Since the humble beginnings of what we now know as hot rodding, gearheads have often gravitated toward certain cars as the subjects of their machinations. Since rodding is primarily based on functional qualities, it stands to reason that these seminal vehicles are chosen based on prowess-or at least potential-in critical areas.
One of the earliest and probably best-known examples of a car that won the hearts and minds of hot rodders nationwide is the '32 Ford. Like most great cars, the '32's appeal stemmed from the convergence of several major factors, the most important of which was the engine. The '32 Ford was the first to use Ford Motor Company's all-new flathead V-8. Henry shook the automotive industry by bringing the V-8 into mass production and offering it in one of the most affordable cars on the market.
A similar phenomenon repeated decades later when Chevrolet introduced its all-new '55 model. Like the '32 Ford, the '55 Chevy combined a brand-new V-8 engine and a brand-new look with spectacular results. In fact, the demise of the flathead's broad appeal in racing was brought on by the small-block Chevy, as rodders quickly swapped their "worked" flatties for relatively stock 265s and 283s that were faster and more reliable.
When Chevrolet introduced its new ponycar in 1967 to compete with Ford's on-fire Mustang, the public took notice and evidently saw the Camaro as more than a copycat attempt to capitalize on someone else's idea. The Camaro was aggressive in appearance, but more importantly, it was designed and marketed with actual performance in mind. A Super Sport package was offered right away, with a unique 350ci small-block standard and a Mark IV big-block option. The Rally Sport trim package made the car even more aggressive looking, and the Z/28 option broadened the Camaro's appeal to reach the sports car set.
The '69 facelift resulted in a more muscular image reinforced by numerous racing successes on dragstrips and road courses, firmly establishing the Camaro as a serious performer. The Camaro's popularity continued to rise with the complete redesign for 1970 (actually a midyear introduction dubbed the '7011/42), but the first-generation cars seem to have just the right balance of size, features, and looks to keep them as popular today as they were over 30 years ago.
Ford's Fox-platform Mustang was introduced for 1979 without the hype and anticipation that had surrounded the earlier hero cars. While most enthusiasts were glad to witness the demise of the Pinto-based Mustang II, and sales of the new car were favorable, the whole affair was hardly seen as an automotive milestone. Of course, we now know that in time the Fox Mustang would be credited with inspiring a return to domestic performance after the desperate doldrums of the mid-'70s, and it would evolve into one of the most popular American performance cars ever. But is it really on par with the landmark cars that came before it?
What Makes Them so Good?It's tough to pinpoint exactly what makes a particular car successful, at least in terms of cult status, but there are numerous attributes of the Fox Mustang that have endeared it to the speed-crazed masses. Initially, it was the simple fact that it was a quick little car. This spark was first seen in 1982 with the return of the GT model powered by a 302-based 5.0L V-8, albeit with a two-barrel carb, single exhaust, and an overdrive four-speed stick. But by 1985, the Mustang was on the cusp of greatness. The Holley four-barrel and Borg-Warner five-speed trans introduced earlier were major contributors, though the factory-installed steel-tube headers, forged TRW pistons, and hydraulic-roller cam really got the attention of the motoring press, and therefore, the public. The new 15x7 aluminum wheels and slicker body cladding had a positive effect on appearance, and by the '87 facelift, EFI had come in, power had gone up, and the interior finally seemed contemporary. Despite this, the aftermarket parts revolution was still on the horizon. Let's look at the specific elements that motivated the public to tweak these Mustangs.
Small and LightThis is one of the most basic qualities of a successful performance car. The Fox Mustang seemed smaller than even the original, and it had been designed to be relatively lightweight as a result of concerns over fuel economy in the late '70s. The foundation of the Fox car was a true unit-body shell with a separate bolt-on engine/front suspension crossmember and a triangulated four-link solid-axle suspension in the rear. When examining the bare shell of a Fox Mustang and its major components, it seems obvious that the engineers strove to keep complexity to a minimum, and that they did so to minimize weight. Their efforts paid off, as even a well-optioned, iron-headed '93 5.0 Mustang GT with A/C only tips the scales at around 3,300 pounds. Notchback coupes are more like 3,150 pounds, and earlier models with fewer options can actually dip under the 3,000-pound mark.
