1960s Mustang History

1960s Mustang History

Last Updated August 8, 2023 | Alison Smith

The Mustang came out in 1964, debuting at the World’s Fair in New York on April 17. When the first Mustang was released, it changed America’s automotive landscape. One interesting Mustang fact is that the launch of the classic pony car was Ford’s most successful automobile launch since the Model A. Even though the Mustang is now well over 50 years old, it still remains one of the most popular muscle cars.

How the Mustang Came to Be

The Mustang was the brainchild of Lee Iacocca, Ford Division’s VP and general manager. But the design was based on sketches created by Gene Halderman, who also worked on the Ford Falcon and the Thunderbird.

Even though it’s hard to imagine the iconic Mustang with any other name, it was almost called something else. The exact origins of the Mustang name are unclear, but potential options included the Cougar, Thunderbird II, and Torino.

Though the Mustang has evolved since its debut, it only continues to grow in popularity. Classic Mustangs, especially those from the 1960s, are highly sought after. Let’s take a look at how the 1960s Mustangs changed over the years.

Black and white photo of Henry Ford II with the first Mustang convertible at the World's Fair in NY
Henry Ford II with the 1964.5 Mustang at the World's Fair in NY

1964.5 and 1965: The Mustang Takes Off

1964.5 vs 1965 Mustang comparison with text overlay that says 'Read More'

While the Mustang was heavily advertised in its early days, Ford still only expected to sell around 100,000 units a year. They were quickly blown away, however, when 22,000 Mustang orders were taken on the first day alone. By the end of the first year, a total of 418,812 Mustangs were sold.

The price for an original Mustang was $2,368, which would be just shy of $20,000 in today’s money. Iacocca wanted to keep the cost low so it was affordable for young car buyers.

Ford Introduces the Mustang GT

In April 1965, the first Mustang GT option became available. The GT could be had with the 225- or 271-horsepower engines. Transmission options included a three-speed or four-speed manual plus a three-speed “Cruise-O-Matic” transmission.

Mustang GTs had a special instrument cluster (which became standard in 1966), lower body side stripes, fog lamps in the grille, and unique GT badges. The Mustang GT option was only available from 1965-1969. It made a permanent return to the lineup after 1982.

Red 1965 Mustang GT Fastback on paved driveway in front of brick house with blue door
1965 Mustang GT Fastback

Pedal-Powered Mustangs

It wasn’t only adults who hopped on the Mustang bandwagon, either. Children clamored for their own version of the popular pony car. During the 1964 Christmas season, around 93,000 pedal-powered children’s Mustangs were sold.

The Mustang Lands its First Movie Role

The Mustang also starred in its first movie only months after it rolled off the assembly line, appearing in the James Bond movie Goldfinger. The Mustang’s big-screen stardom has only grown since.

The First Shelby Mustang

Building off the pony car’s initial success, Ford wanted to take the Mustang one step further. So they approached racing legend Carroll Shelby to design a unique high-performance Mustang.

On January 27, 1965, Ford created the first Shelby Mustang: a Wimbledon White Shelby GT350. In that year, a total of 562 GT350s were made, along with a race version known as the Shelby GT350R. To learn more about these special-edition pony cars, check out our article on the history of the Shelby Mustang.

1966: Ford Changes Things Up

1965 vs 1966 Mustang comparison with text overlay that says 'Read More'

Ford made some cosmetic changes to the 1966 Mustang, setting it apart from the previous year. It featured a new grille with chrome edges and horizontal inserts instead of the honeycomb pattern. There were no longer horizontal and vertical bars around the running horse logo. Ford changed the quarter panel Mustang emblems to feature the tri-bar logo behind the horse.

A five-gauge instrument cluster was added to the interior to further separate it from its Falcon roots. There were an incredible amount of options, with 34 varieties of interior colors and styles. The 1966 Mustang also featured three-fingered rear quarter panels and backup lights.

Mustang Sales Reach One Million

The 1966 Mustang had a base cost of $2,522, which comes to just over $20,000 after adjusting for inflation. Ford sold its one millionth Mustang in March 1966, quite an impressive feat after barely two years of production.

Ford also introduced a new variant of the Mustang, the High Country Special, which lasted until 1968. Developed as a special promotion for the Colorado area, the High Country Mustang has special exterior colors and a triangle “HCS” emblem.

