Pony car was birth of hot-rod culture.All-American Mustang quickly became an icon
Monday, May 19, 2003
100 Years of Ford: The Cars
By Bill Vlasic / The Detroit News
Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News
DEARBORN -- All eyes locked on Lee Iacocca when he strode into the design studio at Ford Motor Co. in the late summer of 1962.
Without a word, the mercurial head of the Ford division studied the sleek, red concept car with the elongated hood, Ferrari-style front end and stubby rear deck.
Then, ever so slowly, Iacocca began rolling his ever-present cigar over and over in his fingers -- just the sign that Joseph Oros was hoping for.
"When Lee did that," said Oros, chief of Ford division design, "we knew he was excited."
And with that gesture, the Ford Mustang was born.
Launched two years later at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, the Mustang took the U.S. auto market by storm. Fast, sexy and affordable, Ford's new "pony car" captured the imagination of a generation -- and never lost it.
After 39 years and nearly 8 million sold, the Mustang remains the most popular icon of the automaker, celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Copied by competitors, celebrated in pop culture, always identifiable despite radical redesigns, the Mustang is an indelible link to Ford's storied past and a crucial component of its future success.
Ford is counting on the all-new 2005 Mustang, due out next year, to fuel its nascent financial turnaround.
While other cars and trucks will certainly play a role in Ford's revival, there is no substitute for a hot, new Mustang.
"This is a flag-waving, American original as much as Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Levi jeans, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe," said J Mays, Ford's chief designer. "It is ingrained in our culture."
But back in the early 1960s, Ford executives had no idea the Mustang, named after the famed fighter aircraft of World War II, would earn an exalted place in automotive history.
Internal forecasts pegged the Mustang's first-year volume at 80,000 cars. In the first 18 months, Ford sold a million.
"We didn't know what we had," Iacocca said. "We lucked out. It was a home run."
Gun-shy after Edsel
It was hardly the ideal time for Ford to gamble on a risky new model.
Company executives were reeling in 1962 from the spectacular failure of the Edsel, perhaps the most ridiculed automobile of all time.
Ford was still writing off the losses when Iacocca and his team proposed building a low-priced sports car targeted at baby boomers coming of age.
Four times, Iacocca and his aides pitched the idea to Chairman Henry Ford II and other top execs. Four times, it was rejected outright.
Then one afternoon, Henry Ford II stopped by the design studio and grabbed Donald Frey, product manager for the Ford division.
"Henry said, 'I'm tired of hearing about your (expletive) car,' " Frey said. "He said, 'Build it, but it's your ass if it doesn't sell.' I guess we had worn him down."
Iacocca laid down the guidelines for the then-unnamed "sporty Ford." It had to be a four-seater, but lightweight. The car needed a dash of European elegance, but a bargain-basement sticker price. Above all, the new model had to, in Frey's words, exude "pizzazz."
To keep costs down, the car would be built on the existing chassis of the Falcon, and many of its parts borrowed from other vehicles. But getting the right design proved problematic from the start.
At least eight variations were turned down flat by Henry Ford II. In desperation, Iacocca ordered an in-house competition among design teams from Lincoln-Mercury, the advanced product staff and the Ford division.
Oros gathered 35 of his designers together to map out their plan.
"I wanted a European feel with a thin bumper, elliptical headlights and a Ferrari-type front," he said. "In the center of the grille I liked a strong motif, like the Maserati trident."
When Iacocca chose his team's design over six others, Oros knew he still had one more hurdle to clear.
"Mr. Ford came down and wanted to sit in it," Oros said. "The only thing he said was, 'Joe, I think we need a little more headroom.' "
The production team worked at a feverish pace to meet a deadline of April 17, 1964 -- when the Mustang would be unveiled at the Ford Pavilion at the New York World's Fair.
That day, Ford planned to flood newspapers and magazines with two-page ads that showed the car in silhouette along with two, simple messages: "The Unexpected," and "$2,368."
The reaction stunned even Iacocca. Consumers swamped Ford dealerships across the country. Some slept outside showrooms overnight to get first crack at buying a Mustang.
Media coverage flew off the charts. In one week, both Time and Newsweek featured Iacocca and the Mustang on their covers, an honor usually reserved for world statesmen and show-business superstars.
He went on to become president of Ford, chairman of Chrysler Corp., and the author of two best-selling autobiographies. But even today, at age 78, Iacocca remembers the early days of the Mustang as the most thrilling chapter of his legendary career.
"The demographics on that car was everybody, and I mean everybody," he said. "Back then, that's when the adrenaline flowed."
Evolution of the pony
As its popularity soared, the Mustang evolved. The "2+2" fastback version arrived in 1965, followed by the high-performance "GT 350" model created by racing legend Carroll Shelby.
Ford dedicated three factories to produce the car, a testament to the Mustang's unique appeal. Its marketing success was matched only by the financial windfall the Mustang generated for Ford.
In its first two years, the Mustang earned an estimated $1.1 billion in profits. "That was the majority of the profits of the company worldwide," Frey said.
America's car became a cultural phenomenon. In 1966, soul singer Wilson Pickett immortalized it in his hit record, "Mustang Sally." Two years later, movie audiences were thrilled by the car-chase scene in "Bullitt" when Steve McQueen roared through the streets of San Francisco in a dark green, 1968 Mustang GT Fastback.
The Mustang embodied a decade of dramatic change, from the Vietnam War protests to the women's liberation movement to the sexual revolution.
Moreover, the spunky little sports car with the galloping horse on its grille touched a chord in consumers hungry for speed and style in their lives.
"Before Mustang, sports cars were for wealthy people," said Bill Johnson, president of the 9,200-member Mustang Club of America. "All of a sudden, everybody could afford one."
