by Mike Davis 4/13/2003
For one of the world’s most successful and longest-lasting car models, the Ford Mustang — which celebrates its 39th birthday this Thursday, April 17 — has one of the murkiest heritages imaginable.
Not from a clean sheet of paper did it rise, like the VW Beetle or the Corvette or the Thunderbird. Rather its genealogy is that of a, well, mongrel.
I should know. I watched its conception up close and personal, as the saying goes.
Let’s spin back the time machine to the fall of 1959 when Ford Motor Co. introduced its first “compact,” the Falcon, intended as an import fighter. I drove a prototype at the Ford Romeo Proving Ground one Saturday in mid-summer ‘59 on my first freelance assignment from Sports Cars Illustrated.
This six-passenger car on a 109.5-inch wheelbase was perfectly straight forward, with a front-mounted 144-cid overhead-valve straight six in a rear-drive configuration, available with a three-on-the-tree manual or a two-speed Fordomatic automatic. Competitors were much more radical, each in its own way.
The Falcon was enormously successful, with production of 436,000 in its first model year, far surpassing all the rivals. But Chevrolet sneered that the Falcon stole sales from the “big” Ford while its own rear-engined Corvair carved out a new niche and didn’t hurt the “big” Chevy. Then Chevy did an end-run around Ford with its sporty Corvair Monza coupe that caught on quickly.
That sets the first scene in Mustang’s history.
Ford planners then decided, based on growing Beetle popularity, that what was needed for both the U.S. and Continental markets was a high-technology sub-compact car. Such a car would not cannibalize domestic Fords. The solution came in a Ford of Germany proposal for a front-wheel-drive V-4-powered car, code-named “Cardinal.” In parallel, Ford of Britain was developing a new car of the same size but with conventional layout, code-named “Archbishop.”
Ford Division pushed ahead with detailed plans for U.S. introduction of the Cardinal V-4 in the fall of 1962 as a 1963 model, offered only as a barren two-door sedan. It would be assembled in both Louisville, Ky., and Cologne, Germany.
My name was picked out of the company’s PR
hat to develop all the press materials for the Cardinal, and I was eagerly pursuing the project with news releases in final clearance when my boss, Walt Murphy, strolled into my borrowed office late one afternoon in April 1962. He knocked the ashes out of his pipe into the ashtray, cleared his throat and pronounced, “I’ve just come back from a dealer trip with Iacocca, and he’s decided to kill the Cardinal.”
I was thunderstruck. To put things in perspective, Walt was sort of like a bird colonel in the Ford pecking order and I was a sergeant. “What's going on?” I asked. “Lee thinks the Cardinal is an old ladies’ car, grey on the inside and grey on the outside, and he thinks the market wants something sporty like the Monza.”
Indeed, Ford already had introduced mid-year the upscale, bucket-seated two-door Falcon Futura as a Monza fighter and was working on both a 260-cid V-8 and a hardtop (“pillarless”) body for the Falcon, which hit the market a year later.
So the plug was pulled on the Cardinal project in the U.S. and work started on what was to become the Mustang. In Germany, the Cardinal was introduced as the Taunus 12M and something like a million were produced over time. In Britain, the Archbishop came forth as the Cortina, imported and sold by Lincoln-Mercury dealers for several years and successfully marketed around the Empire.
In the meantime, Ford Engineering and PR
had two expensive Cardinal prototypes which had been intended for use as press cars for the “long-lead” magazine intro originally scheduled for June 1962. What to do with them? It was decided to put new bodies over the odd hardware — which had been rearranged into a mid-engine configuration — and use them as show cars to stir public interest.
By coincidence, the roadster body design as it came out of Styling — as Design Staff was then called — had the code-name of Mustang. Later, this version came to be known as “Mustang I.” It had a long hood, a short deck and cooling louvers in the rear quarter panels in front of the rear-wheel openings.
The first showing of Mustang I took place as a pace car at a sports car race at Watkins Glen, N.Y. It received a sensational response from the crowd and media, and the name was baked in concrete.
But back in Dearborn, the mills were grinding on a quite different car for production, the real Mustang, which was in essence a customized version of the Falcon. The Falcon’s proven sturdy six and V-8 powertrains would be used, but with floor-mounted tranny controls on a shortened 108-inch wheelbase.
The original ’65 Mustang (some call it ’64 1/2 but it was registered as a ’65) would be offered in three four-place — buckets in front — bodies: a “notchback” coupe, a convertible and, later, a fastback coupe. A prototype “Mustang II” show car, somewhat sleeker than the final production version, made the rounds in 1963 to whet the public appetite.
