For 1981, few changes were made to the Fox Body Mustang, except that customers were given more freedom than ever to combine different style options to create a Mustang that was distinctly “theirs.” One of those style options was power windows, a first for the Mustang.
Though 1981 didn’t introduce a lot of new features for the Ford Mustang, it would be the last year for many things. The last year without a powerful V8, the last year for the Cobra, the last year for the Ghia, and the last year before the L, GL, and GLX trim levels.
1981 Ford Mustang Specs
||88 hp @ 4,600 RPM
||118 lb-ft @ 2,600 RPM
||94 hp @ 4,000 RPM
||160 lb-ft @ 1,600 RPM
||120 hp @ 3,800 RPM
||190 lb-ft @ 2,200 RPM
|Medium Pewter Metallic
|Medium Blue Glow
|Midnight Blue Metallic
|Dark Brown Metallic
Interior Trim Colors
|Curb Weight (lbs)
The engine selection of the 1980 Mustang was almost universally disliked, but 1981 saw almost the exact same engines as options.
You could get a 2.3L four-cylinder with the base model, an inline six-cylinder engine, or a 4.2L eight-cylinder. Only the V8 broke the three-digit mark for horsepower, with a paltry 115 hp.
The turbocharged four-cylinder, the premier engine of 1980, had already been discontinued by 1981 due to reliability issues. For that reason, the 1981 Mustang’s legacy is being known as the Fox Body Mustang year with the worst engine selections.
The tires at least grew marginally. Early Fox Body Mustangs have 12” tires, but in 1981, they managed to grow to 13” standard sizes. Though this is still a little small by modern standards, it’s easy enough to upgrade the Fox Body Mustangs wheels and tires.
The transmissions for this year were the returning SROD manual transmission and the C4 automatic transmission. The SROD was nearing the end of its lifespan, and it showed. The reverse gear was unsynchronized, and it had a 10 spline input shaft and 28 spline output shaft. If you increase horsepower even moderately, you’ll want to look at replacing this manual transmission. It’s not particularly strong.
The C4 transmission had been used for the Mustang since 1965, but 1981 was its final year. Unlike the SROD, the C4 has found continued popularity with restoration specialists and hotrodders alike. The 1981 version of this transmission had 26 splines on the torque converter end and 24 splines at the clutch hub. This makes it one of the more reliable iterations of the C4, and it could handle a fair amount of torque. This means that this transmission can often be left as is or modified slightly even for people looking to improve their Mustang’s performance.
Transmission Gear Ratios 1981 Mustang
Though the convertible didn’t return, the T-Top did, allowing for an open-air Mustang experience. For those who were patiently waiting for any kind of opportunity to take their Mustang for a cruise while feeling the sun on their shoulders, this was a welcome addition.
Unfortunately, little information exists on exactly how many T-tops were ordered.
Most of the exterior colors available for this year are muted, but tu-tone paint options and decal packages created unique and eye-catching combinations. Wraparound body side moldings helped to keep the exterior from looking too bland.
Though 1981 didn’t bring many firsts, it was the only year for the “S” coupe. This was a stripped down Mustang intended to appeal to people who didn’t particularly care about performance or luxury features, but who did care about cost.
It wasn’t a huge savings over the standard base model coupe, which undoubtedly affected its popularity, and it didn’t return for a second year.
The Ghia was always intended to be the Mustang’s “luxury” option, and for 1981 that meant a lot of fabric choices for the interior. You could get red fine-ribbed cloth, pewter leather, or a variety of other choices. The low-back reclining bucket seats were back once again for the 1981 year, though Recaros reappeared as an option as well.
Though 1981 was the last year for the Cobra, it wasn’t even a full year. By the middle of the year, the turbocharged four-cylinder engine was discontinued, leaving only the depowered V8. The Cobra wouldn’t return until the very end of the Fox Body Mustang era, and it came back as an entirely different beast as evidenced by the 1993 Cobra’s specs.
Later Cobras would drive home how depowered these years truly were, and ultimately, people were happy to see the Cobra take a break until it figured out what it wanted to be.
The McLaren M81 is one of the rarest Mustangs ever produced. Though two hundred and fifty units were planned, only ten of these Mustangs were made.
The McLaren M81 used the same turbocharged four-cylinder engine that was available for the Cobra, but it was heavily tuned. McLaren Performance outfitted this Mustang with a full aero package and improved the suspension substantially.
The result shows us the potential of the turbo-four better than the Cobra. The M81 could produce 175 horsepower, over fifty percent more than the 1981 Cobra. Even so, the McLaren’s quarter-mile time of 17.3 seconds was less than impressive, even by the standards of the time.
Though the 1981 Mustang was definitely nothing to write home about at the time of production, since then it’s become a favorite for a project car. It has the great four-eyed Fox Body look that screams “vintage” and even though it had lackluster performance, that’s kind of the point of a project car.
In terms of body styles though, the 1981 Fox Body had some gems that combined rare features that are impossible to find on modern cars. T-tops, in particular, are highly sought after since it was a style that wasn’t offered for very many years and that many people didn’t take advantage of. Aftermarket T-tops are available though, and they have become an increasingly popular option as people start to view the Fox Body Mustangs as classics worthy of restoration.
Another body style that has become more popular through the years are notchbacks. A lot of people are drawn to the notchback’s style, which is attractive and practical.
This combination of unique looks, rare features, and substandard performance are all hallmarks of a great project vehicle, and that’s precisely what the 1981 Mustang offers. Often available at a lower cost than other Fox Body Mustangs due to the lowered performance, the 1981 offers all of the looks with no downsides if you were planning to gut it for a Coyote Swap anyway.
Those who are lucky enough to find a 1981 Mustang with a turbocharged-four that’s in good condition can replicate the steps that McLaren Performance took to squeeze 175 horsepower out of it. Can you improve on their results? With modern performance boosts, it’s likely!
For those who aren’t particularly impressed with any of the stock engine options, you’re hardly alone. Most people agree that 1980 and 1981 were major hiccoughs in the Fox Body era. Conducting an engine swap is perhaps easier said than done, but it’s the kind of project that turns a car like this into a true sleeper, giving the lightweight Fox a major injection of horsepower and torque. Just make sure to upgrade the transmission at the same time as the engine.
Fox Body Restoration
The 1981 Mustang is a great project car, though after all of these years it’s likely you’ll need to think of some of the basics of Fox Body restoration in addition to considering what type of engine you’d like to have powering your Fox.
The Fox Body interior was notorious for causing a lot of seat-lean and failing to offer appropriate support. Though some 1981 Mustangs have the optional Recaro seats, there aren’t many remaining with this feature. Doing an interior restoration is an option, but so is upgrading the entire interior to something a little more comfortable.
The best thing about Fox Body restoration is how much freedom it offers. If you’re willing to put in the wrench work, you can end up with a Mustang that’s truly yours, inside and out.