Mustang: 50 Years of the Original Pony

Blue Mustang

Mustang: 50 Years of the Original Pony

By R. Alan Clanton | published June 14, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor

The match-up between the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Camaro is a classic rivalry. It’s like Coke versus Pepsi. PC versus Mac. Borg versus McEnroe. Bushes versus Clintons. Well, sort of. The automotive press recently reported that sales of the Camaro are slightly ahead of sales of the Mustang, but that margin is so narrow as to be pointless when it comes to bragging rights. Combined sales of the two cars totaled more than 20,000 in May of 2014, but Camaro beat Mustang by only 579 cars. That’s as close as a car rivalry can get.

But for Ford, bragging rights still come easily thanks to the Mustang. After all, it was the car that changed the landscape (at least the part with pavement) 50 years ago. And despite a nip-and-tuck battle with arch-rival Camaro, fans of the Ford Mustang are celebrating the anniversary of their favorite American car.

Though the article in the interior of the magazine My Ford describes its front end as “shark-like,” the visage shown on the cover is more canine—wolf-like, or perhaps predatory in the style of the panther. Maybe it is the intense yellow set against the black studio background. Whatever the effect, or the first impression, the photo of that 2015 Mustang evokes little to do with horses—save for that iconic logo on the grill and the rumbling sense of horsepower found in those muscular lines. No matter your interpretation of that bright yellow incarnation, there is animal power in the image.

Though the cover text does not mention the commemoration, the glossy spring edition of My Ford magazine clearly celebrates the 50th anniversary of what became arguably the most famous car of the second half of the 20th century, and the most durable American car ever created (sorry Corvette and Camaro fans).

Inside the quarterly My Ford magazine, readers will find six pages of description of the newest Mustang to hit the streets, along with comments from some of the designers and engineers responsible for the latest incarnation of the always-evolving horse, including the childhood recollections of Scot-born Moray Callum, now vice-president of design at Ford. As a wee tike in Scotland, Callum saw Mustangs race alongside European sports cars near Edinburgh, and already obsessed with automobiles, it was a game-changer for the budding young engineer.

The Mustang had a similar effect on thousands, even millions of other people worldwide, but most especially in the United States, where the car was introduced as an affordable alternative to what were—in those days—generally more expensive sports cars. Back in 1964, “sports” in automotive vernacular meant “pricey.” Muscle was part of the mix, but power was secondary to the panache and élan associated with the likes of Jaguar, Ferrari or the famous Astin-Martin driven by Roger Moore or Sean Connery in early James Bond movies.

For its first major appearance, Ford chose the 1964 World’s Fair in New York to unveil the little Mustang, and within weeks she became the most famous debutante in automotive history. The Mustang’s unveiling at the ‘64 World’s Fair is, in retrospect, a remarkable circumstance.

Built on 650 acres in Flushing Meadows, and constructed only after a complicated and sometimes contentious political fight (chief organizer was Robert Moses), the World’s Fair would eventually draw more than 51 million visitors during its two long seasons in 1964 and 1965. With the motto “peace through understanding” as its theme, the Fair that year was also an opportunity to showcase that great confluence of technologies and scientific development—the space age and the newly heightened space race between the Soviets and the U.S., and remarkable new achievements in computers, telephony, television and science. This was also the golden age of some of the most durable mid-20th century corporations—Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, IBM, RCA, Westinghouse, GE, all of which became major sponsors with dazzling exhibits housed in futuristic buildings. Some of the things that visitors got to see for the first time, up close and personal, were computers (large and small), data punch card machines, analog tape storage, teletype and facsimile machines, the earliest phone and computer modems, and amazing new forms of TV and phone technologies.

Among the most popular exhibits that year were Walt Disney’s various pavilions and kiosks, which—in the vernacular of hindsight—were precursors to Walt’s vision of a much larger, East Coast theme park campus, including an Epcot-like exhibit, people-mover and monorail demonstrations, and a “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” show which employed the same early animatronics used to great success a few years later in Orlando.

