The first-generation Ford Mustang went through four different iterations, or refreshes. The final refresh happened in 1971 and lasted until the end of the first generation in 1973. Afterward, the more controversial second generation debuted: the Mustang II.
The 1971, 1972, and 1973 Mustangs are notable for being longer than their predecessors. Many enthusiasts think of the 1971 model year as the year the Mustang got big. However, it was only two inches longer than the previous refresh for 1969. But compared to the 1964.5-1966 Mustangs, the last of the first-gen Mustangs were about 8 inches longer and 6 inches wider. That’s a noticeable size difference. Plus, their elongated design makes them look even bigger.
The 1971-1973 Mustang adopted a style more typical for a car of the ‘70s. The lines were smoother and there was a bigger focus on aerodynamics. Although not as well-loved as the earlier first-gen Mustangs, this last batch did become well-known for the style and power of the second Mach 1 Mustang.
Though their dimensions were identical, there were a handful of changes made between model years. Most were small visual tweaks, but there was an engine line-up change for 1972.
1971, 1972, and 1973 Mustang Engine Differences
The massive Cobra Jet (and Super Cobra Jet variant) had to be dropped due to stricter regulations.
Unfortunately, the 351 V8 was also detuned for less horsepower. It still made a respectable amount of power and can be upgraded to boost horsepower levels. Fortunately, the V6 and 302 V8 were left unchanged for all three model years.
1971-1973 Mustang Engines
|Engine||Displacement||1971 Horsepower||1972 Horsepower||1973 Horsepower
||250 cu. in. / 4.1 liter
||302 cu. in. / 4.9 liter
|Cleveland V8 (High Output)
||351 cu. in. / 5.8 liter
|Cobra Jet V8
||429 cu. in. / 7.1 liter
1971 vs 1972 Mustang
The 1971 and 1972 Mustangs can be tricky to tell apart, even for seasoned Mustang fans. One of the few differences is the Mustang name on the back of the car. The ‘71 used block letters across the rear decklid, while the ‘72 (and ‘73) used cursive script above the right taillight.
If you’re able to get under the hood, you can check the voltage regulator. Early 1971 models have an Autolite-branded voltage regulator. Later 1971 and early 1972 models have a Motorcraft-branded voltage regulator. Seeing the Autolite is a sure sign you’re looking at a 1971 (assuming you’ve already identified the body style). If it’s Motorcraft, you’ll have to rely on the lettering mentioned above or look up your VIN. Check out our Mustang VIN decoder to determine what year and configuration an individual model is.
1971 Mustang Differences
The 1971 model year saw the debut of the Boss 351. If you see a Boss 351 of this body style, it must be a 1971. The Boss 351 Q-code engine was only available for this year. Though it was the same engine, the 351 used in 1972 was detuned for less power. This was due to tightened regulations on emissions.
1971 was the last year for the 429 engine, which was used in the Mach 1 Cobra Jet and Super Cobra Jet. Once again, stricter EPA regulations spelled the demise of this massive powerplant.
A special Spring Edition was offered with some of the visual elements of the Boss 351 and Mach 1, but no added power.
Finally, there’s the ultra-rare Shelby Europa for 1971, but you’re not likely to find one. There were only nine ever made, and all were sold in Europe.
1972 Mustang Differences
The Sprint Package was released mid-year to keep things fresh and was available in “A” and “B” configurations. The added elements were relatively minor and visual in nature. They included red, white, and blue accents, plus a special decal on the rear. There were also unique hubcaps, whitewall tires, and “USA” decals on the quarter panels. This edition celebrated the American teams at the 1972 Olympics.
1972 vs 1973 Mustang
The 1973 Mustang is a bit easier to tell apart from its two predecessors. That’s because there are two distinct design elements unique to the ‘73 model. The first is the front 5-mph crash bumper that was mandated by the government. It’s much larger than the ‘72 front bumper, and it was painted to match the body color. The 1972 front bumper was chrome (apart from the Mach 1 and Sprint package).
The 5-mph front crash bumper is decried by some as being too heavy and ugly. On the whole though, Ford did a good job integrating it into the body (especially compared to some other models from the time).
The second big difference is the parking/turn signal lights on the front, which are vertical instead of horizontal as they were in 1971-1972.
Other small differences exist. The honeycomb pattern of the grille was slightly different. It used more of an oblong shape, compared to the symmetrical beehive design of the prior years. From the rear, you’ll also notice that the ‘72 has black taillight surrounds, while the ‘73’s are bright (chrome).
1973 Mustang Differences
There wasn’t a dignified send-off for the first-gen Mustang with a special edition or performance model. Ford was probably too busy worrying about the oil crisis and trying to get the Mustang II to production.
At the very least, new paint colors (such as Bright Green Glow) were added.
1971 vs 1972 vs 1973: Which Is the Best to Buy?
Any of these models can be a great buy because they’re classic Mustangs. However, they’re typically not as sought-after as the earlier models of the first generation.
In terms of choosing one of these three model years, the differences are pretty small. Some folks don’t like the mandated crash bumper on the 1973. But this is a personal preference, and it might not be enough to sway you.
Production numbers were fairly steady over the three model years, though 1971 saw the most sales by a slight margin. None of them are considered rare by today’s standards.
1971-1973 Mustang Vehicles Sold
|Ford Mustang Model Year||Number of Vehicles Sold
With the differences being so minor, the best advice is to buy the Mustang that’s in the best condition. You may also find yourself gravitating towards a certain engine or paint color. If you’re doing a full rebuild or restomod project, the Mustang that’s in the best shape for the lowest price might be the way to go.
Sources: Hemmings | Ford | The Motoring Enthusiast Journal | 600 Limited Edition
Images used under Creative Commons License.