1965 Ford Mustang
1965 Ford Mustang. Click image to enlarge

Article by Paul Williams, Photos by Paul Williams and courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Fifty years is a long time for one car to be in production. Heck, 50 years is close to half the time that, you know, cars have been in production. So yes, the Ford Mustang has staying power, which is not surprising given its pedigree.

After all, if you look way back to the dawn of motorized transportation, who do you find at the wheel (or tiller…)?  Henry Ford, for one, figuring out what people want and devising ways of getting it to them affordably. It’s a simple formula that’s not so simple to execute, but when you get it right, careers are born, brands are made, and companies reap big rewards.

So it was that in the early 1960s, a young Lee Iacocca, General Manager and “chief mover and shaker” at Ford Division, nudged along a project that would see Ford building a sporty car targeted at the first generation of “baby boomers,” a hitherto untapped market comprising millions of potential consumers. They weren’t looking for a humdrum family sedan, Iacocca reasoned; they were looking for fun and flair. And, of course, affordability.

These have been the legs upon which the Ford Mustang has stood ever since – sporty, fun and affordable – but it’s hard to believe the reception Mustang received after it was launched to the press in April 1964 as a 1965 model atop the Empire State Building. Crowds overran dealerships in many cities; Ford showrooms were packed with the curious and the enthusiastic; there were line-ups just to see the Mustang; Iacocca made the cover of Time magazine (although many others were also key to the development of the Mustang). Some dealers literally had to bar the doors to keep surging crowds at bay; others ran impromptu auctions on the showroom floor, one dealer apparently having 15 buyers for the one Mustang in stock.

This car was the rock star of its generation.

2015 Ford Mustang Limited Edition2015 Ford Mustang Limited Edition2015 Ford Mustang Limited Edition
2015 Ford Mustang Limited Edition. Click image to enlarge

According to published reports, Ford had conservative expectations of selling 100,000 Mustangs in its first year of production. They sold that number in four months, and during the first (lengthened) model year between April 1964 and August 1965, 680,989 people became Mustang owners. By March 1966, Ford sold a million.

Mustangs were available in standard and GT versions, and you could buy a hardtop, fastback or convertible. Under the hood, there was a choice between six-cylinder and V8 power. Initially, the V8 displaced 260 cubic inches (4.3 litres) and made 164 horsepower, but it was quickly replaced with the 289 c.i. (4.7L) V8 that started at 200 hp. Buyers chose V8s by a three-to-one margin.

There were literally hundreds of options: interior, exterior, performance and even higher performance. You could personalize this car to an extent hitherto unknown in the industry. Carroll Shelby was early on the scene, building his signature GT-350 fastbacks, followed a couple of years later by the GT-500. Movie star Steve McQueen did his own stunt driving in Bullitt’s Highland Green 1968 Mustang GT.

2015 Ford Mustang Limited Edition
2015 Ford Mustang Limited Edition. Click image to enlarge

Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, and working it for all it was worth, Ford generated numerous special versions. There were Boss Mustangs, California Specials, Shelby Cobras. There was even a deal brokered by Mr. Shelby with the Hertz car rental company whereby Hertz would rent special GT-350s as part of its regular fleet. Renters often drove them off the lot and onto the track; some apparently were returned with a different engine…

Then there was the Grande, where after only four years in production, the Mustang began to add flab and lose, many thought, its way. “Why can’t they leave well enough alone?” was the question from enthusiasts. But while some models were getting softer, others – the rare Boss 429 for instance – were bulking up the muscle in a big way.

That muscle car era, with its emphasis on power, performance, noise and burning rubber, came to an abrupt halt in the early 1970s when gasoline prices went through the roof. It was the OPEC oil crisis, and rather than people lining up at dealerships to see a Mustang, drivers were lining up at gas stations for hours only to find the pumps empty when they finally arrived.

Mustang was reimagined accordingly, and if my memory serves me well, the Mustang II hit the market with a resounding thud. Too small, too delicate; yes, still affordable, but no, not fun.

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