Classic American Cars: The Ford Mustang

Retro Staff |  7 Comments

Ford Mustang Badge Tin SignIn the years following WWII, Americans were increasingly drawn to the smaller size and unique styling of European sports cars. At first, foreign cars weren’t selling in the US in large numbers, but American carmakers didn’t offer anything to compete with them either. It wasn’t until the late ’50s that car manufacturers started to realize an increasing demand for smaller, less expensive cars. Americans started driving Volvos and Volkswagens, primarily as smaller, cheaper alternatives to American vehicles. These foreign cars were easier to handle, so they appealed to women. They also made for great second cars – the two-car family was a new and growing trend among the middle class.

In 1961 Plymouth introduced the Valiant while Ford released the Falcon Futura to compete with the sporty and successful Chevy Corvair Monza.

The 1961 Falcon Futura was a great seller as a compact car. It was inexpensive to buy and to operate. Even still, it didn’t answer the public’s demand for a sports car with European styling and features like bucket seats, a floorshift, tachometer and tight handling. Then people at the Ford Motor Company, including the Ford Division chief Lee Iacocca, proposed Ford produce its own sports car.

The new car design was conceptualized by Ford Product Manager Donald N. Frey and was supported by Iacocca. Many names were considered for the car, including “Thunderbird II”, “Colt”, “Bronco” and “Cougar”. The first prototypes even had a cougar on the front grill. “Mustang” was backed by Ford Division chief Lee Iacocca and engineer Donald N. Frey and was the name to prevail.

1964 Mustang Metal SignThe Ford Mustang premiered on April 17, 1964 at the New York World’s Fair. To keep down development cost, the car chassis, suspension and drive train were based on the Ford Falcon- the body was a completely new design. The body length of the Mustang and Falcon were the same, but the Mustang had a slightly shorter wheelbase. As Iacocca described it, “It stood out, yet it was everyman’s car.”

The ’64 Mustang had a six-cylinder engine and a three-speed manual transmission. It was available as either a hardtop or a convertible. Other options were a V8 engine, Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmission or a 4-speed manual transmission, in addition to A/C, power steering and radios.

Ford had projected first year sales to amount to less than 100,000 Mustangs. In the first eighteen months of production, though, more than 1 million cars were built – a sales record that has yet to be beaten. Demand was incredible. Car buyers had found the sports car they were looking for, at a price they could afford.

The Ford Mustang was the first of a group of cars to be known as “pony cars”. This was a new class of affordable American sporty sedans with extensive options that was marketed directly to the younger driver (or those young at heart).

In 1965 the Mustang 2+2 fastback coupe was introduced. It was a hardtop with a sloping roofline, swept-back rear window and stylish ventilation louvers, all adding to the aerodynamic look of the vehicle.

The first generation of the Mustang lasted from 1964 to 1973, though Mustangs grew heavier, bigger and more powerful with each new model. The 1967 model saw the addition of an optional big-block V8 engine, while the ’67 performance-model Shelby Mustang was enhanced with a longer fiberglass nose and spoiler. Also beginning in ’67 was a larger interior and cargo area.

The 1967 and 1968 models no longer had the “pony interior” with more sporty styling, but had a new deluxe interior package added with special trims, including stainless steel and woodgrain accents. In 1969 the body length increased almost 4 inches, and the car width almost a half-inch. The grill was restyled with the “corralled pony” giving way to the “pony and tri-bars” logo. That same year the high-powered Cobra and Boss models were offered to answer the demand for more powerful performance cars.

Mustang Spirit of Evolution PosterThe second generation in ’74 returned to the original pony car styling. This Mustang had the smaller shape and similar styling to the original 1964 model. This was because larger cars were falling out of favor as America dealt with gas rationing due to the oil embargo. Car manufacturers also had to address stronger pollution and safety regulations. Thus, while the newer model was smaller than its predecessor, it weighed more, and it loss some of its performance. The 2nd generation Mustang was available in both coupe and hatchback models. The performance was improved with the modifications made in the 1976 Cobra II and the 1978 King Cobra.

The third generation of the Mustang began in 1979, which personally, I think was the low point of the car, at least in regard to styling. The sharp angles and smaller size had no resemblance to the original pony car America had fallen in love with. It was built on a Fox platform, which was designed for the Ford Fairmont and Mercury Zephyr. The interior and exterior were both completely restyled. This obviously was a car designed to meet the challenges presented to the automotive industry by the energy crisis. There was a significant redesign of the Mustang in 1987, and then few changes made to it through 1993 as Ford was gearing up for a major redesign for the 1994 model.

The 1994 fourth generation Mustang saw the biggest changes in 15 years. The body had sleeker lines and the car came with a more powerful engine. The interior was newly designed with sweeping curves and came with options like power windows, A/C, cruise control, CD player, door locks and remote keyless entry. Many of the options later became standard equipment. The fourth generation went through several modifications through 2004.

In 2005 Ford released a newly redesigned Mustang that paid major tribute to the fastback models of the late 1960s. The Group VP of Global Design and Chief Creative Officer at the Ford Motor Company, J Mays, called the look “retro-futurism”. It came with a standard V6 engine and a standard 5-speed manual or optional 5-speed automatic transmission (offered for the first time on a Mustang). The model was revised again for the 2010 model, giving it a more aerodynamic appearance. A major change was also made to the car’s logo –  the pony was back and positioned in the center of the grill. The car’s interior had a modified styling to better reflect the “athletic” exterior of the car.

Ford Mustang Metal SignI for one, hope the retro styling of the Mustang is here to stay. At least as long as there are those of us that remember the early days of the pony car and remember how exciting it was to ride in one or to own one. I remember in the late 1970s when my brother’s best friend drove up in a used Shelby Mustang that he had just bought and how we all ran out of the house to see it. It was exceptional even then. Well into her fifties I had an aunt that collected Shelbys and took them to car shows to meet with other Mustang enthusiasts. There’s nothing that compares with the Mustang for its American sports car styling. The Ford Mustang is still known as the greatest success story to come out of Detroit. We probably won’t see another success story like it.

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Last updated: Mar 06, 2009
Filed under: Classic American Cars Tagged with: cars