1978 Ford Mustang II
Submitted by Anthony J. Cagle
I acquired this car back in 1990 while on my way from Seattle to northern California for some archaeological fieldwork. My month-and-a-half old 1984 Bronco II's engine seized up in central Oregon and, not being able to afford an on-the-spot engine rebuild, I swapped the dealer for something off their lot.
Up until that point I'd not paid much attention to Mustang II's--like many others, I thought of them as "glorified Pintos" and "that thing that Farrah-Fawcett drove"--but this one was in mint condition with only 43k miles on it. It really was owned by the proverbial little old lady who drove it to church on Sundays. And it had a V8! So the deal went down and I drove off with a 1978 Mustang II.
After all of the trouble I had had with both the Bronco and my previous 1975 Buick, the Mustang was a god-send. It drove well, was mechanically sound, but most importantly it just worked. I drove all over northern California for several weeks without problem. And it was fun to drive to boot. The beach photo above was taken shortly after purchase.
While many deride any mid-late 1970s cars for not having much power, the little Mustang performed pretty well, especially in comparison to the Bronco and my Buick with the anemic 231 V6. The V8--basically a detuned version of Ford's long-time 302--was rated at 139 hp, but most observers think that was somewhat conservative. Since the Mustang II weighed only about 2700 pounds soaking wet, it still had pretty good pickup.
It's basically a King Cobra version without all the stickers, spoilers and other doo-dads: V8, competition suspension, limited-slip differential, lacy-spoke aluminum wheels, 3-spoke steering wheel and other goodies. It also had a rear defroster, A/C, and cruise control; all in all, not a badly equipped little car for the time.
I was a grad student through the 1990s and commuted to work by bus, so I didn't drive it much except on the weekends. But by 2005 or so, it was starting to show its age. The engine was starting to require a lot more work, and the paint in the front half was starting to look pretty awful--it was faded, cracked and peeling off in spots. I'd done some major work on it already, such as rebuilding the transmission, and replacing much of the front steering and suspension, but more was surely to come. In addition, with higher speed limits the old 302 had difficulty on the freeway; it was indeed a car of its (55mph) period.
Time for a decision; restore it to acceptable daily-driver condition, or get rid of it? It was a difficult decision. On the one hand, even though the 1974-78s had been increasing somewhat in value, there wasn't much chance I'd ever recoup any major investment in it. On the other hand, they had become pretty rare anyway and I'd developed an affection for my Mustang over the years.
I went out and test-drove a few new cars and was almost ready to dump it for a shiny new model when I went back and looked at the beach picture and fell in love with the dumb thing all over again. And so I embarked on a major remod.
I replaced the old 302 with a 1989-93 5.0L EFI HO engine with Hooker headers and dual exhaust all the way back (picture above). It's never been dynoed, but we figure the output is probably around 260-270 hp now. I decided to keep the factory color--dark metallic brown--and had the whole thing repainted as well.
Just this past year I replaced the carpeting and had some upholstery work done. All in all, back to factory condition with some added oomph under the hood. I liken it these days to another '70s-era classic: "Better than it was. ... Better. Stronger. Faster."
These cars never got much respect, especially from the "enthusiast" crowd. In many ways, the Mustang II fell short of where it could have been due to some less-than-optimum choices made by Ford. There was really very little Pinto in them, but the sheet metal makes the comparison obvious. Performance-wise, as Chris has pointed out on this blog the Mustang II fared poorly against much of its direct competition (Camaro and Firebird, but also smaller coupes such as the Monza).
Still, the basic mechanicals were well-thought-out and these days Mustang II enthusiasts have an excellent platform to start from. The suspension and steering perform well, and the engine and drivetrain can take modifications fairly easily; I didn't even have to swap out the transmission with the new engine. Specialized parts are often difficult to find, but in general they're pretty easy to work on and there's a devoted set of Mustang II enthusiasts to assist.
I'm glad I kept it. It's an absolute kick to drive and by far the vast majority of people break into a smile when they see (and hear!) it coming. Which is, I guess, what Car Lust is ultimately all about.
--Anthony J. Cagle