SimpleSimplicity was an intrinsic quality of most older cars, but as the '70s wore on and the '80s unfolded, most engine bays were clogged with smog equipment.
Though the Fox Mustang had to endure some degree of these nightmares, it managed to remain a relatively simple car throughout. At the core, the Fox platform is a conventional front-engine/rear-drive configuration with a typical engine bay and passenger compartment. Thanks to the MacPherson strut front suspension, there is probably more room along the flanks of the small-block Ford than in the original Mustang, and there are definitely fewer parts in the Fox suspension. The rack-and-pinion steering is also more compact, and tucked in close to the engine crossmember.
Anyone who's worked on a Fox Mustang can attest to the fact that engine, trans, and rear axle repairs or replacement are pretty easy, and dismantling the entire car isn't even that difficult. Specialty tools seemed to become a standard part of auto repair in the '80s, but a basic tool set can handle most Fox-associated tasks.
DurableBy the time Fox Mustang owners had earned the name "Stang Bangers", it was obvious that the mechanicals of the 5.0L cars were stronger than they needed to be. Just as car enthusiasts had grown to expect overly complicated cars as the '80s trudged on, so too had they expected under-built components and systems. Most assumed that the days of over-engineered, brutally built passenger cars were gone for good as a result of the influence of the now-infamous bean counters behind the scenes at all the American auto companies.
Yet by the '86 model year, Mustangs were proving to be fairly bulletproof, at least by production-car standards. For example, the engines in all 5.0 Mustangs from '85 to '91 came with honest-to-God forged pistons made for Ford by TRW. They certainly didn't need them to make 225 hp at 4,800 rpm with 9.2:1 compression, but there they were. All roller-cam H.O. engines (also '85 and later) have double-roller timing chains without any noise reducing plastic coatings. Did they need this for the puny factory cam, relatively weak stock valvesprings, and that factory-spec'd 4,800-rpm redline? Doubt it.
Then there's the 8.8-inch rear-axle assembly. It came in every 5.0 Mustang beginning with the '86, replacing the 7.5-inch unit. In time it proved capable of handling abuse from both the stock drivetrain and repeated drag launches with sticky tires-even with boosted engine output. If there is a weak link, it's the stock 28-spline axles, but a quick call to a mail-order house for upgraded replacements is all that's needed to prepare the average Fox 8.8 for trouble-free strip action. It seems Ford went to the truck parts bin for this one, just like the good 'ol days of the '60s. In fact, the Ford 8.8 is virtually identical in design-and therefore strength-to the famed Chevy 12-bolt. A 3,300-pound car making 300 lb-ft of torque probably didn't need an axle this durable, but Ford made it a standard part of the 5.0 package just the same.
We could go on, but the bottom line here is that the good folks at FoMoCo obviously built the Mustang for more serious duty than it would see in stock form, and the masses loved them for it. Over the years, the durability of every mechanical component in the 5.0 Mustang has been put to the test, often astounding even veteran wrenchers and racers. We will admit that the T5 five-speed trans doesn't hold up to power-shifting well, but how many factory-assembled short-blocks do you know of that can withstand enough forced induction or nitrous to make repeated 10-second drag runs?
SwapabilityWe're not even sure that's actually a word, but you get the gist. Ford was not known for killer parts interchangeability throughout the '60s and '70s; that quality was most frequently associated with GM products of the era. However, one of the other design parameters of the Fox platform and its corresponding component systems included accommodating various engines, transmissions, rearends, and even interiors without requiring major alterations to the car's core structure.
This benefited car crafters greatly back when these cars were still fairly new. Many of us couldn't afford to run out and buy a new 5.0, or even a used one, despite the bargain they actually were. However, four- and six-cylinder Stangs seemed to depreciate at the speed of sound. In the '80s and '90s, it wasn't uncommon to see wrecked 5.0s donating their guts to lesser four-banger cars. With some time, moderate skill, and basic tools, you could convert a lowly 2.3 automatic into a factory-appearing 5.0L five-speed in the garage behind your house. Try that with an IROC Camaro.
