Global changes were affecting all automakers during the 1980s. The first corporate average fuel economy regulations of 1975 had already turned the once powerful muscle cars into dull, under-powered coupes, while the Iran oil crisis of 1979 spawned a shift from rear-wheel drive cars to more efficient FWD architectures.
For U.S. manufacturers, which mostly sold big, RWD vehicles, it meant that several nameplates had to be redesigned from scratch or discontinued to make way for new models that would comply with regulations that required more efficient drivetrains and modern safety systems.
The Fuel Crisis & The Ford Mustang
Ford had already redesigned the Mustang in 1979, but sales of the Fox-body pony, originally a big market success, started to tumble as buyers shifted toward front-wheel drive cars. This led Ford to decide that the rear-wheel drive Mustang wound be discontinued in favor of a FWD vehicle built on a platform co-developed with Mazda. The company also planned to sell the new Mustang alongside the Foxy-body model as the “Mustang Classic,” before phasing out the RWD platform.
Word of FoMoCo’s intentions got out in April 1987, when Autoweek magazine covered the story and featured a wedge-design fastback with a sloping hood and pop-up headlights on its cover. The magazine also revealed that the new model had been developed together with Mazda, sharing underpinnings with the MX-5 coupe.
Outraged, Mustang fans sent Ford hundreds of thousands of letters protesting against turning the American icon into a “Maz-stang.” Also, while many at Ford thought that the new, modern Mustang with FWD was a great idea, many were appalled by it.
Redesigning a RWD Mustang
The howls of protest prompted the Mustang team to start working on a brand-new RWD model, despite the company deeming a redesign of the Fox platform too expensive. The company eventually agreed to launch the FWD car as a separate nameplate, called the Probe, that would replace the EXP, with executives confident that the Mazda-based vehicle would quickly eclipse the third-generation Mustang.
Fortunately for muscle car fans, that never happened, with the Fox-body ‘Stang outselling the Probe every year until it was discontinued in 1993. In 1994, the fourth-generation “SN-95” Mustang debuted to critical acclaim and sank the Probe into anonymity until the FWD nameplate was retired in 1997.
Bringing in Mustang Enthusiasts
It’s worth noting that the team that developed the fourth-gen Mustang, which at some point included 450 people, made an unprecedented effort to include Mustang purists in creating the new car and worked closely with the Mustang Club of America. The SN-95’s success was by no means an accident, being the result of John Coletti, the man chosen to lead the team that was supposed to save the Mustang, building a car for hardcore Mustang enthusiasts.
Also, unlike previous Mustangs, the SN-95 was initially developed after hours with very little support from Ford executives. It was only after the Probe arrived in showrooms that a retooling of the Fox-body platform was approved and an actual budget was set.
The Mustang’s survival through this unfortunate ordeal is the best proof that enthusiasts matter. Their protests against replacing the RWD muscle car with a FWD vehicle helped save the Mustang as we know it. Ironically, it also prevented Ford from taking one of its most disastrous decision ever. As of 2016, the Mustang has been built continuously for 52 years, and we have die-hard enthusiasts to thank for it.
As for the Probe, although it was named the Motor Trend Car of the Year in 1993 and between 1993 and 1997 it was one of the few Fords recommended by Consumer Reports, it remained famous for its unsuccessful attempt to replace the Mustang rather than its actual achievements. Needless to say, America wasn’t ready for a Mazda-based Mustang back then and it probably won’t be anytime soon either. Thankfully, Ford learned a valuable lesson from the Probe fiasco.
Could you imagine a world without the Mustang?