When the Fox-body Ford Mustang arrived for 1979, Ford had to deal with a market that favored economy more than performance.

The OPEC oil crisis had unfolded just as the Mustang II was introduced for 1974. While that car sold well, it was lambasted for lackluster performance. The lukewarm 302-ci V8 just wasn’t endearing to those who recalled Mustangs with Ram Air 429s under the hood.

A new governmental mandate called CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) was also in the mix. Ford needed to sell more higher-economy cars than gas guzzlers. To have both economy and some semblance of performance, Ford offered five engines in the new 1979 Mustang — one being a turbocharged 2.3-L 4.

Mustang with boost

The 2.3-L was the entry-level engine for the Mustang, but in normally aspirated 88-horsepower tune. With a Garrett turbocharger in the mix, the rated horsepower nearly doubled to 140 — conveniently the same as the 302 V8.

The only transmission available with it was a wide-radio 4-speed manual, while the V8 could be had with a different 4-speed and a 3-speed automatic. The 2.3-L turbo option was available in the Mustang across all trim levels. This included the performance-themed hatchback-only Cobra and Indy Pace Car packages.

The turbo returned unchanged for 1980, with trim and graphics changes to the Cobra package — essentially wearing the same air dam and faux hood scoop as the one-year-only ’79 Pace Car.

Ford had to perform a bunch of service work on the turbos, revolving around drivability and maintaining a balancing act between the 2-barrel carburetor and the turbo. There was also the dreaded “turbo lag” that customers complained about, in addition to heat-soak issues with the turbo if it was shut down hot.

I owned a 1979 Turbo Cobra in 1985, and in that pre-Internet-forum era, the talk around those cars was to let them idle for a few minutes to cool down and pump fresh oil into the main shaft of the turbo. We were asking for trouble by just shutting it off right after running it hard (such as stopping at a freeway rest area after driving for several hours). With Ford realizing that they didn’t quite have the turbo thing dialed in yet, they dropped it for the 1981 model year.

By 1983, the turbocharged 2.3-L was back — this time fed by electronic fuel injection, which improved the drivability markedly. However, Ford got V8 religion midway during 1982, introducing the 175-hp 5.0-L V8 in the Mustang GT.

To play to the ranks of those who were starting to embrace turbocharged engines (and to keep those CAFE numbers down), Ford introduced a Turbo GT in mid-1983. It was basically a GT with the turbo 2.3L, with slightly recalibrated suspension to allow for the lighter 4-banger up front. Unlike the 5.0 GT, it could only be had in the hatchback. It was also the most expensive fixed-roof Mustang, with an MSRP of $9,714 — $265 more than the 5.0-powered GT hatchback.

1984 was a year of continual changes for the Mustang. The Turbo GT not only was carried over initially into 1984, but was also made available as a convertible. However, the Turbo GT’s days were numbered, as Ford also revealed the Mustang SVO. With an intercooler, the SVO was initially rated at 175 hp — once again, the same as the 5.0 V8. However, the SVO and the 5.0 GT catered to opposite markets, and that’s where this story ends, with Ford dropping the Turbo GT during 1984.

A snail in a sea of V8s

Today, one rarely finds one of these pre-SVO turbos. Early drivability issues made resale values of 1979s and ’80s plummet, causing these cars to fall into the hands of owners who either really didn’t know how to deal with the turbo or didn’t care and ran them into the ground.

As gas became more affordable from the mid-1980s through the 1990s, the unloved turbos with good bodies were more often than not built up with 5.0 V8s.

If attacked by the tin worm in the Rust Belt, it was a death sentence ending in the junkyard. As such, the hardest thing about getting one today is actually finding one. Your best bet is one of the 1979 Indy Pace Car editions, as quite a few were bought as “instant collectibles” back when new — a year after the 1978 IPC Corvette all but created that term.

From Turbo to EcoBoost

These cars still have a three-legged-dog stigma to them, but they are better appreciated today in Mustang enthusiast circles — especially the rare Turbo GTs.

Ford is now only offering the 2.3-L EcoBoost or V8s only in the S550 Mustangs — to include a new 330-hp 2.3-L High Performance Package for 2020.

It may have taken four decades of stops and starts to get there, but the economy and performance edge of the two-bladed Mustang sword is finally sharply honed.

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