According to attendance records, Ford Motor Company had the second most popular attraction at the World’s Fair. The Ford exhibit included “Ford’s Magic Skyway,” which deployed 50 Ford convertible vehicles—all electric, no motors, no gas power—moving smoothly around a controlled ride through the Ford demonstration, a ride which offered an elaborate effort at time-travel (dinosaurs, wooly mammoths, volcanoes, pre-historic cavemen and proto-humans) followed by a futuristic look at highway travel in the United States. The exhibit was designed by a combination of Ford engineers and Walt Disney designers.

Many of those “people-mover” type vehicles in the Magic Skyway attraction were open-topped Mustangs. Although it was unclear at the time, many automotive historians now say that the Mustang’s famous debut at the ’64 World’s Fair was a success in large part because of the confluence of technologies, iconic images and Space Age developments so closely linked to our memories of that era. In fact, the timing and venue of the Mustang’s debut could not have been more appropriate.

The Mustang had a long incubation period at Ford. As early as 1959, the top brass at Ford knew they wanted to develop something that would embody both sportiness and spunk. Seeking to compete head-on with companies like Jaguar, Astin-Martin and Ferrari, the first images of a prototype called “Mustang I” bear little resemblance to the car that would be introduced in 1964. Indeed, photos from Ford’s archives show designers Gene Bordinat and Herb Misch standing (and seated, respectively) with a 1961 Mustang I mock-up, a rocket-shaped coupe which looks more like a streamlined European racecar; no double-brow grill, no triple vertical taillight, none of the lines associated with the pony look. The quasi-Formula 1 mock-up is also a snug two-seater, and employs a spoiler-roll-bar hybrid wing only inches behind the head of the passenger and driver. Artist renderings created by John Najjar further translate the little roadster into a space-age racer, and the original proposals included a 90-horsepower V-4 engine. More working mock-ups were built, complete with working drive-train and engine.

The space-age roadster would also be expensive, and that was the deal-breaker for one top Ford executive. Lee Iacocca, then chief of the Ford division (of all Ford families of cars and trucks), vetoed the plans for the racy, rocket-like Mustang I. Iacocca had an intuition that Ford could compete with the sports car ideal—while also fusing a mix of economy (low cost to build, and a reasonable sticker price for the consumer) with a broadly defined American look. Iacocca wanted to create something affordable that would appeal to the American sense of identity, self-reliance and independence. Iacocca also wanted a car that would appeal to the young driver.

So the designers went back to work with Iacocca looking over their shoulders. And to fuel the need to get something new and dramatic developed quickly, he created internal competition—forming three teams all working in secrecy to come up with the best design. To save on cost, and to speed up the process, designers were encouraged to use the existing Falcon frame, building the Mustang atop what could be easily retooled along the assembly line. Iacocca appointed chief engineer Donald Frey as project manager, and insisted that Ford come up with something solid as quickly as possible. Eventually over a hundred designs were submitted, but the mock-up built by the team headed by Joe Oros was the winner, by far, and the clean-lined little car became the apple of Iacocca’s eye. “It was the only one that seemed to be moving,” Iacocca famously remarked. Iacocca was also fond of Oros’ design for its stand-apart quality—the Mustang seemed imbued with sportiness without looking like a cheap knockoff of the chic roadsters of Italy, Britain or Germany.

Black and white photos taken outside on a Ford parking lot in September 1962 reveal for the first time the breathtakingly familiar face and body of the infant Mustang. A full two years before its debut, there it was—that magical mix of attributes: the brow of the simple grill set forward between the now unmistakable, deep-set eyes; the triple vertical taillights on the sexy, taut behind; the lean styling and trim work which fused weekend sportiness with an American love of the road; and that iconic logo of the wild horse in full stride.

Oros’ 1962 version had beat out its closest rival, the “Allegro” design, which featured a double brow—just as shark-like as the Mustang featured on the cover of the spring 2014 My Ford magazine. But for Iacocca, the Allegro was a distant second. Still, there was internal debate at Ford, and another season of tinkering with designs—some more muscular, some more sporty, some heavier and pricier. But test marketing, early publicity in the automotive press, and pre-debut materials provided to dealerships convinced the Ford brass that their original design was on track, and the alternate mock-ups eventually all lost out to the basic Mustang as seen by the public in 1964.

