The third generation Ford Mustang was introduced in 1979 and remained in production until 1993, amassing over 2.6 million cars produced. The new Mustang was based on the smaller of Ford’s two new unibody rear-wheel drive platforms, known internally by Ford as “the Fox.”
This third generation Mustang became the clearest manifestation that the wimpy, low-compression, emissions-strangled cars of the 70s might evolve into the glorious second-coming-of-muscle that we are enjoying in the early 21st century. The Fox Mustang represented “The Return of Performance,” and while the horsepower figures don’t suggest massive performance today, what had returned from the late-60s was a specific feel, an attitude, and swagger.
The perfect trifecta of a good basic design, plentiful production, and a broad, deep supply of hotrod parts, make the Fox-body Mustang the ideal choice for an array of racing applications. Fox-body Mustangs were used in road racing during the 80s, and today they remain a popular choice in budget racing series like Champcar or 24 Hours of Lemons and for autocross. Low-cost V8 power and the rear-wheel drive / live axle set up make these excellent drift cars.
Due to its popularity, its high-production number is likely to ensure it’s long-term collectability: so many Americans know and love them.
Over the last 30 years, the 5.0 Fox has been the cheapest, fastest car you could buy. Most have been raced, stolen, and wrecked – many more than once. They made far more Fox-body Mustangs than Mercedes SLs in the 80s, but today it is far easier finding a clean SL than 5.0.
What to Look For When Buying?
Often called “Rustangs” by those living in the areas where its common to salt the roads, the Fox is no worse than its contemporaries when it comes to rust, but it remains an area of concern when looking at cars from all climates. Be diligent while looking for crash damage and race abuse. Assume the car has been wrecked, and look for evidence of where.
Begin with looking at the exterior – Is the paint fresh? Are the wheels original? Are the lights original? Many Fox-body Mustangs have been modified by enthusiastic owners. Equally many have been wrecked and rebuilt, often inexpertly. Spotting details like original lights or the correct positioning of the “Ford” and “5.0” badges can give you an idea of whether this example is original.
Shutlines – Look closely at the gaps between body panels. This is an excellent way to judge overall originality and bodily condition because uneven gaps suggest replacement body panels which, in turn, suggests accident damage. Remember that Fox Mustangs are not modern Toyotas, and thus poorly fitting hatchback trunk lids are to be expected.
A-pillars – Check the tops, they often crack due to body flex. While you’re looking, run your hands down the A-pillar. It should be smooth; waves or ripples may suggest accident damage.
Doors – When closed, look for sag by judging shut lines. When open, check the hinges by pulling upwards on the open door; there should not be any play, although you will often find some. With the door open, reach inside the jamb between the hinges and check for rust.
Floors – While you’re in the door jamb, lift the carpet behind the pedals and look for rust. Next look at where the seat base attaches to the body as this is also a known rust spot.
Trunk – Look at both the notch and hatch for rust along the leading edge. Be sure to check this as you open the trunk.
Inside – Look under the carpet on both sides and in the spare wheelwell, check for rust and ripples indicating accident damage.
Front Strut Towers – Look under the hood, check the front strut towers for corrosion and crash damage. The tower should be smooth; if the steel is rippled, it indicates serious accident damage. If they are seriously corroded, they are in danger of collapsing, something which is both dangerous and very difficult to repair.
Find where the framerail joins the struttower. With a flashlight, you should be able to see if it is repainted, if it is smooth, and if it has received bondo. If it has, it is likely the car sustained significant accident damage.
While you’re intimate with the engine, have a look at the motor mounts too. While the parts themselves are pennies, the time and labor involved in replacing them is not.
Radiator Supports – While under the hood, the radiator supports are an excellent way to assure yourself if the car has not been damaged in the front. The supports should be straight and even; if they aren’t, the front of the car must have been bent at some point.
Underneath – Look closely behind the front wheels and in front of the rear wheels in addition to behind them. Dirt and moisture from the road tend to build up in these areas, causing rust. Look for cracks or twisting in the torque boxes near the rear wheels. They are awkward to repair and are a sure sign of racing and other abuse. It is not uncommon to find a custom subframe connector welded on – good in that someone cared about the car, but also they were clearly racing it.
Different color body panels indicate a car made up of different bits following an accident bad enough to require the replacement of various panels. A fender bender is just that – a new fender only. A mismatched fender/hood/door/bumper suggests 30 mph into a ditch and the likelihood of damage to the unibody structure. A good reason to walk away from the car, or negotiate a steep discount.
The fundamental simplicity and toughness of checking basic elements, like blue or white tailpipe smoke, is a critical task. Look for under-the-hood originality, and know whether you are looking at Henry Ford’s work or that of Hotrod Harry’s. Be mindful of the state smog rules the vehicle currently resides in. For example, much lower priced 5.0’s run well but cannot pass smog in California. They fail, because part of the test specifically requires cars to appear factory-original under the hood. Even an after-market air filter is a smog fail unless the right CARB (California Air Resources Board) approved sticker is present.
1979-1988: 2.3-Liter Inline-4; 88 hp
More Fox Mustangs came with the humble 4-cylinder engine than any other engine type. Today, there are often unmolested, low trim (hence lightweight) examples in clean, unmolested condition. These are of interest if you’re considering an engine swap: drag racers fit Chevy LS motors, for example.
1984-1986: 2.3-liter Inline-4 Turbo; 175-205 hp
The limited-production Mustang SVO (Special Vehicle Operations) used the new, rapidly developing technology of turbocharging aimed at what Ford’s literature described as “the sophisticated driver.” A unique double spoiler sat on the trunk lid and 5-lug wheels set the SVO apart visually.
1979-1981: Inline-6; 90 hp
1981-1985: V6; 100 hp
Both 6 cylinder engines are rare, unloved and not extremely collectible.
