The Unease Spirals Down

Recently I discussed how one detail can ruin a car.

Here we see the 1979 Ford Mustang which, overall, can’t claim to be a very strong or admirable bit of work. All the details accumulate to result in a deeply compromised design. Ford really struggled with this. The decision of production engineers to impose a panel-gap on the front wing must be the bale that broke this camel’s back. Here is the 1976 styling model:

1976 studio model of the Ford Mustang: source

The wing, bonnet and grille should have looked like this:

1976 studio model of 1979 Ford Mustang

In the above photo there seem to be panel gaps missing which shows that Ford considered panel gap placement to be separate to designing the gross form.

Weirdly, when I see the studio model I then see the production car in a better light. Is something like this what happened to the designers? They saw not the actual shape but what they had in mind?

According to the site in the links below designer Fritz Mayhew had this planned:

Fritz Mayhew’s early proposal for the 1979 Ford Mustang.

Which ended up, via packaging requirements, cost-cutting and competition with the Ghia studio, looking like this:

In between Mayhew’s dart-like drawing and sign-off, Ford of Europe had developed the austere rectilinear style of the 1976 Granada (probably completed in 1973/1974).

1978 Ford Granada two-door.

You can see Granada in the surfaces and wheel-arch lips. The European Granada had separate bumpers while the Mustang designers attempted an integrated look. Especially at the front, the panel gaps are confounding the sculpture and graphics.

From this distance and this trim it is inoffensive. The condition and colour help. Despite that, the 1979 Mustang joins the ranks of cars from the period whose chance at having an identity remained strait-jacketed by a preference for minimally expressive forms. The details take on a disproportionate amount of significance and brusque engineering decisions have less chance of being obscured by anything positively appealing. Minimalism makes it triply important to fuss over what little remains on view.

The Ghia interior, I feel, might be pleasant; it is not sporty and is too far removed from the original Mustang’s role as cheap sports coupe for the younger customer. Ford evidently felt some need to chase the personal coupe market where Olds’ Cutlass had staggering sales success.

Back to the exterior we find a fussy C-pillar and oddly finished chrome trim. There should have been a section connecting the top bar and bottom bar. As it is, I can’t tell if the DLO and vent panel are intended to be read as one shape or two. When I get a chance I’ll sketch two schematic alternatives.

Unlike the Granada, the Mustang got a curved rear screen. The fillet radii on the metal differ  from the bumper.

The same basic car remained in production until 1993 and it kept getting worse. With no essential identity, the face-lifts had nothing to hold them together so the Mustang was all dressing and no salad.

More history of the Fox-body Mustang development can be found here and here

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

14 thoughts on “The Unease Spirals Down”

  1. I would suggest the rear quarter light / vent treatment references the Mercedes C107 SLC in particular and perhaps (and the timelines support it) the XJ-S – although I’m not necessarily sure why anyone would want to – it wasn’t terribly well executed. (Not that this is either by the way)…

    This is a very sober shape for a Mustang for sure, but then, the original car was as well. That frontal overhang is huge though, isn’t it?

    1. Come to think of it, there are shades of the De Tomaso Longchamp in the overall silhouette, if not the nose treatment…

    2. I’v also had that thought, I could never understand how Ford could miss the opportunity to make a Longchamp on the cheap with the 2-door Granada. They had the “sporty” 2.8 Injection with the V6 and 5-speed and lots of go faster stripes, but that was a 4-door. Did the 2-door even survice the ’81 refresh? I’ve always imagined a post ’81 two-door granada, in black and with lowered suspension as a sort of poor mans DeTomaso. They had the V6, but they could’ve put a V8 in it. It could’ve been a contender…

  2. I say it’s a victim of rationalism. The Americans designed their cars for I don’t know how long with the entire front clip as a detachable unit ready for yearly updates, fitted as a plug and play up front. The point is that the hood and the front wings doesn’t have to be included in the yearly face lift, but could be kept as is indefinitely.

    Perhaps this is worthy of an article of its own, perhaps something for Curbside Classic? When did this trend begin, and when had it become a de facto industry standard? And for how long did they make the cars like that? At least from the early 60’s to the 90’s.

    They became quite clever advertising a car as new car and disguisng the fact that only the front clip was changed. The trick is to design the car in modular pieces from the start, so that the different front clips completes different design aspects of the hood and wings. But it also makes for that giant panel gap, making the entire front looking like a literal add on that could fall off the car if rusty enough.

    I think it was an industry standard taken so much for granted that it was a given any car had to be productionalized in that way at a later stage. And because of that, I think the designers tried to play with their freedom designing the cars like that panel gap would never be there.

