Jim Smart
April 1, 2009

America's most coveted motorsports event has always been the Indianapolis 500. Despite the great success of stock car racing, the Indy 500 has always been a cut above NASCAR. For automakers, it has always been a great honor to be invited to pace the "Greatest Spectacle In Racing."

Fords, Lincolns, and Mercurys have paced the Indy 500 many times in the event's 98-year history. Ford was scheduled to provide the official pace car for 1964, with Galaxie convertibles initially picked for the honor. But the Mustang's gala introduction at the New York World's Fair, coupled with initial gut reaction to the Mustang by the buying public, caused a quick change in agenda. Mustang would pace the race, not Galaxie, before the watchful eyes of a huge television audience, race goers, and the automotive press. The Indianapolis 500, coupled with the New York World's Fair, made Mustang's introduction the most successful in automotive history.

Fifteen years later, when Ford introduced an all-new Mustang for 1979, it was again appropriate to have Ford's pioneer ponycar pace America's most treasured racing event. The Indianapolis 500 would again showcase the Mustang on a par not seen since 1964. Mustang sales for 1979 went skyward to 369,936 units.

Neil Montgomery's '79 Mustang Indianapolis 500 Pace Car replica is one of 10,478 copies produced to celebrate the Mustang's greatest honor that year. For a limited-production car, Ford sure produced a lot of them. As a result, few survive today because these cars never had rarity on their side. But that makes nice examples rare today. Not only does Neil have something you don't see every day (yet something you used to see every day), he has one of the nicest late-model Mustang restorations we've ever seen. It is a concours restoration on par with the classics. Neil's advantage was starting with an original car that had not been molested, which enabled him to make the most of what he had. The odometer reads 40,753 miles, with everything still there when he bought the car.

"Back in 1991, I was sitting in front of the television and concluded I needed a hobby," Neil tells us. "So I bought a '69 Mustang SportsRoof and began a restoration, which is where it all began." Neil goes on to say that he enjoys detailing automobiles. "Restoring Mustangs brings my family together when it's time to attend shows," he adds.

Neil has a thing for the first Fox-body Mustangs from 1979. He has a fleet of them-three pace cars and a Ghia coupe-all in various states of restoration. Now you might be inclined to ask, why restore a '79 Ghia? To that we ask, why not? These cars are as much an integral part of the Mustang's history as the classics. Since the '79 Mustang celebrates 30 years in 2009, there's no better time to talk about them.

Neil refers to his pristine Indy Pace Car as his "little trophy getter" because it always draws attention. It's an unusual specimen from an era people don't think about when they think of a Mustang show car.

The '79 Mustang represents the gateway to a new era of Mustang fun cars on the cusp of the '80s. It didn't have a lot of the traditional Mustang nuances, such as simulated sidescoops and a mouthy grille, and it didn't feel like the classics. Instead, the new Fox-body Mustang felt more European, like a world car and just right for its time. We were baffled by the horn button in the turn signal lever and didn't quite get the message center mid-console either. Nonetheless, Mustang for 1979 was a new beginning and a fresh entry into an era that would yield some of the most exciting Mustangs ever.

Neil's Pace Car is one of 5,970 '79 Mustangs produced with the carbureted 2.3L OHC Turbo Four, the beloved overhead cam Pinto/Mustang II engine on steroids, which despite Ford's best intentions wound up falling short in terms of reliability and performance. Turbocharger failure was quite common due to high operating temperatures. Once the warranty was up, most didn't survive as turbo cars. Many were fitted with V-8s or became four-cylinder economy cars just to keep them going. Some continued operating with seized turbochargers. The rest were deposited in salvage yards, stripped, and forgotten.

Ironically, Neil's Mustang wasn't one of those cars. It was pampered and well cared for, living to see a renewed life as a limited-production car that could easily have hit the skids. Even the air conditioning works quite well, although Neil will tell you it consumes a lot of power when the compressor clutch kicks in.

Because Ford wanted these turbocharged Mustangs to be peppy, you could only get a four-speed behind the 2.3L Turbo Four. In back, 3.45:1 gears enabled you to keep the revs high and, therefore, at peak horsepower under hard acceleration. These engines were about horsepower, not torque.

Ford gets high marks for its development of the sixth-generation Mustang. A lot of thought went into the redesign-or more accurately, the reinventing of the Mustang. It would be the most aerodynamic Mustang to date with a long nose, short deck, and slippery lines. The result was improved fuel economy, better handling, and a fresh foundation for a new generation of Mustang performance, one that was perfect for pacing America's greatest race.

Pace Car Quick Facts

  • The '79 Mustang Indy Pace Car was a stand-alone, limited-edition ride with the following features that made it unique:
  • Medium Gray Metallic with black and burnt orange Indianapolis 500 graphics
  • Choice of 140hp 5.0L 2V V-8 or 139hp 2.3L OHC Turbo Four 5.0L 2V V-8 available with four-speed or C4 Select-Shift 2.3L OHC Turbo Four available only with four-speed
  • TRX suspension with stiffer spring rates and performance shocks/struts
  • Heavy-Duty sway bar
  • Metric wheels with Michelin radial tires
  • Ground Effects
  • Driving Lamps
  • Twin European-style dual exhaust tips
  • Disc brakes with semi-metallic pads
  • Recaro Bucket Seats
  • Indy 500 Pace Car specific vehicle identification number beginning at 480001

Pace Car Production Numbers
2.3L OHC Turbo Four5,970
5.0L V-8 with Automatic2,106
5.0L V-8 with Four-Speed2,402
Total:10,487

Note:
Does not include the three specially prepared '79 Mustang Pace Cars used at the race.

Dearborn, MI Plant:7,634
San Jose, CA Plant2,844