Celebrating 50 Years of the Ford Mustang
Originally published for the Ford Mustang 50 year anniversary.
In a rented room at the Fairlane Inn, a now defunct motel off a Detroit highway, a group of men gathered to talk about the future of the automotive industry. They were a secret coalition, made up of workers from all departments of the Ford Motor Company, engineers, designers, marketing employees, and they were headed by Ford’s General Manager, Lee Iacocca. The unofficially named Fairlane Committee met for 14 straight weeks, giving up weekends and nights, with the goal, not to develop a car, but rather, to determine if a market existed for something new, something bold. Very quickly they came to recognize that such a market did exist, an entire segment of the buying public that automakers had never appealed to – the young.
In the time that followed the Fairlane Committee began working on a car for America’s youth. It would be sporty, aesthetically pleasing, affordable, and unique. It would challenge the two-seater racing European models that World War II vets had fallen in love with overseas. It would go on to celebrate its fiftieth birthday in April of 2014, as the longest consistently produced American car in history. It was the Ford Mustang.
America in the early 1960s was in a state of change. The Mustang release was still in a mourning period, after the loss of John F.Kennedy, just months before. The Beatles had arrived in America in 1964, just weeks before the Mustang’s debut. Buying power in America was changing, as the youth culture grew up.
“It just landed at the perfect time, right there in early ‘64,” says Donald Farr, author of Mustang: Fifty Years. “All of a sudden the baby boomers had a youth movement. It was a great thing for us children of the ‘60’s.”
Iacocca believed emphatically in the idea of a sporty car that targeted this niche of American youth. Even though he had based the Mustang on the then Ford Falcon chassis, and even though they weren’t very fast, the original Mustang barely broke 101 horsepower, with a top speed of 116 mph, it was everything that cars at the time weren’t – smaller, cooler, more affordable.
But, while Iacocca was convinced of the car’s surefire success, the same could not be said for everyone. It took multiple rounds of pitching and debating with Henry Ford II, then president of the Ford Motor Company, to be given an opportunity to build. Ford, still reeling in the great failure of the Edsel, was wary of producing anything new. But finally, perhaps because of Iacocca’s undiminished determination, or, as many believe, because Ford fell in love with the car’s name, after a P51 Mustang fighter plane from World War II, he relented. The offer was firm – around $45 million dollars for production, nowhere near the $75 million dollars Iacocca had hoped for.
Still, the Fairlane Committee had great faith in their Mustang, and it was set to premier at the 1964 World’s Fair, as part of Disney’s Magic Skyway. The team knew they had something original, something different, and so they set their sights on a number. They wanted to sell 417,000 Mustangs in a year, starting with the car’s debut date on April 17th of 1964.
“We don’t claim that the Mustang is a universal car, or that it can be all things to all people,” Iacocca said to the International Press on April 14,1964, in a transcription held by the Ford Museum. “But we do believe that the Mustang will be more things to more people than any other automobile on the road.” What they got, however, no one was expecting.
“They introduce it at The World’s Fair, NY, what a great stage,” says Bob Casey, the former curator for the Ford Museum of Transportation. “The Ford PR machine really went into high gear, but I don’t think anyone at Ford expected it to be as big a hit as it was.”
On April 17, 1964 Ford sold 22,000 Mustangs nationwide. Within two years they had sold over 1.5 million models, at just $2,368 a piece. With their initial run they managed to reach, not only their target audience of young Americans, but others, as well. The changing tide was bringing more than just youth culture. Many families were making more money and considering second cars, and more single women were going to work. To these groups, as well as the original demographic, the Mustang appealed greatly.
“Some of their advertising was aimed outside of the baby boomers,” Farr says, “Young women, older women. There was even an ad for grandparents or older people – The Mustang will make you feel young again.”
The car’s overnight success spurred on an increased need for production. Soon after its release, the Ford factory in Dearborn, Michigan was converted to a Mustang only production line, in addition to the Mustang only factory in San Jose, CA. Mustangs were also added to the line in a factory based out of Mahwah, NJ.
Bob Davidson, a Ford dealership owner when the Mustang first came out, says that the Mustang’s success saved his business. Like many Americans, Davidson was not fully prepared for the Ford Mustang’s debut.
