There's no denying that the Mustang is one of the most immediately recognizable automobiles on the road today. For many of us, the Mustang has simply been omnipresent for the bulk of our lives, changing gradually over the years, but always there.
We often take this famous car for granted, holding it up as a paragon of automotive brilliance and going so far as imbuing it with a measure of our soul as a nation. If you've ever wondered how this iconic car came to be, here's a look at the birth of the Mustang, and a historical overview of how it became the car most of us can recognize at a glance.
A Singular Vision
The history of the Mustang stretches back to the year 1961, when Lee Iacocca, the general manager and vice president of the Ford motor company, came up with a deceptively simple plan: He wanted to create a car that could accommodate four people in comfort with bucket seats, sport a floor-mounted shifter, measure a relatively modest 180 inches in length, weigh in at just 2500 pounds and be eminently affordable at just $2,500. The Ford Mustang was the result of this vision.
Mr. Iacocca attended many meetings over the following year that involved marketing and quite a few other practical realities. Finally, in September of 1962, Ford approved funding for the Mustang.
The Car for Everyone
The very first Mustang left the assembly line on March 9, 1964, just 18 months after the Mustang had first received approval to go into production. There were several reasons for this almost miraculously fast turnaround, but arguably the most important was the spirit of reuse and renewal: Quite a few of the components that comprised the original Mustang had been borrowed from the Ford Falcon - some of which involved crucial components such as the drivetrain.
John Najjar designed the Mustang prototype, and reportedly named it after the P-51 Mustang - an airplane - rather than the animal the car took as its logo.
Henry Ford II himself took to the stage to officially introduce the Mustang at the World's Fair on April 17th, 1964, in Flushing Meadows, New York.
Once it entered production, the Mustang became one of the very first automobiles to be enthusiastically marketed as a 'car to be designed by you.' Buyers could personalize just about everything on the Mustang; they were given a number of options for the interior, the exterior and the drivetrain itself. The 'vanilla' Mustang proved quite popular; it was, after all, designed with mass appeal in mind. Even so, enterprising car buyers with a little bit more money could outfit their Mustang to be as visually striking, fuel-efficient or as fast as their hearts desired.
This kind of exhaustive list of options isn't exactly novel in the modern automotive industry, but we have the Mustang to thank for taking some of the first steps down that road.
On April 16th, 1964, Ford began running commercials for their new car on several TV channels simultaneously. The first of these commercials aired at 9:30pm on ABC, NBC and CBS. The very next day, Ford showrooms were practically overrun with customers, all of whom wanted to be among the very first to buy the new automobile.
By the end of that first day, more than 22,000 Mustangs had been sold. By that December, nationwide sales had exceeded 263,400. By the following April, the first anniversary of the car's conception, Ford had sold more than 418,000 Mustangs. It was clear that they had a smash hit on their hands, and they immediately began looking for ways to improve on a design that was already enjoying almost universal appeal.
In just the first three years of its availability, nearly 500 Mustang owner's clubs had cropped up across the United States. It was hailed as a 'working man's Thunderbird,' a phrase that highlighted both its sportiness and its affordability.
Early on, Ford's new darling received some rather high-profile publicity thanks to appearances on the big screen. The Mustang made its big-screen debut in 1964 when it appeared in the seminal James Bond Film Goldfinger. Four years later, a stunning green 1968 Mustang, a car that's now iconic, played an important role in Steve McQueenís 'Bullitt,' released that same year.
It's fair to say that the Mustang is among the more celebrated automobiles in Hollywood. From important appearances in films like Gone in 60 Seconds, Back to the Future II, and I Am Legend, the Mustang has been lending its iconic yet subtly changing silhouette to some of our favorite big-screen adventures. It's estimated that the Mustang has been featured in more than 500 films over the years.
The Mustang in the 60s
The first edition of the Mustang, commonly referred to as the 1964 1/2, was made available either as a coupe or a convertible. This first design introduced a slightly longer hood, wraparound chrome bumpers, a shorter rear deck and wheel covers.
1965 saw even further changes and additions to the Mustang brand. The most important of these was arguably the availability of the first fastback model, which would go on to inspire the Shelby GT350. The engine got a bump up to 225 horsepower, and the interior got a facelift as well.
Over the course of the 1965 model year, just over half a million Mustangs were produced.
This was also the year that saw the introduction of the Shelby Mustang GT350. It came about when Ford contracted Carroll Shelby to design a high-performance version of the Mustang, a hugely fast and powerful (but still street-legal) Mustang. Packing 306 horsepower, the GT350 made its debut in 1965.
By 1967, the Mustang had begun to mature as a brand. This latest model was longer, higher and wider; the extra width was to accommodate a hugely powerful 320 horsepower engine, which was the first big block engine for the Mustang. The car also featured a freshly redesigned transmission, named the FMX, which allowed for either manual or automatic shifting. Ford also began to offer a number of new options. These included a tilt-away steering wheel, power disc brakes and an overhead console.
In the years since its introduction, the Mustang had reigned mostly unchallenged in the automotive world. Finally, in 1967, Ford's competitors had begun to catch up, namely: Pontiac's Firebird, Chevrolet's Camaro and Plymouth's Barracuda. Competition even came from within Ford in the form of the Mercury Cougar.
Ford responded to this burgeoning competition by enlarging the Mustang further in every dimension and exaggerating most of the car's exterior design features, making for an even more unmistakable silhouette. In 1971, the Mustang reached its peak size, measuring a full foot longer than the original and about 600 pounds heavier.
