One member of the Mustang family won’t have a very high-profile role at this week’s 50th anniversary celebrations: the 1974-78 Mustang II.
But if you reconsider the case of the Mustang II, you may find it is time to give the car the respect it is due.
Had the Mustang II not been a massive sales success -- more than a million were sold in five model years -- the Mustang story may have ended in the fall of 1978.
As with the original Mustang, Ford’s timing with the Mustang II was impeccable. The landscape in fall 1973 on the eve of the Mustang II’s launch looked like this:
Gasoline prices were rising.
Emissions regulations were tightening.
Horsepower was turning into hoarse power as big engines lost compression and were being strangled with air pumps, EGR valves, catalytic converters and other performance-robbing equipment.
Insurance prices for performance cars were increasing.
The 55 mph speed limit was looming.
America was downsizing -- big cars were out, and small cars were in.
The smaller and more fuel-efficient Mustang II rolled into Ford showrooms just weeks before several Middle Eastern countries declared an oil embargo. By March 1974, the price of a barrel of oil quadrupled, and Mustang IIs were flying out of dealer showrooms.
The last of the first-generation Mustangs, the 1973 models, had grown larger, heavier and thirstier since the April 1964 debut. The best fuel economy one could expect out of the thriftiest six-cylinder ’73 Mustang was about 17 mpg on the highway at 75 mph.
The ’74 Mustang II, with its tappety 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, delivered 23 mpg at 75, a 35 percent increase over the ’73. And it was capable of close to 30 mpg when driven easily.
The Mustang II is looked upon with derision today by the Mustang faithful because its Pinto underpinnings robbed the car of much of its sporty driving characteristics. And it’s true the Mustang’s 1964-66 styling cues didn’t work as well on the shrunken 1974 coupe version. But buyers weren’t too critical. Ford sold 385,993 Mustang II’s the first year, making it one of the best debuts in Ford history.
In each of its five model years, the Mustang II was improved. The 302 V-8 returned and was gradually given more power as Ford engineers learned the intricacies of emissions systems.
The Cobra II was wildly popular, easily keeping Ford in the sporty car race against the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, its two main domestic competitors, and Japanese imports such as the Toyota Celica.
Ford car marketing manager Steve Ling told Automotive News recently that even though the Mustang II “isn’t the most iconic” Mustang of the last 50 years, the car met Ford’s expectations in the 1970s and did the job it was engineered to do. “A lot of people at the time liked the smaller size and the lighter weight,” he said.
On the lobby floor at Ford Motor Co. World Headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., about two dozen Mustangs from all eras are on display, including a plain brown ’75 coupe and a white and red ’76 Cobra II.
Ford acknowledges the Mustang II’s place in history. When will collectors?