    And perhaps that’s where they failed? If they had included it in their design brief perhaps they could’ve worked around it in a more fashionable way. I say this rests on a clash of egos between designers and engineers, or dreamers and doers as one say…

    1. I too have noticed that panel gap on many of the American cars of that time. I always thought that this was primarily for making the cars easily badge-engineerable by just grafting on different ends to the same body, but your explanation sounds just as logical.
      BTW, I’m still quite fond of that generation Mustang in its original shape. For me it’s even THE Mustang – it was the first one that I remember consciously. The notchback version still looks odd to me, though. The Swiss seem to have preferred the hatchback.

  3. I have a bit of a soft spot for the ‘Fox’ Mustang, for its non-descript looks and big old-school tyres – and V8 engine preferably.

    1. Looks like they sorted out the front end with the midlife facelift, making tidier and even less distinctive

    2. It looks like the gap is still there. Or is it just a poorly executed addition to the sheet metal part?

    3. Funny how they managed to make it look less distinctive – now that they were allowed to use distinctive headlights.

    4. The ’87 facelift only looks less distinctive after the fact, and to the Europeans, because we were used to composite front lights., and because so many of them were introduced at that time. To the American buying public it was very much distinctive, as Ford was first pushing the de-regulation of sealed beam headlamps, being the first to introduce composite headlamps.

  4. It’s always easy to recognise a North-American market car isn’t it. I was trying to work out earlier exactly why that is. It’s the long overhangs, the chrome, the sunken headlights, the lack of subtlety, but somehow it’s more than the sum of those details. Chintzy is the word that springs to my mind. Initially I was tempted to make disparaging remarks about the vulgar detailing, but is it really vulgar or just not to my European taste? I’d be interested in hear Richard’s thoughts on the subject.

  5. The mid-life facelift Mustang looks like the Austin Montego convertible that never was.

  6. Richard, you flatter the ’79 Mustang with that first photo in the article. That’s a halfway decent specced model, the usual droning four or wheezy inline six cylinder engined model without the chrome was a sad sack indeed to behold. Few bothered to wash them, I know my brother didn’t. There was nothing to drive pride of ownership, the whole being just a collection of parts with no overall fettling into a cohesive whole. Poor stuff indeed, but the way Detroit ran itself. In any case, the car was a short wheelbase version of the 1978 Ford Fairmont/Lincoln Zephyr sedan, and looked it. Cheap. Compared to a Camaro that year, it was a dawg to behold. The compromised rear coil suspension with very short control arms on the cart axle remained RIGHT UP TO THE 2014 model. Yessir, a rolling monument to engineering mediocrity unhindered by investment for 35 years.

    Mind you, compared to the Pinto based ’74 to ’78 Mustang II, this ’79 was a Da Vinci sculpture.

    Those panel gaps, now happily reproduced in the latest BMW 3 series, where the hood ends before the plastic bra grille begins instead of extending to the grille itself, are just the cheap way to make different models – the Mercury Capri was a Mustang with a different front clip. The Pontiac Firebird was a Camaro with a different front clip, although in GM parlance a front clip means the structural subframe. Don’t know what the plastic front bit is called at GM, and don’t care. All started in about 1965 at GM with the intermediates, one rung below full whale size.

    I believe you mistake the glitches between concept and production as aesthetic errors. No, they were made to manufacture these things on the cheap. The new Lincoln Continental based on what you call the Mondeo shows that this same thinking still drives Ford. Up close it is not wonderful. When Japanese cars really started to sell in the US in the late nineteen seventies, the 29 cent solutions sought by the Big 3 were exposed for what they were, mere utter shoddiness. Sagging badly-hung doors, trim that didn’t aligned, hoods and trunks attached like drunken sailors, people didn’t even notice the bad quality, because America. Until suddenly, they did.

    Relics like the Mustang continued, but gradually Ford and GM learned how to assemble with a modicum of quality. They’re still not wonderful, merely workmanlike. It’s the American way, and why, I believe, they were not of merchantable quality for decades in export markets, which Ford still quacks on about concerning Japan and South Korea, with not a leg to stand on. Why would you want some US “thing” when the certain thing is Hyundai/Kia have about the best fitting sheet metal going? But Ford and GM executives never consider such things, because they’ve never considered them. A car is just a unit of commodity to them, always has been always will be. Do just enough to get by and blow your own horn with great PR, and then squawk if things go awry, blaming everyone but yourself. GM just sold Opel – proves my point.

    1. The car in the street scenes starred in my rambling drive through Flensburg, DE, earlier in the month. The ones I remember seeing in the early 90s predominantly belonged to cheaper, later cars. This Ghia-spec Mustang is nearly alright: that’s the dressing saving the salad.
      We can argue a bit about semantics but are really in agreement. The cost-accountants’s values over-rode the designers’ values *if* the designers were bothered about those crumby panel gaps.
      The production car has little to do with the concepts which means there was no strong vision for the car.

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