Amie Williams
Associate Online Editor
December 16, 2013
Photos By: Ford Archives

After almost twenty years of the same core platform, Ford decided to take to the drawing board in 1999 for the design of the fifth-generation Mustang. While people worried whether Y2K was the bane of all existence, Ford was planning the future Mustang, dubbed the S197.

A decade earlier, the Mustang was almost extinct due to front-wheel-drive popularity as rear-wheel-drive sales declined. With enthusiasts protesting this new FWD Mustang, it was enough attention for Ford to restart the design process and name the new FWD coupe the Ford Probe.

For the 1994 model year, the “Fox-body” design was left in the dust and a new Mustang emerged, the SN95. Although it looked completely different than its foxy predecessor, it still shared that same core platform.

Hau Thai-Tang, then-Chief Nameplate Engineer, was given the task to lead the development team for the fifth-generation Mustang coded the S197. Recently retired J Mays, who succeeded Jack Telnack as Ford’s global vice president of design in ’97, was in charge of the appearance of the fifth-gen Mustang.

Now that this new Mustang was undoubtedly rear-wheel-drive, it was time to figure out what platform to base it on. Ford’s rear-wheel-drive platforms consisted of the Panther platform used for the Crown Victoria and the midsize DEW98, which carried the Lincoln LS and upcoming ’03 Thunderbird.

Based on size, the DEW98 was the obvious choice for the starting point. Previous complaints from Mustang owners included understeer, partly due to the less than ideal weight distribution with 57 percent over the front wheels. With a bigger base, designers wanted to figure out who how to better distribute the weight of the new pony.

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In 1999, a pair of Mustang FR500s built by Ford Racing featured the 5.0-liter “Cammer” crate engines. Besides the twin-cam V-8 engine, the pair of FR500 Mustangs seemed to be even more of a stretch from the new SN95 Mustang GT with a five-inch wheelbase extension that shifted the front axle forward relative to the engine. Seeing how the FR500 demonstrators performed and handled, Ford adopted the longer wheelbase (six inches longer) for the next Mustang, which decreased the weight distribution to 54 percent.

For the 1994 SN95 model, retro cues were reintroduced with tri-bar taillights, side scoops, and a running pony gracing the grille.

Mays believed that the fifth-generation Mustang needed to stand out, one that would grasp buyers’ attention. Obviously it still needed to scream Mustang, but distinct enough to separate itself from the pack of sports cars.

“When you’re designing a new Mustang, you’re the steward of 40 years of automotive history,” said Mays in 2004, when the fifth-generation Mustang debuted. “If you don’t get it right, you’ve got 8 million Mustang fans to answer to.”

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The lengthened wheelbase ended up being a blessing for the S197’s appearance. The SN95 seemed to have more of a stubby appearance than its 1960s kin. It didn’t have quite the long-hood, short-rear-deck proportions that were associated with Mustangs. With a 107.1-inch wheelbase on the S197, it gave designers room to play with by stretching the car some.

“We wanted to capture the essence of the car,” said Mays. “We looked at what made the best Mustangs good and the lesser Mustangs not as good.”

From 1999 into early 2000, designers were sketching many different concepts with many still retaining that Mustang look, but others were a way too out in left field.

Some of the themes resembled the “New Edge” design that appeared on the 1995 Ford GT90 concept, which later made its way to the production of the 1999 Mustang, 1998 Mercury Cougar, and 2000 Focus. When these were combined with S197 designs, it wasn’t a good look.

After a while at the drawing board, the sketches started to resemble more of the 1960s Mustang with the sculpted flanks, set-back bucket headlights, forward-leaning grille, fastback 2x2 profile, and tri-bar taillamps.

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This new look was called “retro-futuristic” with the near-wedge profile, and still resembling Mustang heritage with a strong resemblance to the 1967-68 Mustang models featuring its own contemporary elements. The new S197 was a clean design with clear cues from its predecessors without chrome accents sported by early Mustangs.

During sheetmetal refining, Thai-Tang’s team was developing the new S197 platform. It started as the DEW98, but by the time it was completed it included only part of the floorpan and transmission tunnel. For the first time since the Mustang was introduced in 1964, it had its very own platform, not one shared with any other member of the Ford family.

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Since its sale in the fall of 2004, the fifth-generation Mustang included several special editions such as the 2008-2009 Bullitt, 2012-2013 Boss 302, and the Shelby GT500 that has been available since 2007.

The S197 has proven itself a big success, selling over 1 million units since its 49th birthday on April 17, 2013.