Do we even need to talk about the original 1965 Ford Mustang? It’s one of the best-known of all postwar American cars and there have been dozens of books about it, some of them quite sycophantic. Still, the Mustang is certainly important and hugely influential — not just in the automotive world. So, once more into the breach, dear friends, with the history of the original pony car, the 1965 Ford Mustang.
LEE IACOCCA VS. ROBERT MCNAMARA
To understand the Mustang, it’s necessary to understand a little about Lee Iacocca, the man most directly responsible for its creation. The Mustang was by no means the work of Iacocca alone, but it was his inspiration and he shepherded it through all stages of its development, so if it could be said to be any one person’s car, it would be his.
Lido Anthony Iacocca was born in 1924 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the son of first-generation Italian immigrants. Iacocca had a privileged upbringing — his father was a very successful independent businessman — but he grew up acutely aware of the glass ceiling faced by Catholics and Jews in American business. Despite his father’s urging to avoid the WASP-dominated corporate world, Iacocca, who studied industrial engineering at Lehigh University and Princeton, was determined to make his mark in the auto industry. He set his sights on the Ford Motor Company.
After a short, unhappy stint in engineering in the early 1950s, Iacocca switched to sales, for which he proved to have a considerable aptitude. He was very successful at the regional level, attracting the attention of Ford Division general manager Robert McNamara, and was brought back to Dearborn in 1957. When McNamara became president of Ford in 1960 (and then left to become Secretary of Defense), Iacocca became general manager of Ford Division, a company vice president. He was 36 years old and he had missed his personal goal of becoming a VP by 35 by only one year.
Even from this brief sketch, you make some reasonable suppositions about Iacocca’s personality: ambitious, proud, with a salesman’s aggressive attitude and the knowledge that he always had something to prove. These qualities kept him in touch with the priorities of a broad swath of working-class America, instincts that would serve him very well at Ford. Robert McNamara was an astute planner and an expert in the use of statistics, but he never approached Iacocca’s visceral sense of what the public wanted.
Although Iacocca respected McNamara’s command of facts, many of McNamara’s product decisions rubbed him the wrong way. Chief among those was the compact Ford Falcon, which was sensible, economical, practical, and had all the sex appeal of a bowl of Cream of Wheat. It sold well, albeit significantly less than expected, but it sold because it was useful, not because it was desirable.
Iacocca felt that customers, even working-class buyers on tight budgets, were as concerned with what their cars said about them as they were with price or practicality. It came down to pride, and pride was something Iacocca understood very well. That was where the Falcon had missed the boat. Who would want to present themselves to the world as frugal (i.e., cheap) and sensible (i.e., dull)? What the public wanted, Iacocca thought, was ultimately quite simple: young buyers always wanted something exciting and sporty, to show that they were going somewhere; older buyers wanted something posh and luxurious that shows that they had made it.
TARGETING THE YOUTH MARKET
By far the sportiest car Ford had offered since the war was the two-seat Thunderbird of 1955-1957. Its sales had been modest, but it was beloved even by those who never bought one.
Beloved or not, the T-Bird had not been a particularly profitable car. With only two seats and a price tag more 40% higher than a workaday Ford, it was not a justifiable purchase for working-class families, and its total sales volume was limited. It had been replaced for 1958 with the substantially bigger, far less sporty four-seat Square Bird, which was bought in far larger numbers, even though it was never viewed with the same adoration.
Since the demise of the “Little Bird,” Ford had occasionally explored reviving it, but none of those plans had come to fruition. The factors that had limited the original ‘bird’s sales continued to weigh against its proposed successors, whatever their potential value as image leaders. McNamara was a staunch believer that the company should not build any car that would not sell in profitable volumes; from a financial standpoint, an impractical, two-seat sporty car was difficult to justify.
Iacocca acknowledged that dilemma, but he did not easily easily dismiss the Little Bird’s enduring popularity. Used 1955-1957 Thunderbirds were already selling for higher-than normal prices and both buyers and dealers periodically petitioned the company to bring it back. Iacocca himself rejected several plans to revive the two-seater, but he saw that there would be a ready audience for a car that offered the Little Bird’s sporty image in a more affordable, practical package.
