History of the Ford Mustang

History of the Ford Mustang

Last Updated August 8, 2023 | Meghan Drummond

Mustang Roars onto the Scene

The original Ford Mustang debuted on April 17, 1964, at the attractive price of $2,368. Dealers were inundated with requests for the sleekly-styled new vehicle. In Garland, Texas, 15 customers thronged to bid on the same Mustang. The winning bidder resorted to sleeping overnight in his new car so that it wouldn’t be sold out from under him before his check could clear.

Ford initially forecasted annual sales of about 100,000 units. On the first day alone, dealers took 22,000 Mustang orders. Shortly after its introduction, the fledgling vehicle’s success was official when it was featured on the racetrack as the pace car for the 1964 Indianapolis 500. During the Mustang’s first 12 months on the market, sales grew to an astounding 417,000. Within two years, sales had catapulted to one million.

“When the Mustang was unveiled, the reaction was so positive that there was no doubt it was going to be a success,” recalls the chief designer of the original pony car, Joe Oros, in a famous Mustang quote. The first Mustang was dubbed the 1964½, because it was launched at an unusual halfway point during the year. Gale Halderman, one of the designers on Oros' team, was blown away by the success even though the engineers, test drivers, and prototype builders all had told the design team that they could tell it was a special car. By Halderman's count, the Mustang broke 77 of Ford's "rules."

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Mustang Debuts on the Silver Screen

One interesting Mustang fact is that the famous pony car began making big-screen appearances in 1964 and has featured prominently in hundreds of notable films since. In 1964, the Bond film Goldfinger was the first movie to show off Ford's new sporty car, a white 1964 convertible driven by a beautiful assassin. After a brief chase in the Swiss Alps, Sean Connery, in his Aston Martin DB5, shreds the Mustang's tires and its rocker panel (borrowing a chariot racer trick from the epic film Ben Hur).

1964 white and red Goldfinger Mustang

Debut of the 1965 GT350

Hoping to inject some performance credentials into the Mustang, Lee Iacocca went to Carroll Shelby and asked him to make a race car out of the Mustang.

In 1965, the first Shelby-made Mustang raced onto the scene. It was the first mass-produced car that was officially ready for the racetrack as it was approved by the Sports Car Club of America for class B Production racing. Ken Miles was the first to race it to victory, but the GT350 dominated the competition for the next three years. It featured a 289-cubic-inch modified K-Code engine capable of 306 horsepower giving this lightweight car an incredible acceleration. The GT350 Mustang was only available in Wimbledon White with Guardsman Blue rocker stripes, though the stripes were optional and often opted out of since it was well known that they were a target for diligent police officers.

Shelby Mustangs became an important part of the story of the Mustang, and now it's nearly impossible to disconnect the two.

1965 GT350 Mustang

Debut of the 1967 GT500

Dubbed the “first car I’m really proud of,” by Carroll Shelby, the 1967 Shelby Mustang GT500 was equipped with the “Cobra Le Mans” engine, a 427 CID V8. It was a grown-up sports car for smooth touring. Just a little over 2,000 of these vehicles were produced making it one of the more valuable and legendary Mustangs out there today. In 1974 and 2000 the 1967 GT500, dubbed Eleanor, was featured in the movie Gone in 60 Seconds raising its appeal even further.

1967 Mustang GT500

The Boss

Shelby wasn't the only one injecting a little performance into the Mustang line-up. In 1968, Bunkie Knudsen and Larry Shinoda left GM and came to Ford just in time to create two of the most famous Mustangs of all time. The Boss 302 and Boss 429.

Shinoda was a famed hot rodder in addition to being a car designer, and he worked hard to make sure that the Boss Mustang would appeal to a young crowd who wanted fast cars. It's impossible to say that he wasn't completely successful.

As some of the rarest Mustangs produced, and the most desirable, finding a Boss 429 is a lifetime goal of many automotive collectors, and certainly explains why John Wick is so attached to his.

