Welcome back to Holy Grails, the Autopian series where you show off some of the coolest, most underrated cars that you love. Keep those grails flowing in! After years of telling you all about our favorite cars, we’re so excited to see what gets your heart all revved up. And as it turns out, you dear readers love some awesome cars. Today, we have a Grail recommended by a reader who goes by Jack Trade, and their choice is the 1995 Ford Mustang GTS. The GTS sold for just one year and featured the very last year for the 5.0-liter pushrod V8 that was found in earlier Fox bodies. This was essentially a rebirth of the 1980s Mustang LX, but just for one year.
Based on the responses from our last entry, an explanation is in order. If you’ve read David Tracy’s work for long enough, you’ve undoubtedly read an article or several from him about some sort of “Holy Grail” Jeep. He’s been talking about holy grail Jeeps since 2018, and even embarked on quests to obtain some. This has long confused readers at the old lighting site and now here. In legend, there is just one Holy Grail, so the fact that he’s had more than one of them doesn’t fit. Later, I would adopt David’s formula when talking about some of the wildest Volkswagens and Smarts that I find. But what gives? What’s with us calling things holy grails?
To us, a “holy grail” vehicle is simply a rare or special version of a vehicle that sets it apart from the rest of the pack. These vehicles will often be desired in their respective enthusiast communities. In the case of David’s Jeeps, they have a rare manual transmission. Or in the case of my Smarts and Volkswagens, it’s often because the cars themselves are quite rare and offbeat. Yes, this means that we’re stretching the meaning of “holy grail.” And we’re aware it’s a bit silly because we keep finding our grails. But in short, when we talk about a “holy grail” car, you know that we’re talking about something rare or notably special, and quite possibly hotly desired by specific enthusiasts. With that said, we’re always open to suggestions!
Last week, this series took a turn towards vans when reader CJ reminded us that Ford used to sell rear-wheel-drive, wedge-shaped minivans with a manual transmission. The Ford Aerostar was Blue Oval’s response to Chrysler’s instant hit minivans. But instead of copying Chrysler’s homework, Ford decided to go a different way. Chrysler’s minivans drove like cars while hauling the whole family all while being small enough to fit in a garage. Ford would take the route also chosen by General Motors. The Aerostar drove less like a car and more like a truck. It was rear-wheel-drive and even featured parts borrowed from the Ranger pickup. Ford touted this as an advantage; while Chrysler vans towed up to 2,000 pounds, the Aerostar towed 5,000 pounds like a Chevrolet Astro. And yep, they still fit in a garage.
This week, we have another Ford, but this isn’t a utility vehicle. Instead, it’s a Mustang; Ford’s celebrated and long-running pony car. But this Mustang is an odd one.
To understand what makes this car special, we will need to rewind the clock back to late 1978. The third generation of the Ford Mustang released and was on a mission to right the Mustang II’s wrongs. According to the book How to Tune and Modify Your Ford 5.0 Liter Mustang, the Fox platform was the result of a Ford initiative to have a platform capable of underpinning everything from two-door sports cars to four-door family cars. As Hemmings writes, having that platform underpinning a bunch of vehicles also meant that Ford could streamline production and save on costs.
The first Fox platform cars were the 1978 Ford Fairmont and the Mercury Zephyr.
For the Mustang, Ford gave its designers a mission to give the new vehicle a vastly different design than the Mustang II. But at the same time, Henry Ford II wanted some design traits to carry over. There were a number of concept designs, but it was ultimately Jack Telnack who found a way to drive the design home. Telnack came over to America after being vice president of design at Ford of Europe. His design for the new Mustang took elements of previous concepts and combined them into something that looked to have a bit of Euro flair.
The design team managed some notable feats with the third-generation Mustang. At 179.1 inches long, it managed to be four inches longer than the Mustang II, and it offered 20 percent more interior space to boot. Yet, the Fox body still shaved off about 200 pounds from the Mustang II.
And the Fox body didn’t stop there, as Ford’s third-generation pony car brought back the GT, added turbocharged four-cylinder engines, and introduced the first SVT Cobra. These cars have endured, too, and today they’re a common sight at car shows around America.
As Car and Driver writes, one of the most desired Fox body Mustangs of the modern day is the LX. Sold from 1987 to 1993, you got the 4.9-liter “5.0” High Output V8. This was the same engine as the Mustang GT, however, the LX did away with the GT’s equipment, making it cheaper, simpler, and lighter than the GT. And as DrivingLine notes, the LX was the only way that you could get a 5.0 Mustang as a notchback back then. Well, unless you were in law enforcement, then you got the notchback 5.0 SSP. At its height in 1987, the 5.0 HO was rated at 225 HP and 300 lb-ft torque, just shy of the 235 HP Cobra. And you got that power without anything else that you didn’t need.
When Car and Driver tested a Mustang GT and a Cobra in 1987, the GT did the quarter mile in 14.7 seconds, only 0.4 seconds slower than the Cobra. The LX did it in 14.8 seconds, though Car and Driver notes that the measurement was taken with the magazine’s older 3-mph rollout. Still, even the acceleration to 60 mph figure of 6.2 seconds is not bad for a car that’s over 35 years old.
In 1993, the Fox body passed the Mustang torch to the SN95, another radical redesign of the Mustang formula. The SN95 brought on a dramatic change in styling, and Ford’s team also found ways to improve the Mustang’s handling and ride along the way.
As Motor Trend notes, Ford leaned on Mustang enthusiasts for input on how to better the Mustang. One of Ford’s original ideas was to replace the Mustang with a front-wheel-drive sport compact. As Hagerty notes, when AutoWeek published a look into this new vehicle, it apparently enraged Mustang fans to the point where thousands apparently sent in letters to Ford, informing brass about the mistake that they were about to make.
