With the international reveal of the sixth generation Mustang on its 50th anniversary, we revisit this iconic car’s history. The original Ford Mustang, a sporty car for “everyman” introduced in 1964, is now a symbol of the entire decade. Here’s a bit of its history.
The Mustang was the most successful new car ever introduced by the American auto industry. But in terms of the ’60s, it was more than a car. Its popularity was an expression of the simple truth of the decade—that everyone wanted to look, feel, and act young.
ORIGIN OF THE CAR
• The Mustang was the pet project of Ford General Manager Lee Iacocca who kept notes on new car ideas in a little black book. Because Ford kept getting letters from car buffs who wanted a car like the 1955 T-Bird, Iacocca felt there was a market for a new “personal sports car” waiting to be developed. Research also showed that the population was getting younger and that young people bought more cars per capita than any other segment of the population.
• Based on these findings—and Iacocca’s instinct—Ford decided to create a car that was sporty yet low-priced, so young people and middle-income groups could afford it. But it also had to be capable of taking enough options to make it a luxury car.
• The new project was dubbed “T-5.” Ford engineers and designers worked under maximum security in a windowless room, known as “The Tomb”; even the wastepaper had to be burned under supervision.
• Over a three-year period they came up with many two-seat prototypes— XT-Bird, Median, Mina, Allegro, Aventura, and Mustang I (loved by car enthusiasts but considered too sporty by Iacocca)— but all were scrapped in favor of a four-seat model with a large trunk. It was completed in spring 1963.
• The Mustang was designed to be versatile. The buyer had options: two different engines, air conditioning, whitewalls, power disc brakes, racing hubcaps, sports console, and so on. As Dr. Seymour Marshak, Ford’s market research manager, said admiringly, “This flexibility makes this car the greatest thing since the Erector set.”
• Since Ford figured the T-5’s market was the young sports car buyer, the name “Torino” was chosen because it sounded like an Italian sports car. The projected ad campaign called it “the new import.. .from Detroit.”
• But last-minute market research showed that the car could appeal to all buyers, so a new name had to be chosen. Colt, Bronco, and Maverick (all used for later cars) were considered. But “Mustang” seemed best for T-5, bringing to mind cowboys, adventure, and the Wild West. As one Ford man put it, “It had the excitement of the wide-open spaces, and it was American as all hell.”
• The Mustang was introduced on April 17, 1964. On that day, more than 4 million people visited the 6,500 Ford dealers across the country to get a look at it.. .and they bought 22,542 of them.
• In the first three months of production, a record 100,000 Mustangs were sold. It was an instant status symbol, with people vying for the limited supply as though it were contraband.
The introduction of the Mustang was a big event. Here are five of the bizarre things that happened that day.
• A Mustang was the pace car for a stock car race in Huntsville, Alabama. When it drove onto the track, thousands of people scaled the retaining wall to get a better look at it. The race was delayed for over an hour.
• A cement truck crashed through the plate-glass window of a Seattle Ford dealer when the driver lost control of his vehicle. The reason: He was staring at the new Mustangs on display there. They looked “like some of them expensive Italian racers,” he explained.
• A Chicago Ford dealer was forced to lock the doors of his showroom models because too many people were trying to get into them at the same time.
• A Texas dealer put a new Mustang on a lift to show a prospective customer the underside of the vehicle. By the time his demonstration was over, the showroom was filled with people, and he had to leave the Mustang up in the air for the rest of the day.
• A New Jersey Ford dealer had only one Mustang but fifteen eager buyers, so he auctioned it off. The winner of the auction insisted on sleeping in the car to be sure the dealer didn’t sell it to someone else before his check cleared.
Article originally published in The Best of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader.