1965 Mustang
1965 Mustang
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

The inspiration for the Ford Mustang could well have come from General Motors. When GM, Ford and Chrysler brought out their 1960 compacts to “drive the imports back to their shores,” they were quite distinct cars.

Ford’s Falcon was plain vanilla, Chrysler’s “European styled” Valiant was a little more daring, and GM’s Chevrolet Corvair was clearly Volkswagen inspired with an air-cooled pancake engine mounted in the rear.

GM was not rewarded for novelty; initial Corvair sales lagged behind the Falcon’s. In an attempt to salvage the situation, Chevrolet switched the focus of the Corvair from family practical to sporty fun. It brought out a 1960-1/2 version of the Corvair with such items as bucket seats and stylish wheels, called it the Monza, and sales took off. GM had tapped into a youth-oriented market segment which appreciated the Corvair’s mechanical innovation.

The folks over at Ford observed all of this, marvelled at how GM had transformed the image of the Corvair, and wondered how they could produce a competitor.

The mood in the Ford board room had gone considerably conservative. Still smarting over the Edsel debacle, senior officials were gun-shy. Henry Ford II wasn’t ready to authorize any big product development expenditures.

In spite of the constraints, the planners and stylists set out to create a Monza fighter. They fitted a Falcon platform with the corporate 4.7 litre (289 cu in.) V8 that had been introduced in the mid-size Fairlane, and clothed it in a sporty two-seater body shell. It had a low roofline, a short flat deck lid, and most importantly, a long hood.

A clay model, named Allegro, was shown to Ford Division head Lee Iacocca in the fall of 1961. Iacocca recognized it as a winner, but realized that its market potential would be enhanced with two small rear seats. He insisted that they be added, thereby making the car attractive to young families.

Although Iacocca felt the design would be a success, he still needed chairman Henry Ford II’s approval. To obtain this Iacocca used a little creative subterfuge. According to Robert Lacey’s book, “Ford, The Men And The Machine,” Iacocca showered Ford with data which purportedly revealed a whole new “baby boomer” youth market ready for this new sporty car.

By the spring of 1962 Henry Ford was finally convinced, but made his approval subject to the addition of an inch to the length to make the back seat more habitable.

Others involved in the development of the Mustang, named after a World War II fighter plane, deny that any extensive market research was conducted. Donald Frey, then product planning manager, told Mustang Monthly Magazine in May, 1983, that “Most of the market research was done after the fact…The market research that you read (of) is a bunch of bull.”

The Mustang was introduced in April, 1964, as an early 1965 model. It had both six-and eight-cylinder engines available, and was small and light enough to handle well by American car standards. A wide variety of available options allowed owners to customize their Mustangs from Plain Jane to Fast and Fancy.

The new Mustang was a sensation, striking a chord in the hearts of the young and the young at heart. It sold so fast that the Dearborn plant couldn’t keep up. A San Jose plant, and one in Metuchan, New Jersey, were quickly converted for additional capacity.

Mustang production exceeded half a million in both 1965 and ’66, outstanding for a new car. It was virtually without competition and established a new class of vehicle called the “pony car.”

The success of the new model put Iacocca’s picture on the cover of both Time and Newsweek magazines, and gave his career a tremendous boost. In January, 1965, he was made Ford’s vice-president, cars and trucks, while still only 40 years old.

The story of the first production Mustang has an interesting Canadian twist. A white convertible, it was shipped to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Eastern Provincial Airline captain Stanley Tucker promptly bought it.

Ford soon realized its mistake and wanted the car back, but their entreaties fell on deaf ears. Tucker drove his Mustang for two years, rolling up a modest 10,000 miles. He finally succumbed, trading it back to Ford for the 1,000,001st produced, a loaded 1966 Mustang. That first Mustang can be seen in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Ford Mustang has stayed true to its roots for over 35 years, and is still the quintessential pony car.

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