DEARBORN - “Thou shall never do a slantback front end.” That was the commandment from Gene Bordinat, Ford's vice president of design, “Henry Ford II only wants vertical front ends, and he'll show us the door if we ever try anything like it.”
This mantra hung over the early development of the third-generation of Ford's wildly successful Mustang. In 1975 Ford designers began the job of redesigning the iconic pony car for the coming 1980s. The car and country had been through a roller coaster 20-year period and both were in something of an identity crisis.
What defined a Mustang? Compact value and efficiency? A luxurious personal tourer? A muscle-bound performance bargain?
Two teams of designers in Dearborn and a third from the Ford-owned Ghia studio in Italy began competing for the privilege of crafting an all-new Mustang. By the fall of 1975, full scale sketches and clay models were being turned out and refined.
From the outset the only thing that was certain was that the finished product would be a very different sort of steed from Mustang II. That car had been a response to growing concerns in the late-1960s about fuel economy, creeping vehicle size, and safety.
The '79 Mustang would be based on Ford's new “Fox” midsize platform and given a tidy 100-inch wheelbase. A minimum of two bodystyles were targeted – a more conservative notchback first and then a racier fastback model. Compared to Mustang II, a higher priority was placed on the fun-to-drive aspects, interior space, limiting weight and improved aerodynamics.
Within these parameters the teams worked their magic and things were proceeding along the path laid out by the boss. Many of the early fiberglass bucks resemble a sleeker, more refined take on the Mustang II's design elements. Bucketed headlights, a formal upright grille, and a lower sportier stance. Lots of variations were presented including larger personal luxury cars, vinyl tops, surprisingly compact economy versions – there was even a woody station wagon design!
In April 1975, everything changed when Jack Telnack returned to Dearborn after an overseas tour of duty that included a stint at Ford of Australia and then as the vice president of design at Ford of Europe. Telnack was a rising star in Ford's design department and eventually succeeded Gene Bordinat when he retired in 1980.
Telnack took over as the lead for one of the competing groups. Seeing the boxy designs that had been put to full scale, he wondered aloud why sleeker, more European-style design elements weren't being introduced. They existed in sketches but not in the cars physical models. Telnack pushed his team to introduce those elements as well as the previously forbidden slantback grille. With this newly unleashed creative freedom, less traditional shapes began to emerge by early 1976.
What's perhaps most interesting is the aggregation of different design elements from various styling concepts. The basic proportions for the fastback and notchback were developed by February of '76 and the winning design themes from Telnack's group were complete by July. Refining the details meant remixing different styling elements from several earlier models - the laid back grille came from a June clay model, quarter window louvers from April, side strakes were avoided, and four sealed beam headlights allowed for a low, wedge-like hood line.
The result was unlike anything else on the road. Modern and European-inspired but clearly American. What would become the 1979 Mustang had significantly more leg and shoulder room than the Mustang II, a tidy 2,700-pound curb weight and improved outward visibility. The new shape was Ford’s first serious stab at reducing air resistance with the lowest drag coefficient on the road at the time – 0.44 for the fastback and 0.46 for the notchback. The wedge hood and higher seating position even allowed the driver to see the road surface four feet closer to the car. Topping off the new look, stylists even altered the famous galloping Mustang logo, making it more muscular with a longer stride.
Today, we know these cars as the “Fox Body” Mustangs. They went on to be one of the most long-lived and successful platforms in the history of the nameplate with a production that lasted from 1979 to 1993. Along the way, Ford reintroduced the Mustang GT in 1982 and the Mustang convertible in 1983. In 1984 the limited production Mustang SVO was launched followed by the first SVT Cobra in 1993.
Fox Mustangs remain popular with street and drag racers for their light weight and compact design. More than 2.6 million third-generation Mustangs eventually ended up parked in driveways across the country. Click through the gallery above to see how the styling on this much loved car came together.
Click here for the original 1979 Ford Mustang press release.
This illustration displays a basic proportion similar to the final car, though with significantly more elaborate detailing and side intakes
Very futuristic styling was on the drawing board and even made it onto the 1979 Probe I concept, though very little translated to production
An extremely formal interpretation of the Mustang, the rear window louvers would carry on although not much else was ever used
This full-scale tape drawing is for a more conservative, economy-focused design
With the overlay lifted out of the way, the fastback profile is visible. Compared to the eventual production car, this one features a longer almost wagon-like roof. Though the details and rear window treatment are much different, the basic idea is getting there
AA full-scale mockup that carries over some Mustang II front end styling elements in a squared-off, more formal treatment
One of the sportier early concepts. The Fiat-inspired B-pillar and forward leaning grille never made it very far
The lone wagon-back concept of the bunch. Designers were looking at every possibility for the Mustang, including making it even more practical for small families
Another rather conservative design, and since it was the 1970s a vinyl roof concept was expected. This model uses much more chrome around the daylight opening and features unique door handles tucked into the back of the door and accessed via a recess on the body, similar to the 1989 Ford Probe
One of the sleeker designs, the forward sweeping B-pillar and overall packaging suggest this proposal may have been a two-seater only, rather than a 2+2
The influence of Japanese sportscars is seen here in the rear-sweeping B-pillar and wraparound rear window
This notchback proposal features a much more muscular treatment for the hood and front endy reminiscent of earlier GT350 and GT500 cars. The slantback front end and rear quarter window treatment are also beginning to take shape here
The silhouette of production 1979 Mustang notchback is clearly visible in this model. A few tweaks to the front end and side glass are all that remains
The winning notchback design theme features the profile that would make it to production two years later. After hours in the wind tunnel, a bottom-breather air-inlet was added below the bumper and most of the egg-crate grille was blocked off for reduced aerodynamic drag
The taillights were just one of many areas where the third generation Mustang deviated from tradition. Rather than three light elements used on previous Mustangs, a more contemporary grid pattern was used. The final production design tweaked this styling with narrower lamps that didn’t extend all the way to the license plate pocket
The winning design for the fastback. Like the notchback, the grille was replaced with a more aerodynamic unit after testing, but essentially all the other styling elements remained unchanged except for the removal of the headlamp covers
The rear received only minor changes to the chamfer above the tail lights and the tail light changes