1969 and 1970 Boss 429

V8 Power Returns and the Cobra II Joins the Line Up

The second generation of Mustang, called the Mustang II, was a tough period for a lot of Mustang enthusiasts. Due to the oil crisis and rising fuel prices, the focus was much more on fuel economy than on performance, and it showed. Lee Iacocca famously said that this was the generation where the Mustang lost its way.

Fortunately, it wasn't long before a V8 and a performance option returned.

In 1975, V8 power returned to the Mustang. The 302 CID V8 engine produced a mere 130 horsepower, however, and only came with an automatic transmission. An economy option called the "MPG" Stallion was also available.

The Cobra II package joined the lineup in 1976, outfitted with a non-functional hood scoop and racing stripes, as well as front and rear spoilers. Available in white with blue stripes, blue with white stripes, and black with gold stripes, the Cobra II was designed to be reminiscent of the famed Shelby Mustangs.

1976 Cobra Mustang

Mustang's 20th Anniversary Brings More Growth and Change in the '80s

By 1984, Mustang was turning 20, and this special anniversary warranted a commemorative, signature vehicle. A special V8-powered Mustang GT was created to commemorate Mustang's 20th Anniversary. It was a limited edition done up in Oxford White with a Canyon Red interior.

Ford loves creating anniversary edition Mustangs, and they've hardly missed a single birthday since. Anniversary editions vary wildly but tend to be very desirable, with a mix of unique appearance options in addition to performance features.

1984 Mustang GT350 Convertible

The Public Weighs In - Mustang Is Here To Stay

When Mustang's legacy seemed in jeopardy, a public outcry ensured that the journey continued.

While the Mustang legacy continued to burn bright from the early to mid-80s, Ford’s product development team was looking for alternatives to the popular Fox Body. By 1987, it was again time for Mustang to evolve with the changing market. Designers gave the Fox Body – the platform introduced in 1979 – a facelift with a new “aero-look” design and a 5.0-liter V8 with 225 horsepower.

1987 Mustang

“There were people who thought Mustang was headed for the scrap heap,” said Ressler. “Sales were sluggish, and they thought that front-wheel drive modern-looking cars were the wave of the future.” After Ford signed an agreement with Mazda to build the Mazda 626 and MX-6 at a new plant just outside of Detroit, the idea was to use the front-wheel-drive Mazda platform as the underpinnings for the “new Mustang.”

“When news came out that the all-American Mustang was going to be based on a Japanese car and built by a Japanese company, plus move to front-wheel drive and again go back to losing its V8 engine, the nameplate’s legion of fans could hardly believe it,” said John Clor, author of The Mustang Dynasty. “By the time a cover story in AutoWeek magazine hit the newsstands on April 13, 1987 – questioning "The Next Mustang?"– the Mustang-badged Mazda was already the target of a letter-writing campaign launched by the editors of Mustang magazines across the country.”

The public spoke out with a vengeance, and Ford listened. The front-wheel-drive Mazda became the 1989 Ford Probe, and the iconic vision of the Ford Mustang lived on.

“It was the only time I can remember in my career when the will of the public affected a major decision in advance of the decision being made,” Ressler said. “They brought about something I thought at the beginning was worth trying but wouldn’t work. But I was enthusiastic. I thought it was crazy to get rid of the only performance rear-wheel-drive car we had.”

Mustang Gets Racier

The low-volume 1993 Cobra R - originally developed as a race car - sold out prior to production.

In 1993, Ford’s new Special Vehicle Team (SVT) introduced the limited-production SVT Mustang Cobra, which sported subtle yet distinctive styling cues and performance upgrades.

1993 Ford Mustang

In the early '90s, Ressler and a group of performance enthusiasts within the company came up with the idea to build an increased-performance Mustang out of Ford Motorsports performance parts (now known as Ford Racing Performance Parts). Based on the lessons learned from the SVO Mustang program, this group's goal was to attract driving enthusiasts to the Ford brand.

“It was a confederation of people, all of whom had their own home organizations in different areas within the company, such as Marketing, Engineering, and Product Planning,” Ressler explained. “When we worked together, we described our activities as occurring with the Special Vehicle Team or SVT.”

