All About the First MustangLast Updated June 12, 2023 | Meghan Drummond
On April 17, 1964, the first Ford Mustang made its debut at the New York World's Fair. Ford executives and designers alike held their breath to see how the vehicle would be received. The Mustang represented a huge risk on Ford’s part. The inexpensive, sporty car was designed to appeal to young people, a group that’s hard to predict.
They didn’t need to worry though. If anything, they’d underestimated the Mustang’s wide appeal. 22,000 Mustangs sold the very first day.
To understand the creation of the Mustang, it’s helpful to know a little about the Edsel. Before the Mustang, the last vehicle line Ford took a risk on was the Edsel. After ten years of development, the Edsel failed in two years. Despite aggressive market research, Ford had misinterpreted what people wanted. Ultimately, Edsels had too many body styles, at too high a price point, without being unique.
Edsel was the name of Henry Ford II’s father, Henry Ford’s first son. The use of this name shows the emotional investment the Fords had in this lineup. It was intended to be a separate brand within a brand, with something for everyone.
Ford used an aggressive marketing campaign for the Edsel, which played up its mystery. Though it succeeded in making people curious to see the Edsel, once they saw it most people passed. It was a huge disappointment and cost Ford a lot of money.
The Edsel made Ford nervous to take risks. Thankfully, Lee Iacocca recognized the necessity of risks even in the face of failure. He knew that as baby boomers reached driving age, they’d want a different car than what their parents drove.
The Edsel was the result of asking people what they thought they should want. The Mustang was the result of the Fairlane Committee predicting what people would want.
The Fairlane Committee
Lee Iacocca was a rare kind of man. Though he’d graduated with a degree in engineering, he preferred the world of marketing. He was good at both. But his most underappreciated skill was finding and encouraging the talents of others.
After the Edsel’s catastrophic failure, Iacocca knew Henry Ford II wouldn’t be keen on the idea of investing time and money in a new design. Especially something based on market research. So, Iacocca formed the Fairlane Committee.
Good ideas rarely come in a flash of insight. The Mustang is no exception. Iacocca is hailed as the father of the Mustang, but the actual ideas came from a team of motivated individuals.
The Fairlane Committee included members from several Ford departments. Though it wasn’t an official group, it included some of Ford’s top personnel. Iacocca recruited the best minds from product planning, marketing, engineering, and styling. There were even representatives from public relations, copywriting, and racing divisions.
This group would meet at the Fairlane Hotel, determined to keep their project under wraps until it was closer to being done. The Edsel, after all, had been nearly a decade in development. The Fairlane committee started meeting in 1960. In just one year they knew which features their car had to have.
- Priced under $2,500
- Curb weight under 2,500 pounds
- Space for four passengers
They also knew when they wanted the vehicle to launch. The New York World’s Fair was three years away, but it would be the perfect place to showcase their vehicle. Once they knew what the vehicle needed and when they needed it by, it was time to design it.
The First Mustang’s Design
Rather than pick one designer, Iacocca asked all the design teams at Ford to pitch their best ideas. In addition to the criteria the Fairlane committee arrived at, the car also needed to be sporty and have wide appeal.
The winning design came from Joe Oros’ design team. Though the design used elements from the whole team, Gale Halderman’s design is clearly the basis of the first-generation Mustang.
Once the 2D Mustang design was finalized the team began work on a clay model. This allowed them to work through some of the finer details. The clay model had different side scoops so that the team could decide which style they preferred. They also had the freedom to change small details, like the wheel arches.
The clay Mustang also featured a Cougar in the center. This was probably the most contentious design element. It took several tries for the team to land on the Mustang name and logo.
The Mustang’s Debut at the World’s Fair
Halderman’s design was finished in 1962, giving the team two years to finalize the design and put the Mustang into production.
The Edsel’s design was primarily to blame for its failure. But Iacocca blamed at least part of the vehicle’s poor reception to a botched launch. He didn’t want the same to happen to the Mustang. He picked the World’s Fair as the launch because it offered unparalleled opportunity for exposure. But standing out at the World’s Fair wouldn’t be easy.
