Happy Birthday, Ford Mustang
52 years ago today, the roaring lifetime of a cultural icon began in Queens, New York.
- Muscle Cars
The Ford Mustang turns 52 years old this week. This may not seem like a big deal, but in fact, it’s an important birthday, because 2016 marks the first full year of production of the Mustang Shelby GT350 and GT350R. In other words, 52 years after the Mustang became an instant pop culture sensation and the greatest car launch in terms of sales of all time, it’s still achieving dizzying heights of success—performance that has blown even the highest expectations out of the water, at a price that many of you, readers, might actually afford. Only the Corvette rivals this machine’s status as the great American car. The Mustang (like the Corvette) has seen its dark times too. Herewith, we take a look back at the car’s story from the early 1960s to today.
- November 10, 1960: 43-year old Henry Ford II (“Hank the Deuce”), the grandson of Henry Ford himself, promotes Lee Iacocca to General Manager of the Ford division of Ford MoCo. “If you want to be in this business and not lose your mind, you’ve got to be a little bold,” he tells Iacocca. “You’re going to make some mistakes, but go ahead.”
- Early 1960s: Ford MoCo is getting murdered by General Motors in the salesroom. Iacocca—who would one day soon be called “one of the greatest marketing geniuses since P.T. Barnum”—comes up with a new idea for a car that would appeal to a new generation of drivers, what would later be called the Baby Boomer generation. “Put in class for the mass,” he tells his designers. “If we’re right, this will make the Model A look like nothing.”
- April 15, 1964: 22-year old Gale Wise, a school teacher, walks into a Ford dealership in Cicero, Illinois, and buys the first Mustang for $3,447.50, two days before the car is unveiled to the world. “I had never heard of the Mustang,” she told this reporter years later. “It hadn’t been launched yet.”
- April 17, 1964: Henry Ford II and Iacocca launch the Mustang as a 1964 1/2 model at the World’s Fair in New York City. “Walt Disney cut the ribbon for us,” Iacocca recalled. “We couldn’t have asked for a better launch.” Some 22,000 orders come in the first day.
- Spring, 1964: The Mustang ignites a sales frenzy. With a huge menu of ordering options, it seems to be everything for everyone: a cool affordable commuter for young women, a bad-ass Euro-inspired sports car for gear heads, or anything in between, depending on the options.
- January 27, 1965: Motor racing impresario Carroll Shelby (who is blowing the doors off of the Corvette Sting Rays on the racetrack with his Ford-powered Shelby Cobra) unveils the first Shelby Mustang: the GT350, a $4,547 version with a 289 V8, a four-barrel Holley carburetor, and host of other sporting upgrades.
- April 17, 1965: Within the first year, the Mustang sets an all-time sales record: 418,812 sold in its first 12 months. Buyers average around $1,000 in options per model. Meanwhile, Henry Ford II reports “the most successful operations in [his company’s] long history.” That would include $9.67 billion in worldwide sales in the fiscal year.
- 1968: Shelby unleashes the Mustang GT 500-KR, for “King of the Road.” Specs: 428 “Cobra Jet” V8, 132-mph top speed, 6.7 second sprint to 60. Massive numbers for a 1968 model. An example today in concours condition is worth roughly $230,000, according to Hagerty.
- 1969: Ford MoCo lets lose another icon, the Boss 302 Mustang. It is just before the whole motoring world goes to shit due to federal regulations and oil industry upheaval. As Ford exec Jacque Passino later says of the Boss 302: “It was a winner, it was a good car, a good street machine. But I guess you could call it the last rose of summer, because right after that, everything died.”
- 1974: The Mustang II arrives. It’s 19-inches shorter, 490-pounds lighter, and a helluva lot uglier. Lee Iacocca, now President of Ford MoCo, plans the car to appeal to buyers with pinched wallets and wary minds, following the 1973 oil crisis.
- 1978: The third generation Mustang appears, and the car’s uglification continues. Facing an onslaught of competition from foreign makes (notably the Volkswagen) and a disastrous recall of Pintos that would result in tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits due to exploding cars, the Mustang takes a backseat in the Ford MoCo saga.
- 1986: The pony car wars hit a new fevered pitch on the racetrack in the IMSA GTO and SCCA Trans-Am series. It’s Mustang versus Camaro in an all-out slug match of speed. Driving for Ford, Scott Pruett wins the IMSA title in a Roush Mustang that’s still a fave among Mustang-nuts today. “I’m being paid by Ford to win,” he later told Road & Track. “To put that Mustang in the newspapers. That’s how I drive.”
- 1994: Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the Mustang is reborn—the first major facelift in 15 years, for a fourth-generation Ford pony car. It’s remains exceedingly ugly.
- 1997: Roush racing engineers use a new tool called “a computer” to try to put the Mustang on top in the SCCA Trans-Am series. Ford driver Tommy Kendall captures a record-streak of 11 straight checkered flags, a feat that has never been topped in any major American road-racing series.
- 2005: The Mustang—and all around muscle car mania—is reborn with a fifth generation car. The model is designed to capture the aggressiveness and bold lines of the original 1964 1/2 car. “The release of the new Mustang has set off a stampede of interest all over the country,” noted the New York Times in a story called “Mustang Fever, All Over Again.”
- April 2006: The heralded partnership between Ford MoCo and Carroll Shelby is reignited, resulting in the first new Shelby Mustang in decades. The GT-H (a version built for Hertz rental cars, commemorating a similar model from the 1960s) appears at the New York International Auto Show.
- 2007: Ford and Shelby partner again to create the most powerful ‘Stang of all time up to this point, the 2007 Shelby GT500. Under the hood: a 5.4 liter, 500-horsepower supercharged V8. As Chevy rolls out new Camaros (also designed to capture the original essence of 1960s pony car madness), and Dodge juices up its new Challengers and Chargers, the pony car wars reach a new height of awesomeness in a new century.
- 2011: Ford renews the moniker Boss 302 for an ass-kicker of a V8-powered machine. Many critics hail this car as the finest Mustang yet.
- April 17, 2014: The Mustang’s 50th birthday. Just weeks later, series production begins on the 6th gen car at Ford’s Flat Rock Assembly Plant, the first Mustang with independent rear suspension and a new line-up of engines, including a 4-cylinder EcoBoost.
- August 2015: The Drive attends the launch party for the all-new Mustang Shelby GT350 and GT350R, with flat-plane crank “voodoo” V8 engines and superb styling. The scene: Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, with its famed corkscrew. “There are but a few perfect moments in life,” this reporter wrote, and this day is one of them. Stats on the GT350: $49,995 base, 5.2 liter flat-plane crank V8, 526 horsepower, 429 lb-ft torque, RWD, six-speed manual. Without a doubt, these new Mustangs are world-changing for the brand, exceeding all expectations.
April 17, 2016: Happy birthday Ford Mustang, still stampeding after all these years. Newly announced: new color schemes for the GT350, delicious. Somewhere out there, Lee Iacocca is probably soaking in a bubble bath, smiling ear to ear.