Iacocca was well aware that his boss, Henry Ford II, was not an easy sell when it came to new products; the disastrous Edsel had just died when Iacocca took over Ford Division, leaving a $200 million hole in company coffers. To bolster his chances, Iacocca took the unusual step of commissioning extensive market research to support his suppositions.
The research pointed out that 11 million children of the Baby Boom generation, born in the years immediately following World War II, would be reaching driving age by 1970. The data showed an upward trend in median income, and noted significant growth in the number of two- and three-car families in the U.S., which meant that many of those teenage Baby Boomers would be buying their own cars. There would be a huge market for products that appealed to those buyers, as Chevrolet was already finding out with the Corvair Monza, a sporty version of its rear-engine economy car.
Using market research in this way was a new idea in the early sixties. The more common procedure in Detroit was to use marketing studies as an afterthought, to justify decisions that had already been made. This time, Iacocca proposed going the other way: developing a product to suit the tastes of the new youth market.
DESIGNING THE MUSTANG
That product began its development under the code-name Project T-5. It would go through a variety of names (including Median, Allegro, and Aventura) and several design iterations before attaining its final form.
Most of the early concepts, several of which became full-size clay models, were the work of the exterior design team of Don DeLaRossa, but Iacocca and Ford president Arjay Miller were apparently not satisfied with any of them. In the summer of 1962, styling VP Gene Bordinat ordered Ford division design chief Joe Oros to develop an alternative concept. The new design, created in only two weeks by designers Dave Ash and John Foster (with significant contributions from Oros, designers John Najjar and Gale Haldeman, and interior designers Damon Woods and Charlie Phaneuf), was completed on August 15 of that year. Ford management approved it for production on September 10.
At the time, the car was known as Cougar, a named that would later be applied to Mercury’s version of the Mustang.
Whence the Mustang name? For many years, histories of the Mustang (including the original version of this one) credited it to either Ford designer John Najjar or ad executive John Conley, saying that it was inspired not by the horse, but by the well-known North American P-51 Mustang fighter of World War II. However, according to Holly Clark, the Mustang name was actually suggested by her father, the late Ford designer Phil Clark, who also designed the distinctive pony emblem. Clark says both name and emblem — apparently inspired by the wild horse, not the fighter plane — were created for the four-cylinder, mid-engine Mustang I, a concept car built earlier that year and shown on the auto show circuit that fall.
According to Dave Ash, shortly after the Cougar concept was finished in August, Iacocca and Gene Bordinat told him to make preparations to switch the Cougar emblems and lettering with Mustang identification. (Curiously, they ordered Ash not to discuss this change with the rest of the design team in the interests of secrecy. Phil Clark had previously done a one-year stint in GM Styling, where he may have suggested the Mustang name to styling VP Bill Mitchell; Gene Bordinat was apparently concerned that Ford might lose rights to the name to GM.) Whatever its derivation, the Mustang name had the right ring to it: both sporty and American.
The final Mustang design was about the same size as the Falcon (181.6 inches/4,613 mm long), but with a shorter wheelbase (108 inches/2,743 mm vs. 109.5 inches/2,781 mm) and significantly different proportions. It was sporty, but not radical, with a long hood and a short rear deck evoking — apparently at Iacocca’s suggestion — the look of big, prewar luxury/sports machines like the Duesenberg SSJ once owned by Clark Gable. The close-coupled, short-tailed shape and shorter wheelbase cut into back seat and trunk space, but they gave the car the rakish, carefree image Iacocca thought buyers would want, making it look more expensive than it was.
Consumer research clinics bore out his instincts: When potential buyers were shown the new car, they assumed it would cost far more than it actually did and when told what it would actually cost, they began trying to talk themselves out of any reservations they had about its interior room.
Indeed, the Mustang’s space inefficiency was in some ways a canny, deliberate design decision. The Falcon had been designed for maximum packaging efficiency and as a result, it was a boxy, stubby thing. The Mustang’s shape was intended to provide just enough space and utility to overcome a potential buyer’s resistance to buying an attractive but impractical car. Its trunk and rear seats were small, but it had enough room in both to make it workable, if not ideal, as a young family’s only car. Furthermore, its overall size seemed to be just about right, neither too big nor too small.
