How the Mustang II left a lasting mark on hot rodding

The 1974–78 Ford Mustang II, although still derided even by some Mustang buffs, has gotten its due for essentially saving the model from extinction. This misunderstood Mustang also left a surprising legacy on the hot rodding world.

Peruse magazine articles about hotrods or modified muscle cars, and inevitably you’ll see “Mustang II front suspension” mentioned. If the car was built in the 1970s or ’80s, there’s a pretty good chance the front end did indeed come out of a Mustang II. Later, the aftermarket adopted and improved upon the design, though most still call their systems “Mustang II suspension” for instant familiarity.

The seemingly odd transference of Mustang II chassis technology to the hotrod world did not occur by accident. Rodders looking to use an independent front suspension rather than the more traditional solid beam front axle had tried different approaches, including Corvair suspension or bolting in a full Camaro front sub frame. Such installations were difficult and fell short of the benefits builders sought.

Heidts’ basic Mustang II front suspension kit can give a 1965–70 Mustang substantially improved handling, steering, and braking performance (Heidts Suspension Systems)
Heidts’ basic Mustang II front suspension kit can give a 1965–70 Mustang substantially improved handling, steering, and braking performance (Heidts Suspension Systems)

Chuck Lombardo, who gained fame in the 1970s through his California Street Rods shop, is usually credited with finding essentially a bolt-in solution in 1974: the Mustang II front suspension with its rack-and-pinion steering. Among its benefits were compact packaging and good geometry for agile handling. The trend spread, then got a jolt in the 1980s from an unlikely source: the Shay, a replica of the Ford Model A that was sold through Ford dealers.

Built from 1979–82, the Shay used Pinto running gear and the Pinto/Mustang II front suspension. The company had geared up to build 10,000 Model A replicas, but ultimately made only about half that. The remaining parts stocks, including the front ends, were sold at auction.

Gary Heidt, whose Heidt’s Hot Rod Shop grew into Heidts Suspension Systems, explained in a 2003 Hot Rod magazine feature how his shop and others purchased those leftover suspension systems and packaged them into aftermarket kits. Heidt said the basic Pinto/Mustang II system easily fit 1933 and later Fords, but there were clearance problems with the iconic ’32 Ford. Addressing the issue, Heidt and others began designing improved versions of the basic Mustang II setup.

The Heidts Superride II front suspension is based on the Mustang II design but is for more performance-focused 1965–70 Mustang builds (Heidts Suspension Systems)
The Heidts Superride II front suspension is based on the Mustang II design but is for more performance-focused 1965–70 Mustang builds (Heidts Suspension Systems)

Today, many vendors sell “Mustang II” front suspension systems that share no parts with the original version. Heidts Suspension Systems, which Wallace Leyshon purchased in 2010 and has since expanded, still produces a “Mustang II” front suspension, and Heidts Chief Application Engineer Mike Ruth said it remains popular with hotrod builders and owners of first-generation Mustangs. “For under $2,000, you can install the Mustang II front end and put in any motor. It gives you disc brakes and rack and pinion steering. The difference in handling, ride, and steering is incredible.”

The “any motor” claim—which is also made by other aftermarket vendors—has long been a Mustang II suspension benefit. The low-profile coil-over-shock design enables a car builder to cut out an early Mustang’s shock towers to make room for larger engines.

“Our front ends will accommodate every Ford motor, from the Windsor small block to today’s Coyote and the 429-series big blocks,” Ruth said.

The Heidts Pro-G front suspension is designed to appeal to Pro Touring builders and autocross enthusiasts (Heidts Suspension Systems)
The Heidts Pro-G front suspension is designed to appeal to Pro Touring builders and autocross enthusiasts (Heidts Suspension Systems)

Ruth pointed out that, while the kit shares factory geometry and alignment specs with the original Mustang II front end, it is superior in terms of construction and strength. The biggest change—also seen on other aftermarket kits—is the use of tubular control arms, instead of the Mustang II’s stamped steel arms. The cross member on the Heidts’ kit, made from 10-gauge steel, likewise is more robust than the original stamped version. The modern Mustang II kits facilitate larger brakes than the original, as well.

“We use a factory 11-inch front rotor with GM caliper originally designed for bigger, heavier cars,” Ruth said, “so stopping ability is also much better in a 3,000-pound Mustang.”

Heidts and other vendors have also expanded into more advanced proprietary suspension systems, including independent rear suspension. Heidts’ Superride II system is based on the basic Mustang II layout but is engineered for more serious street machines. Road racers and autocross enthusiasts can step up to the company’s Pro G front end, which includes six-piston calipers and a thick, splined sway bar.