The Mustang Becomes a Rental Car

Hertz rental car company wanted in on the Mustang game, purchasing 1,001 Shelby GT350 Mustangs. Known as the GT350H, these Mustangs were available to rent in several locations across the country. This became known as the “Rent-a-Racer” initiative and appealed to weekend drag racers.

1967: The Mustang’s First Restyling

1966 vs 1967 Mustang comparison with text overlay that says 'Read More'

Even though the 1966 Mustang saw some changes, the first major restyling took place a year later. The 1967 Mustang grew in length and height, and the fastback model’s roofline was extended to the rear of the trunk. The Pony Interior seen on 1965 and 1966 Mustangs was no longer offered. Ford instead offered a new, deluxe interior package.

The 1967 model had a tilt steering wheel, concave taillights, side scoops, and squared rearview mirrors. The grille kept the running horse and corral emblem but was enlarged at the opening. It had a new mesh pattern style, bringing back the vertical and horizontal bars from 1965.

Many car enthusiasts thought the 1967 Mustang was too big and heavy. Yet, today, it’s one of the most admired vintage cars.

The Mustang Gets a Big Block Engine

There were a lot of under-the-hood changes for the 1967 model year. Perhaps the most exciting change was the addition of a big block engine: a 390 CID V8 with 320 horsepower. Other engines included the 289 CID V8 and 200 CID six-cylinder engines. The 1967 Shelby GT350 came with a 289 CID Hi-Po.

Say Hello to the GT500

In 1967, Ford introduced a new Shelby model: the GT500 Mustang. It had a 428 CID engine and was the first American car to come with a factory roll bar. The GT500 might be most famous for its role as “Eleanor” in the Gone in 60 Seconds remake starring Nicholas Cage.

Along with a boost in engine performance, the 1967 GT500 had a bit more body treatment than other Shelbys. The 1967 Shelby Mustang was the last built by Shelby American as later models were built by Ford with minimal Shelby involvement.

1968: Ford Introduces the California Special

1967 vs 1968 Mustang comparison with text overlay that says 'Read More'

There weren’t many changes to the 1968 Mustang, with subtle updates to the design and engine options. For the grille, the corral around the running horse thinned out. Ford removed the horizontal running bars and the Ford lettering across the hood. The “Mustang” letters on the fenders were changed to script instead of block lettering.

The 1968 Mustang got an AM/FM stereo radio along with front and rear side marker lights. The Mustang received its first three-point lap and shoulder belts. The coupe and fastback featured a rear window defogger.

1968 was a special year for West Coast enthusiasts, with the debut of a factory-built California Special GT. This coupe-only Mustang had much of the same look as the Shelby, with the same grille, fog lamps, and side scoops. These California Specials were then remarketed in Colorado under the High Country line.

Also new this year was the Shelby GT500 King of the Road edition. The GT500KR sported a 428 CID Cobra Jet V8 engine. Some consider this model to be the best Shelby Mustang ever produced.

The most famous 1968 Mustang was the GT 390 fastback driven by Steve McQueen in the movie Bullitt.

1968 vs 1969 Mustang comparison with text overlay that says 'Read More'

1969: The Mustang Gets Another Refresh

Ford made more substantial changes for the 1969 Mustang. It underwent its second major styling, with 3.8 inches of added length ahead of the front wheels. The updates increased the curb weight by 140 pounds. Dual headlamps and a switch from the grille’s running horse and corral emblem to an off-centered pony and tribar helped separate the 1969 Mustang from earlier models.

Ford also added the Grande trim level to offer buyers more amenities and luxury features than the base Mustang.

Why Was the 1960s Mustang So Popular?

The 1960s Mustang was an affordable muscle car, appealing to middle-class buyers. The premium options available also made it a good choice for those looking for a more luxurious or high performance car.

The Mustang’s affordability, good looks, and powerful engines contributed to its initial popularity and continued success throughout the years.

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Sources: Ford Mustang Pedal Car, National Museum of American History | History of the Ford Mustang GT, Motor Authority | History of the Ford Mustang, Classic Pony Cars | 1964-2006 Ford Mustang History, TopSpeed | Mustang Facts 1964-1973, Muscular Mustangs

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.