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Though the Mustang II is heralded for selling relatively well and keeping the lineage going, it never stoked the passions of Mustang enthusiasts. Soon after it was introduced, Ford was already hard at work on its eventual successor. While the II went a long way toward making the Mustang more fuel efficient, Ford stared down new Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations as it developed the third-generation Mustang. These regulations and a prior stint in Europe by then new Ford designer Jack Telnak played into the development of the sleek, lightweight Fox Mustang.
With fuel economy and economies of scale in mind, the Blue Oval decided to build the Mustang on a version of the corporate Fox chassis, which was shortened by 5.1 inches for the sportier vehicle. This platform launched with the '78 Ford Fairmont and Mercury Zephyr and was designed to accommodate numerous vehicles from sports cars to four- and five-door family vehicles. It would eventually become the foundation of the Ford Granada, LTD, and Thunderbird, as well as numerous other vehicles under other brand umbrellas, including the Lincoln Continental, Lincoln Mark VII, Mercury Capri, Mercury Cougar, and Mercury Marquis.
The '79 Mustang began as a coupe that was restyled as a hatchback. The resulting vehicle was the most aerodynamic Mustang to date, with the hatchback delivering a slippery drag coefficient of .44, which help achieved Ford's mission of improved fuel economy.
While it was a car born of gas crises and government regulations, the Fox Mustang launched a new era of performance for the beloved Pony car. The combination of a long production run, ample horsepower, and ease of modification fostered the development of robust aftermarket support. It was the perfect storm of affordable performance that eventually gave birth to dedicated books, magazines, racing series, and web sites.
Underpinning all Fox Mustangs was a suspension based on a modified MacPherson strut front end and a four-link rear suspension. Save the performance SVO model, the braking for Foxes was discs up front and drums in the back with four lugs at each corner.
Known as Four-Eyes because of their quartet of rectangular headlights, the first of two distinct eras in Fox production began in 1979. Met with tepid response from enthusiasts, save for the special Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars, the first Foxes arrived with a carryover 5.0-liter from the Mustang II, but it also offered a new option, a turbocharged 2.3-liter.
Pressures of economic forces and oil embargos led to an engine regression the following year. For two model years, the Fox Mustang suffered with a 255ci, 4.2-liter V-8. After this lull, Ford boldly announced a return to performance with the '82 Mustang GT. Packing a 157hp 5.0-liter underhood, the car's advertising boasted “The Boss Is Back!”
From then on, the Fox Mustang was on a path of perennial upgrades. In '83 the styling was refreshed and rounded, and the convertible returned. Mid-year the T-5 five-speed replaced the SROD four-speed manual transmission. In '84, automatic-transmission 5.0-liters received Central Fuel Injection, and the turbocharged, four-cylinder SVO joined the lineup.
Performance leapt forward in 1985, as the 5.0-liter engine received tubular exhaust manifolds, a roller camshaft, and forged pistons. In '86 fuel injection took over control of the 5.0-liter engine, though a restrictive cylinder head hurt performance a bit, but the exhaust system became truly dual. At this time the more robust 8.8-inch rearend supplanted the 7.5-inch unit. The only thing that externally distinguishes an '86 from an '85 is the latter models Center High Mounted Stoplight.
The Eurocentric SVO took a bow in the final year of Four-Eye production after a three-year run, as did the Mustang's Fox cousin, the Mercury Capri, which had a parallel run from 1979 to 1986.
The popularity of the Fox Mustang really accelerated in 1987 when Ford refreshed the car's design with a new aerodynamic look that was clearly foreshadowed by the outgoing SVO.
In addition to the base and Mustang GTs, it was the new LX model that really brought populist performance to the Mustang lineup. These cars featured the same drivetrain and performance underpinnings as the GTs, but without all the bodywork and frills. GTs wore a unique body kit, louvered “cheese-grater” taillights, and turbine-style wheels.
While the 5.0-liter engine continued on with speed-density fuel injection, it did receive higher-flowing E7TE cylinder heads, replacing the restrictive heads of the prior model. This change alone brought the storied engine's rating up to 225 horsepower. Remaining largely unchanged throughout most of the country in 1988, California 5.0 Mustangs did gain more precise mass-air fuel injection, prefacing that change for future Fox 5.0s.
In 1989 the 5.0 LX Sport became an official model. A year later, the tilt steering wheel gave way to a new airbag steering wheel, and rear-seat passengers received shoulder belts.
For the remaining years of the Fox 5.0 run, the tweaks were minor. In 1991 the 16-inch “Pony” wheels joined the option sheet, while body color-keyed moldings became the norm in 1992. As the run came to a close, Ford down-rated the storied 5.0-liter from 225 to 205 horsepower. However, the first Mustang from the Special Vehicle Team, the 1993 Mustang Cobra, was rated at 235 horsepower.
Special versions of the Mustang are a mainstay of the breed, and there were several produced during the 15-year Fox era.
1979 Indy Pace Car: Right out of the gate the Fox Mustang had a special edition commemorating the official pace car for the Indianapolis 500. It had numerous special upgrades, including body work, Recaro seats, and more.
1984 ½ Anniversary Model: The 20th anniversary of the Mustang was celebrated with a whimper. This limited model received a stickers-and-emblems upgrade.
1984 SVO: Ford's Special Vehicle Operations began in 1980, and by '84 it had created its own special-edition Mustang, a European-styled Pony car with rear disc brakes, a handling suspension, and a 175hp, turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder.
1985 SVO: A mid-year update brought flush-mount, aero headlights to the then 205-horsepower SVO.
1986 SVO: Though it sported the same turbo 2.3-liter, the SVO bowed out with a down-rated 200 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque.
1990 7-Up Mustang: Originally designed for an aborted 7-Up soft drink promotion, a limited run of over 4,000 Emerald Green convertibles were still produced with white leather interiors and white tops.
1992 ½ Summer Special: Mid-year Ford celebrated the summer with a limited-production Vibrant Red convertible based on the 5.0 LX. It included a unique spoiler, white leather interior, and white Pony wheels.
1993 ½ Limited Edition: Like the Summer Special in '92, two limited-edition convertible versions were offered mid-year in either Canary Yellow or Oxford White.
1993 Mustang Cobra: Ford's Special Vehicle Team marketed the first Mustang engineered by Special Vehicle Engineering in the final year of the Fox. These Cobras featured a tuned suspension, an upgraded engine, and unique wheels, taillights, and spoilers. Only 4,993 of these 235hp models were produced.
1993 Mustang Cobra R: SVT also put forth 107 more aggressive performance models known as Cobra Rs. These amplified the basic Cobra platform with reduced weight and better brakes. They also featured unique five-lug black wheels that presaged the wheels to be offered on the first SN-95 Mustangs.
Many aftermarket companies produced tuned versions of the Fox Mustang. Most famous of these companies is Saleen, but ASC McLaren, Crawford Performance, DECH Motorsport, SAAC Car Company, Shotgun Customs, Steeda Autosports, and others embraced the Fox Mustang as well.