Iacocca insisted that the Mustang remain affordable, especially for first-time car buyers. Engineers fitted it with a V-8 engine, but constructed the whole thing around a variation of the big-selling semi-compact Falcon, thereby combining power with a low sticker price. By October of 1963 the design had been narrowed even more, and after a few weeks of fiddling with the trim and other cosmetic elements, the pony car was ready for its unveiling in both a hardtop and convertible version.

Iacocca and his team had good instincts about what the public wanted in this new car. The Mustang was a major hit at the World’s Fair. Press reaction was not merely favorable (it doesn’t take much to get the automotive press to swoon upon seeing a new car design), but downright ecstatic. Ford had expected automotive writers and newspaper reporters to generate a few hundred articles based on Ford press releases and publicity material, but within only two weeks, more than 2500 articles had been written about the Mustang.

Linked with Ford’s powerhouse publicity campaign, lots of excitement on the part of dealerships nationwide, and all that good press, the Mustang sold over 100,000 units in four months, setting an all-time sales record for a newly minted model. Talk on Main Street and among car aficionados amplified Ford’s marketing efforts, and higher-than-expected attendance at the Fair did not hurt publicity. Dealers were reporting unusually large numbers of visitors to showrooms by people who just wanted an up-close and personal look at the car. With a list price of about $2350 for the hardtop and only $250 more for the convertible version, its affordability made it a smash success—so much so that many dealerships found it difficult to keep Mustangs on their lot.

Part of Ford’s strategy was to find the sweet spot in marketing: a “youth” car that might also trigger desires and yearnings of agelessness on the part of potential car buyers even into their 30s and 40s—all of this mixed with something within reach of Middle America and its increasing rates of expendable income. Where the Falcon had been Ford’s classic economy car—small even by U.S. standards—the high-altitude bird had quickly become a symbol of miserly thrift. As one writer put it, the Falcon became “your grandmother’s or grandfather’s car.”

The newly-minted Mustang was having none of that. Its very design was meant to evoke something fresh and energetic. Mid-1960s advertising—especially in magazines—reveals Ford’s overt outreach to people no longer defined as “young,” at least by the standards of that decade. Ford wanted to appeal to men and women in their 30s and 40s, who—approaching midlife—yearned for the material and symbolic trappings of youth. Whimsical advertisements touted the transformational power of the hot new car—geeks morphing into go-getters, nerds into dapper players, wallflowers into seductresses. An ad featuring the San Francisco skyline in the background touts the game-changing effects of a Mustang: Bernard was a born loser. He couldn’t win at Solitaire, even when he cheated. Enter Mustang—the car that’s practical, sporty, luxurious—your choice! Did Bernie’s luck change! Yesterday he won San Francisco in a faro game. Now he’s got his eye on New York. Mustangers always win. Another ad, politically-incorrect by today’s lights, featured a wonky, near-sighted librarian transformed into the center of attention for three dashing men in tuxedos.

Sales of the Mustang were so potent that it also transformed Ford as a business, thrusting it back on a level playing field with industry giant GM and catapulting it past the struggling American Motors and Chrysler. In April 1964 Iacocca appeared on the cover of Time magazine alongside a stylized painting of a fire engine red Mustang. The next week the Mustang appeared on the cover of Newsweek. Between the economical Falcon and the sporty Mustang, Ford had staked its dominance over two of the most important segments of the auto public.

Affordability was linked closely to versatility. The car could be easily ordered with a long list of options (even engine size), many more options than most vehicles offered by the big three. This meant that the sporty car could be marketed across a wide range of demographic groups and potential buyers: young families, single people in their late teens and middle 20s, early middle-agers, graduating students, workaholics, leisure-lovers and pleasure-seekers, those in search of luxury and those in search of economy. It could be marketed as economical and practical, and it could be sold as a car with muscle and flair. The Mustang was meant to look as much at home at the beach or the mountain cabin as it was at home in the circular drive of a posh mansion or in the carport of a middle class home. And it was meant to cut across the generational divide.