Ford’s engineering staff, which had been excluded from the styling discussion, was handed the finished design in late 1962 and given 18 months to turn it into a car. Keeping engineering in the dark during the development process was apparently deliberate. Ford’s production team had very conservative rules about body engineering — many of which had to be bent for the Mustang — and neither Iacocca nor his team wanted the design to be watered down.
As a result of the late engineering start and modest budget (some historians quote a figure of $40 million, but Iacocca himself says $75 million), the Mustang became an exemplar of what is often called parts-bin engineering. It shared most of its major components with existing Ford models. Originally, the Mustang was even intended to use a modified version of the Falcon’s unit body shell, but it ended up with an almost completely new body structure and the two cars shared no sheet metal.
Nevertheless, the Mustang shared the Falcon’s suspension, brakes, steering, engines, transmissions, and dash. Some drivetrain pieces came from the mid-size Fairlane and, on the more powerful models, the full-size cars. The use of all this existing hardware kept production costs low, enabling Ford to offer the Mustang at an attractively low price.
Base Falcons started at just under $2,000 in those days, but the base Falcon was a gloomy, Spartan car with rubber mats instead of carpeting, cheap upholstery, and a total lack of frills. The Mustang interior took its cues from the plusher, more expensive Falcon Futura, with full carpeting, wheel covers, floor shifter, bucket seats, and reasonably plush trim. With a starting price of $2,368 FOB Dearborn, the Mustang hardtop was priced within $50 of the Futura, but the Mustang’s stylish looks and fancier interior made it vastly more desirable.
Of course, that $2,368 bought you an underpowered six-cylinder engine; a three-speed manual transmission; slow, unassisted steering; and mediocre drum brakes, but the extensive option list could address most of those failings for just a few dollars more.
Mustang advertising would stress the ability to customize your Mustang, although getting carried away on the order sheet could add more than $1,000 to the sticker, a huge fraction of the car’s base price. Falcon buyers seldom splurged on many options — it had been designed and marketed as an economy car, and it was usually purchased that way — but Mustang buyers did, which made the Mustang a far more profitable model for dealers.
THE 1965 FORD MUSTANG’S MARKETING BLITZKRIEG
When the Mustang went into production, Ford unleashed one of the most extensive and pervasive marketing campaigns anyone had ever seen. The car was previewed at the New York World’s Fair on April 13, 1964, and when it went on sale four days later, Ford bought time on all three television networks to announce its debut. There were endless promotional stunts and a veritable blitzkrieg of print, radio, and TV ads. You would’ve had to have been in a coma to not be at least peripherally aware of it — or of Lee Iacocca, who made the covers of both TIME and Newsweek.
Surprisingly, the automotive press, particularly the more European-oriented magazines like Road & Track, was lukewarm about the Ford Mustang, finding its styling old-fashioned and its engineering disappointingly conventional. They had been more interested in the Mustang I, an experimental, two-seat sports car shown at Watkins Glen in the fall of 1962, and saw the new car as a tarted-up Falcon Futura Sprint, although most expressed interest in the forthcoming high-performance engine package. The Mustang was okay, they said, but nothing to get excited about.
The public disagreed. Ford may have hedged its bets with the aggressive marketing, but the Mustang scored a resounding bulls-eye with Iacocca’s target market, and even well beyond it. In its first four months of production (it was technically a 1965 model, but it had debuted midway through the 1964 model year), the Mustang sold more than 120,000 units. By the end of the following year, production had reached 680,992, fulfilling Iacocca’s ambition of beating the first-year sales of the Falcon.
The 1966 Mustang sold another 607,568 units, enough to make the Mustang #6 in total industry sales, beating Buick, Oldsmobile, Mercury, AMC, Chrysler, and Cadillac — not just individual models, but the entire divisions. Some of those sales came at the expense of other Ford products, particularly the Falcon, but many Mustang customers were first-time buyers, or people who had never bought a Ford before.
