After several years of the derided (but popular) Mustang II, Ford’s all-new 1979 model — based on the Fairmont and its versatile “Fox” platform — was seen as a return to form for the pioneering pony car. And it would stay in production for nearly 15 years … a span covering the entire decade of the 80s and running straight from the "malaise" era to the post-regulatory horsepower renaissance that continues to this day.
Along the way, the Mustang become a true 80s performance icon … after a few bleak years. Here’s a completely subjective, suitable for arguing, ranking of the Mustangs of the 80s, from old gray mare to powerful stallion.
Just one year after the Fox-body Mustang’s attention-grabbing debut, Ford was signaling to merge out of the fast lane. The “5.0”-liter V8 (really a 4.9, but that didn’t look as cool on the fender callouts) disappeared from the order sheet, as Ford chased higher corporate average fuel economy figures by under-boring the block to make a 4.2-liter engine producing a mere 120 horsepower. The best-performing Mustang that year was the Cobra, which came standard with a 2.3-liter, 130-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a snake graphic on the hood big enough to compete with the Pontiac Trans Am’s famous hood bird.
Buyers could also select base-model and Ghia-level Mustangs, and while a full convertible wasn’t available yet, the two-door could be ordered with a fake-convertible “carriage roof.” It’s sort of a metaphor for the early ‘80s Mustang, right? Fake ragtop, fake performance … but it all would change soon enough.
“America’s Most Popular Sports Car!” proclaimed the 1981 Mustang’s sales brochure, featuring a red hatchback with the newly-available-for-’81 T-tops, and cliched shots of a wild horse running free across the prairie. And as it turns out, the T-tops were the only big change to arrive in the Mustang’s third model year on the Fox platform.
But Ford clearly didn’t need to change much. The Jack Telnack-designed body still looked good, and the order sheet still offered enough variety to let a buyer order anything from a Recaro-seated sports coupe to a near-luxury runabout.
This was the car that helped lead the way out of the malaise era. Ford took another crack at the “5.0,” and reintroduced a high output version with 157 horsepower … still modest by modern standards, but a welcome increase from the previous two years. Mustangs could be purchased in L, GL, GLX and GT flavors, all with the 2.3-liter four-cylinder standard.
The turbo-four was gone this year, as were the “Cobra” and “Ghia” appearance packages. However, Mustang buyers could still order their ponies with a full vinyl or carriage roof, not to mention an eight-track tape player. The ‘70s and ‘80s were waging war on the Mustang spec sheet … and a winner would be declared soon.
For its fifth year on the Fox platform, Ford gave the Mustang its first makeover, with a sleek new nose, updated taillights and new interior finishes. Ford also took a little off the top, rolling out the first Mustang convertible since 1973. There was more excitement under the hood as well: horsepower for the high-output “5.0” V8 went up to 175, and a 3.8-liter V6 replaced the venerable 3.3-liter straight-six.
’83 also marked a comeback for the turbo-four, which was only available on the GT model. It was fuel injected and put out 145 horsepower in this iteration, but was more expensive and less powerful than the V8.
This year saw the biggest makeover for the Fox-platform Mustang since its introduction eight years earlier. The “four-eye” front end was replaced by a more aerodynamic fascia with flush composite headlamps. Taillights and side windows were also smoothed out, and Ford gave the Mustang an all-new interior with an updated dashboard and door panels.
Under the hood, the “5.0”’s output increased again to 225 horsepower. Outside, the GT got a flashy ground-effects package and big turbine wheels to help it keep up visually with Chevrolet’s Camaro IROC-Z.
The ’88 Mustang was largely a carryover year after 1987’s major makeover. Buyers could choose an LX coupe, hatchback or convertible — or the GT in hatch and convertible trim. For the second year, Mustang was available with just two engines: the 2.3-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine and the mighty “5.0” fuel-injected V8.
Fortunately for Mustang fans who didn’t cotton to the GT’s out-there flash, Ford again made the go-faster bits available on the more conservatively-styled LX, creating one of the great performance car bargains of the ‘80s.
It’s around this time that Ford began to focus on the successor to the Fox platform Mustang. After an uproar scuttled plans to put the storied pony car name on what would become the “Probe,” Ford engineers and planners began to heavily revise the Fox platform … for what would become the 1994 Mustang.
As for the one in showrooms for 1989, it was largely the same as the previous two model years: coupe, hatchback and convertible, in LX and GT trims, with either four-cylinder or V8 powertrains. Virtually the only change apart from colors was the absence of the T-top as an option. The ‘80s were ending.
This year was marked by the introduction of possibly the most ambitious Mustang since the Boss models of the ‘70s: the SVO. Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations group -- later renamed "SVT" -- dropped a 175-horsepower, turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine under the hood, attached two extra shock absorbers to the live rear axle to tamp down wheel hop, and slapped a Euro-inspired “biplane” spoiler on the rear hatch.
The SVO was the ultimate performance Mustang of the ‘80s, designed to go fast around corners as well as in a straight line. It was also more expensive than the V8-powered GT, and therefore not as popular, but as an engineering exercise it was a standout.
The Mustang went in for a nose job for ’85, coming out with an open-“mouth” grille replacing the ’84’s horizontally-slatted front fascia. The GT’s V8 jumped from 175 to 210 horsepower, while the low-rent L trim line was kicked to the curb. The SVO became the sole forced-induction Mustang with the cancellation of the Turbo GT.
Halfway through the model year, the SVO came in for a big boost, literally: the 2.3-liter turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine was cranked up to 200 horsepower (on premium fuel), and Ford fitted flush composite headlamps to replace the sealed-beam lights it had at launch. The most European Mustang finally looked the part.
Why is the ’86 at the top of the tree? Because it represents the best mix of products and performance of the decade. In its final model year, the SVO carried over its mid-year improvements, including its more powerful turbo-four. The GT’s V8 switched from a four-barrel carburetor to electronic fuel injection … and while power dropped slightly, its 200 horsepower was still plenty for the 2,800-pound hatchback.
And all of the Mustangs for ’86 were distinguished by subtle exterior details. Even the boy-racer GT’s adornments were limited to specific bodyside moldings, a contrasting “GT” callout on the hood, and ten-slot dish-style alloys with covered lug nuts. It was a far cry from the “look at me” style of the Camaro and Firebird, but one that found 224,000 buyers that year.