Ford Trots Out Mustang Concept
Ford begins its centennial year with a ponycar headed for production in 2004.
by Paul A. Eisenstein/TCC 1/1/2003
There’ll be dozens of concept cars and trucks making their debut at the Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows this month, vehicles providing a peek at what the future may bring in production form. But one particular prototype is taking a very different tack.
With the Mustang convertible Ford is unveiling at the North American International Auto Show, the automaker will take a giant step forward into the past. This thinly disguised version of the all-new Mustang going into production later this year was born in the automaker’s Living Legends styling studio. And if it evokes a sense of déjŕ vu, that’s precisely what Ford Design Director J Mays had in mind.
Call it retro, if you will, though Mays insists it’s “more than just another retro car. It’s a timeless statement.”
That statement began on April 17, 1964, when then-Ford Chairman Lee Iacocca pulled the wraps off the original pony car during a preview at the New York World’s Fair. With its long hood, short deck and surprisingly affordable price tag of $2,368, it became an immediate success – landing both Iacocca and the Mustang the unique honor of gracing the covers of Time and Newsweek the same week.
In Garland, Texas, where 15 customers bid on the same Mustang, the winner insisted on sleeping in the car overnight to ensure it wouldn't get sold out from under him before his check cleared. Within four months, Ford sold more Mustangs than it had expected to move in an entire year. The biggest problem became the need for more production capacity, as first year sales soared to 417,000 – an unheard-of feat for an all-new automobile.
The Mustang was tough yet democratic, with a special charm that “appealed to a large cross-section of society,” says Bob McClurg, a diehard fan and author of three books on the brand. It sold to every ethnicity and income level, appealing to men and women alike.
In both name and appearance, the Mustang evoked the classic Wild West fable at the root of the American mythos. Surprisingly, the car’s original designer, John Najjar, did not name the car after the legendary American pony. He was actually a great fan of the most successful fighter plane of World War II, the P-51 Mustang. Company officials liked the name but thought the equine image was more appropriate.
Indeed, the Mustang was the original “pony car,” inviting an assortment of imitations, including the Chevrolet Camaro. But nothing could trip up the ‘Stang, which repeatedly outsold both the Camaro and Firebird combined.
Ford’s original boasted a fastback shape that seemed in perpetual motion, but it really wasn’t much of a performer, with its compact, 170-cubic-inch engine and three-speed manual transmission. That would soon change as the automaker rolled out an increasingly powerful series of engine packages and, in subsequent years, a procession of new bodies.
In 1965, it was the Mustang Shelby GT 350, which made its debut at Riverside Raceway. On the track, Mustang’s with big-block 427-cubic-inch V-8s began dominating the NHRA. A production version, dubbed the Shelby GT-500, hit the streets in 1967.
With its aggressive stance and big side scoops, the Mach 1 concept offered a hint of what would follow in 1967 with the production Mustang 2+2 Fastback. It is, in fact, the second-generation ’67 series, “the quintessential Mustang,” that Mays’ retro ‘Stang evokes, rather than the original ‘64-1/2.
It was an era when performance was king, and carmaker’s raced ever faster and more powerful products to market. With 0-60 times slipping below seven seconds, Ford declared the Shelby Cobra GT-500KR of 1968 the “King of the Road.”
Ironically, the car’s biggest success nearly led to its demise. In 1973, a third version, dubbed for odd reasons the Mustang II, came galloping onto the market. But Ford had cut corners, as well as the car’s wheelbase—the length between the center of the front and rear wheels, and a significant factor in how a car handles. It was “cheap and cheerful,” suggests Mays, and initially, the Mustang II set all-time sales records. But it just didn’t deliver what real aficionados expected and Mays admits, it “nearly killed the Mustang” brand.
Ford’s pony car tried to rediscover what designers like to call its “DNA” with the debut of yet another version in 1979. A series of incredibly powerful engines made the so-called “Euro ‘Stang” highly popular with street and track racers alike.
