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Ford Mustang: The making of an icon

With the Ford Mustang finally coming to India, a look back at the evolution of this car and its cult status

Published: Jul 14, 2016
A 1969 Boss 302 being put through its paces on a race track
A 1969 Boss 302 being put through its paces on a race track

This is the car dreams are made of,” says the narrator. On the television screen, a teenager with eyes wide open, stares at a red convertible car spinning on a turntable. This was the first television advertisement for the Ford Mustang in 1964.

Little did they know that 50 years later, those words would still ring true. Just hearing the name of the car brings images of a brooding beast rumbling away to your mind. Songs have been written in its name; it has shared screen space with some of the biggest Hollywood stars, including Steve McQueen, Sean Connery and Farrah Fawcett; and even the popular comic character and archetypical all-American teenager, Archie Andrews, drove one.

VIEW PHOTO GALLERY: Evolution and the cult status of the Ford Mustang

The Mustang became deeply entrenched in Americana. That is perhaps the reason for its global fame—it encapsulated the spirit of the American baby-boomer generation, and signified free living and hard driving. It was the perfect antagonist to the lithe, fragile and expensive European sports cars of the time such as the Austin-Healey or the MG.

The pony is born
The Mustang nameplate may now be synonymous with Ford’s legendary pony car , but it started out as anything but that. Back in 1962, Ford was toying with the idea of producing a small, mid-engined sports car powered by a Ford Germany-sourced four-cylinder engine. It was to go up against the Chevrolet Corvair. Designed under the watchful eyes of Lee Iacocca, the almost mythical Ford executive and later president, the Mustang I concept had just two seats, minimal windscreen and a roll bar adorning its light aluminium body.

Named after the P-51 Mustang fighter planes from World War II, it featured the now-famous running horse motif, set against stripes in the colours of the American flag. The car was shown at various events around the United States, and despite its popularity and calls for production, the two-seater’s limited appeal doomed it. The car remained just a concept.

Almost simultaneously, Ford engineers had been tasked with building a small, affordable, front-engined car with four seats, floor shifter, multiple engine options and ‘European’ looks. In a record 18 months, they created a new car, based on existing mechanicals from the Ford Falcon and Fairlane range to keep costs down. It had unibody construction, with the ‘torque box’ structure, essentially making the car extremely stiff, with structural strength coming from the passenger cell rather than a chassis frame.

VIEW PHOTO GALLERY: Evolution and the cult status of the Ford Mustang

Styling was based on designs submitted by the Lincoln-Mercury design division of Ford Motor Company. The now-familiar design featured a classic long hood, short deck profile, a wide grill flanked by round headlights, and three-bar detailing, which mimicked the now-signature three-bar tail lamp. The interior featured a double hump dash, and all the cars came with front bucket seats as standard. A number of names were suggested, including Cougar and Torino—both later used on other Fords. But the name and logo from the Mustang I concept were adopted, including the right-to-left running stance, depicting a wild, untamed horse (as against the left-to-right stance that would depict a race horse).

There was enough enthusiasm from within the company during the development for Ford to know it had success on its hands. Nevertheless it wanted to ease in the jump of the Mustang changing from a mid-engined, two-seater to a front-engine, four-seater. So it built the Mustang II concept in 1963. Using a pre-production car and some styling elements borrowed from the Mustang I, the II provided an adequate link between the original concept and the new production car.

Running success
On April 17, 1964, the Ford Mustang was launched at the World’s Fair in New York. Despite the positive press reports about it, Ford had its entire marketing machinery behind the Mustang, even getting a pre-production model screen time in the James Bond movie Goldfinger (1964). Launching five months before other 1965 models were due, the early Mustangs, available only as coupe and convertibles, were known as the 64½. Powered by an inline six or optional 4.3-litre 260 V8, the Mustang came with manual or automatic transmissions. It was an instant hit with almost all demographics, including women who, in the 1960s United States, were fast becoming a major market for automobiles. The car broke all records. Within 18 months of its launch, Ford had sold a million cars.

