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The Car of the Year (and A Half)

June 2024
4min read

The Ford Mustang changed the industry when its creator realized “people want economy so badly they don’t care what they pay for it”

The car was introduced on Friday, April 17, 1964, at the New York World’s Fair. But in another sense it had been born one Sunday in the late 1950s, when Robert McNamara, then president of the Ford Motor Company, sat in church and sketched out the specifications for a new car. The result was the Ford Falcon, the practical, reasonable compact car that sold 400,000 units when it was introduced for the 1960 model year.

The other Ford bosses hated it, none more than Lee Iacocca, Ford’s supersalesman. It was a dull car with few options to swell profit margins and make salesmen happy. Iacocca and other executives, among them Ford’s product planner, Donald Frey, had noticed something else. The Falcon’s compact-car rival from Chevrolet was the Corvair (not yet tarnished by Ralph Nader’s safety criticism). One model of the Corvair sold especially well: the higher-powered, bucket-seat-equipped, sporty Monza. If Ford could take the dull but dependable Falcon and convert it into a sports compact like the Monza, it could add profits to sales.

The result, the Mustang, was launched with a level of publicity and anticipation no car had seen since Henry Ford’s Model A. Ford took 22,000 orders the first day and sold some 400,000 the first year. “The sports car for the masses,” Life magazine called it (although with four seats, it was really a sporty car, not a sports car).

The Mustang took the platform—the bones and basics—of the sturdy Falcon. Donald Frey later declared that the Mustang was done as simply and cheaply as possible. He called it a “happy car, easy to developand build, one of those once-in-a-lifetime things where everything went together right the first time.”

The price was just $2,368, not much more than that of a VW Beetle, but it was sold as “the car you design yourself,” with a long list of options. The average customer checked off many of them; after all, the car was so cheap. Eventually, the average buyer was spending $1,000 on options.

Iacocca had understood something new: “People want economy so badly they don’t care how much they pay for it.” Cheap fun: Was there any formula that appealed more to Americans? The “youth market” was a demographic reality. Half of all new car sales in the next decade, the company’s researchers declared, would come from customers under 30.

It is hard to recall today what a big deal “bucket seats” were in 1964. The very phrase resonated. Bucket seats spoke of independence, if not adventure, in contrast with the practical family “bench” seat.

Gene Bordinat, head of styling at Ford, set up a competition among three studios to come up with a design. The name Mustang had already been used on a sexy show car. It was borrowed not from the horse but from the World War II P-51 fighter plane.

The design was approved in August 1962. The winning effort, by Joe Oros, Fail Halderman, and David Ash, took elements of the Ford Thunderbird and Lincoln Continental Mark II combined with a projecting grille, side vents, and rear fender “hips,” and it looked like nothing else on the road. With long hood and short rear-deck proportions and lines that were crisp, clean, and modern, the car was like a pop song with a catchy hook.

It also seemed in keeping with the fashion of the day, the tall-boot and miniskirt look. Indeed, the Mustang seemed just the car for the growing number of single workingwomen. But like a good pop song, it could be played in many ways, “covered” in different styles.

It was planned, produced, and introduced in the shadow of Ford’s Edsel debacle of 1958, and every bit of bad luck that seemed to have afflicted the former was reversed with the latter. Its introduction was a masterly piece of publicity and marketing. Carefully leaked spy shots whetted the public’s appetite. Ford’s PR men retailed anecdotes too good to bother verifying: the man so riveted by the new Mustang that he drove his pickup truck through a show window; the buyer so enamored of his new car that he slept in its front seat locked in the dealership overnight while his down-payment check cleared. Lee Iacocca appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek . The car even received a design award before it was introduced, from Walter Hoving of Tiffany.

And the World’s Fair offered a perfect stage. The ambitious industrial pageant might be recorded as one last moment of naive optimism about progress and the unalloyed promise of the future. Ford’s pavilion, whose “Magic Skyway” carried visitors from the days of the dinosaur to a future of bubble-like buildings, was designed by Disney. Tomorrow was open to all. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was photographed riding through with one of his children.

The Mustang broke old patterns, among them the industry’s tradition of September introductions. It was called the “19641/2 model.”

In his book The New Industrial State John Kenneth Galbraith argued that the development and introduction of the Mustang was as representative a process of its era as the famous pin factory Adam Smith had written about in 1776. It suggested the dynamics of an economy in which manufacturing was dominated by bureaucracies responsible for sales, marketing, and advertising.

Soon the buyer was offered a V-8 engine. Lee Iacocca went to the race engineer Carroll Shelby in the fall of 1964 to have him make the Mustang into a genuine racecar. GT, Boss, Cobra, and other models followed in the succeeding years.

When GM responded to the high-power Mustang with the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, and Chrysler with the Barracuda and Marlin, a new name for the type of car was born: “pony car.” Mustangs, with more powerful engines, opened the way to another new category of vehicle: the “muscle car.”

The high-power models widened the appeal and changed the image of the car. At first the Mustang was associated with independent young single women who were slightly intimidating to men, an image cemented by the hit soul song of 1966, “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett.

But Steve McQueen also gave the car tough-guy associations in Bullitt (1967). It could play as a character on its own, as proven by its supporting role in the 2000 film Gone in Sixty Seconds . “Eleanor” is an elusive, temperamental 1967 Shelby GT500 that plays opposite Nicholas Cage.

There were many successive styles. Even the ugliest Mustang could have iconic power, as shown by Vanilla Ice, whose homely 5.0 Mustang starred with him in the 1990 hit video of “Ice, Ice Baby.”

Like the Porsche 911, also introduced in 1964, the Mustang allowed for evolution. The design remained remarkably consistent through the years; lots of different cars could look like a Mustang. Despite Ford’s seeming efforts to wreck the franchise, it has hung on. It came to the edge of cancellation in 1989; a new model in 1994 saved it.

J Mays, the head of Ford design known for this “retrofuturist” approach to channeling great models of the past, found perfect material in the Mustang when it came time to redo it for 2004. His take, based on the 1967 version of the car, with elements of the 1966 and other models, has been a success in sales and reviews. The Mustang, Mays passionately declared, “is a legend, an icon. It has long since ceased to be an automobile—it is a sense of national pride.”

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