11 October 2016

That time when Ford almost turned the Mustang into a Corolla

With the right combination of style, price and performance, the Ford Mustang was a hit from the outset.

It held onto its momentum by changing with the times, growing larger and more powerful through the 1960s, then meeting the demand for fuel economy by shrinking into the much-maligned, but hot-selling, compact Mustang II of the ’70s. Mustang returned to its intermediate roots, underpinned by the Fox platform, at the dawn of the ’80s, once again adapting to a shifting automotive landscape. V-8s were starting to make a comeback, and the Fox’s solid-axle rear-drive layout proved an ideal host for the horses.

That strategy was a good fit for a sporty model, but Ford and the world’s other automakers could see that front-wheel drive, with its packaging efficiencies, was the inevitable future for mainstream, mass-market vehicles. A front-drive transformation for Mustang was considered, and might have become reality during the 1980s and ’90s. It was a near-death situation that would have crushed the soul of the seminal pony car, ruining both its dynamic character and the classic long-hood/short-deck proportions.

Even as the Fox-body Mustang was polishing its performance credentials, Ford pushed ahead with plans for a front-wheel drive Mustang. The car was to be built on the Mazda 626 platform, an offshoot of a joint venture between the two companies. It seemed, to the rational Ford executives, a rational enough move: Competitors were succeeding with sporty front-drive compacts (such as the Acura Integra, Honda Prelude and, beginning in 1985, the Toyota Celica) that took aim at Mustang’s winning formula of performance, style and price.

The plan to swap the Mustang’s driving wheels from rear to front emerged partially out of a perceived demand from consumers, the hangover from oil embargoes that brought painful lines at gas stations. Adding to the pressure were whispers of secret front-drive pony car platforms being developed by Ford’s rivals at General Motors. The engineers and designers in Dearborn were racing toward production – until their plans were revealed in an April 1987 cover story in Autoweek magazine.

Publication of this possible future – a Mustang built on a Japanese platform and without a V-8 option – served as a battle cry for traditionalists.

Enthusiast magazine editors penned their outrage. The legions of traditional rear-wheel drive Mustang forces mobilized their forces. Imagine medieval siege weapons taking aim at Dearborn, with flaming caldrons of gear oil at the ready. Well, not exactly that extreme, but the reaction was certainly intense.

In a pre-internet reality, the traditionalists wrote volumes of letters. The consumer revolt helped persuade Ford to change direction and shift back to rear-drive authenticity. What was to be the front-wheel drive Mustang was repurposed as the Probe, replacing the outgoing Ford EXP. The alternate front-wheel drive Mustang future would not come to pass.

Faced with creating the next generation Mustang, Dearborn set their best team to improving on the Fox-body for another evolution of Mustang that would incorporate classic Mustang styling cues. Out of the three styling concepts known as the Bruce Jenner, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rambo, the Mustang named after the future governor of California (and time-traveling movie cyborg) emerged as the favorite. The resulting 1994 Mustang made its debut on an extensively reworked Fox platform known as the Fox 4, a new generation of Mustangs that motors on to this day with purist-pleasing rear-wheel drive.

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