Do you have big plans for the summer driving season? You’re not alone. In fact, gasoline demand has surged to the point that even the hedge funds are making record financial bets . Our neighbors to the north have it even worse; thanks to the weakening Canadian dollar and some political decisions over the past years regarding oil refining and production in the area, gas prices in Vancouver are setting a new all-time record.
I spent most of the past ten days driving three vehicles that require premium gasoline–our 'long-term' Lotus Evora 400, a press-test Mustang GT, and my own Silverado 6.2. Only once did I pay less than three dollars a gallon, and that was here in Ohio where fuel prices are usually as low as they get outside of the Middle East. I’m told by friends in California that four bucks a gallon is starting to be the new normal.
This isn’t an energy crisis or a true gas crunch. Not even the most pessimistic pundits are predicting a return to fuel shortages or record prices here in the United States. Still, we’re now reaching the level where people start to change their behavior. Which always makes me think of the Mustang II.
Few cars have come in for as much criticism, if not outright hatred, as the Pinto-based ‘74 Mustang. An old friend of mine who owned multiple Camaros used to react to criticism of Cross-Fire injection and Flexible-Flyer body structures with a loud “AT LEAST THE CAMARO NEVER WENT COMPACT!” We tend to think of that era the way our Victorian forebears thought of the so-called Dark Ages in Europe. The Cobra II and King Cobra tend to come in for the most criticism, since they had about as much horsepower as a modern Fiesta EcoBoost despite their outrageous bodykits and sticker packages.
When the razor-sharp, Telnack-styled ‘79 “Fox Mustang” arrived, followed in close succession by Turbo Cobra and 5.0 GT variants, the Mustang II was instantly relegated to a status somewhere between automotive trivia and automotive humor. Yet it’s worth nothing that the “compact Mustang” outsold the defiantly chunky Camaro from 1974 to 1977 and in doing so helped ensure an uninterrupted history for the pony-badge marque from 1964 to the present day.
The Mustang II was so focused on fuel economy when it debuted that it didn’t even offer a V8 option. Despite that, over 385,000 units were sold, which makes me think of O’Brien’s ironic admonition in 1984 that “it is better to live on your feet than die on your knees.” Given the choice of a gas-guzzling Camaro or a compact Mustang, people chose the latter.
As the fuel crisis receded and the economy improved, the Camaro surged ahead in sales and remained there for years. Still, the lessons learned during the Mustang II era were instrumental in influencing the design and packaging of the 1979 Mustang. For the two and a half decades that would follow, the original ponycar would always be lighter, smaller, and quicker-witted than its competition. This was a critical difference that ensured the product’s success in varying economic conditions.
Today’s Mustang owes more to the 1973 Mustang Grande in terms of packaging and proportions than it does to anything that Ford sold between 1974 and 2004, but as I watch fuel prices climb I have to wonder what Ford will do if this particular pot becomes hot enough to boil the automotive-enthusiast frogs out there. Would the existing Ecoboost model be put on a radical diet, the way that Chrysler created the “Miser” variants of their Turismo and Charger sporting compacts in the Eighties? Or would we see a return to compact proportions, perhaps a front-wheel-drive version like the Mazda-based coupe that ended up being sold as the Probe when market research indicated that people wouldn’t accept it as a Mustang?
Call me crazy, but even in the middle of Ford’s announced cutbacks on non-crossover vehicles in this country I think there’s room for a modern Mustang II right now. It could be sold alongside the current car, and it would be very easy to make: Just take the next-generation Focus ST and turn it into a coupe. A hatchback coupe if necessary. Something that is obviously a personal car and not a telephone-booth-proportioned box. We keep hearing how Millennials aren’t having very many kids; why can’t they drive a two-door car with a minimum-viable-product rear seat?
Give it the Ecoboost 2.3 at Focus RS levels of power, but leave off all the fancy AWD stuff and the forged wheels and the contrast stitching. A little torque steer never killed anyone. Scratch that. It might have killed someone. But it hasn’t killed a lot of people. Keep the weight at 3,100 pounds or below. Call it the Mustang II LX 2.3. Some of us old guys will get the idea. We might even buy one.
Such a vehicle would make a compelling alternative to the Civic Si and VW GTI, which seem just a bit too sensible for young rebels without a cause. Hyundai knows there’s some demand for this kind of car, which is why we are getting the Veloster N. But the LX 2.3 I’m proposing isn’t necessarily aimed at the market as we know it right now. It’s aimed at the market that we could get if fuel prices get significantly worse in the years to come. It’s the equivalent of the undercover cop’s backup gun in an ankle holster. It’s a way to ensure that enthusiasts have something to buy even if fuel heads to the stratosphere.
In other words, it’s a Mustang II all over again. Only better, because instead of being a hasty riff on the Pinto platform it will be thoughtfully developed ahead of time. Proactive, not reactive. At the very least, it would offer an alternative to the never-ending parade of dystopian crossovers out there. Don’t think of it as “going compact.” Think of it as being future-focused. And if that future never comes? I don’t know about that. Do you really want to bet against all those hedge funds? At the very least, it would give those managers a way to spend their bonus money. A little something for the summer driving season of 2021, perhaps. Get in line early. The first year of the Mustang II could be very big. It’s never a bad idea to have the right car at the right time.