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The Mustang II: Right Car at the Right Time
The Little Jewel: Mustang II is often called the redheaded stepchild, yet it sold very well and kept the Mustang name alive
It was getting on toward late summer of 1973 when word hit the street that the Ford Mustang was going to be radically different for 1974. Chatter in my hometown of Bowie, Maryland, included concern about a redesigned Pinto-based Mustang coming that fall. The new pony would be a smaller, more nimble Mustang; down on power; more economical than sporty. It was disturbing to us as enthusiasts to hear this because Mustang had always been about performance, from its short deck/long nose persona to its V-8 power. The 302ci V-8 would not be available for 1974. Also gone from the lineup would be the dreamy, iconic Mustang convertible. Mach 1 would be neutered with a standard 2.3L OHC four or optional 2.8L V-6. Grande’ would be replaced by the more elegant Ghia coupe. The all-new 1974 Mustang II was a rebop pony car that needed to grow on us (if it was ever going to grow on us at all). It was a dark time.
Traditional Mustang enthusiasts did not like the Mustang II, yet the masses lined up to buy them in great numbers. Ford’s timing couldn’t have been better. In the winter of 1973-1974 the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) decided to raise oil prices and stop exporting oil to the United States in response to our support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Oil went from $3 a barrel to over $12 with no end in sight. Gas went from 23 cents a gallon to over 50 cents, doubling in price overnight. And you couldn’t get it even if you could afford it. Gas stations went from price wars to price gouging. If you could buy a gallon of gasoline you were fortunate—those of us growing up in those days remember the long lines at gas stations. Many gas stations went dry and some of us had to push our cars home.
Thanks to escalating fuel prices, limited availability, and a perfectly timed introduction, Ford sold 385,993 Mustang units that first year from two domestic assembly plants in Dearborn, Michigan, and San Jose, California. These are Mustang sales numbers Ford would give anything to have today. Mustang II sold well because it was simply a better car than its predecessors. It was also the right car at the right time.
In the 1970s, Baby Boomers who had wanted hot cars in the 1960s were graduating from college and turning their attention to careers, family life, and tight budgets. They wanted a nice blend of sportiness and economy along with plenty of payload space and driving comfort. Mustang II provided all these things. Its great success, however, was more dumb luck than marketing genius. The Mustang II benefited from perfect timing—much as the first Mustang had in 1964. Ford had what the market wanted at just the right time.
From Concept to Production
When Ford marketing boss Lee Iacocca (who was responsible for the Mustang to begin with) became president of Ford Motor Company in 1970, he immediately went to work on a weight loss program for Mustang. He had utter contempt for what short-term Ford president Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen had done to the Mustang. He wanted the Mustang’s original size and spirit back.
There were two approaches to the Mustang’s evolution: the compact “Ohio” project with a Maverick platform, or the subcompact “Arizona” based on the Pinto platform. Ford looked to its vast design operation for ideas. It also turned to half a world away to the Ghia design studio in Italy for a Mustang concept car. Ford not only got the design from Ghia but also a running, drivable vehicle. Ford Design took the Ghia concept and weaved in some of its own magic. By January 1972 the new Mustang was ready for action.
Ford’s engineering staff had exactly two years to get this thing from concept to assembly line by July 1973—it was the same kind of pressure Ford’s engineering people had experienced a decade earlier with the original Mustang. Although Mustang II was still a Mustang, it was clearly a different car for a new market segment. The notchback coupe got the nod much as the Mustang hardtop did a decade earlier. Then came a tough sell by Ford Design to do a fastback. The fastback, actually a hatchback, received approval and so it went for 1974.
Nothing Pinto About It
Although the Arizona Mustang would be Pinto-based, there was really nothing Pinto about the production car. Ford’s engineering priority was noise, vibration, and harshness, beginning with a unique bolt-on subframe in front known within Ford as the toilet seat, which would isolate engine and driveline harmonics from the cabin and yield the quietest Mustang ever. There would be rack-and-pinion steering for crisp handling along with a more conventional suspension system.
Inside were button and tuck upholstery, rich molded door panels with handholds, and full instrumentation, which had previously been a Mustang option. This writer remembers first driving impressions of the all-new Mustang with its lively instrumentation that included a tachometer and complete vital engine instruments that were easy to see. Climate controls were located to the driver’s left, AM/FM radio to the driver’s right. A standard digital clock located where anyone in the cabin could see it. The car felt good to drive, and it held the road better than any Mustang I had ever driven.
Ford didn’t rest after a rather lackluster introduction in the fall of 1973. The Mustang II only got better with an optional 302-2V V-8 for 1975, four-speed manual or automatic. The Mustang II was fitted with catalytic converters for 1975, which stifled performance but wasn’t a deal-breaker.