One ad which ran in magazines in late 1965 and early 1966 asked the rhetorical question: should a man in his 50s be allowed out in a Mustang? Let’s consider what might happen. To begin with, he’ll go around with a mysterious little smile on his face, and new spring in his walk. Mustang acts that way on a man…

By the end of 1965, the Mustang had sold more than a half million units in the United States and Canada, and by late 1966, it sold another 600,000. By early 1967 sales of the Mustang had topped all auto sales records for a new model. Ford designers and execs saw little reason to tamper with success, and other than a few small changes to the interior—including a new “padded” dashboard—and some tweaking of the exterior trim, Ford left the Mustang alone, and nudged the sticker price upwards by only a tiny percentage.

The Mustang was so successful that it spawned an immediate rival in the Chevrolet Camaro. GM wasted little time deciding that it would compete with the Mustang on muscle, and the Camaro was quickly marketed as a more powerful mid-priced sports car—a sort of Mustang on steroids. Ford’s reaction was to quickly offer the Mustang in big-block V-8s, with 1967 models pushing 390 cubic inches of engine. But GM’s introduction of the Camaro cut into sales numbers that would have almost certainly flowed toward the Mustang. Still other competitors followed, flowing into what would be dubbed the Pony Car category, with Mustang as the first. Besides the Camaro, there soon appeared the Pontiac Firebird, the Plymouth Barracuda and the Dodge Challenger. All would eventually stake out their claim among sports cars, but the Mustang lineage would remain unbroken.

Ford sold 356,271 ponies in 1967—still, a remarkably high number—but not anything like the huge sales during its first two years. In 1968 sales dropped again slightly to 310,000. Nevertheless, by early 1968, Ford could take bragging rights. The Mustang had shattered two records: most units sold for a debut car, and the most introductory sales of any Ford car since the debut of its own Model A. And by that point, the Mustang had become the biggest seller in car history.

Two people have been credited with coming up with the name Mustang. By some accounts at Ford, it was John Najjar, the designer of that first rocket-shaped roadster—and a huge fan of the World War II era airplane by the same name—who dubbed the prototype sports car Mustang. But the other version of the backstory is that the name was first suggested by Robert Eggert, a marketing executive with Ford. Eggert, who was familiar with horses and briefly bred them, latched onto the name Mustang after receiving a coffee table book on horses from his wife at Christmas. The historical debate was never settled within Ford, and the argument continues to this day among Mustang enthusiasts.

The Mustang became popular in motion pictures. Perhaps its most famous role was in the 1968 action/cop thriller Bullitt. In that film, Steve McQueen (playing alongside Robert Vaughn, Jacqueline Bissett and Robert Duvall) plays Lt. Frank Bullitt, a hard-hitting, gritty San Francisco detective. In real life, the character of Bullitt was based loosely on real life S.F. detective Dave Toschi. The movie features several famous chase scenes, and plenty of tire-screeching as Steve McQueen leaves rubber behind on San Francisco pavement. One long chase scene in Bullitt Bullitt movie still is generally considered by film historians to be one of the greatest high-speed sequences ever filmed—second only (and this is argued frequently in bars and at parties) to the famous chase in The French Connection. Ford loaned Warner Brothers several identical V8 Mustang GT fastbacks for use in the movie, with the expectation that the scenes would generate lots of excitement, and the loaners were further modified by race car driver/mechanic Max Balchowsky. Balchowsky added heavy duty suspension, beefed up the engines to produce both horsepower and extra roar, and supplemented the brakes to ensure that McQueen and the stunt drivers had the ability to stop the speeding Mustang in the sometimes tight quarters of San Francisco streets and alleys.

Mustangs feature prominently in other movies as well, including Back to the Future Pt. 2, American Gangster, and Diamonds Are Forever (a rare case of a Bond movie featuring an American sports car). And of course Ford’s earliest desire to compete with the British and Italian roadsters met with ironic success in one of the Mustang’s earliest cinema appearances, when a gleaming white 1964½ Mustang convertible appears in Goldfinger, in this case driven by a woman intent on murdering James Bond.

