The story of the fourth-generation Ford Mustang is really that of three separate cars the 1979 Mustang, the 1989 Probe, and, ultimately, the 1994 Mustang. The three cars and programs spanning the better part of two decades encompass the seismic shifts in the automobile market during that tumultuous era.
The 1979 Mustang was born in an era when safety and fuel economy regulations were already the norm. After launching the 1974 Mustang II with only four- and six-cylinder engines, Ford heard the customer demands that Mustang always should have a sporty V8 option. However, they still wanted more interior room, handling refinement and progressive styling. The stodgy shapes of the â70s were getting tired, so this thoroughly modern âFoxâ Mustang delivered on all fronts.
While the 1979 model had restored much of the spirit of the original 1965 model, its introduction was followed by a confluence of world politics that would begin changing consumer opinions about the segment. The sting of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo with shortages, outrageous gasoline prices, long lines and fuel rationing left a deep scar in the driving publicâs mind. Those fears were revisited with the 1979 Iranian oil crisis.
President Carter made his infamous âCrisis of Confidenceâ speech that year, and fuel economy was again a primary concern of buyers. Frugal and even sporty front-wheel drive offerings from Japanese and German competition were grabbing ever more market share. The world was turning to front-wheel drive as a way to save money at the pump, Ford took notice.
By the mid-1980s, Mustang sales were flagging, and the decision was made to phase out the rear-wheel-drive Fox platform out and move to front-wheel drive. Work began on an all-new platform produced in partnership with Mazda. The plan called for this new car to be introduced as âMustangâ and sold alongside the Fox-platform car, which would be relabeled âMustang Classic.â
As âMustangâ picked up in popularity, the âClassicâ would be quietly put to bed. The entire development budget for Mustang shifted to this FWD program, and by early 1987 prototypes were testing around Dearborn. This huge shift in vehicle strategy began leaking out, and angry enthusiasts began a letter-writing campaign in protest. On April 13, 1987, Autoweek magazine published a cover story titled âThe Next Mustang,â which laid out the plan in full.
As hundreds of thousands of letters poured in, the overwhelming public outcry against converting the Mustang to a front-wheel-drive platform led the company to make a rare strategy change. Too much money had been spent to abandon the program entirely. Instead, the new car adopted the name that had been used on a series of aerodynamic concepts, and the Probe was introduced in 1988 as a 1989 model.
The design refresh that was planned for Mustang at the same time went ahead, minus the âClassicâ suffix on the badge. In many ways the strategy had not changed â the Probe and Mustang would sit in the same showroom and compete directly. Program management considered this the purest way to decide the future of the Mustang.
The Probe was expected to handily outsell the Mustang and validate the original strategy that created it and lead to end the rear-wheel-drive platform. There was just one small glitch in the grand plan: Mustang sales picked up and Probe sales faltered. The market had spoken, and a new Mustang was ordered in 1989 - with the internal project code of SN-95. Despite the Probe situation, two parallel redesign proposals were launched â another attempt at a front-drive car and a thoroughly contemporary rear-drive layout with traditional long-nose/short-rear-deck proportions.
There was very little money for the unexpected program, so engineers would have to be creative. The front-wheel-drive concept proceeded along interesting lines, using the CT-20 platform that underpinned the compact Escort of the time, an even smaller car than the Probe. Many of these concepts never made it past the drawing-board stages but a significant evolution in styling was evident over the months of design work. A variety of shapes were considered, including radical fastbacks, shooting brakes and two-seaters with combinations of retrospective and futuristic design elements.
Ultimately the only FWD clay model to be produced was a conservative, albeit handsome, car that would have been right at home next to the Probe in the showroom. High-level engineering talks were kicked off to examine the feasibility of packaging the forthcoming 4.6-liter V8, although no transaxle was available to handle the output. Ultimately, the decision was made that the market would simply not support a Mustang based on Fordâs entry-level compact car, no matter how extensive the redesign was. The writing was on the wall, and the CT-20-based effort ground to a halt by the end of 1990 while the RWD concept moved forward.
Mustang, however, remained in a precarious position. Failure would put the car's future in peril entirely, so successful execution was crucial. Because there was no budget for an all-new platform, the new car would ride on an updated version of an existing platform. A shorter wheelbase version of the still-fresh 1989 Thunderbird was considered because it featured a fully independent suspension, but it was deemed too expensive to hit the Mustang price target. Thus a significantly refined version of the existing Fox chassis - dubbed Fox-4 - was approved.
Approximately 80 percent of the platform was reworked and topped with a completely different skin. Program manager John Coletti wanted the car to have a more aggressive character. Rather than a vehicle for every demographic, it would move toward a more performance-oriented position. After eschewing most classic Mustang design cues on the third-generation model, design director Patrick Schiavone brought back some heritage elements like the side C-scallop, open grille with galloping pony emblem, tri-bar taillights and a dual-cockpit cabin.
Early styling proposals were unimpressive, pedestrian even, but eventually three different themes were commissioned. Each was assigned a famous name from mild to wild - Bruce Jenner, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rambo.
In the competition among the three themes, each featured the design cues that said Mustang, but stretched and tweaked in different ways. Jenner was an extremely conservative design â rounded edges, smooth curves and styling in line with what would become the âOvoidâ design language that would eventually debut on the DN101 Taurus in 1996.
Rambo was a highly aggressive design with deep front and rear fascia sculpting, a fastback shape, strong shoulder lines and sculpted fender wells. Schwarzenegger split the difference. The car wore its proportions well and featured a traditional but muscular coupe profile, good interior room and visibility, modern styling and a set of tri-bar tail lights stacked horizontally rather than the traditional vertical layout. This theme was selected as the basis for the 1994 Mustang.
By the time the new Mustang hit the streets in 1993, the Schwarzenegger theme did undergo some additional development. The lower front fascia was opened up for cooling and aesthetic purposes. The hood inlets were tamed down with inserts, and the wing mirrors and spoiler were refined for aerodynamic performance. Speaking of which, for a brief period an interesting roof spoiler was considered for the SVT Cobra coupe version of the car, but was dismissed due to cost issues.
The 1994 Mustang debuted to huge acclaim with Motor Trend naming it Car of the Year and sales figures proved more than satisfactory. The success of the SN-95 Mustang paved the way toward continued production for the Mustang, as well as eventual dominance in its segment. After a âNew Edgeâ design refresh in 1999, SN-95 would return the brand to its previous position as a performance icon, with variants including the Bullitt, Mach 1, and SVT Cobra and the ultimate iteration in the track-bred Mustang Cobra R.