Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.
So it is with the Ford Mustang.
In the decade before the Mustang was introduced in 1964, Ford Motor Company was no stranger to success and to failure. For the 1955 model year, Ford had introduced the Thunderbird as a challenger to Chevrolet's Corvette sports car, and soon the Thunderbird was out-selling the Corvette. It was a success all of Ford could be proud of.
When Ford brass decided to turn the Thunderbird into a four-seater model for the 1958 model year, the company again had a winner on its hands. In fact, the revised Thunderbird invented its own market segment, the personal luxury class.
Sandwiched between those two successes, though, was the introduction of a car line whose very name is still synonymous with failure. The Edsel certainly wasn't the worst car ever built, but it did bear what was arguably the worst name a car line has ever been saddled with. (My apologies to you in the reading audience who are named Edsel.) Perhaps even worse that the name was the fact that the Edsel line was launched into a market niche that was narrow as a razor blade to begin with and was on a significant downhill slide. If those circumstances weren't bad enough, the Edsel's stand-up "horse collar" grille might have been the stylists' idea of a neo-classic look but to the buying public it was just plain ugly. Suffice it to say, the Edsel was a loser. And suffice it to say that the money pit that was the Edsel division still had Ford executives looking anxiously at new models when it came time to eyeball the new Mustang.
Ironically, it was a new car from arch rival Chevrolet that put the impetus behind the Mustang concept. In 1959 Chevrolet brought out the Corvair, a blatant clone of the Volkswagen and Porsche air-cooled rear-engine concept. It was a successful launch for Chevrolet, and the model that quickly caught the public's attention was the sporty Monza two-door. With its bucket seats and floor-mounted shifter, it was the most European-inspired model an American car company had ever offered, and this fact wasn't lost on Ford brass, who were turning out models each seemingly more mundane than the last.
Among these snoozemobiles was the Falcon, Ford's answer to the Corvair, VW Beetle and Rambler American. The Falcon was a "compact" car, but instead of going Chevrolet's route in attempting to emulate the Volkswagen, Ford's concept was simply a smaller water-cooled, front-engine/rear-drive car - conventional American practice to a (Model) T. Equipped with dull four- and six-cylinder engines, the Falcon was hardly sporting stuff, but it eventually became crucial to the Mustang's success.
As the 1960's dawned, the families of World War II veterans were maturing into affluence that spawned the Baby Boom, which would keep the American populace "young" for years into the future. Ford market researchers felt they could catch both the parents of Baby Boomers and then the Boomers themselves with sportier offerings.
This feeling was endorsed by Ford division President Lido A. "Lee" Iacocca, a fast-track sales executive who had assumed his vaunted position at the ripe old age of 36. Like many Ford executives, he was a fan of the two-seat Thunderbird but knew the vehicle's limitations as a volume seller: it was expensive and didn't offer much versatility.
So the directives to the design teams that competed in the development of the Mustang were simple: the car must be inexpensive to produce and it must have four seats. The four-seat portion of the equation was relatively simple to achieve compared to the "inexpensive" portion. A target price of $2,500 was set for the vehicle, which meant that key portions of the car would, by necessity, come from Ford parts bins. No specially designed engines as in the Corvair.After intense competition within the Ford design staff, the work of Joe Oros and Dave Ash was the chosen finalist. Called "Cougar," a name that would eventually grace its Mercury division cousin, the clay model unveiled to Ford executives in August of 1962 exhibited the key features that would catch the public's fancy two years later, including the long-hood, short-deck, muscular rear fenders and expansive, forward-leaning grille.
Underneath the designer wardrobe were some rather mundane mechanicals. The front and rear suspension componentry was nearly pure Ford Falcon: a simple independent front suspension and, at the rear, a live axle mounted on leaf springs. Brakes were drum-type also pulled from the Ford parts catalog.
The Mustang's base engine continued on the ho-hum theme. The in-line overhead valve six cylinder wrested just 101 horsepower from its 170 cubic inch (2.8-liter) displacement.
Only with the optional engine did the original Mustang live up to the promise of its looks. The 164-horsepower OHV V-8, which displaced 260 cubic inches, could move the 2,500-pound Mustang with alacrity, although car magazine testers at the time decried its handling and braking shortcomings.
The fact was the public liked the Mustang far more than the motoring press did. Introduced at the New York World's Fair on April 13, 1964 as a 1965 model, the Mustang almost immediately took on a life of its own. With Ford's advertising and public relations teams grinding night and day, the Mustang was the cover story in both Time and Newsweek and network TV advertisements were soon reaching everyone who could change a channel. Readers and viewers liked what they saw, particularly when it was attached to a palatable base price of just $2,368. They stampeded Ford showrooms, buying every Mustang in sight and ordering thousands more. Iacocca's decision to devote several factories to Mustang production before the car's introduction proved to be a brilliant stroke.
In the first year, Mustang sales reached an astounding 518,000. For the 1966 model year, sales arched even higher, to 540,000 units. Then competition, primarily from the rushed-to-market Chevrolet Camaro, began to take its toll on Mustang sales, but the model had already made its mark.
As the years went by, Ford parts bins continued to supply the Mustang with an increasing powerful group of V-8 engines. The 260 V-8 was largely supplanted by the 289, which offered as much as 271 horsepower in factory trim. Top speed for Mustangs so equipped was reported as 120 miles per hour with acceleration from zero to 60 mph taking 8.3 seconds, not stellar numbers by contemporary standards, but numbers that put to shame most European-bred sports cars.
What Ford developed in the early Sixties remains the Mustang formula today. It is a car that lacks the sophistication of its European competitors, but offers a wad of slam-bang performance for relatively little money. Oh, and, to many eyes, it just plain looks cool.