How The Ford Mustang Became A Sixties Icon
Even if you think pony cars are silly. Even if the notion of an unrefined V8 with average handling is your nightmare. And even if the closest you’ve got to American muscle is watching Glow on Netflix, you’ve probably heard of the Ford Mustang.
That’s because it’s an icon. Yes, everything from Trump’s MAGA cap to avocado toast has been called iconic. But this is the real deal: the original pony car – an affordable two-door performance machine built for the masses; a seminal sports car that got everything right.
Which makes the whole ‘icon’ thing sound pretty straightforward, right? Offer the American public a simple, punchy four-seater that won’t break the bank and you’ve got a winner. Easy. Except things were different in the Sixties. And that whole combo was a very fresh recipe.
So fresh, in fact, that the man behind the Mustang, general manager Lee Iacocca, had a hard time convincing that highest of high-ups, Henry Ford II. Still smarting from the failure of the Edsel, Ford wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about taking another punt.
But Iacocca, ever the sales firebrand, had a hunch that those baby boomers, with their easy wealth and boundless optimism, would buy into his big idea. And he was right: much like avocado toast, the pioneering pony car was more than just a fantastic package – it was perfectly pitched for its socially mobile audience.
It helped that it was cheap to build. Hal Sperlich, a product planner, had the bright idea of building the Mustang around the humdrum Falcon. Using that ready-made platform saved the firm millions in production costs – as did a well-stocked Ford parts bin.
Then there was the design. Gale Halderman’s striking sketch won the in-house competition, its long nose and strong lines exuding all the sporty promise and straightforward appeal Iacocca wanted. It was no Mini, but the body was compact by American standards and set the muscle car mould for decades.
The real beauty, though, was in the way Ford sold the ’Stang. Its base price? Just $2300 for a sports car with bucket seats and a floor shifter. But, while that price tag – together with a coordinated volley of TV ads – had people queuing outside showrooms to get a look at the wild horse, pretty much no-one actually paid it.
See, the genius was in the personalisation. By the end of the 1964 launch year, you had a trio of body styles to choose from – convertible, notchback and the ever-popular fastback – and several engine sizes, including a 289cu in V8 (a beefier big-block arrived in 1967). And that was just the start.
From a rainbow of shades to power steering to air conditioning to wheels to interior trim to transmission, a Mustang could be all things to all people. And those options meant big bucks for the Blue Oval, with the average customer spending something like $1000 on extras. Most stumped up for the V8 engine, too. Because what’s a muscle car without one of those?
Yet even if you bought the most basic model, it wasn’t obvious. Every Mustang looked like, well, a Mustang – a masterstroke from Ford in that no buyer felt short-changed. They all got the same ’Stang looks; how they finished the job was their wallet’s call.
On the road? Handling wouldn’t have impressed Lotus Elan owners but, for buyers in the States, it was decent enough. More important was the straight-line performance – and, with a brawny V8 under the hood, the Mustang’s grunt was, in American parlance, awesome. Even if the brakes weren’t.
All of which equalled one thing: success. Ford sold 22,000 Mustangs on day one. A record 418,000 in the first year. Within two, it had shifted a million.
And just as the mass-produced Mini still ignites British hearts, so the glorious Mustang continues to fascinate Americans.
Carroll Shelby helped, taking modified Mustangs racing in the late Sixties. So did Hollywood, which cemented the thoroughbred’s place in big screen history when Steve McQueen famously slid a Mustang GT around San Francisco in Bullitt.
But the Mustang’s success never came down to luck. It was a winner because of the intuition of Iacocca and co. and because they understood what their audience wanted, and when, and how. When the Mustang’s dimensions expanded in the name of luxury? Sales slumped and the marque ordered a return to the clarity of the early cars.
Since then, the Mustang has seen many facelifts, revisions and rebirths. But across six generations and 10 million examples, Ford’s pony car has never been purer nor better pitched than it was in the Sixties – a true icon and worthy of any poster. Which you can’t say of avocado toast.