The original pony car
50 glorious years
Donald Farr remembers distinctly the moment he first realized that the Ford Mustang had the potential to be the iconic car that it would become.
When his grandparents in the small town of Union, S.C., bought a Mustang, they gained instant renown.
“I first saw how special the Mustang was when my grandpa bought a Mustang in 1966. He and my grandmother were like celebrities around town because they had one,” Farr said. “I was 13. I thought it was pretty cool to be riding around town in a Mustang.”
Farr’s connection to the Mustang continued as he became a writer and editor at Mustang publications.
The Florida-based author’s most recent work is “Mustang Fifty Years: Celebrating America’s Only True Pony Car” (Motorbooks), a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the unveiling of the Mustang at the World’s Fair in New York in April 1964.
The sports car jolted the automotive world and paved the way for the other cars that followed like the Challenger, Camaro, and Firebird.
The 256-page tome celebrates the car’s legacy as the pioneer of the new “pony car” genre with historic photos and explores a lineage that includes the Mustang GT, Shelby GT350, Shelby GT500, Super Cobra Jet, Boss 302 and Boss 429.
In the early 1960s, Lee Iacocca, then director of the Ford division at Ford Motor Co., convinced Henry Ford II to produce a sporty four-seat car aimed at the emerging youth market. That car, essentially a reconfigured and “reskinned” Falcon economy car, became the Ford Mustang, according to the publisher.
Farr said it was a revolutionary concept aimed at baby boomers, many of whom were coming of driving age at that time. The Mustang combined the attributes of the Thunderbird’s four-seater, Ferrari’s sporty look, and Volkswagen’s economy, all into one car.
“(Iacocca) looked around and saw that Ford had boring cars, like the Galaxie and the Falcon,” Farr said. “They decided to look at coming out with a car that would appeal to the younger generation.”
With Ford still reeling from the failure and embarrassment of the Edsel, Iacocca knew the top guy would not be receptive to spending more time and funds on a new car line.
He put together a “skunkworks” group of executives to brainstorm in secret. They met at night at a motel called the Fairlane Inn, thus the group’s name, the Fairlane Committee, Farr wrote in his book.
“Lee came up with the idea of basing the Mustang on the Falcon,” Farr said. “Basically the chassis, drive train, and the transmission was the Falcon, even the interior.
“They did the body with a sportier look: a long hood, short trunk, Ferrari-type grill, with a running horse on it.
“They made it sporty, with bucket seats, a four-shifter, all the things people look for in a sporty car, but also practical. It had a trunk and rear seat.”
According to Farr’s book, the famed Mustang brand might have never been. Cougar was the name of the winning design, which had a cat-like grille emblem. Other possibilities included Monte Carlo, Monaco and Torino.
Around that time, a two-seat concept car by Ford that debuted in 1962 was named after the P-51 Mustang, a World War II fighter plane. The aviation connection was rejected, and the concept car took on an equestrian identity, Farr wrote.
As late as mid-1963, Torino was the leading candidate, but Iacocca personally felt it sounded too European, Farr wrote. Ad agency J. Walter Thompson preferred Mustang, saying “it had the excitement of the wide-open spaces and was American as all hell.”
In late 1963, Mustang was chosen, and the galloping horse “forever replaced the cougar in the grille emblem,” Farr wrote.
Four days before it went on sale, the Mustang made its debut at the World’s Fair on April 13, 1964, a calculated marketing move.
“Back in those days, in the 1950s and ’60s, American car manufacturers typically introduced new models in September,” Farr said. “Ford knew that by introducing it in April, it would get all the attention, it would not be mixed in with the latest Chevrolets. It would be out there all by itself.”
The response from the buying public was immediate. That first weekend of the April 17 introduction, dealerships took orders for 22,000 cars.
The goal for that first year was to hit 417,000 cars. By the end of the extended 17-month first model year, Ford had sold 680,989 Mustangs, and by 1966, the million-car mark was breached, Farr said.
The Mustang did well into the 1960s but faced competition from cars that came about because of it, the Camaro, Firebird, Challenger, Barracuda and Javelin, among others.
There were some down years and ridiculed models. “A lot of people made fun of the Mustang II in 1974,” Farr said. “It never appealed to the enthusiasts. It was designed as an economy car, and it didn’t have a V-8. That was the only year that the Mustang did not have a V-8, but it was the fourth best-selling Mustang of all time.”
With the recent release of its sixth generation model, the Mustang continues to hold car aficionados in its thrall.
Farr said the Mustang is the longest-running, uninterrupted nameplate in American carmaking. The Corvette came out in 1953 but skipped a year in 1983.
“They haven’t changed it. It remains a practical sporty car. It’s always been that, and it’s still that,” Farr said. “You can buy one that’s sporty but still get 31 mpg with the V-6 or get a muscle car, the GT, just a very nice powerful car, or the Shelby GT 500, with 662 horespower, right from the factory.
“Over the years and today, there’s all the things you can do to make the Mustang your own. The after-market industry has sprung up just around Mustang parts.”
Farr has come full circle from his first Mustang experience. His first car at age 17 was a pale yellow 1970 Mustang Fastback, and he hasn’t been without one since.
In 1981, Farr found out through a friend that his grandparents’ 1966 Mustang was for sale. They had traded in that car, and Farr would see it around town, driven at one point by a bag boy at the local market.
Farr and his wife bought the car and fixed it up, fully restoring it to its original glory.
“It was a pretty worn-out old Mustang, used and abused,” Farr said. “We completely restored it. We wanted it to look like how it looked the day my grandfather got it.”