Ressler confided that many of the projects the team spearheaded at Ford – such as the Mustang Cobra – were not formally approved by upper management. “We just found the money and thought that as long as we were doing things that were good for the company, we were safe not to ask for permission,” he said. “We were prepared to ask for forgiveness, but we never had to."

Mustang Gets A Major Makeover - Start of the fourth generation

A triumphant new design debuted in 1994, and it was an immediate hit. The 1994 model year marked the beginning of the fourth generation of Mustang. After 15 years of the same "Fox" platform, enthusiasts were ready for an all-new look and feel - and Ford was anxious to give them what they wanted. “It was a do-or-die situation for Mustang at the time,” recalled William Boddie, then Ford’s program manager for small- and mid-size cars. “A lot of people at Ford thought we wouldn’t make enough money with the Mustang, and they thought we ought to kill it. This was going to be our chance to prove them wrong.” The team’s vision was clear, as Boddie recollected.

1994 Bright Yellow Ford Mustang

35th Anniversary Mustang Salute

Thousands gathered at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina on Saturday, April 17, 1999, to salute the 35th birthday of the American icon. The 70,000 member Mustang Club of America hosted the weekend show, where Ford Motor Co. unveiled a special 35th Anniversary edition of the 1999 Mustang and a prototype version of the 2000 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra R.

Classic Mustangs lined up at Charlotte Motor Speedway

The 2000 Cobra R

When the 2000 SVT Mustang Cobra R debuted, it was the fastest factory Mustang ever produced. The Cobra R boasted a powerful 5.4L DOHC V8 engine that gave it 385 horsepower. The R was stripped of any stock feature not needed for track use or that would add extra weight. That means no radio and no AC. The 2000 Cobra R was only available in Performance Red for the exterior and Dark Charcoal for the interior. Only 300 units were made making it one of the rarest Mustangs available.

The SVT team was plagued with issues during the rest of the SN95 generation, but that didn't stop them from ending on a high note with the Terminator Cobra.

2000 Cobra R Mustang

The 2005 Mustang - Start of the Fifth Generation

The fifth generation of Mustangs was introduced at the 2004 North American International Auto Show. The 2005 Mustang featured styling with nods to the fastback Mustang models of the late 1960s dubbed “retro-futurism” by Senior Vice President of Design, J. Mays. This was also the first year that the Mustang was manufactured at the Flat Rock assembly plant.

Since dubbed the S197 generation, the fifth generation appealed both to people who had grown up with first-generation Mustangs as well as younger individuals who loved the retro look of an original but who also wanted safety features, like airbags.

2005 light blue Ford Mustang

2007 GT500 - Return of the Snake

When Ford used the Cobra name in the 1970s without talking to Carroll Shelby first, he was upset enough to sever ties with Ford entirely, ending the line of Shelby Mustangs that had injected performance and desirability into Mustangs from their very first year. But in 2007, Shelby was ready to accept apologies and happy to return to work on a new Shelby Mustang.

There hadn't been a Shelby Mustang for the entirety of the second generation, the Fox Body generation, or the SN95 generation, but finally, the Shelbys had returned.

The 2007 Ford Shelby GT500 was based on the new S197 Mustang platform and came equipped with a 500 horsepower supercharged version of the 5.4L V8. Introduced at the 2005 New York International Auto Show, the 2007 GT500 featured a Tremec TR-6060 6-speed manual transmission, suspension tuning, a body kit and 18-inch wheels.

Naturally, it also came with optional Le Mans stripes, and even though they'd still make you a police-target, fewer people opted out this time.

2007 White Mustang GT500 with Blue Le Mans stipres

The 2011 Mustang and Introduction to the Coyote Engine

Designed to compete with Chevy and Dodge, Ford debuted its own V8 engine codenamed Coyote. The Coyote engine was designed and built as a Mustang performance engine producing 412 horsepower at 6,500 rpm in the 2011 Mustang GT. In addition to the new powerful Coyote engine, the 2011 Mustang standard engine was replaced with a new 3.7L aluminum block V6 which weighed 40 lbs less than the previous version. This new engine came with dual exhaust and increased MPG performance to 19 city/31 highway.