“We thought, we have the Thunderbird, what else are they adding, what else are they going bring out? Times were tough and it was just another car,” he says, of the Mustang’s release. He would later go on to drive a Mustang from the New York City World’s Fair home to his dealership in Baltimore, and to an eager public. “We were selling 150 Mustangs a month out of this place,” he adds, “It was an extremely hot car. I don’t remember anybody saying I don’t like this.”
Perhaps the only people who didn’t like the car were Ford’s competitors, mainly General Motors and Chrysler, which made up the other two of the American Big Three Automakers. The Mustang had caught competing automakers off guard. With little direct competition in the way of sporty, four-seater cars, Mustang owned the market. Behind the scenes, however, American automakers were desperately trying to play catch up with the Mustang’s success, struggling to create their own innovative and exciting versions of the Mustang. It was this competition that spurred on a segment of models known as the Pony Cars, designated by the running horse emblem on the Mustang’s grille. The new segment took compact cars, such as the Ford Falcon, in the Mustang’s case, and was known for being smaller and sportier, and unlike anything that had come before.
The Pony Car movement marked a pivotal point in the history of the auto industry, and of America. Consumers were offered choices, Chevy’s Camaro, Pontiac’s Firebird, the Dodge Charger, the Plymouth Barracuda, and the AMC Javelin. The industry was flooded with fast, customizable, four-seater cars. And still, the Mustang’s success was paramount. Many models from the time came close, but no one could ever touch the first.
“It took everybody in the automotive industry by surprise,” Donald Farr says, “At first Chevrolet said we’ve got the Corvair. We can compete with the Mustang with the Corvair, and obviously the Mustang blew those sales right out of the water.” They weren’t the only ones. Chrysler tried to upstage Ford by releasing the Barracuda a week before the Mustang. At the time, however, it was hardly more than a Plymouth Valiant with design changes, and the car saw little initial success.
“It did launch something called the Pony car, obviously named after the Mustang,” Farr adds, “They created a whole segment of cars that were sporty compact.”
In addition to paving way for new cars, the Mustang cracked open the world of pre-market products. While customizing cars, be it for speed or looks or any number of reasons, was nothing new, the Mustang’s great success was something Ford saw they could capitalize on even more. The Mustang was a car that was easily fixed up and worked upon, and so Ford offered hundreds of pre-production options. People replaced engines, customized styles, and added power. The amount of options available made it possible for Mustang drivers to be bold and original, even with so many cars on the road.
“That’s probably one of things that has helped it to be continuously successful all these years,” says Bob Fria, author of Mustang Genesis, “You could take 1000 mustangs, quite literally, put them side by side and, due to all the options that were available when Ford was new, you couldn’t find any two options that were alike.” According to Fria the mentality of customizing soon evolved for all of the Pony cars. “Now a whole new industry sprung up out of all that successfulness,” he adds, “Not just the Ford Mustang, but the competition, the Camaros, the Firebirds, and the Plymouth Barracudas, and so forth.”
The atmosphere surrounding the automotive industry began to change as well. Foreign cars companies were no longer the sole source of sporty cars. The encroaching wave of German and British cars began to slow, as American turned to their home turf for their cars, both in design and production.
“One of the things [the Mustang] did certainly, is change people’s minds about what American cars were,” Casey says, explaining how in Europe American cars had become known as large, lumbering, and not much fun to drive. “Then comes this car that’s very different,” he adds, “It may have had the effect of changing some foreign perceptions about what an American car could be…and that was part of what the Fairlane Committee had set out to do.”
According to Steve Ling, the North American Car Ford Marketing Manager, that changing perception on American cars of the 1960’s still contributes to the Mustang’s success, even fifty years later.
“It showed that you could have a fast, fun to drive car that was still affordable. You didn’t have to buy some exotic import that was temperamental and unreliable,” he says, “You could have your cake and eat it too, with performance, and I think that’s been a mainstay of what makes the Mustang popular in the industry today.”
Much of the credibility given to American cars at the time can be attributed to the Mustang’s performance on foreign racetracks, where it competed against the cars on the track that it had once competed against on the showroom floors. It held its own on the foreign circuits, winning the automotive Tour de France race and giving Ford credit as a sports car in Europe.