The Pontiac GTO has widely been accepted as the first muscle car, but the Mustang created a new niche: The pony car—a smaller, lighter, less powerful, yet sporty car.

The second generation Mustang
The second generation Mustang

The golden generation
Well into the ’65 production year, Ford introduced a third body style, the sports roof or ‘fastback’ as it is known in Ford nomenclature. The fastback would come to define the car, and sits firmly on top of the body style hierarchy.

Ford also changed the engine lineup in ’65, introducing the popular 289 cubic-inch (4.7 litre) V8. A great selling point of the Mustang was customisability. Ford offered all sorts of options, both mechanical and cosmetic, allowing customers to have a different car from their neighbours. Even today, classic Mustangs are often put on sale as one-of-one cars; its defining character is as silly as being the only blue car with a red stripe and deleted clock.  

VIEW PHOTO GALLERY: Evolution and the cult status of the Ford Mustang

In 1967, Ford introduced the first major restyle of the car. Now facing competition from Chevrolet’s own pony car, the Camaro, the Mustang was muscled up, its size increasing slightly, with its signature grill getting bigger. More engine options were added, including the 390 cubic-inch (6.4 litre) big block V8, which would power Steve McQueen’s Mustang in the cult movie Bullitt (1968). The ultra realistic chase scene from the movie helped cement the Mustang’s status as an iconic car.

By 1969, the Mustang was already seeing quite a bit of track time, and the 428 Cobra Jet engine was powering ‘Stangs’ up and down drag strips all across the United States.

It was the year of the second major restyle of the car. Now even bigger, with the classic Coke-bottle shape, the Mustang was entered into the highly competitive Trans-Am racing series, and the Boss 302 was introduced as a homologation special. But Ford did not stop there. The Nascar racing series required manufacturers to sell a certain number of race engines to the public to pass homologation, but didn’t specify which car they need to be in. Ford chose the Mustang, and the mighty 429 Nascar engine was shoehorned into the ’69, creating the Boss 429.

The following model saw a minor styling change, with the ’69’s quad headlamps giving way to twin lamps, but it was 1971 that saw the final major restyle of the first generation cars. Going with a squarer design, the Mustang no longer resembled the 1964½ styling, but nevertheless was a well proportioned car, and its distinctive look was quite popular.
With changing emission mandates, fewer engine options were offered, but the popular ‘Mach 1’ option was carried forward from the previous years. 1973 would be the last year for the first generation cars, ending what would be the classic generation of Mustangs.

Shelby factor
One of the key reasons for the Mustang’s popularity was the halo effect created by the Carroll Shelby-modified cars. Shelby, a former racing driver, already had close ties with Ford as he was putting its engines into AC bodies to create the Shelby Cobra. Iacocca was worried that the Mustang’s lower performance, and the image of a soft car, would cause a drop in sales. He got Shelby to work his magic on the ’65 Mustang Fastback.

Shelby lowered the weight and upgraded the engine, suspension and brakes. The end result: The GT350. The functional scoops, fat tyres and throaty exhaust note were captivating, and in the horsepower race that was brewing in Detroit, the lighter Mustang won. Shelby even created a batch for Hertz, the car rental company, which allowed customers to rent them. There are countless stories of race abuse and part thefts on these rental cars.

One of the key elements of the Shelby cars was the difference in appearance. Employing fibreglass body panels, that also made the car lighter, Shelby opted for an aggressive look. In 1967, he used long Ford Thunderbird tail lights to replace the now-familiar three-bar units. And in 1968, the Shelby cars featured aggressive snake-like styling to go with its Cobra nickname. Going a step further, in the following years, the ’69/’70 models looked nothing like their regular versions.
All these cars were built in limited numbers, and many were used by amateur and professional racers alike. It was the ultimate expression of the ‘Race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ mantra used by car marketers. By 1970, Shelby had a fallout with Ford and the two parted ways only to reunite in 2005 for the company’s 100th anniversary and the launch of the fifth generation Mustang.