Although Iacocca’s target had been the new generation of car-buying Baby Boomers, the Mustang’s appeal proved to be far broader. It was bought by young people and retirees; by single people and by married couples with young kids; by teenagers as their first car and middle-class people as a second car; by both men and women in roughly equal measure. It was what marketers now call a “four-quadrant” success.
As with most American cars of its era, the Mustang’s performance depended greatly on what options you chose; it could be a minimalist commuter car or the basis for a competent race competitor. A six-cylinder Mustang was cheap and relatively slow, capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 15 seconds and a top speed of about 90 mph (145 km/h). In compensation, it was relatively nimble, stopped fairly well, and returned an easy 20 mpg (11.8 L/100 km), not a bad deal in those days.
About 80% of Mustang buyers chose V8 engines, which were available in various states of tune, up to the High Performance “K-code” 289 (4,728 cc) with 271 gross hp (202 kW). The K-code engine was pricey, at $442.60 (including a handling package that cost $31.30 on other Mustangs), but it cut 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times to the mid-sevens and pushed top speed to more than 120 mph (193 km/h). The Mustang had its limitations, but it could be many things to many people, which further bolstered its appeal.
Ford left the Mustang largely alone in its first two and a half years, although a fastback version, dubbed “2+2,” was added during the ’65 model year. Although the fastback is more popular today, the hardtop outsold it by more than five to one, in part because it cost more than $200 less. Later in 1965, there was also the limited-production Shelby GT-350. The number of variations was remarkably small, which was atypical of Detroit, but with no serious competition and robust sales, there was little reason to tinker with the Mustang’s essential formula.
The Mustang’s success presented Ford with an inevitable problem: How do you follow a runaway hit? Ford designer Don Kopka, involved with the redesign for 1967, said that the designers were given a challenging assignment to improve the existing design without losing its basic appeal or identity. The resulting 1967 models were a little longer, a little wider, and a little heavier, although they looked very similar to the original.
The Mustang got bigger and sleeker again in 1969, and again in 1971. By 1973, it was 13 inches (330 mm) longer, 6 inches (152 mm) wider, and 700 pounds (318 kg) heavier than the original, as well as more than $600 more expensive. Its styling was more aggressive, but in the process it had compromised its predecessor’s basic appeal.
As the Mustang grew, its sales dropped, hitting a low of 125,093 in 1972. Some of that drop was attributable to a new array of competitors for its market share (the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, AMC Javelin, Plymouth Barracuda, Dodge Challenger, and even the Mustang’s internecine rival, the Mercury Cougar), but the Mustang always outsold its rivals — it had just lost sight of its original mission.
To his credit, Iacocca realized the mistake and took the bold step of ordering a radical downsizing for 1974. The result was the controversial Pinto-based Mustang II, although that’s another story.
The sometimes inglorious ups and downs of the Mustang’s later history have affected the popularity of the original not at all. In areas like Los Angeles, you can scarcely throw a rock without hitting a 1965-1973 vintage Mustang; they’re more common than a fair number of new Ford models. Good-condition Mustangs command handsome prices as collector cars. They are among the easiest to restore and maintain, since a comprehensive array of reproduction and NOS (new old-stock) parts is available for almost every component. Just as it did in 1965, the Mustang strikes a responsive chord in a broad spectrum of buyers.
The Mustang was perhaps the most important car of its era, not so much for what it was, but for what it represented. In many ways, the Mustang was an important transitional point in the way consumer products are created and sold. The idea of identifying a market and a set of consumer desires and developing a new product specifically to fulfill those needs was a new concept. So, too, was the kind of market research and aggressive marketing campaign that surrounded the Mustang’s conception and development. These things are now de rigueur in any consumer-oriented business, not just the auto industry.
The Mustang spawned imitators as diverse as the AMC Javelin, European Ford Capri, and Toyota Celica, but its legacy extends well beyond the automotive world. The Mustang story is often told in marketing classes, and today there is a whole litany of applied psychology and consumer research disciplines devoted to developing exactly the kind of insight that led Iacocca to push for the Mustang’s creation in the first place. We are surrounded by the results; today, when you pick up a Razr or an iPhone, load music into your iPod, or stand in line for an over-hyped blockbuster like Transformers, you’re participating in a consumer culture that the Mustang helped to shape.
