The Evolution of the Fifth-Generation Ford Mustang
- The fifth-generation Ford Mustang reestablished the look of classic Mustangs, with a fresh twist called retro-futurism
- The 2005 Mustang was built on a new rear-wheel-drive platform that was unique to Mustang, the first time in the car’s history it did not share a platform with other cars
As the end of the last millennium approached, computer programmers everywhere scrambled to make sure the world wouldn’t go dark when clocks ticked over to Jan. 1, 2000, and designers at Ford again turned their attention to the future of Mustang.
After a near-death experience a decade earlier when the Mustang name was very nearly applied to a front-wheel-drive coupe that ultimately became the Ford Probe, the pony car gained a new lease on life with the success of the fourth-generation car that debuted as a 1994 model. Yet despite being extensively reengineered from the third-generation “Fox-body” Mustang, the fourth-generation car, code-named SN95, was at its core a 20-year-old platform by 1999.
It was clearly time to move Mustang to a new platform in order to remain competitive in the 21st century automotive market. After twice considering a front-wheel-drive architecture before producing the SN95, the powers that be heard the message from the Mustang faithful.
Then-Chief Nameplate Engineer Hau Thai-Tang was tasked with leading the development team for the fifth-generation Mustang, known internally as S197. The look of the new car would be the responsibility of J Mays, who had succeeded Jack Telnack as Ford’s global vice president of design in 1997.
With the acknowledgement the new Mustang would undoubtedly be rear-wheel drive, the question arose of what platform to use. The only rear-wheel-drive platforms available in the Ford lineup were the full-size Panther platform used for the Crown Victoria and the midsize DEW98, which underpinned the just-launched Lincoln LS and the upcoming 2003 Thunderbird roadster.
Based on the size of the car, the DEW98 was the obvious starting point for a new Mustang. One of the longtime complaints against Mustang in terms of the car’s dynamics was understeer caused in part by a less than ideal weight distribution that put about 57 percent of the weight over the front wheels.
In 1999, Ford Racing built a pair of Mustang FR500 demonstrators to showcase the then-new 5.0-liter “Cammer” crate engine. In addition to the twin-cam V8 engine, these demonstrators were further set apart from the conventional SN95 Mustang GT by a five-inch wheelbase extension that shifted the front axle forward relative to the engine. The handling benefits of the FR500’s longer wheelbase led the S197 team to adopt a six-inch-longer wheelbase for the next Mustang, which brought front weight bias down to just 54 percent.
After largely abandoning traditional design cues in the 1979 third-generation model, longtime Mustang design elements began to reappear on the 1994 SN95 with the incorporation of tri-bar taillamps, side scoops and the galloping horse in the grille.
In an increasingly crowded automotive landscape, Mays believed cars needed a distinct look in order to stand out and grab car buyers’ attention. A car needed to clearly exhibit its design DNA, and by this time Mustang had plenty of heritage to tap into.
“When you’re designing a new Mustang, you’re the steward of 40 years of automotive history,” said Mays in 2004, when the fifth-generation Mustang debuted. “If you don’t get it right, you’ve got 8 million Mustang fans to answer to.”
Design is often constrained by the mechanical hard points that are integral to the functionality of the car. In the case of the new Mustang, the decision to go with a longer wheelbase actually turned into a major benefit for the car’s appearance. The relatively short wheelbase of the SN95 meant it had somewhat stubby proportions compared to the first-generation Mustang of the 1960s. While it was clearly a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive machine, it didn’t really exhibit the long-hood, short-rear-deck proportions traditionally associated with sports cars.
The 107.1-inch wheelbase of the S197 gave the designers room to literally stretch the car, in addition to the dynamic benefits it provided.
“We wanted to capture the essence of the car,” said Mays. “We looked at what made the best Mustangs good and the lesser Mustangs not as good.”
By the second half of 1999 and into early 2000, designers were sketching a wide array of different themes, most of which incorporated Mustang DNA in some way but that didn’t necessarily resemble a Mustang.
Many of the proposals incorporated variations of the “New Edge” design language that first appeared on the 1995 Ford GT90 concept and later made it to production on the 1999 Mustang, 1998 Mercury Cougar and 2000 Focus. When combined with the S197 proportions, the result was often quite brutal-looking.
Even with a forward-leaning grille, side scoops, fastback greenhouse and tri-bar taillamps, most of these proposals just didn’t capture the iconic look of Mustang.
Eventually, themes started to emerge that harkened back to some of the most admired Mustangs of the 1960s. Standing in isolation, these cars exhibited the sculpted flanks, set-back bucketed headlamps, forward-leaning grille, fastback 2+2 profile and, of course, tri-bar taillamps in various forms.
However, when set next to vintage Mustangs, the S197 was clearly a more contemporary design with a rising beltline that gave the car a near-wedge profile. Mays called the effect “retro-futuristic.” At first glance, the S197 was immediately recognizable as a Mustang, with a very strong connection to the 1967-68 models in particular, but it also had contemporary elements.
Despite inclusion of classic Mustang cues, it was a relatively clean design. Its faired-in bumpers and absence of chrome made the new car distinct from earlier Mustang models. Relative to its immediate predecessor, the SN95, S197 had a much more integrated look, the pieces seemingly incorporated organically rather than forced on.
At the same time the design team was refining the sheetmetal, Thai-Tang’s engineering team was evolving the platform. While it may have started as a derivative of DEW98, by the time it was complete little more than part of the floorpan and transmission tunnel were left. For the first time since its 1964 debut, Mustang actually had its very own platform in S197, one not shared with any other car in the Ford family.
In 1963, Ford took a prototype first-generation Mustang and modified it to create the Mustang II concept, giving the world the first preview of the design direction for the production car that would arrive less than a year later. In 2003, Ford repeated that process, creating two concepts, a coupe and a convertible that previewed the production model that debuted at the 2004 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Since going on sale in the fall of 2004, the fifth-generation Mustang has spawned several special editions including the 2008-09 Mustang Bullitt, 2012-13 Mustang Boss 302 and the supercharged Mustang Shelby GT500 that has been available since 2007.
The world didn’t end on Jan. 1, 2000, and the fifth-generation Mustang has proven to be a huge success, selling more than 1 million copies by the car’s 49th birthday on April 17, 2013.