The World’s Fair ran for six months. Sprawled across 646 acres, 140 pavilions fought for people’s attention. A showroom, even one full of beautiful cars, wouldn’t cut it. Ford decided instead to partner with Walt Disney, who knew showmanship.
Disney World still hadn’t broken ground. For Walt Disney, it was a time to gauge public reaction. In particular, it was a chance to demonstrate the capabilities of a motorized track. Disney and Ford both wanted something bigger than life. The result was the Magic Skyway.
The Magic Skyway had guests sit in Ford convertible vehicles. These vehicles were mounted to a motorized track that took riders on an adventure through time. Dioramas showed passengers dinosaurs, cavemen, and finally...the future.
Ford sent Thunderbirds and Falcons for the ride, as well as the new Ford Mustang. The night before the World’s Fair, Ford showed simultaneous commercials on every major network at 9:30 p.m. The commercials let people know that the Mustang would be in showrooms around the country, as well as at the fair.
On April 17, 1964, Iacocca showed the Mustang to a large crowd of onlookers and press. For the next six months, people came to get a look at the Mustang, and even take a ride in one. It was an overnight sensation. Just as Iacocca envisioned, the Mustang appealed to everyone. Even better, it was affordable.
In a single year, Ford sold 418,000 Mustangs. Four times more than Edsel had in two years. It wouldn’t even be the Mustang’s most popular year.
How Many 1964.5 Mustangs Are There?
Ford classified all Mustangs produced before September of 1965 as 1965 Mustangs. Enthusiasts developed the 1964.5 label to distinguish the very first Mustangs. It’s a useful distinction since there are a lot of differences between 1964.5 and 1965 Mustangs. It’s also an emotional one.
1964.5 Mustangs are responsible for launching one of the most successful cars of all time. If the first few months had fumbled, it’s unlikely the Mustang would still be around today. Though 1964.5 Mustangs are especially valued, there are a lot of them. Approximately 121,538 Mustangs were made that first year. A more detailed breakdown of first-generation Mustang production can be found here.
A few 1964.5 Mustangs have risen in status because they occupy a special place in Mustang history. The Mustangs saved from the Magic Skyway ride are especially rare.
The First Mustang Made
The very first 1964.5 Mustang was sent as a display to a dealership. Serial number 5F08F100001 was a white convertible Mustang. For Captain Stanley Tucker, it was love at first sight.
As soon as he saw the Mustang at his local dealer, he offered a generous $4,300 for it and agreed to let it stay on display for a while. Unfortunately, the pre-production Mustang was never intended for sale.
Tucker and Ford entered into negotiations, and eventually, he agreed to hand over the first Mustang. In exchange for a fully-loaded 1966 Mustang, the one-millionth Mustang ever produced. The first Mustang is still on display in the Henry Ford Museum.
The first Mustang intended for sale was sold to Gail Wise, a Chicago teacher. She has never sold it.
Rise of the Pony Car
The Mustang immediately made a strong impression on a wide range of people. Everyone from pilots to teachers wanted one, exactly as the Fairlane committee hoped. Though muscle cars were beloved, they weren’t right for everyone. These cars were large, featured a big block V8, and were often only made in limited quantities. Muscle cars excelled at straight-line speed, but weren’t great at corners or maneuvering through traffic.
Mustangs created a rival class of vehicle. The pony car. There are a lot of differences between pony and muscle cars. But the biggest is in how they drive.
Pony cars were quick, but also nimble and small. They could be modified for track performance, as Carroll Shelby demonstrated, but they also made great daily drivers. Automotive manufacturers rushed to compete. The resulting cars are all referred to as pony cars because they can be traced back to the Mustang and its iconic pony logo.
Pony cars have included the Chevy Camaro, Dodge Challenger, and Pontiac Firebird. These cars, like the Mustang, have become classics. But none of them have seen the enduring legacy of the Mustang.
From the first sketch to the final product, the Mustang’s design helped launch its success.