FTC DISCLOSURE NOTICE
In April 2010 (approximately two years after the original publication date of this article), Ate Up With Motor accepted a paid advertisement from AmericanMuscle.com, a company that sells Mustang parts and aftermarket accessories. At the time this article was conceived and written, we had no relationship with that company or any other business connected with the Mustang or Mustang accessories and we received no compensation or consideration for the writing of this article. We have no personal experience with AmericanMuscle.com’s products and offer no opinion about or endorsement of those products.
From 2012–2014, the author worked with former Ford executive Chase Morsey Jr., who was involved with the marketing of the Mustang, on the writing of Mr. Morsey’s memoir, The Man Who Saved the V-8, which also discusses the early Mustang. This article was published prior to (and separate from) that project.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Information on Lee Iacocca’s career at Ford came primarily from Douglas Brinkley, Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress (New York: Viking Penguin, 2003); David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986); Lee Iacocca with William Novak, Iacocca: An Autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1984). Our account of the origins of the Mustang comes from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); “Autos: Ford’s Young One” TIME 17 April 1964, pp. 92–102; Holly Clark and Wolfgang Kohrn, “The Man behind the Pony & More – Phil Clark,” The unexpected Ponysite, 15 November 2006, www.ponysite. de/ phclark_capri.htm, accessed 19 September 2010; David R. Crippen, “The Reminiscences of L. David Ash” [interview], 25 January 1985, Automotive Design Oral History Project, Accession 1673, Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/ Design/Ash_interview.htm [transcript], accessed 19 September 2010; Jim Farrell, “Personality Profile: Gale Halderman: Mustangs, Marks, and More, Part I,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 19, No. 1 (June 2002), pp. 70–78; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Mike Knepper, “Development and Evolution of the Mustang, 1960-1973,” Road & Track September 1973, reprinted in Mustang Muscle Portfolio 1967-1973, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000), pp. 136-140; James C. Jones, “The Mustang — A New Breed Out of Detroit,” Newsweek 20 April 1964, pp. 97–101; Michael Lamm, “First Mustang: Trendsetter of the 1960s,” Special Interest Autos #24 (September-October 1974), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Mustangs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, Second Edition, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 4-12; Randy Leffingwell, Mustang: America’s Classic Pony Car (Ann Arbor, MI: Lowe & B. Hould Pub., 1999); “Mustang,” Motor Trend Vol. 15, No. 1 (January 1963), pp. 44-47; Frank Taylor, “Thunderbird: Three Years of Glory, 1955-1957,” Car Classics February 1975, reprinted in Thunderbird 1955-1957, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1985); “The T-Bird Grows Up,” TIME Vol. 71, No. 1 (6 Jan. 1958), p. 67; and the Wikipedia® entry for the Ford Mustang I (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Mustang_I, accessed 19 September 2010).
We also consulted the following period road tests: “Road Research Report: Ford Mustang,” Car and Driver Vol. 9, No. 11 (May 1964), pp. 40-45, 126-127; Jim Wright, “Test Driving Ford’s New Mustang: A Fancy Filly for Funloving Folks,” Motor Trend Vol. 16, No. 5 (May 1964), pp. 28-31; Bob McVay, “Mustang Road Test: Ford’s top-performance Mustang has quarter-horse agility, race-horse stamina, show-horse style,” Motor Trend Vol. 16, No. 8 (August 1964), pp. 44-49; “Ford Motor Company: Mustang,” Motor Trend Vol. 16, No. 11 (November 1964), p. 52; Bob McVay, “Mustang 2+2 Road Test: Ford’s Mustang Stormed Out to Write an American Success Story from the Very Start,” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 1 (January 1964), pp. 33-37; “Road Test: Mustang 4-Speed,” “Road Test: Mustang 6-Cylinder,” “Road Test: High Performance Mustang,” and “Road Test: Mustang with Disc Brakes,” from Mustang: A Complete Guide (A Car Life Special Edition) 1965; and Chuck Koch, “End of the Trail,” Road Test July 1973, reprinted in Mustang Muscle Portfolio 1967-1973, pp. 131-133.