In the ’90s, the Mustang underwent a complete redesign that people weren’t fans of
In the ’90s, the Mustang underwent a complete redesign that people weren’t fans of

Mustang II and the 1970s auto crisis
With the oil crisis of the 1970s, new emission norms and the onslaught of imported cars in the United States that were smaller, cheaper, better engineered and, more importantly, frugal, Ford decided to make the second generation Mustang smaller too, basing it on the Ford Pinto platform.

The much smaller car had muted styling, and was geared more towards sports-luxury, than muscle—a word that was becoming taboo during the period. Engine options included an inline four and a V6, both with relatively low outputs, bogged down by emission control equipment. The Mustang II, as it was christened, is widely considered a low point in the history of the car. However, it did allow the Mustang name to be carried forward. And such was the weight of the name that Ford managed to sell 386,000 cars in 1974.

VIEW PHOTO GALLERY: Evolution and the cult status of the Ford Mustang

For the ’75 model year, a V8 was reintroduced, but emission norms-mandated equipment made it heavy and low on power. In 1977, Ford introduced the Cobra II moniker, but it was just an appearance package. It, however, did make a limited number of a relatively higher performance Mustang, called the ‘King Cobra’, for the final year of production.

For all its sales, the Mustang II could never replicate the cult factor of its predecessor, yet it did leave behind a legacy of sorts, via its front suspension setup. The independent system, that didn’t require a strut tower and used rack-and-pinion steering, has become one of the most widely used front-suspension units in the custom car community, used for modernising old cars and building hot-rods.

Return to form

The replacement for the Mustang II came in 1978 and was based on Ford’s widely employed Fox platform. The platform became famous with the Mustang, and the third generation cars were affectionately called the ‘Foxbody’. Slightly bigger than the Mustang II, the Foxbody had a more hatchback profile and an angled grill was used for the first time. Body styles included a notchback coupe, the fastback—which was more of a hatchback—and a convertible.

Engines were carried forward from the IIs, including the 302 Windsor V8, which in metric was now called a 5-litre. The Foxbody did not carry the iconic running horse logo on its exterior, but the V8 had a big ‘5.0’ insignia on its flanks, and was nicknamed ‘five-point-Oh’. Ford also gave the Foxbody a 2.3-litre inline-4 turbo engine, with similar output as the V8. In later years, an improved, high output version of this engine would become the most powerful in the lineup, gaining the SVO designation.

While not muscle cars in the ’60s sense, the Foxbodys were still popular. Their affordability, handling and a large aftermarket parts support helped keep their sales up, and retain a strong fan following, especially with those who grew up in the ’80s.

The fourth generation

The ’90s brought the widespread adoption of the front-wheel drive. The Mustang had avoided this thus far, which was good for packaging and economics, but not for sportscar dynamics.

Ford made a proposal to make the fourth generation a Mazda MX-6-based front-wheel drive car. But objections from enthusiasts made Ford rethink the decision.

In the end, that car became the Ford Probe, and the new Mustang, codenamed SN-95, still rear-wheel drive, was launched in 1994, on a modified Fox platform. The styling of the new car was previewed by the Mach III concept, with the Mustang featuring soft curves, and wraparound headlights that were popular in the period.

There would be just two body styles—the ever popular convertible and a coupe. There would be no fastback for this entire generation. Power came from a base V6, and a range topping 4.6-litre V8 from Ford’s modular family. The long-running Windsor 302 V8 was finally dropped.

In 1999, for its mid-cycle facelift, the Mustang received some much-needed design updates, under Ford’s ‘New Edge’ styling programme. Gone were the soft curves, replaced with larger, squarer scoops and sharp cuts to the lights. But demand for the car was dropping and Ford began using various marketing tricks to keep customer attention.

Special variants were built, including those commemorating the movie Bullitt, and also the Mach I cars of the ’60s, featuring a working ‘shaker’ hood-scoop. The name came from a direct induction air-scoop mounted directly on the engine, poking out of a hole in the hood. Revving the engine would cause the scoop to shake quite dramatically.