1979-1993 4.9-liter V8; 140-225 hp
The legendary “Five-Point-Oh,” Ford’s familiar Windsor small-block V8, is strong and responsive to hot-rodding. While the raw power figures were good for the 80s it was the fat torque curve – 300 lb-ft, which gave the 5.0 its character and charisma. Moving from carburetors to electronic fuel injection led to the introduction of roller cams and an increase in power.
Transmission and Axle
In 1979, automatic Mustangs used the C4 3-speed transmission, then in 1982, they made the move to the C5 transmission, followed by a new 4-speed automatic overdrive gearbox in 1987. The manual transmission offered initially was a 4-speed until 1983 when they gained 5-speed transmissions.
It is important to check for fluid leaks on all input and output shafts to and from the gearbox and axle. While the components themselves are tough, leaks, especially from the rear main seal of the transmission, are common.
When parts become worn they cannot be easily repaired. In my experience, my 1987 5-speed Mustang would not keep oil in the gearbox due to play in the output shaft. Most of the oil seemed to leak out in the first 200 miles or so. Speaking to the toughness, the gearbox continued to function, albeit with a more notchy character, whether it had oil in it or not.
Fox Mustangs were equipped with Ford’s 8.8-inch rear-axle. Check it for leaks from the differential casing, and for the whine, especially when they are over-run, when you step on the gas, and when you begin to slow down.
Fox-body Mustangs use a combination of front-disc brakes and rear-drum brakes. While this was perhaps adequate in an era of mullets, in comparison to modern cars, the brakes can feel quite weak. For this reason, many cars have warped front rotors, which is something to check on your test drive: break from high speed and see if you feel a pulsing from the brake pedal.
“One good press, then you’re done” commented one leadfoot interviewed for this piece, and while that may be an exaggeration, brakes are a limiting factor in road and autocross performance.
It is possible to experiment with pads and rotors to improve performance, but really the problem can only be solved by changing to the five-lug wheel hubs found on SN95 Mustangs, since the bigger wheels allow the fitting of bigger brakes. It should be emphasized that the brakes aren’t terrible, it is just best to use the brakes and transmission together to get the car stopped, like a 60s muscle car.
Fox Mustang interiors are cloth, plastic, and vinyl, and what they lack in style they make up for in practicality. Although originally pretty tough, 30 years has left some looking very tired indeed.
Seats are often greasy, split, and collapsed, leaving you feeling like you’re sitting on the floor. The inner sides of the seats tend to collapse, giving even your mom a “Gangsta Lean.” Headliners are typically cigarette burned or dirty, even on otherwise tidy examples, and the map lights rarely work. It is rarer still to find a Fox Mustang ashtray door which will actually remain closed.
Odometers have only five digits, meaning that when the car passed 100,000 the odometer returned to zero. Moreover, the Fox Mustang instrument binnacles are easily replaced, and not that reliable in the first place. Taking these things together, it becomes clear that the number on the odometer is very, very unlikely to accurately reflect the actual miles on the car, despite whatever the seller may believe.
There are various key touch points to look at to assess genuine wear and mileage.
For example, the pedals should show wear consistent with the mileage and with other parts of the interior. Brand new rubbers on an “original 75,000-mile” car suggest 175,000 miles, and the originally worn rubbers being replaced.
If you have one, bring your OBD2 scan tool. If the car you’re looking at is showing a Check Engine light, you can plug it in and pull a code right there, allowing you to swiftly decide what is wrong, and thus whether you want the car or not.
Look at the radio slot. Many Foxes had aftermarket stereos, speakers, alarms, and immobilizers fitted. It is easy for that equipment and wiring to go bad, leading to endless frustrating electrical gremlins. Fitting this kind of device often damaged door cards and parcel shelves too.
Styling and Model Range
Stung by criticism of the Mustang II, Ford returned to the long hood/short deck format for the Fox. The traditional three-box shape notchback was offered and the convertible made a return to sit alongside the hatchback design introduced with Mustang II. The broad range of trim and options show how Mustang could equally be muscle as grocery-getter.
Early generation examples are known as “Four Eyes” due to the distinctive quad headlight nose. These were available in base, Ghia, and Cobra trim. In 1982, Cobra became GT. Midway through the model cycle, in 1987, the Fox was given a facelift, four eyes giving way to two, without a grille, similar to the “aero” look seen on the SVO. Trim levels were LX and GT only, and while LX represented entry level it could still be had with the V8. GTs all had V8s and body kits which shout “the 1980s” like Miami Vice or Donna Karan.
1982-1992 Third Generation Camaro
Similar in character to the Mustang, but like it’s sixties brother late to the party, the General’s attempt to incorporate European styling into American muscle was arguably nicer to look at than the Fox. The range of models and engine options is similar in character to the Fox, with Street Muscle readers probably being most interested in the high-performance IROC-Z (International Race of Champions) and Z-28.
1989 – Present Mazda Miata
As a two-seat roadster which barely overlapped Fox Mustang production, the Miata is not the same thing at the Fox Mustang, however, it deserves mention here since it is the only thing with a similar bang for the buck as a Fox or a third gen Camaro.
Parts Suppliers, Specialists, and Forums
The breadth of this kind of support massively improves collectibility.
The Street Muscle Sum Up
The simplicity and strength of the Fox Mustang’s mechanicals and the 5.0, in particular, make up a large part of their appeal. Their size and weight allied with the huge aftermarket makes them attractive to collectors and racers of all types, while the driving experience is familiar yet satisfying like hamburger and fries. If you have read this far, and think you might like a Fox, get out and buy one soon: prices are rising, but are nowhere near the levels of sixties muscle. Yet.
Photography provided by Mecum Auctions and Nicole Ellan James