The opening of the New York World’s Fair was chosen for Mustang’s formal introduction on April 17, 1964, with all the attending whoopla. The only crack in the screen of secrecy that accompanied new models in those days was the dim-witted Ford cousin who somehow borrowed a pre-production Mustang for a lunchtime spin to downtown Detroit where a press photographer captured it in a public parking lot.
On the other hand, then-Ford Division PR
Manager Bob Hefty, an old United Press hand, cleverly lured both Time and Newsweek into featuring Iacocca and Mustang on covers the same week, in tune with the World’s Fair unveiling.
Introductory advertising featured a white notchback coupe in profile and the stripper price of $2,368.
The Mustang’s first-year sales came close to matching the Falcon’s with some 419,000 retailed. Chevrolet rushed to bring out its clone, the Camaro, for 1967. Plymouth tried to pre-empt Ford by unveiling its Valiant-based Barracuda prototype a couple of months before the Mustang went on sale, but failed to make much of a splash.
Overnight, the Mustang seemed to have created a new class of car. The first pony car’s family tree, however, truly was a composite of Falcon, Cardinal and maybe even the milkman, Monza. Ralph Nader gleefully quoted auto writer Ocee Ritch as saying the Mustang was “nothing but a hoked-up Falcon.” I was asked by an earnest but ignorant journalist for Ford’s comment on the slur. “So what,” I said, “The public loves it.”
However, already the volatile car market was changing, with archrivals forced into hasty makeovers. Pontiac had created the sensational GTO in 1964 by dropping the big Pontiac’s 389-cid V-8 into its intermediate-sized Tempest. So Ford crashed to spread the front of its Mustang (as well as other compact and intermediate models) wide enough for the big Ford 390.
Thus the 1967 Mustang was almost a whole ’nother car, designed for the big engines bordering on really high performance. For my money, Mustang lost its litheness and agility, but then I didn’t treasure straight-line performance. My ’67 ’Tang was a yellow convertible with black top and interior — pulled by a six and humble three-speed stick. It sucked, an expression not really invented yet, but entirely descriptive.
For 1969 and 1971 models, Mustang underwent yet more makeovers both to meet the challenge of competitors, especially the Pontiac Firebird and souped-up Camaro, at the same time fending off crippling federal regulations.
Embargoed out of speed
The real killer of the by-then muscle car market, though, was the Arab Oil Embargo triggered by the Yom Kippur War of September 1973. The result was not only gasoline prices doubling almost overnight but the public fear there might not be enough fuel available. The market for gas-guzzling performance cars and thirsty luxury models crashed and burned.
So, under Iacocca’s direction, Ford did a different kind of crash of its own, to bring out a Mustang II for 1974 which was based on the sub-compact Pinto introduced for the 1971 model year. What a disastrously cramped and anemic car, even if it did meet the market! GM, though, didn’t waver, continuing to sell hot Camaros and Firebirds as if there had never been a problem.
Mustang didn’t get back on track for its by-now huge army of followers until the 1979 model year, when the Mustang II was dumped in favor of the Fox platform. This platform was shared with the Fairmont, Thuderbird and Cougar, and the Marks, among others — all of which are now history — but has continued for the Mustang to this day, an amazing 25-year run for a design in a volatile and highly competitive market.
I’ve had two Fox-based Mustangs: a red 1984 Turbo GT convertible of which only 629 were built, which my daughter still owns today, and a white 1988 5.0-liter GT convertible which I wish I could have afforded to keep.
Indeed, the Mustang has outlived all its rivals and truly rules the, uh, pasture. About 150,000 a year are cranked out from the venerable Dearborn Assembly Plant in the Rouge complex which dates back to 1917. And Mustang convertibles are easily the industry’s most popular.
All this is about to change. The ancient Rouge assembly facility will be demolished and the new plant in its place is scheduled to build a new F-150 full-size pickup truck.
Mustang production will move to the Ford-Mazda AutoAlliance plant at Flat Rock, Mich., along I-75 southwest of Detroit. Flat Rock has been building front-wheel drive Mazdas, Ford Probes, and Mercury Cougars in its time, but Mustang fans have been promised that an all-new 2005 Mustang will still run a V-8 on the traditional rear-drive setup.
Today I think the amazing thing is that there are not only several Mustang fan clubs, there are even some in countries where the Mustang was never sold at retail by Ford Motor Company.