The ultimate SN-95 Mustang would come in the shape of the SVT Cobra R. Built by Ford’s Special Vehicle Team, it would be the first Mustang to feature independent rear suspension. And the 2000 model year car featured a 5.4-litre V8 rated at 385 hp. It’s quite rare: Only 300 were made.

The arrival of the fifth generation Mustang saw the return of the retro design and the Shelby badge
The arrival of the fifth generation Mustang saw the return of the retro design and the Shelby badge

The retro years
Launched in line with the Mustang’s 40th anniversary, the fifth generation car had a tremendous task in hand: To revive Mustang sale numbers. Born in a period when retro design was popular, the S197 Mustang carried a number of styling cues from the first generation cars, most notably the 1969 model.

With a quad round headlight setup for the GT, the Mustang was instantly recognisable as a modern take on the classic. Body styles were limited to the convertible and a notched fastback, reminiscent of the original ’65 fastback cars. The base engine would be a V6, and the GT would again get the V8.

VIEW PHOTO GALLERY: Evolution and the cult status of the Ford Mustang

Surprisingly, Ford decided to continue with a live-rear axle, not the most sophisticated system, and critics did not hold back. Despite this, the Mustang sold in good numbers for the first few years, with more modest sales coming in after Chevrolet relaunched the Camaro, and Dodge, their challenger, as retro-styled muscle cars. Ironically, both companies did this after seeing the success of the retro Mustang, a repeat of what had happened in the ’60s.

With so much history, Ford would launch a slew of special and limited edition models based on the fifth generation. It revived the Shelby, launching a 500 hp GT500, and an even more powerful 800 hp GT500 Super Snake. A rental version for Hertz was again produced, the Shelby GT-H, and popular names such as the California Special, the Cobra Jet, the Bullitt, and the Boss 302 were all revived. In the final years of production, a new 5-litre V8 was introduced. Nicknamed the Coyote, it brought back the famous ‘five-point-Oh’ moniker of the ’80s.

50th anniversary and the sixth generation
With the car turning 50 in 2014, Ford went into overdrive to ensure the new sixth generation version would live up to the name and exceed enthusiast expectations. The biggest news to come from Dearborn, Michigan, home of Ford Motor, was that the new car would be part of the company’s ‘One Ford’ plan. Under the plan, each new model would be designed to be sold in markets around the world. As a direct result of this, the sixth generation would become the first Mustang to be made right-hand drive from the factory. Internally codenamed S550, it includes the GT that will become the first Mustang to be officially sold in India later this year.

Launched as a 2014½, to commemorate 50 years, the new Mustang is a stylistic departure from the previous retro cars. It features Ford’s new corporate design cues, including the trapezoidal grill, but its proportions are still very much Mustang, with humps and curves in all the right places adding to the drama. It comes with a proper fastback body, and for the first time in a series production Mustang, independent rear suspension.

Engines include a base V6, the Coyote 5.0, and a Ecoboost 2.3-litre turbo petrol inline-4, getting enthusiasts excited as the displacement matches that of the ’80s SVO cars. But what really got everyone excited was the introduction of the Shelby GT350. Featuring a flat-plane crank shaft, the ‘Voodoo’ 5.2-litre V8 with its banshee-like wail can turn anyone into a Mustang-holic.

Legacy continues
But the essence of the Mustang does not lie in its ability to put out quick lap times or run the quarter mile in the low-teens; it lies in its ability to bring a smile to its owner’s face. Move him in style, provide a fantastic soundtrack and make the neighbours jealous, all without breaking the bank. It may be argued that Hollywood has made it famous, but there is no denying that it fits all the parts it was cast for. It is one of those cars that can get away with not carrying its manufacturer’s name.

As the sixth generation cements its position as the top selling pony car, and the Mustang remains a success, Ford will continue producing one of its most beloved models, and we will keep celebrating it.

(This story appears in the 22 July, 2016 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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