The History of the Mustang

October 12, 2015

The History of the Mustang

The Mustang. This majestic machine – a cultural icon of sorts – has cruised across the American landscape for more than a half century, stumbling through a series of sometimes strange, sometimes wonderful and always surprising incarnations.

And like its namesake – the wild horse brought to the Americas by Spaniard hundreds of years ago – Ford Mustang performance has remained largely untamed, its development and evolution paralleling with uncanny clarity the historic trajectory of the United States.

The Mustang, at once beloved yet somehow marred with so many mechanical inconsistencies, just can’t seem to shake itself from the unsettling adoration of so much of the American public.

We had to have the Mustang. It identified us. It defined us. It reminded us of who and what we are – with all of our faults, with all our missteps, in all of our grandeur.

Yet Ford Motor Company’s fixation on this arguably automotive experiment could never be withdrawn. The Mustang – like that intractable uncle at holiday gatherings – was here to stay. It would rise and fall and rise again through five decades, catching at various times scoffing glances when engineers introduced blatantly inferior and sometimes ridiculous mutations. But America’s love affair with the Mustang could never fade. As if by surprise, this iconic institution called the Mustang would emerge from the wreckage of so many failed redesigns to take the public’s breath away – once again.

The 1960s

In the early 1960s, Ford marketing executives were not necessarily eyeing the growing establishment of a uniquely American institution. Baby boomers were coming of age and would need inexpensive and hopefully – if engineers could make it happen – sporty traveling arrangements. The first Mustang on the market would follow the arrival of the four mop-top boys from Liverpool (the Beatles) by little more than two months.

One of the first mass-produced incarnations was the 1964 ½ production, an inexpensive and extremely attractive body placed on the frame of the compact Falcon, the smallest Ford at the time. The new Mustang was similar in so many ways to its older brother, the Falcon, but with small changes to target younger drivers. Compared to the Falcon, the cockpit was further back making for a longer hood; it also had that running horse on the grille.

Excluding the Corvette, this was magic on the road – but the Mustang had a few unpleasant secrets tucked under its hood. To call engine performance in many of its versions lame would certainly not have been an understatement.

The handsome fancy-pants Mustang of 1964 dare not play outdoors with the growling, snarling Corvette. If the early Mustang could’ve have blushed, it certainly would have with the 2.8-liter straight six (with 101 horsepower directing traffic. Other engines, such as the 3.3-liter, hardly improved on the zipping. Even the larger engines, such as the 4.3-liter V8, had to breathe through two carburetor barrels, making a dash through suburbia a breathless affair.

The exception was the “K-code.” This lusty monster packed a 4.7-liter, four-barrel V8 for 271 horsepower, which made even the big boys on the street think twice about knocking that chip off this Mustang’s shoulder.

At this size and expense, the 1964 Mustang was considered a “pony car” and sold a surprising – and ironically disconcerting – 126,538 models. The number was good – for those in the marketing department.

Few significant changes were made to the 1965 model – a fastback body, GT equipment and optional front disc brakes. But 1965 proved to be a year of revelation for Ford concerning the Mustang brand. It appeared the public’s appetite for this new animal had been significantly whetted. Sales were remarkable: 409,260 coupes, 77,079 fastbacks and 73,112 convertibles – more than a half million in total.

This was also the year when Chevrolet’s Corvette started to get nervous. Eyeing the Corvette’s taillights, Ford engineers began contemplating putting the star of the show to shame.

Putting the Corvette firmly in his crosshairs, Texan Carroll Shelby took a few of the GT 350s and began some major changes; the race car driver removed the rear seats, added oversize tires on 15-inch wheels, lowered the suspension and added a fiberglass hood. Shelby’s modifications brought the Mustang star to new heights and are still considered today to be highlights of the brand, which continued through 1970.

In those first two and a half years, more than 1.2 million Mustangs were sold, an astonishing feat in the automotive industry at the time. The bar had been set – extremely high – and engineers had the inexorable task of maintaining, or increasing, the momentum.

As could have been expected, 1967 began with challenges to the Mustang brand – but through no fault or faltering of Ford engineers (at least not yet). Chevrolet engineers certainly weren’t taking a nap during the Mustang ascendancy. The Camaro, Pontiac’s Firebird and Plymouth’s Barracuda had no intentions of sitting on the sidelines as Mustang basked in the spotlight.

And to Ford’s credit, Mustang engineers took notice – although their efforts seemed somehow not quite completely thought through. Ford built a larger, meaner Mustang, but placed it on the same chassis. The Mustang also got a wider engine in a wider front, making it more stable than earlier models. As the race to the top got underway, Ford sold 356,271 coupes, 71,042 2+2s and44,808 convertibles, still impressive considering the added competition.

As the decade came to a close, the Mustang underwent several more makeovers and intense sessions at the automotive gym with larger models. Powertrains expanded in 1969 and Ford began taking notice of the luxury crowd with production of the “Grande” model. For those who wanted to stretch their wheels against their Corvette brethren, Ford packed 351-, 390- and 428-cubic-inch engines into its new “Mach 1.”

Ignoring the Corvette Z28 just wasn’t an option for engineers in the year of Aquarius. The Boss 302 – and later the Boss 429 – roared onto the scene. The 429 carried (who would have guessed?) the 429 cubic-inch engine (that’s 7 liters) with a hemi-headed V8 ready to tear up the track in NASCAR competition.

Ford sold a spectacular 299,824 Mustangs in 1969. The following year, after doing some minor tweaks, 190,727 Mustangs were sold. The Mustang was on a roll, but the 1970s proved to be a test of ingenuity and longevity for the manufacturer. The question: How far can this baby roll?

Read part 2, the 1970s, in this continuing series on the history of the Mustang.