Ford's engine design was allowing enthusiasts to not have to sacrifice performance for fuel economy, and it was the beginning of a great thing.

2011 Ford Mustang

The 2013 Mustang continued to build on excellence by delivering a new exterior design, updated technology, and new driver tools. "It takes the greatness of the 5.0-liter and V6 and pushes refinement to the next level," says D. Pericak, Mustang Chief Engineer.

2012 Ford Mustang

The Mustang Celebrates 50 Years - Start of the Sixth Generation

Nearly every inch of the 2015 Mustang was brand new. It was much sleeker and European looking, which was fitting since the 2015 Ford Mustang was destined to sell overseas in Europe, Japan, and Australia. However, it still maintained that distinct "Mustang" look, inspired by the past 50 years of Mustang styling. Ford also brought back the fastback styling that was so prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s in the new Mustang.

Perhaps one of the most un-Mustang-like additions was the EcoBoost engine. A turbocharged four-cylinder, the EcoBoost came with optional performance packages that made it competitive with engines with significantly larger displacements. Ford was expanding on its new ideas of allowing performance and fuel economy to evolve hand-in-hand, benefitting everyone.

2015 Mustang

Included in the premium package were illuminated door-sill plates, an aluminum accent dash panel, aluminum foot pedals, dual-zone climate control, ambient lighting, unique premium door-trim, and heated and cooled leather seats. Added tech features for the Premium Package included a nine-speaker sound system with an amplifier, as well as SYNC with MyFord Touch. The SYNC system could be controlled by voice commands, the 8" LCD touchscreen, or steering wheel buttons.

The 2016 GT350/GT350R and the Voodoo Engine

The new 2016 Shelby GT350 featured a 5.2L flat-plane crank V8 engine dubbed the Voodoo engine which produced 526 horsepower and 429 lb-ft of torque. In addition to the GT350, Ford released the GT350R which featured the same Voodoo engine as the GT350 but without air conditioning, stereo, trunk floorboard, carpeting, the rear seat, and backup camera. Car and Driver named the Mustang Shelby GT350/GT350R one of the ten best cars in 2016. Since then Ford has continued to improve the GT350, adding tires that are essentially street-legal drag slicks.

Much like with the original GT350 and GT350R, the R stands for race-spec, and it's designed to be a track car. As such, it's not a very comfortable daily driver, but it doesn't really need to be when it can show up to track day and annihilate the competition while looking incredible.

2016 Mustang GT350

2018 Mustang Revamp

The 2018 Mustang received its first major makeover since 2015 and featured a few exciting changes such as a Generation 3 5.0L Coyote Engine, 10-speed transmission, digital instrument cluster, aggressive front end, and revised rear bumper with quad exhaust tips. The 12-inch all-digital LCD cluster allows you to personalize it with three different views: Normal, Sport, and Track. The gauge hues are customizable as well.

2018 Mustang

Looking Ahead

The last few years of a generation are always the most exciting, and it looks like the S550 generation is no exception. In particular, Ford has brought back some of the most beloved nameplates.

The S550 finally received the Bullitt special edition, popular in both the New Edge and S197 generations, came back for 2019 and 2020. The California Special Mustang also returned in 2019 and has stuck around since.

But of course, the biggest news is the GT500.

Boasting a production Mustang record of 760 horsepower and a redline of 7,500 RPMs, the 2020 GT500 is the fastest production Mustang in history. The engine is a cross-plank variant of the Voodoo engine that's used in the GT350. For the GT500, the engine's been codenamed the "Predator." It's a name with fangs for a vehicle that will certainly have some bite.

As rumors circulate about the possibilities for the S650 generation, expected to debut in 2023, it's clear that the Mustang story is still being built, and we're just excited to be a part of it.

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This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.