Decades of Excellence
For car enthusiasts, the long history of the Mustang is required reading. It's as essential as Newton's Laws of Motion are for the scientific community. Over the long decades that followed, Ford would continue to improve its hugely popular design, introducing new features, new engine options and an ever-improving interior to offer both comfort and usefulness for its passengers.
This is not to say that the Mustang didn't have its share of minor setbacks. The Mustang II, introduced in 1974, was almost universally disliked. It managed to be both smaller and less powerful than its predecessors, and offered sub-par handling. Even so, the car continued to sell extremely well.
The third Mustang generation began in 1979 and would end in 1993. By then, the Mustang had been in production for 15 years and showed no real signs that its popularity had begun to wane.
The 1979 model, which both dropped the 'II' designation and chose not to add a 'III,' would kick off something of a golden age for the Mustang; it would feature design enhancements that would remain in use until as recently as 2003, including the basic design of the suspension system.
Ford also decided to ditch the Pinto parts upon which the Ford had been based, and replaced them with the Ford Fairmont's Fox body platform. It was a unibody design that would shape the evolution of the Mustang throughout the coming decades, right up until 2005.
The Near-Death of the Mustang
It may be hard to believe, but the early 1990s nearly saw the end of the Mustang brand. Though they eventually bowed to public outrage, Ford briefly considered shelving the brand. On the eve of the Mustang's 30th anniversary, Ford introduced the most significant redesign in more than a decade.
The fourth generation, which ran from 1994 to 1998, would see Ford doubling-down on keeping the Mustang affordable in an increasingly fragmented industry. It continued to sell well, albeit in smaller numbers than the earliest days of the car's availability; the 1993 model year saw sales of around 114,000 Mustangs, and the next generation didn't shake that up much.
This period also marked the third time that the Mustang was chosen for inclusion in the Indianapolis 500, which resulted in the creation of the Cobra. The Cobra version of the Mustang featured 17-inch wheels, and was further distinguished from the Mustang proper with a more prominently blistered hood design, round fog lamps and, of course, the iconic coiled Cobra logo rather than the Mustang's running horse.
The New Millennium
Both the Mustang and the Cobra would remain a part of Ford's lineup into the new millennium. The '99 models introduced Ford's first use of independent rear suspension in a Mustang.
Ford faced a number of complaints around this time from Cobra owners who were dissatisfied with the performance of the engine, which was rated at 320 horsepower. Owners claimed that the engine wasn't performing as well as Ford's promises had indicated. This would become something of an embarrassment for the venerable car company; in 1999, more than 8,000 Cobras were sold; in 2000, that number was barely over 450.
Even so, Ford continued to refine the Mustang throughout the early 2000s. The iconic wheels from Steve McQueen's green Mustang in Bullitt began to be offered as regular options in 2002, but there weren't any sweeping design changes until the 2005 model.
2005 and Beyond
2005 kicked off the fifth generation of the Mustang. Sales were solid, and Ford continued to look for ways to please existing fans of the car, as well as newer converts. First unveiled at the 2003 North American International Auto Show, the 2005 Mustang sported an all new platform and body design, which paid tasteful homage to earlier versions of the Mustang without coming across as a soulless parody.
The interior harkened back to the Mustang's earlier design sensibilities; the dual-hooded dashboard and circular air vents indicated that Ford knew where it had come from, all while maintaining their focus on the future. Having hit upon a winning physical design, the Mustang would remain largely unchanged, at least physically, for most of the late 2000s. Who could blame them? The iconic sloped hood and round headlights had become something of a minor cultural icon themselves, just as the earliest days of the car had enchanted an entire generation of automobile enthusiasts.
It was a new face, perhaps, but the car beneath the intimidating silhouette was still carrying the torch of another era, and showed no signs that it was ready to slow down.
50th Anniversary: Still Going Strong After Half a Century
In April of 2014, Ford celebrated the 50th anniversary of the venerable Mustang. It's not the longest-running vehicle nameplate on the road, but it's among great company; the Chevrolet Suburban and Corvette debuted in 1934 and 1953, respectively.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Mustang, chapters of The Mustang Club of America descended on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway to swap stories and compare cars. Some fans even enthusiastically admitted that they'd been planning for the event for years.
Celebrating in their own way, Ford introduced a limited-run 2015 edition of the Mustang, the design of which hearkened back to the original. The move underscored how successfully Ford has innovated over the years while still keeping in touch with their roots.
The Future of the Mustang
If one thing has been made abundantly clear by the long and storied history of the Ford Mustang is that this car will be around for a very, very long time. The Mustang has changed shape quite a few times over the decades, but its spirit has remained more-or-less immutable.
2015 looks to be an auspicious year for the venerable Mustang; J Mays, chief creative officer and group vice president of Ford, has stated that the next incarnation of the Mustang will have a global design - a claim that is, right now, light on details aside from the fact that the new Mustang will sport a lighter frame and be more readily available overseas. Ford has also confirmed their commitment to introducing EcoBoost in future incarnations of the Mustang.
Over 9 million Mustangs have been sold since 1964, meaning the Mustang is here to stay. It's a great case study in both innovation and iteration, with Ford proving willing to go back to the drawing board when it was necessary, but otherwise keep the heart and soul of their most famous and successful car fully intact for 50 years.
Read further about the history of the Mustang:
History of the 1960s Mustang
History of the Early 70s Mustang
History of the Fox Body Mustang
The History of the Mustang: 1994-2004
History of the 2005-2009 Mustang: The classic look returns!
Dearborn, Michigan: The Beginning of the Mustang