But as time passed, the pony car packed on weight. Bigger engines and technology required to reduce emissions made the Mustang heavier and less nimble. All of a sudden, the light, taut Mustang grew into a brutish muscle car.
By 1972, sales plunged to their lowest point since the car's introduction. "Our pony car turned into a fat pig," Iacocca said.
As the Mustang lost its sparkle, Ford's rivals picked up the slack. General Motors Corp. scored with its twin sports cars, the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, and Chrysler found a niche with the Plymouth Barracuda.
To combat stalling sales, Ford drastically downsized the Mustang. The Mustang II, which debuted in 1974, was a considerably smaller car built atop the chassis of the subcompact Pinto.
Underpowered and oddly proportioned, the Mustang II was a full foot shorter than its predecessor and woefully slow. But Ford got lucky. The new model arrived on the heels of the Arab oil embargo, and sales jumped 80 percent as anxious consumers accepted less power in exchange for better fuel economy.
Yet as the 1970s wore on, sales tapered off. Worse still, the Mustang lost its youthful aura and cutting-edge image.
"We crapped out," Iacocca said. "We had to get it smaller, but it broke the character of the car."
Mustang hits middle age
A good pony, however, is hard to keep down. Ford scrapped the Pinto platform for the 1979 Mustang. Instead, engineers employed a larger chassis, and designers gave the car an edgy, angular look.
The new model outsold the Camaro for the first time in four years. But the momentum proved short-lived. The Mustang posted respectable sales in the 1980s, but nowhere near what it did in its heyday.
Maturing baby boomers moved on to new vehicles better suited to their changing lifestyles. Chrysler, under the leadership of Iacocca, invented the minivan to accommodate young families. The roomy, sensible Taurus sedan supplanted the Mustang as Ford's crown jewel.
The Mustang had entered the automotive equivalent of middle age. Inside Ford, executives questioned its relevance in a market moving increasingly toward sport-utilities and light trucks.
By 1989, Ford product planners were considering the unthinkable: basing the next-generation Mustang on a compact coupe under development by Mazda Motor Corp., Ford's Japanese affiliate.
A Japanese Mustang? John Coletti, for one, couldn't handle that.
A veteran of Ford's racing program, Coletti was the design manager for Mustang when he first saw the Mazda-based concept.
"We were walking through the design studio and I said, 'What is that?' " Coletti said. "I was told that's the new Mustang. 'Well,' I said, 'that may be a lot of things, but a Mustang it ain't.' "
Ford Chairman Alex Trotman assigned Coletti to come up with an alternative. He formed a small project team, and hunkered down in a vacant warehouse in Dearborn. The group tapped into the designs of classic Mustangs, and vowed to restore the car's high-performance image.
When it hit showrooms, the 1994 model recaptured some of Mustang's lost magic. But Ford is betting the best may be yet to come.
Chance of a lifetime
The first Mustang that Hau Thai-Tang ever saw was on the streets of Saigon nearly 30 years ago. A native of Vietnam, he recalled how U.S.O. shows for American GIs often included customized Mustangs to give the troops a taste of home.
Now he's the chief engineer on the 2005 Mustang and ready to make his mark on the next generation of Ford's most valuable nameplate.
At his initial meeting with his core team of 100 staffers, Thai-Tang summed up the opportunity before them.
"Many people we work with will retire from Ford without ever having the chance you have," he told the group.
Shown as a concept car at the 2003 North American International Auto Show, the next Mustang harkens back to the glory days. Its long hood, short deck, sculpted sides and signature three-paneled taillights conjure up visions of the '60s.
In fact, when the concept was shown to Ford's top brass, a mint-condition, 1967 model was parked alongside for comparison.
"We wanted to capture the essence of the car," said Mays, Ford's design chief. "We looked at what made the best Mustangs good, and the lesser Mustangs not as good."
Thai-Tang took the same approach to the guts of the car. "Our goals were to be fun, fast and affordable," he said.
Gone is the old chassis and platform used for 15 years, which sparked controversy over the location of the fuel tank and its connection to a series of fiery, rear-impact collisions. Instead, Ford officials say the next Mustang will get its own new chassis.
Beyond that, the engineering team focused on beefing up the ride, handling and power. No detail escaped their attention. To get just the right, throaty exhaust sound, Thai-Tang's team made a digital recording of the 1968 Mustang in the movie "Bullitt," and tuned the new car's tailpipe to match it.
It's been a delicate balancing act of paying homage to the past while christening a new Mustang for the 21st century.
"When you have a 40-year family tree, you don't chop it down and plant a new one," Thai-Tang said.
That's music to the ears of people like Jeffrey Ray. The 52-year-old Royal Oak businessman recently realized his dream of owning a vintage 'Stang when he bought a bright orange, 1965-model powered by Ford's fabled 289-cubic-inch, V-8 engine.
"I've been looking for this car for 10 years," Ray said. "It's just amazing."
As he showed off his newfound love, Ray caressed its hood and polished up the die-cast Mustang ornament on the grille. At that moment, the emotions associated with the Mustang were as plain as the grin on Ray's face.
Then he slid into the driver's seat, put on a pair of dark shades, and turned the key. The V-8 came alive with a growl.
"This," he said, "is the best part."
Then he stepped on it, the tires squealing as he laid rubber and tore down the street.
Somewhere, Lee Iacocca was twirling his cigar again.
(Photo) INSTANT HIT: Americans immediately embraced the Mustang's affordable price, power and fast lines - pushing sales to over 1 million within 18 months and making it a hot collector item. Jeffrey Ray of Royal Oak purchased a 1965 Mustang just two weeks ago.
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.....