Since its debut at the annual World’s Fair in New York in 1964, the Mustang has always been so named, and the running horse emblem has been part of its charm. But the “Mustang” name, at least originally, had nothing to do with a horse, and the Mustang was almost given several other names during the development process.
To understand the name, why it made sense, and why the running horse is still the perfect emblem regardless of the inspiration behind the Mustang brand, you have to go back to 1960, four years before the Mustang would make its first appearance and win the adoration of generations.
The Origin of the Mustang
The Mustang made its grand debut in 1964, but the journey to create this iconic car started years before, and like most great successes, rose out of dire need and failure.
In the early 1960s, Henry Ford II was reeling from the failure of the Ford Edsel, a vehicle he’d named after his late father. It had been a work of love, but ultimately a catastrophic failure. In order for the Ford Motor Company to reverse its fortunes, they needed a successful new vehicle, and they needed it quickly.
Thankfully, they had Lee Iacocca on their side. Iacocca brought together a team of thinkers and doers.
Labeled “The Fairlane Committee,” due to the Fairlane Motel being the location of their meetings, Iacocca’s team was small enough to be nimble and large enough to offer perspective. Their vision for success required short term wins to help give their vehicles the image that would attract young consumers. The Fairlane Committee figured out plans to make their existing cars sportier, younger, and more fun. But ultimately, they realized what they truly needed wasn’t just fixes to give their existing cars some of those qualities, but rather a car built with those features from the very start. They needed a sports car that was luxurious, yet affordable enough for the average American consumer.
Though they knew what they needed by 1961, they also knew that these weren’t easy goals. They set their sites on making the debut at the World’s Fair, on April 17, 1964.
Iacocca and the Mustang At The World's Fair
Not only did they make their deadline, but the first Mustang was an immediate success.
Though the Mustang’s success was in no doubt due mostly to its design cues, affordability, and performance, having a great logo and name helped. We doubt the Mustang would have been as successful were it named after a donkey or mule.
From the very beginning, the Mustang pony emblem on the front of the vehicle has been a rallying sign for auto enthusiasts everywhere. Even though it was not featured on the front of Fox Body models, the Mustang pony logo remained a symbol of Ford’s pony car line even during its absence.
Though the iconic Ford Mustang running horse decals are some of the most recognizable figures in the automotive industry, the inspiration behind the name’s origin wasn’t the wild Mustang of the American west.
Before it could be named though, it needed to be designed.
Designing the First Mustang
To give a car a fitting name, it’s helpful to have the car. Iacocca proposed a contest between Ford’s design departments to see who could design the best car that met the requirements while looking like something that young people looking for a sporty car would drive.
The winner was Joe Oros’ team, mostly due to the design work of Gale Halderman.
If Iacocca was the Mustang’s father, then Halderman was its mentor, helping to shape it and maturing it from an idea into a real-life prototype.
In Halderman’s designs, the car is frequently referred to as the Cougar and in early prototypes you can even see a Cougar logo.
Cougar was hardly the only name in the running though, and while naming cars after animals was incredibly popular in the 1960s, and even today, there were numerous finalists from a variety of categories and naming conventions.
The higher-ups at Ford each had their own input as to what the Mustang should be called. Allegro, Aventura, Cougar, Thunderbird, and Torino were all prospects with multiple supporters.
It’s a Plane!
Most automotive historians and Ford insiders agree that a World War II fighter plane was the original driving force behind the vehicle’s eventual naming.
In addition to Iacocca, the Mustang project had many founding fathers and influential people, including designer and executive stylist John Najjar. Najjar is credited with co-designing the first prototype for the Ford Mustang, the Mustang I, but the Omaha, Nebraska native also played a role in naming the vehicle in the first place.
According to reports, Najjar was fascinated with a World War II fighter plane known as the P-51 Mustang. Widely considered the best American fighter plane of the Second World War era, the power and reliability of the P-51 Mustangs allowed bombardiers to carry out long-range missions from England to Germany. German Luftwaffe commander Herman Goering famously stated, “The day I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.”
In addition to style and affordability, one of the primary goals of the Fairlane Committee was to develop a vehicle that would embody the American spirit and in Najjar’s mind, nothing was more American than the plane that helped establish the United States as one of the remaining superpowers around the world.
As a part of his initial pitch to the higher-ups, Najjar proudly touted the power of the P-51 Mustang planes and viewed the new automobile as an opportunity to commemorate the famous aircraft.
Though this was Najjar’s rationale and pitch, the higher-ups at Ford needed a little persuading, and that’s where the horse played a role in putting the Mustang marquee over the top.
The Mustang Horse Influence
According to the book Mustang Genesis by Bob Fria, Najjar’s initial Mustang name suggestion was not well received. As described in the book, despite Najjar’s best efforts, his superiors felt as though the Mustang name was too closely associated with an airplane rather than a car and rejected the designer’s first proposal.
There was also the question of logo design and branding, which were considerably more challenging with a plane than with a Cougar.
Still dedicated to his original idea, Najjar later revised his pitch to suggest the same name but tied it in with the horse this time around. The wild horses were famous for roaming free all over the American West. In many ways, the noble steed’s vast population and untamed nature closely resembled the team at Ford’s dream for their concept car, which they hoped would be numerous and free-roaming.
Shortly after, the Mustang name began to resonate throughout the Ford offices in Detroit.
