For decades, the Mustang II has been the pony car that enthusiasts love to hate. Making matters worse, their mocking of the model was echoed endlessly by the automotive press.
John Clor is the Enthusiast Communications Manager for Ford Performance, and promoting the Mustang is his job. His loyalty to the Mustang II, however, is personal. He’s experienced the ribbing that Mustang II owners endure because he drives a Cobra II, a model that’s long drawn criticism for wearing Shelby-like stripes but without the performance engine to back up the image. Clor upgraded his car’s original 302-cid V-8 for more power, and he has a second Cobra II undergoing restoration.
That the Mustang II, 43 years after its introduction, is still derided by some as a re-skinned version of Ford’s Pinto economy car upsets Clor. The backstory, largely unfamiliar to enthusiasts today, is far more complex.
As the Mustang grew more muscular and larger through the late 1960s, sales dropped. Lee Iacocca, the Ford executive considered the father of the original Mustang, advocated development of a smaller and more economical second-generation model. The success of Ford’s own German-built Capri sport coupe, sold by Lincoln-Mercury dealerships, helped validate the new direction.
Following Iacocca’s edict to build a highly refined small car – a “little jewel” as he called it – the Mustang II introduced numerous measures to quiet the ride, including an isolated front subframe. The Mustang II rode on a longer wheelbase than the Pinto, and the two shared only a few components. The Mustang II also brought a higher level of interior fit and finish than was seen in earlier Mustangs.
“There’s less Pinto in a Mustang II than there is Falcon in a 1965 Mustang,” Clor said.
The Mustang II arrived in August 1973 with a choice of coupe or fastback (hatchback) body styles. Two engines were available: an 88-horsepower 2.3-liter four-cylinder or the 2.8-liter, 105-horsepower V-6 from the Capri. A 13-second 0-60 time for the V-6 Mach 1 impressed no one.
Greatly improved fuel economy compared with the previous Mustang, however, ensured the car’s success when the oil embargo that began in October 1973 sent sales of small cars soaring. Ford built 386,000 Mustang IIs for 1974, the most since 1967. Mustang II sales reached 1.1 million over the model’s five-year run.
A 302-cid V-8 with a two-barrel carburetor became optional for 1975. Its 139 horsepower for 1977-78 models matched up with the 305 cubic-inch V-8 offered in the Chevy Monza and was, Clor points out, comparable to the 289 two-barrel V-8 in 1960s Mustangs. For a Car Craft magazine review, the Pro Stock drag racer Don Nicholson – Dyno Don to fans – coaxed a 17-second quarter-mile time at 80.7 mph from a stock 1978 Mustang II King Cobra. For the record, that was slightly quicker than Road & Track recorded with a 1967 289 four-barrel coupe.
Clor says it takes no small measure of perseverance to upgrade a Mustang II with equipment like larger-than-stock wheels or a five-speed transmission; parts for bolt-on modifications are rare. The Mustangii.net website offers a list of Mustang II parts vendors and other resources.
The truth is, of course, that Ford’s downsized Mustang arrived in a somber era, when underhood power had atrophied drastically. But the days of Mustang II as an easy target for derision may be coming to an end, as Mustang club gatherings become more welcoming to the 1974-78 models.
“I spent the last 10 years trying to put the Mustang II into the context of the times,” Clor said. “I’m probably that car’s biggest champion at Ford.”
Clor’s ’77 was one of more than 80 Mustang IIs at the First Ever Mustang II Reunion and Cobra II 40th Anniversary on August 21, the day after the Woodward Dream Cruise. He organized the gathering for the annual Mustang Memories show held at Ford’s headquarters, along with a dinner featuring Mustang II designers and engineers as guests.
Still, the sized-for-the-times pony car served an important role in Ford’s history. “Without the Mustang II’s success, the Mustang might not have continued,” he said.