Driving enthusiasts weren't kind to the Mustang II during its '74-'78 life, but the light of forgiveness now shines on its stubby flanks. Automotive historians acknowledge that the downsized Pony kept the Mustang name alive at a time when other bloated American models were dying off, and fans of the II are quick to point out that Ford sold more than 1.1 million of them-a sales success by anyone's account.
After the rampant excesses of the '60s horsepower wars among The Big Three automakers, the public called for a return to the practical and sporty coupe it had fallen for on April 17, 1964. In fact, an early voice of discontent with Mustang growth spurts came from Ford stockholder Anna Muccioli in 1968, who received applause during a meeting when she compared the larger '67-'68 Mustang to the second-generation Thunderbird. She asked Henry Ford II why the company hadn't learned from its mistake of turning the beautiful two-seat T-bird into a four-door behemoth.
Clearly, Anna was very disappointed when she saw the big '69-'70 Mustangs and super-sized '71-'73 versions. By the time the '71 models were on sale, even Ford marketers realized that growing the icon into a Torino-size two-door was a grave miscalculation. The anticipated market for Mustangs with giant 428- and 429-cid powerplants never materialized, leaving smog-controlled, federally emasculated 351s to pull their heavy bodies.
The long evolution of what was to become the '74 Mustang II began in late 1969 when Ford President Lee Iacocca launched two exploratory programs within Ford Motor Company. One was charged with designing a smaller Mustang around the new-for-'70 Maverick compact; the other was to investigate the viability of having the new-for-'71 Pinto subcompact act as a base for the Mustang. Several not-too-stunning styling exercises and the inspiration of the popular German-built '70 Capri subcompact made Ford drop the Maverick idea early on.
Ford conducted a research clinic with car owners at the Long Beach Convention Center to determine where the public's interest lay among subcompact models. With a dozen models on display-ranging from Datsun 240-Z and Porsche 914 sports cars to a less exciting Chevrolet Vega, Plymouth Duster, and Toyota Corona-the company deduced that Americans had embraced smaller fuel-efficient transportation. Its marketers chose to aim the new Mustang at that segment.
Quick Look Model: '78 Mustang King Cobra Price: $5,638 Options: $58
Chief Designer Gene Bordinat, with four styling studios under his command and input from the Italian-based Ghia studios (which Ford controlled), turned out a variety of concepts. History records 150 submitted designs on paper, 50 in clay, and several in full-drive mode. As consumer clinics narrowed down the public's preference for a certain design, research showed a constant 50/50 split between the notchback and hatchback body style. The automaker's bean counters were pushing to make the new car available in a single body in order to save money; fortunately, the accountants lost the argument and Ford quickly grafted a notchback roofline onto the winning fastback design.
Gone forever were the big-block V-8 engines. In fact, there were no V-8s offered in the Mustang II's introductory year. The new Mustang listed only two powerplants for '74, including the base 2.3L "Lima" four-cylinder and the optional 2.8L V-6 from the Mercury Capri.
Contrary to popular opinion, the '74 was not merely a Pinto clone, although it shared a few basic parts with its economy-car cousin. By decree from Lee, who likened the new model to a "little jewel," the ride was much more like that of a big luxury car than a Pinto, thanks to innovations such as melted rubber sheets on the floorpan; a larger-diameter driveshaft; and a U-shape, isolated subframe that dampened road and engine noise. The new Mustang had the same basic interior appointments as before: a floor-mounted shifter, low-back bucket seats, vinyl upholstery, and full carpeting. But the standard equipment list improved to include solid-state ignition, front disc brakes, a tachometer, steel-belted whitewalls, and a folding rear seat in the 2+2 hatchback models.