The Fairlane Committee did not reach a conclusion on the name before the attendees underwent many heated discussions and debates. It is difficult to imagine our favorite pony car being called anything else today, but some of the names in the running were very good, and eventually were attached to other vehicles.
"American as hell"
The team eventually agreed with Najjar and sanity prevailed. Frank Thomas, an account executive who had been a part of the research team, famously proclaimed that the Mustang name won the day because “It had the excitement of wide-open spaces and was American as all hell.”
Other Mustang Name Theories
The Mustang was named after a World War II fighter plane, with the horse also playing a role in the final selection. That much is known, but since there were so many people involved in the decision making process, several alternative theories have come about in the years since the Ford Mustang’s debut. These theories may have some weight and may have been additional “pros” for the Mustang name.
Some believe that Robert J. Eggert, a Ford Division market research manager, came up with the Mustang name.
In addition to his work with the Ford Motor Company, Eggert was bred quarter horses. In 1960, shortly before the team at Ford would vigorously debate the name of its next vehicle, Eggert’s wife gave him a special birthday present, a book titled The Mustangs by J. Frank Dobie. According to those close to him, the book gave Eggert the idea for the name of Ford’s latest project.
One of the more outlandish theories involves South Methodist University and its football team, which is nicknamed the Mustangs. In 1963, SMU opened the season against the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Iacocca was one of the 63,000-plus in attendance for the clash. The Mustangs fell to the host Wolverines 27-16, but apparently, Iacocca provided the SMU squad with some words of wisdom in the visitor’s locker room following the contest.
Despite the losing effort, according to a press release issued by the university, Iacocca proclaimed to the Mustangs after the game, "After watching the SMU Mustangs play with such flair, we reached a decision. We will call our new car the Mustang. Because it will be light, like your team; It will be quick, like your team; And it will be sporty, like your team."
Because of the timing of the game and all of the other evidence available, the story does not garner much merit and respect outside of the Dallas area. Whether or not it was directly involved in what the Ford Mustang was named after, according to reports, SMU head coach Hayden Fry later purchased a blue-and-red-painted pony car from Iacocca himself.
History of the Mustang Pony Logo
While the Ford Mustang is almost certainly named after the P-51 Mustang fighter plane, its early designers felt as though the running horse should be its defining symbol. The Mustang emblem found on the front (in some cases the rear) of pony cars shares the same logo with SMU, with one major difference.
The SMU horse logo faces the right, but in contrast, even before the first designs of the pony car were completed, the team at Ford decided that the Mustang logo would depict a horse running to the left. Gale Halderman was the driving force behind the directional shift, and it has later been interpreted to mean that a left-facing horse portrays a wild horse running west.
In addition to the running horse logo, Ford also considered a horse’s head design that was akin to a knight on a chessboard. Not surprisingly, however, the non-racing symbol was not wild enough for Iacocca, Halderman, and the rest of the team. In addition to the front grille, 1965-66 models featured a Mustang running horse emblem on the front fenders, with a red, white, and blue tri-bar going through the pony.
In the Mustang’s Second Generation, a Roman Numeral II replaced the tri-bar through the running horse. Additionally, the pony emblem found on the Mustang II’s tails were straightened out on the grille and fender emblems, which further distinguished the vehicles from First Generation models. For the 14-year Fox Body era, a blue Ford oval logo replaced the Mustang pony horse logo in the center of the grille. Those Third Generation ‘Stang owners that wished to display the running horse symbol could do so by purchasing an aftermarket emblem or sticker.
The Ford Mustang pony emblem with a curly tail and red, white, and blue tri-bar returned to the front fenders for certain 1994 models. In the years that followed, the pony and tri-bar combination was placed on the rear of S197 and 2015-2017 Mustangs that featured a V6 motor. Midway through the S197 Generation, the running horse received its first aesthetic change in several decades.
Beginning in 2010, the Mustang pony emblem on the grille was redesigned to look more like a wild horse. In addition to highlighting the horse’s muscular stature, the newly-minted running horse’s head is slightly lifted. In the eyes of the design team, the raised head and lifted-back neck give the appearance of greater speed while adding a more defined and aggressive appearance.
When the Mustang EcoBoost debuted at the dawn of the Sixth Generation, the designers at Ford decided to use the Mustang pony logo to differentiate the turbocharged models from its V6 and V8 brethren in part. The rear of an EcoBoost Mustang features a standalone running horse and is one of the easiest exterior features that can help a casual observer pull a four-cylinder unit out from the pack.
There is no sign of a P-51 or any airplanes on the Mustang exterior, but the running horse logo or the Mustang name itself would have likely never surfaced if it were not for aviation influence. The Mustang’s name origin is rarely talked about in the present day, making it a fun piece of Mustang trivia.
Over five decades and six generations later, the Ford Mustang is still as popular as ever. Throughout the past 50-plus-years, Mustangs have been featured in countless popular films, television shows, and songs, while delighting enthusiasts around the world at every turn. The Ford Mustang is one of the few American-made vehicles to not take a single model year off, and minus a few tumultuous years in its second generation, it has been nothing but smooth sailing for everybody’s favorite pony car.
Sources: Ford Mustang: America’s Original Pony Car, Automotive Oral History, New York Times Image Credit: acepilots.com, boeing.com, http://www.logo-designer.co;