Even minor parts swapping, like making a '79 look like a '93, or putting an '87 dash in an '82, doesn't require master fabrication skills or even a welder for that matter. This is evidenced by all the Fairmont wagons, Turbo T-birds, Fox Granadas, and so forth, that can often be seen with H.O. drivetrains and Mustang interiors at any given Ford event. We'll be seeing these "other" Fox cars with 5.0L transplants for years to come.
Wrench Friendly Naturally, any car that a car crafter is going to mess with should be accommodating when it comes time to spin the wrenches. This is definitely an area where most '80s cars fail the test, but again, the Fox cars shine. Although the engine bay on a typical 5.0 looks pretty tight, it's actually roomy enough to swap in a 460 big-block without any cutting. Thanks to the design of the engine bay, plus the design of the small-block Ford, plug changes on the fly (like at the track) are no problem. Need to change the timing? Bust out the ol' Craftsman dial-back strobe and go to town, just like the old days.
The EFI intake ducting may look cumbersome, but it can be removed in seconds, and although the upper intake manifold blocks one of the valve covers, it can be separated from the lower with six bolts and easily moved out of the way. And how about that serpentine beltdrive? Fox Mustangs with V-8s were among the first production cars to use one, and belt swaps occur in minutes, even with A/C, power steering, and the original A.I.R. pump. This comes in handy when installing a short belt at the dragstrip to bypass unneeded accessories.
This trend continues underneath. Ford was good enough to equip all '86-and-newer 5.0 Stangs with true dual exhaust, complete with crossover tube. Ford even went so far as to make the centersection removable with only eight bolts. The flanges where the pipes connect can be disconnected in minutes and then reinstalled with no hassles. Back in the late '80s, Ford Motorsport even offered an off-road pipe that bolted right in place of the stock H-pipe but had no catalytic converters. Today numerous aftermarket suppliers can provide similar pipes or high-flow cat pipes to maintain smog legality.
Being able to quickly remove the H-pipe provided the additional benefit of easy access to the gearbox, which was also relatively easy to remove on manual-trans cars. The simple cable-actuated clutch and internal rail shifter made the R&R procedure go faster (and were great for power-shifting), and the four-bolt flange on the driveshaft added strength and eliminated lost roller bearings during disassembly. As for the rearend assembly, we've seen them swapped on the ground in under a half-hour. On any given race day at any dragstrip across the country, you'll find Mustangers that can pull apart and reassemble the parts, pieces, or entire drivetrains of their partially prepared street cars with amazing speed. You won't see anyone doing this on an LS1 Camaro in the pits.
Race FriendlyAside from being strong, Mustangs proved to be well suited to racing, primarily of the drag variety. The four-link-style suspension found under Fox cars is similar to that used in A-body GM cars (Chevelles and the like), which drag racers have spent decades learning how to tune. The aftermarket had already figured out how to make this type of suspension work years before Fox cars were even a blip on the radar, and they were able to quickly apply that technology to the Fox cars to achieve outstanding drag launches. As a bonus, most of the traction aids used also allow these cars to be driven home from the track and then to school or work on Monday.
The factory-installed bolt-in engine/suspension crossmember proved to be advantageous because it allowed the aftermarket to develop bolt-in tubular K-members that greatly reduce front-end weight. For the most part, no cutting, welding, or other fabrication is necessary to use a tubular setup, and the car can be converted back to stock later on if so desired.
Many racers also favor the short wheelbase of the Fox Mustang, and of course, there's that weight thing again. It's fairly easy to get a basic drag race-spec Mustang down to 2,600 pounds while retaining the factory glass, mostly stock steel body panels, and a functional and comfortable interior. Cutting out heavy components can also be done using factory parts-the pieces to convert to manual brakes and steering are available on a junk four-cylinder LX near you. Though scarce, some 5.0s were built without A/C, and these delete brackets allow the elimination of excess weight while maintaining factory appearance.
