The Ford Mustang Turns 50
Happy 50th Birthday to Ford’s Mustang. It was April 17, 1964 when Ford officially introduced their new car at the New York World’s Fair and the industry, car enthusiasts, and America haven’t been the same since. Not only did Mustang create the pony car market, with its long-hood-short-deck styling and performance, but it also brought competitors from GM, Chrysler and American Motors. Little did Ford or anyone else know that this car would sell for 50 -- and counting -- profitable years and become woven into America’s character tapestry. Mustang transcends being a mere car because people remember seeing their first one or setting a goal to own one.
In the early ‘60s, Ford started market research on a new small car. Lee Iacocca headed up the Fairlane Group, which was an informal executive group researching what would appeal to the emerging youth market.
In Mustang: A Complete Guide, published in 1965, Iacocca explained how in one package, Mustang satisfied customers’ need, “. . .for basic transportation and their desire for comfort, style, handling and a choice in performance capabilities.” Since Ford’s goal was profitability, the Mustang body and suspension was a modified Falcon platform to minimize manufacturing costs.
Equipped with a standard six-cylinder engine and manual transmission, ads proclaimed Mustang’s base price started at $2368 f.o.b. Detroit. There were options galore, as the ad copy explained Mustang was designed to be designed by you. First year sales were over 500,000 units.
It’s striking, now iconic, styling earned Mustang Tiffany’s Award for Excellence in American Design. Iacocca got his face and Mustang on both Newsweek and Time covers, then the equivalent of today’s going viral.
Naturally, performance was a key match to its styling character and the Mustang excelled. Originally, a Texan racer named Carroll Shelby had hooked up with Iacocca to secure Ford’s Windsor small-block V8 to power his Cobra sports car. Hence, it was natural that Iacocca would turn to Shelby to produce a Mustang that could win on the racetrack. The G.T.350 was born.
Photo by Isaac Martin
Over the decades, Mustang styling has become classic. Consider the 1968 Highland Green Mustang GT fastback immortalized by Steve McQueen in Bullitt. The nameplates were shaved (removed) but you know it’s a Mustang.
In the go-go ‘60s, Mustangs were winning Trans-Am championships along with NHRA drag racing victories. On the street, there were factory GT’s, Shelby GT 500s and KRs and Ford -produced Boss 302s and Boss 429s for eager enthusiasts. In Europe, Ford’s gutsy pony dominated professional rallies and sedan races.
Things slowed in the ‘70s. Mustang was downsized to the Pinto platform-based Mustang II. There was no V8 option in 1974, but that was corrected in 1975. Critically, however, the Mustang II maintained Mustang’s unbroken production lineage.
In 1979, the Fox-bodied Mustang was introduced and performance started to gallop once again. As ads said, The Boss is Back. It re-ignited the performance aftermarket for styling and performance accessories. During this period, Ford produced the EFI turbocharged four-cylinder SVO Mustang, while refining more power and handling in the 5.0L V8 GT. Performance evolution continued with the 1994 SN-95 and 2005 S-197 platforms.
In 1991, Ford introduced their world-class performance 4.6L Modular V8 engine. By 2014, buyers could order factory Mustangs with 412 naturally aspirated horsepower and up to 850 on Shelby American’s supercharged GT500 Super Snake. And, more importantly, they had the suspension, tires and brakes to match the power. The all-new 2015 Mustang continues the tradition.
But Mustang’s birthday is more than just the car. It reflects America. It’s an acknowledgement of all the hard working people and companies involved in creating Mustang magic. It illuminates three American characteristics.
First is belief in capitalism. Obama would be 100 percent wrong if he applied his “you didn’t build that” meme. Ford Motor Company management made the decision to invest its capital to build the car because they believed there was a profitable market. Ford assembly line workers delivered the product and consumers responded with millions of purchases.
Second, Ford’s pony car created economic opportunities for the automotive aftermarket. Companies designed wheels, engines, suspension components and styling items to match Mustang’s individuality. This economic activity continues to this day, providing profits for hundreds of companies and wages for their employees.
Third, Mustangs represent personal reflections and expressions. Cars continue to be handed down to new family generations. Families -- father/sons/daughters became involved in mechanical, restoration or modification projects. And more than one family has happily scrimped on its budget, so they could save for that just right set of wheels, crate engine or new paint. Additional families set aside funds to go racing or travel to car shows to celebrate this anniversary. The payoff is the pride of driving and displaying their cars, from restored to race, while enjoying the company of fellow Mustang enthusiasts. Families also digitally record loving memories and put them on Facebook or YouTube to share. So you could say Mustang’s birthday is really about us.
Ultimately, Mustang represents freedom. Freedom to get behind the wheel and drive to any destination in our great American nation.
In the early ‘80s, Ford’s advertising theme was “Have you Driven a Ford. . .Lately?” For April 17, that should be amended to “Have you Driven a Mustang. . .Lately?”