The long life of the Mustang has been a complicated process of success and failure, upsizing and downsizing. After several years of continuously making the car bigger, a direct result of Ford’s desire to stay ahead of its most fierce competitors—the Camaro, the Firebird, the Challenger—Ford decided to tip the scales back in the other direction. By the mid-1970s the Mustang began to get smaller. The new compact version became, in essence, a second incarnation. By the end of the 70s it’s compact size and lean, sometimes austere styling created a divide between the acolytes of the early Mustang—with its classic lines and iconic profile—and those who preferred the so-called “new breed.” The 1979 model year dispensed with much of the DNA of the original 60s styling. Round headlights were replaced with four double rectangular eyes, and the front and back ends were reshaped to reflect the horizontal lines and single-level bumpers popular at the decade’s rollover. Mustang enthusiasts called this front end design “Four Eyes.” Gas mileage was an issue for the driving public, and the Mustang became lighter, and shorn itself of muscle. By the beginning of the 1980s the Mustang had been through three major phases, all based largely on size and power. The third generation was built on what was called the “Fox Platform,” and had in common its cousins in the Ford family—the Mercury Zephyr and the Ford Fairmont.

And though this Third Incarnation of the Mustang had its fans and advocates—including those who even today regard this period as producing a classic—sales began to slump, in part because of fierce competition from Japanese automakers. Toyota, Honda and Datsun were finding huge success in the North American markets. But Ford wasted little time grousing about the influx of fuel-efficient cars from overseas, and instead tightened the efficiency of the Mustang (along with several other Ford products). By 1986 Mustang sales had climbed back up to 224,500, indicating to the top brass at Ford that the car was back on track. (Iacocca had famously moved to Chrysler, and was CEO of the Chrysler family of products).

The more muscular version of the Mustang, with its “5.0” V-8 and 200 horsepower, even became popular with police and law enforcement. Highway patrols in several states purchased fleets of modified ponies to have on hand as pursuit vehicles. By the end of 1988 sales of the Mustang remained strong.

As Mustang enthusiasts know, there followed a fourth generation and a fifth generation of Mustangs, which bridged the decades from the early 1990s through the end of the zero years. The car would begin, in the early to mid-aughts, a slow reinvention of its earlier form. Fifth generation Mustangs were especially notable for their striking homage to the ancestral visage. Rectangular headlights were phase out and replaced with the round ones so familiar on those earliest Mustangs, and the triple vertical taillights, the deep set eyes inside the double-brow, and other styling elements—all part of the Mustang DNA—worked their way back to prominence. Ford even began adding tre cool retro elements to the dashboard. Sales continued to rise, then, occasionally fall. But Mustang enthusiasts liked what they saw, despite intense new pressure from arch-rival Chevy Camaro toward the end of the aught years.

Economic pressures sent all cars sales down in the Great Recession, and sales of the Mustang—like almost all models—sagged considerably. Along with other automakers, Ford suffered mightily between the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2011. Unlike General Motors and Chrysler, Ford opted out of taking money from the Federal government when the recession sent Chrysler to the very edge of the abyss and pushed GM into bankruptcy.

Now, the durable Mustang begins its Sixth Generation, in part to celebrate the car’s anniversary, in part to kick sales numbers upward. The price of the Mustang is now ten times that of the original standard edition, but adjusting for inflation and rapid changes in auto design and engineering, that price rise is not only reasonable but modest.

Blue MustangImage courtesy of Ford Motor Company

The newest Mustang, the 2015 model now promoted in Ford marketing material but not yet available at dealerships until fall, has already drawn equal parts accolades and complaints. The added interior space (at 84.5 cubic feet the 2015 model adds more legroom, front and back), a slightly wider body, options for three engine types, and independent rear suspension all add to the car’s value and look. But a few Mustang enthusiasts complain that the new trapezoidal grill, restyled front and rear ends, and other design changes all add up to some loss of the trademark Mustang visage, and that newest version breaks the genetic code.

Time will tell if Generation Six carries the Mustang legacy forward, and Ford will get to see if this dramatic gamble pays dividends when the car hits showrooms in early November.

Editor’s Note: Were you ever a Mustang owner? If so, send us your stories about your pony car and we will print it here at Thursday Review. Just email it to us at, or at

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My Old Pal Rosie; Jeanne Piraino Sigler; Thursday Review; March 29, 2014.