Ford ended up spending $700 million and just 36 months developing a successor to the third-generation Mustang. And the aforementioned front-wheel-drive concept became the Ford Probe. Arguably a huge overhaul on the Fox body ‘Stang, the SN95 has a stiffer structure than the third-generation, and featured other goodies in the form of suspension geometry that better fights body roll and a wider track front and back. Ford’s engineers even reduced shock tower flex. The SN95 brought over upgrades in technology, too. Four-wheel disc brakes came standard, and ABS was available.
When the new Mustang launched for the 1994 model year, you could get it with a 3.8-liter Essex V6 making 145 HP, or the 5.0 HO carried over from the third-generation, now rated at 215 HP. But for reader Jack Trade, the SN95 Mustang to get is the 1995 Mustang GTS. Why? This Mustang gave you the base model body that would normally house a V6, but instead, you got that V8:
How about the somewhat unknown, 1 year only Mustang GTS as the perhaps last best expression of the Fox Body era?
(yeah yeah, I know, it was an SN95. But that platform was a worked-over Fox so there’s at least more than just a spiritual connection here)
It was the same concept as the LX 5.0 Mustangs of the 1980s – GT performance equipment stuffed into an otherwise base model.
A GTS critically got you the very last year of the legendary torquey-down-low 5.0 HO V8 of Fox fame, but also gave you contemporary safety goodies like ABS brakes and airbags, all sitting on a chassis that offered much better (by previous Mustang standards, anyway) handling.
What it didn’t get you: leather seats, power windows, fog lights, a spoiler, anything that wasn’t purely about the motoring. I don’t think you even got so much as a special badge or decal.
They weren’t unobtanium but Ford didn’t make a ton of them, maybe 5 or 6k total for that single year.
There’s just something so pure about the car – plenty of people will buy high-end Mustangs for the bling and imputed street cred (witness Ford’s shamefully making Shelby stripes available on even base S197 models), but to purchase something like this, you’re into the driving experience first and foremost. That’s a grail for sure.
Sure enough, Jack Trade hit the nail on the head, here. This Mustang was special for a couple of reasons. For starters, you got the firepower of the GT and none of the other stuff that wasn’t related to making the Mustang go fast. As parts supplier CJ Pony Parts writes, you got the 4.9-liter 5.0 HO V8 making 215 HP and 285 lb-ft torque, plus a Borg-Warner T-5 five-speed manual.
This gave you the same hardware as the GT, but in a stripped-down body for less money. While a Ford Mustang GT was $18,105 in 1995, this was $16,910. You didn’t get fog lights and you didn’t get a rear spoiler. Inside, you sat in cloth seats, manually cranked your windows, and adjusted your mirrors by hand.
If that was too stripped down for comfort, you could option your GTS with power windows, mirrors, and trunk release. You could also get an AM/FM stereo cassette player, cruise control, and visor mirrors with lights on both sides. But the formula largely remained the same. You got V8 power and just enough creature comforts. The GTS trim level was eliminated the next year after Ford built just 6,370 of them.
Ford Mustang enthusiast site Mustang Specs points out the differences between a GT and a GTS and they might be difficult unless you know what you’re looking for. A Mustang GTS had the same badging as a regular Mustang GT, but came without the aforementioned body parts and with the base interior. The GTS also had different wheels.
While researching this, I tried to find brochures and reviews for the GTS but came up empty. It seems that the GTS came and went without much fanfare. That’s sort of weird, but not all that surprising. It was a single-year vehicle that existed as a stripped-down version of a higher model. If this Motor Trend review of the 1994 V6 and V8 ‘Stangs is anything to go by, then you’re in for a ride:
Both Mustang models are as distinctive to drive as they are to look at. The GT drifts through high-energy corners with about the same tire-howling delight as the ’93, but now has more understeer designed in for a measure of restraint. (More than a third of current Mustang owners are 25 years old or less, an age when driving skills are still being honed.) The driving experience is characterized by power rack-and-pinion steering that directs the car with more precision, and body roll is better controlled. On the street, the softer suspension and more rigid structure absorb shake and shiver as never before.
The Mustang is a competent and extremely attractive way to cruise Gratiot Avenue or Sunset Boulevard. Its first-class styling, excellent dynamics, and adherence to performance as a fundamental truth make it the most significant new American car this year. As a stand-alone heir to the Mustang title and throne, the SN95 has pulled the sword from the stone. And in all its iterations, it’ll appeal to many more drivers than merely the legion of Mustang buffs who’ve anxiously awaited its arrival as an elegant answer to the pony-car equation, the new Mustang earns our highest accolade: Motor Trend ’94 Car of the Year.
Finding a Ford Mustang GTS has been quite a task. These cars are nearly 30 years old now, and many have been passed through countless owners. They’ve gotten modded and beaten up along the way. So, looking at SN95s for sale today in 2022, it’s hard to figure out which ones are GTs with missing wings and which ones are modded GTS. And one baffling ad showed what was clearly a GT, but was claimed to be a GTS. Despite that struggle, I did find three Mustang GTS for sale. One was so rough it had a salvage title. One was rough and modded. And finally, here’s one clean enough that I’d trust it on a road trip.
After 1995, the GTS trim level was dead, replaced temporarily by the 248A option package until 1998. You still got a stripped-down Mustang, but the 5.0 HO V8 was replaced with the 4.6-liter modular V8. The GT also had this engine and later, the Cobra would get a flavor of it, too. So, if you really wanted the last whiff of the Fox body experience of the 1980s, but in a more modern package, the 1994 and the 1995 Mustangs were the last of them. And if you wanted to relive the old LX, the GTS was your ride of choice.
(Top Photo Credit: Bring a Trailer Seller)
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