We shouldn't overlook the Mustang's abilities on a road course. Although serious sporty-car types dismiss the Mustang and its live axle, the aftermarket has shown that a Fox-Stang can hang with the best of them through the turns. Autocross events usually turn out a fair number of Mustangs as well. While the chassis design of the Fox platform may not be ideal for handling, enough racers have brought home wins with them to prove that it can be made to cope with the twisties rather effectively, and there's a huge array of aftermarket parts available to help.
So there you have it. The Fox Mustang combines the right elements to win the favor of enthusiasts from coast to coast, and several drag racing series devoted to these cars generate e.t.'s running all the way down to the 6-second range. Even stock-suspended Mustangs routinely drive into the 8s, and the bar is being raised regularly.
Is the Fox Mustang the next significant car in the history of hot rodding? Without a doubt its future is already here.
5.0L Mustang Performance Timeline1979: The Fox Mustang is introduced with available 5.0L (302ci) 140hp V-8 engine with two-barrel carb.
1980: The V-8 engine option was changed from the 5.0L to a 4.2L (255ci) 118hp small-block. This engine would remain as the sole V-8 through 1981.
1981: Traction-Lok rear-axle limited-slip differential becomes an option for the Mustang.
1982: The Mustang GT package returns to replace the Cobra as the top performance model. The 5.0L V-8 is reintroduced as an option, carrying the H.O. designation with 157 hp, though still with a two-barrel.
1983: The 5.0L becomes the standard engine for the Mustang GT, now rated at 175 hp with a Holley four-barrel carb. Later this year the Borg-Warner T5 five-speed replaces the SROD four-speed as the standard manual trans for GT models. Traction-Lok limited-slip becomes standard on all 5.0L-equipped cars.
1984: GT models with automatic transmission receive a throttle-body fuel-injected version of the 5.0L rated at 165 hp.
1985: An upgraded version of the 5.0L becomes standard for GT models, featuring a hydraulic roller-tappet camshaft, tubular exhaust manifolds, a freer-flowing exhaust system, and a 210 hp rating. Aluminum 15x7 wheels become standard equipment for 5.0L-equipped Mustangs.
1986: Sequential-port fuel-injection is introduced for the 5.0L using speed-density air metering and is standard on both manual and automatic trans-equipped 5.0L Mustangs. True dual exhaust also becomes standard, as is the 8.8-inch rear axle assembly. The EFI 5.0L is rated at 200 hp.
1987: A cylinder-head change boosts the 5.0L's rating to 225 hp, and front disc brakes on 5.0L models are enlarged from 10 inches to 10.8 inches. The body is also updated with new "aero"-styled facias and lighting, and GT models receive new turbine-style 15x7 aluminum wheels.
1988: For California-only 5.0L Mustangs, the speed-density air metering of the fuel-injection system is replaced with mass-airflow metering. Power rating remained at 225 hp.
1989: Mass-air metering becomes standard for 49-state 5.0Ls. Plans for a special 25th anniversary model are shelved in favor of an anniversary stripe on certain white LX hatchback models.
1991: New 16-inch five-spoke wheels are introduced on 5.0L Mustangs and are standard on both GT and LX models.
1993: The horsepower rating is reduced from 225 to 205 despite the fact that no mechanical changes were made. Hypereutectic pistons replace forged units in 5.0L engines. The Cobra name is reintroduced as a new model with an upgraded engine. The package included special GT40 iron cylinder heads with bigger valves and ports, an improved cast-aluminum intake manifold, a 65mm throttle-body, a larger mass-air meter, and 1.72 roller-rocker arms. The computer was recalibrated accordingly, and the package was rated at 235 hp. A further upgraded version of the Cobra was offered in very limited numbers (300) for road race competition. Dubbed Cobra R, power remained unchanged though 17-inch wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, adjustable Koni dampers, and other suspension improvements were included.
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