For 1976, Ford brought us Cobra II with a lot of nice aesthetic nuances like ground effects, rear deck and chin spoiler, and zany COBRA II graphics. According to Donald Farr’s excellent Mustang Fifty Years anniversary book, Jim Wangers (formerly of Pontiac) conceived the Cobra II’s graphics and fiberglass appointments. Motortown Corporation, where Wangers did consulting work, produced the Cobra II package in its entirety for 1976. Farr tells us Ford brought Cobra II production in-house for 1977-1978.
Although Mustang II sales were mighty impressive early on, they began to flounder as the decade wound to a close. After a blockbuster sales year in 1974, sales declined considerably for 1975, to 188,575 units. For 1976, 187,567 were sold—down less than 10 units and holding steady. The following year, 1977, sales took a dip to 153,173. And in 1978, the Mustang II’s final year, sales rose considerably to 192,410 units (as final-generation models often do for fear of the next gen not being to an owner’s liking) for a grand total of 1.1 million units sold in four years. By anyone’s standards the Mustang II sold very well.
Two for II
Talk about two for two! Mona and Terry Burgess of Victoria, British Columbia, hit on something solid when they met and discovered they shared a passion for petite Mustangs of the deuce type.
“My dad always wanted a Mustang, so when he retired at age 60 he started looking for his dream car,” Mona tells Mustang Monthly. “When he saw this car he fell in love with it and she became a part of the family. Our little red girl came into the family in 1983. Sadly, my dad didn’t get to drive it before he became quite ill. During his illness I would always drive him to his appointments. Before he died he signed her over to me.”
Mona went on to tell us her father’s Ghia was her daily driver from 1989 to 2004. “In 2004 my husband Terry took on the project of taking my little red girl back to showroom stock condition. Thanks to the devotion of my husband, the love of this special car, and the confidence of my mom, I drive this car whenever I can.”
Terry found his 1978 Cobra II via word of mouth. He spotted it at a local car show with Mona and ultimately managed to score this gem when it showed up for sale online.
Terry and Mona show their low-mileage duo whenever time and climate permit. When we discovered the Burgesses in Bellevue, Washington, at the Mustangs Northwest Round Up in 2010, our photographing these cars and this happy couple was a given.
A Shared Passion
Taylor Cassidy has been hanging around in the garage with her father James ever since she was a little girl growing up in Simi Valley, California. Taylor and James became so addicted to garage time that he color-coded his tools with nail polish so she could work on cars with him. In those days his first love was a 1955 Chevy sedan, but ultimately he turned his attention to Mustangs. What began as a childhood passion for Taylor and her dad became the commitment of a lifetime.
Because Taylor has always shared a love of automobiles with her dad, she has always been on the lookout for project cars. When a friend was babysitting in the neighboring San Fernando Valley, she noticed a weathered and abandoned Cobra II in the driveway. The owner, an older woman who bought the car new but could no longer drive, parked it in her driveway, where it sat for nine years. She had the foresight to protect the interior with towels and blankets, but the tires went flat and the fuel rancid. The forlorn-looking Cobra II faded into oblivion. The woman passed away, leaving the car to her daughter.
“There were always knocks at the door with offers to buy,” Taylor tells Mustang Monthly. “However, the owner didn’t trust any of the door knockers who were kids who wanted to hop it up. She chose not to sell.”
When Taylor’s friend told her about the Cobra II she asked to speak to the owner, who agreed to sell. Getting the car home to Simi Valley was a chore in itself because four very flat tires weren’t going to hold air for any length of time. There was a lot of recovery work to be done once Taylor got the car home. The paint was in surprisingly good condition for as long as it had been sitting. The Cobra II stripes had been destroyed by sun, wind, and ozone and had to be replaced. Minor body repair and paint followed, including damage to the front spoiler.
Taylor and her father quickly learned the 302ci small-block suffered from damage typical of cars that have been sitting a long time, so they had Mike Willard Automotive in Canoga Park completely rebuild it. The rest of the powertrain performed quite well considering how long it had been sitting. When Taylor and her dad removed the towels and blankets they were pleasantly surprised how pristine and original it all was. Aside from paint damage beneath the ignition switch from key strikes, the interior was original and unmolested.
Taylor tells us that bringing the Cobra II back to original condition was never easy. Because 1974-1978 Mustang IIs aren’t the marque’s most popular generation, there hasn’t been much interest in reproducing parts for them. Taylor credits Mustangs Unlimited for providing most of the replacement parts for her Cobra II, including the graphics she and her dad had to replace. When reproduction parts were not available Taylor and her dad had to improvise with new old stock and used pieces where they could find them.