“We designed the Mustang with young America in mind,” Iacocca had told the press at the World’s Fair, “We like to think that in the process we have achieved a new dimension in American motoring – perhaps in world motoring.”
Despite the reaction the Mustang got abroad, its greatest successes were at home. Almost immediately after the car came out Carroll Shelby was enlisted to turn it into a racecar, and the Shelby Mustang has been in racing ever since. It has raced in circuits such as the Sports Car Club of America, or SCCA, the National Hot Rod Association, NHRA, and Trans Am racing.
For Craig Capaldi, a racer and shop manager for Capaldi Racing and Parts, racing is part of the Mustang’s history.
“They raced them then and raced them now,” he says, “Going back to the heritage, it helped people such as ourselves pursue the Mustang, knowing its capabilities and performance levels.”
The racetracks were not the only ones star struck by the Mustang’s success. From its debut the Ford pony car appeared in many famous Hollywood productions, boosting its fame, and giving Americans even more reason to fall in love. From the car chases of the James Bond film, Goldfinger, and the Steve McQueen blockbuster, Bullitt, to the TV shows of Mary Tyler Moore and Farrah Fawcett’s Charlie’s Angels, the Mustang became a celebrity on both the big and small screen.
“It was definitely in all kinds of movies,” Farr says, “And seeing it in movies and television shows certainly influenced people’s opinions of the car.”
Whether in its role as innovator, racer, or film star, over the years the Mustang has grown to be more than a car. For many, the symbol of a wild horse has become synonymous with an icon of patriotism and Americana.
“It really symbolizes that American ideal of freedom and optimism,” Ling says. He adds that to this day companies call Ford, asking if they can use the Mustang logo. “[They] say ‘we want something that really represents the best of America – can we put Mustang in the ad?’” He says, “And I think this whole thing started because of how this car was… back in ‘65.”
“It’s an all American car named after a wild pony of the western plains,” he says, “People all around the world loved the Mustang for its American look, and feel, and muscle car. It’s always been an American car and people love it for that.”
Bob Casey, however, feels that the symbol of the Mustang speaks more to a love affair with car than country.
“I think that the company latched on to the Mustang horse as a symbol of free movement, and that has always been one of the major attractions of the automobile,” Casey says, “It’s the ability to get in a car and go wherever I want to go when I want to go there, and I don’t have to ask anybody, I don’t have to worry about a schedule, I could just go – and so, by naming the car the Mustang you’re subliminally tapping into that.”
For some Americans, the title of Mustang owner bears a certain honor, a legacy that is as much part of American history as the Revolutionary War and McDonald’s fast food.
“Mustang owners are a very loyal bunch,” Bob Fria says, “There have been 9.2 million Mustangs made since introduction day. If you consider how many of those cars have changed hands, maybe three or four times as an average, maybe more, then that means there are more than 27 or 30 million people in this country who have at one point owned a Mustang.” Fria adds that one could start a conversation with any American about the Ford Mustang, and hear stories about friends or family members who have owned some model of the car.
“The Mustang car is not really a car any more,” he says, “It’s become an American icon. And I think that’s the trail that the new 2015 Mustang is followed.”
Even with the latest 2016 model, and the 50th anniversary, many Mustang enthusiasts are still as in love today as they were with the original car. The contemporary design, while much larger and significantly more powerful than its ancestors, speaks to the cars that have come before, specifically, the first Mustang that started it all. Design cues, such as the front grille and the fastback body, are integrated in the 2015 model, homage to the little car that started it all.
Still, the modern Mustang is a car all its own. Last year was the first time in history where the Mustang saw an independent rear suspension, which changed the game on topics of safety and racing. And 2015 also marked the Mustang’s debut in Europe, most importantly the United Kingdom, where it got a right-hand drive makeover, another first for the All American Car. But despite these differences, and the larger, fuller bodies, the more powerful engines, and the more technological advanced programs, the modern Mustang is tried and true to the cars that have come before it.
“I came to Ford to work on Mustang. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that from various people,” Steve Ling says, “Because you know you’re going to be part of history…We know that this thing is going to be bigger than us, it’ll last beyond us, and it’s our responsibility to keep it going.”