What Was the Ford Mustang Named After?

What Was the Ford Mustang Named After?

Last Updated February 14, 2019

In the early 1960s, Henry Ford II knew that he needed to do something drastic to reverse the suddenly grim state of the Ford Motor Company.

After the Ford Edsel, the vehicle named in honor of his father, famously bombed, the grandson of Henry Ford and his team of executives formed a committee to introduce and hopefully develop a more successful concept car in the near future.

Labeled “The Fairlane Committee”, due to their meetings taking place at the Fairlane Motel, Henry Ford II and company tossed around a bevy of suggestions, with one particular idea standing tall among the rest. The winning concept was a sports car that was luxurious, yet affordable to the average American consumer.

The executive team eventually settled on the Ford Mustang, and the rest is history.

Eighteen months after beginning production in late 1962, the Mustang made its grand debut at the annual World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York. On April 17, 1964, Lee Iaccoca, who was instrumental in the development of the pony car, unveiled the first Mustang to much fanfare, and the American automotive enthusiasts stormed the dealerships and showrooms soon after.

Lee Iacocca Mustang World's Fair Iacocca and the Mustang At The World's Fair

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 further delighting its fan base 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 muscle car.

Every great brand has a distinct logo, and the Ford Mustang is no exception. 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.

Picture of Mustang Plane and Car

But what if we told you the Ford Mustang was not named after a horse?

Though the iconic Ford Mustang running horse decals are some of the most recognizable figures in the automotive industry, the vehicle’s name bears a different origin. It is one of the biggest misconceptions among Ford fans and car lovers alike, and the pony emblem in which everyone has come to know and love was not a direct influence for the namesake of vehicle in which it is plastered all over.

So, what was the Ford Mustang named after?

It’s a Plane!

Billed as a “pony” and recognized as the launching point of the pony car era, the origins of the Ford Mustang’s name is a complicated story in which there is little-to-no actual documentation. There are numerous conspiracies and urban legends of which how the Mustang got its name, but 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.

Picture of Mustang P-51 Plane

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 across the globe.

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 and the great military victory just a few decades earlier. Obviously, the name in which Najjar championed eventually won the day, and the World War II airplane was the biggest influence but many of the executives at Ford needed a little more persuading to help put 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.

Still dedicated to his original idea, Najjar later revised his pitch to suggest the same name but tied it in with the Mustang 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 nature of running free closely resembled the team at Ford’s dream for their concept car- be just as plentiful while happily cruising happily on the major roadways from sea to shining sea.

Early Mustang Sketch

Shortly after, the Mustang name began to resonate throughout the Ford offices in Detroit.

The name “Mustang” sounds so natural, but the Fairlane Committee did not reach the conclusion before the attendees underwent many heated discussions and debates. It is difficult to imagine it being called anything else today, but a number of names were tossed around in addition to the Mustang at the time.

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 prospects for Ford’s latest concept car. Obviously, a few of the aforementioned rejects appeared on later Ford vehicles, but Cougar and Torino were possibilities for what eventually became the Mustang.

"american as hell"

A Cougar emblem appeared on one of the early design models, and Ford had tested some promotional material with the Torino name in tow before the company made other arrangements. However, 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.

According to Iacocca, naming cars after animals was a popular trend in the early 1960s, and an outside consulting group provided the Ford Motor Company with a list of suggestions, with the Mustang standing out from the pack. Sticking with the animal theme, 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 also a breeder of 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 derives from 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.

SMU Pony Logo

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.

While the Ford Mustang is 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. Ford designer Gene 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.

Mustang Tri-Bar Pony Logo

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.

S550 EcoBoost Logo

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. So, the next time you want to stump your friends with a fun automotive fact, simply ask them, what is the Ford Mustang named after?

Image Credit: acepilots.com, boeing.com, http://www.logo-designer.co;

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