketed as a Camaro or Firebird replacement; it was offered as the 1975 Chevrolet Monza, Pontiac Sunbird, Buick Skyhawk, and Oldsmobile Starfire. Americans wanted smaller, more efficient, more upscale cars, and the Ford Mustang II gave them what they wanted.

Why Did the Ford Mustang II Became an Object of Hate?

While the Ford Mustang II started off as a hit, it wasn't long before it became a joke. By the 1980s, people were already thumbing their noses at it. Why? What changed?

As soon as the energy crises ended, Americans gravitated back toward bigger cars. Sales of the Camaro, nearly abandoned by GM in 1973, began to rise steadily. Ford Mustang II sales never repeated their 1974 high, though they did remain fairly steady and even increased slightly as oil prices began to rise again in 1978.

Before the public could get sick of the Mustang II, Ford had an all-new replacement ready to go. Based on the Fox platform that underpinned the new-for-'78 Fairmont, the 1979 Mustang was trim in size but not cramped. With an engine lineup ranging from an economical four to a (reasonably) strong V-8—and including a high-tech turbo four—it had the same broad range as the original Mustang. Its contemporary styling made both the Camaro and the Mustang II look like 1970s throwbacks. Rather than leave it alone, Ford embarked on a year-by-year program of improvements to the Mustang's engines and chassis.

The 1980s saw the economy accelerate like an old-school Detroit muscle car, and the 1970s began to feel like a bad dream. Old staples like 8-track tapes, wide ties, and avocado-colored kitchen appliances became kitschy jokes. The Ford Mustang II found its history being rewritten: No longer was it a nicely sized alternative to the land yachts car buyers of the early '70s were eager to escape. Instead, it became the cheaply-engineered effort of a complacent American auto industry on the cusp of getting its ass kicked by the Japanese. The Ford Mustang II quickly seemed to embody everything that was wrong with the 1970s, and it became the go-to terrible car.

The Sensible Car That History Forgot

Today, it's nearly impossible to find an intact Mustang II. Ford built more than 1.1 million in a five-year run, and most went to the crusher unloved. When the occasional survivor shows up for sale on auction blocks, it still sells for peanuts.

It's true the Ford Mustang II was a miserable sports car. Aside from some nimbleness inherent in its small size, it wasn't particularly good to drive, and even the V-8 model that showed up in 1975 wasn't a stellar performer (0-60 in 9.6 seconds, quarter mile in 17.5 at 78 mph). No question, the 1974-78 Mustang II represents a pause in Mustang performance between the original and the Fox-body cars.

Still, the Ford Mustang II deserves more respect than it receives. Ford intended it to be a humble car, and it fulfilled its design requirements, did its job, and then faded into history.

As the "No Boring Cars" publication, perhaps it's hypocritical of us to show sympathy for the Ford Mustang II, a boring car if ever there was one. But we at Automobile are not merely car enthusiasts; we're fans of the entire car industry, and the Mustang II is a historically significant example of a vehicle that was right for its time. We acknowledge the Ford Mustang II was a terrible Mustang—but history shows it wasn't really a terrible car.

 

1974 Ford Mustang II Specifications
PRICE: $2,895 (base)
ENGINE: 2.3L OHV 8-valve I-4/88 hp; 2.8L OHV 12-valve V-6/105 hp
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed manual; 3-speed automatic
LAYOUT: 2-door, 4 passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
L x W x H: 175.0 x 70.2 x 49.6-49.9 in
WHEELBASE: 96.2 in
WEIGHT: 2,679-2,650 lb
0-60 MPH: 14.2 sec (V-6 w/manual transmission)