But if the Mustang II missed its mark, Ford planners were coming perilously close to a move that would finish the job. In the early 1980s, Ford was facing a flood of foreign cars and growing demand for Japanese sports cars like the Nissan Z-car and Toyota Supra. So it crafted a front-drive coupe to be built at an all-new plant run by its Japanese affiliate, Mazda Motors.
Whether Ford intentionally floated a trial balloon, or worried aficionados within the company simply leaked word, the outcry was deafening. The new car was wisely renamed Probe and, after a few initially successful years, slowly faded into oblivion. The Mustang name stayed put on a classic, American-made rear-drive coupe.
The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were a troubling time for the auto industry, and especially for performance fans. With fuel economy the market’s big driver, the era of the muscle car seemed over. Mustang lost its biggest engines – until 1982, when the 5.0-liter GT was reborn. And then, in 1984, the new Mustang SVO took an unusual turn, introducing a sophisticated 2.3-liter turbocharged engine pumping out a respectable – for the power-starved era – 175 horsepower.
Since then, Mustang has undergone additional body changes, and received a procession of new engines, including the recently-reincarnated Mach 1, with its “shaker” hood and 305-horsepower V-8.
Culture shock value
But one thing seems to stay the same: Ford’s pony car remains a classic, not only on the road, but in American culture. The Mustang had a starring role in two of the best chase movies ever made, including Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and the original ’74 version of Gone in 60 Seconds. (Nicknamed Eleanor, the ’67 Mustang returned in the 2000 remake starring Nicolas Cage.)
The Mustang continues to grab the popular culture spotlight, appearing of late in music videos from Britney Spears and Sheryl Crow. An end-of-the-millennium readers poll by Kelley Blue Book found Mustang the most popular of 1,200 different models. Even the U.S. Post Office has recognized the car as an enduring symbol of the 20th Century, issuing a stamp depicting the ’64-1/2.
Last summer, meanwhile, a collector paid $300,000 for the only surviving copy of the ’93 show car, Mustang Mach III.
Will Mays’ interpretation of Mustang’s basic DNA connect with consumers? As a designer, he is clearly a master of recapturing past styling cues, having penned Volkswagen’s popular New Beetle, and influencing the look of the hot Audi TT. Ford has scored a success with another retro-mobile, the revival of the original Thunderbird two-seater. And so-called “heritage” themes can be spotted in a variety of other hip products, including the Chrysler PT Cruiser.
The real deal
“Spy” shots of the new Mustang have generated a generally positive reaction. Surprisingly, the show car is a bit less retro than the production car due out soon. In a reversal of normal process, the production vehicle actually generated the idea of first teasing the public with a show car.
Or several show cars, as, you’ll see over the coming months at different auto shows, starting with the Mustang GT Convertible in Detroit. It will, as noted, boast a ’67-influenced exterior, with the classic long hood and short deck. But inside, it will reveal the very sophisticated interior styling theme that Ford is adopting across its lineup.
In keeping with the best of Mustang heritage, of course, the show car will deliver a hefty 400 horsepower. A functional hood scoop will feed the supercharged, 4.6-liter V-8, which features aluminum heads and a liquid-to-air intercooler. To handle all that power, the prototype will ride on 20-inch wheels and use 12.8-inch vented Brembo disc brakes.
It won’t be all past-tech. Take the adaptive headlights, where two concentric rings rotate like camera lenses to focus light delivered through fiber optic ribbons.
How close are the show cars to what will actually hit the street in 2004? Close, but those who’ve seen the final designs say they’re actually more impressed with the production vehicles. The taillights, for one thing, will be more true to the original design.
One thing is certain. Ford needs a home run. As it gets ready to celebrate its centennial, the automaker is facing some serious problems, and only the “product onslaught” Mays promises will help put the company back on track. The original Mustang played a key role in Ford’s mid-’60s success. It could play a repeat role as the automaker steps forward into the past.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....