History Lessons: #16 – 1979 Mustang and Capri Turbo
Not everyone is a purebred. In fact, if you’re like most of the people on this earth, you come from two separate and distinctive families. The new Ford Focus ST follows a similarly branching family tree. For the first time, the high performance Focus you buy in the US is the same as the one you could buy in the rest of the world. We’ve tasted from the European performance well in the US in the past as recently as the 2002 – 2004 Focus SVT, which was similar to the European Focus ST170. This “World Car” attitude is very present in the current and upcoming Ford vehicle catalog; the Fiesta has been for sale here for some time now and the 2013 Ford Fusion we’ll be seeing here is very much the same as the new Mondeo seen throughout the rest of the world. In this series, we’ll look into the history of compact performance offerings from Ford and how two parallel developments in the US and Europe have evolved into the new 2013 Ford Focus ST.
We can hear you now: “A pony car? On Project ST?!” Yes, a pony car, but hold your horses (get it?). Under the hood of this pony lies a turbo Pinto. Saddle up, it’s time for the Fox body Mustang!
The Mustang II was at its end in 1978 after a reasonably short 4 year run. Ford’s recently introduced Fox platform was being used in the larger Fairmont and Zephyr at the time and the plans were to create the third-gen Mustang on the same platform. In 1979 that car debuted. Gone were the curved Ghia lines, replaced by a more squared-off look, accentuated by four square recessed headlamps and was offered in both hatchback and notchback form. At the same time, the Mercury Capri was replaced with a rebodied version of the Mustang, rather than the European Capri MkIII. Most of the engine choices were carried over from the Mustang II with one major exception: the 2.3L Turbo.
Sure, you could have your Mustang with a 140hp, 5.0L Windsor V8, but you could also have it with a 138hp 2.3L Turbo Pinto engine. It used a draw-through carburetted turbo setup with no inter-cooling, so the car was limited to 5psi of boost from the factory. A Ford Performance wastegate offered a tweak up to 9psi, if you dared. Unfortunately, a mixture of both a lack of technology and owner unfamiliarity with turbocharged cars at the time led to some premature engine failures. Turbochargers and carburetters rarely mixed well in the early days and were plagued with lag and reliability issues. A little green indicator on the dash that said TURBO would light up when you were making boost, but it rarely lit up until the engine was past 3000rpms. Despite that, the Turbo was a seller. It offered V8 performance while sipping gas in a post-OPEC-ruled world. All the Turbos were mated to a 4-speed manual and came with a signature (non-functional) hood scoop with a Turbo badge proudly displayed on it.
Initially, the V8 was still the drag racer of the group, offering 0-60 times in the 8s while the turbo-4 was just over 10. However, in the handling department, the Turbo could be had with the TRX handling package. The TRX package was a mix of special suspension components mixed with the new Michelin TRX Metric wheels and tires. These cars are identified by their special 3-spoke wheels. Unfortunately, time is not always good to the memory of the TRX wheels. Now, many people look back at this experiment as a failure, but at the time a TRX-equipped car was a pure handler. The TRX wheels offered a sticky and aggressive tread pattern as one of the first true low-profile tire. The tires were compatible only with the TRX-specific wheels. When you wore them out, you couldn’t just put on a set of 15s or 16s because at 390mm in diameter for the TRX wheels, they wouldn’t fit. They also wouldn’t fit because TRX wheels had a special lip and bead that interlocked at a different angle which would keep the tire from slipping the bead under severe stresses. Unfortunately, the technology was limited to Michelin and no other company made tires for them. They were not cheap and many people would throw the wheels and tires away once worn and revert back to standard wheels and tires. Now, this may not be such a bad idea as modern tire technology has surpassed what Michelin made in the 70s. Reproduction TRX tires are available for the person looking to keep the car original, but at a cost of about $400 a tire.
Mercury was also in on the action with this new Fox Body. Their Capri RS differed mainly in the nose and flared fenders during this initial run (the signature bubble back hatch didn’t arrive until 1983). The Capri had a more upright nose with both grilles and a scoop on the hood. Also available right off the bat was a Mustang Cobra package. Like with the Mustang II, the Cobra was more of mostly an appearance package, but offered a lot of the performance options from the Mustang Turbo as standard.
The Mustang Turbo experiment ended after just two short years and was sent back to the drawing board for a full rewrite. The goal was to produce more manageable power in a more durable and reliable package. Soon, we’ll see what a few years more research into turbo technology would do for the Mustang.
For more information on these early Fox Body Turbos, join http://www.foureyedpride.com. They have an amazing collection of brochures and readers rides as well as a huge forum of well informed members.
Next time? Back to Europe!