When Ford announced in 2018 that it was giving up on the domestic car market altogether in 2019 and that it would henceforth only be making trucks and SUVs for American buyers, the news got mixed reactions. On the one hand were the Chevy guys, who half-jokingly asked what took Ford so long to give up. After those people were handed back their foam beer hats and “Who Farted?” T-shirts and shown the door, serious industry watchers had a different question: “You’re not killing the Mustangs also, are you? Because that would be really dumb.”
Indeed it would be, and for once Ford has decided to do the not-dumb thing and keep the Mustang as the only passenger car left in its lineup. The Mustang was the first of its kind, a lightweight muscle pixie that gets half its oomph from a small block engine and the other half from the raging testosterone of its drivers. Unlike certain other pony cars we could mention here, the Mustang never took a hiatus in the emissions-standards ‘70s or overly DeLoreanized ‘80s.
Rather, it’s been in continuous production since 1965, and it has a more loyal following than most car models, especially the ones made by Ford. There are spoiled rich kids today who are bugging their lawyer dads to buy them a new Mustang “to get to school that much faster,” and whose Boomer grandfathers’ memories of the Mustang started when they drove one to Canada to dodge the draft in Vietnam.
With that much history under its saddle, of course, Ford wasn’t going to send the Mustang to the glue factory just because they forgot how to make cars people want. The Focus and Fusion are pretty screwed though. Those two have been memory-holed.
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There are a lot of stories about how the Mustang got its start. Enough time has passed that it’s hard to know how much of each competing version is true, so we’ll just stitch together the parts of each story that make us feel the best.
Way back in 1961, Ford started up a new project to design a fast and powerful, but fun and affordable, lightweight coupe. According to legend, Henry Ford II wanted to call the sporty new hopper the Thunderbird II, but this idea came from a man who (seriously) called himself “Hank the Deuce,” and cooler heads eventually prevailed.
Nobody knows whether the Mustang name was an homage to the P-51 fighter plane of that name or to the quarter horses a Ford executive bred on his estate, but since the plane was basically named after the horses anyway, we’ll go with that. During development, the future Mustang was cryptically known as the T-5 Project. Funnily enough, Ol’ Hank the Deuce was too cheap to buy the Mustang name copyright for $10,000 from a German company that had made trucks called Mustangs in the ‘50s, so until 1978 the car was sold in Germany under its development name, the T-5 Project. The fact that the T-4 Project had been the name of a Nazi program for killing mental patients was certainly remarked upon, but Chevy was selling Camaro SS models in silver-and-black at the time, so Ford may have gotten off easier than it should have.
Like any good racehorse, the first generation Mustangs couldn’t wait to get out of the starting gate. Ford introduced the car at the August 1964 New York World’s Fair, six months before the other car companies were introducing their 1965 model years, so the first batch of Mustangs was informally known as model year 1964½. The timing turned out to be inspired, since it was just in time to get a Mustang convertible to England for the shooting of Goldfinger, along with a Lincoln Continental for Oddjob. The glamor of the film gave the new car just the bump it needed before hitting dealerships in 1965.
The original Mustang lineup succeeded largely because of how completely unoriginal it was. Developed in 18 months, and with a target MSRP of $2,368, there was no way to reinvent the wheel on the Mustang project, so the first generation was mostly cobbled together from parts of other Ford cars, which ironically made everything cheaper and more reliable. The 1965 Mustangs used the same German-made Ford Taunus V4 engine that was used in the Consul, along with a shockingly cramped back bench seat that was lifted from the Falcon. The Falcon and Fairlane also contributed to the chassis, suspension and multiple drivetrain components.
Projected to sell maybe 100,000 units in the first year, Gen-1 Mustangs sold that many in the first three months. Year-end sales set a new record by topping 400,000, and the 1 millionth Ford Mustang sold in the summer of 1966. Ford had a hit on its hands.
The first generation run of the Mustang was the stuff of legend all the way through. In 1966, having effortlessly sold millions of units, Ford upped its game with some new trim packages, the Mach 1, the Boss 302, and Boss 429. The latter of which is easily the sexiest machine ever built.
Throughout the first run, Mustangs had been getting heavier and more powerful. By 1973, a lot of that momentum had reached its practical limits, and the line was felt to be ready for a redesign. By this point, the standard V8 had gotten so noisy that an extra 40 pounds of soundproofing had to be added to the cabin so as not to deafen the driver on startup. Pedestrians nearby were presumably on their own when the thing roared to life. In its first eight years, the Mustang had gained close to 100 pounds every year in extra fittings, heavier alloys, extra baffles, scoops, front-and-rear spoilers, and so on. Performance was starting to suffer under this weight, and so Ford went back to the drawing board for a reboot.
God damn Lee Iacocca’s soul. The man who would someday be famous for pioneering the fail-until-Congress-bails-you-out model at GM spent the early days of the Mustang in charge of Ford. In 1973, he got the green light to redesign the Mustang with a bunch of his own stupid ideas about rebuilding it on the Ford Maverick platform, or maybe the Pinto, and down-tuning the engine to make it more fuel efficient. The new Mustang II was a colossal rust trap that let water pool in the hindquarters and accelerated from 0 to 60. . . eventually. It was still huge since this was the ‘70s, but it got a tidy 19 mpg from the 2.8 L Cologne V6 it lifted from the Mercury Capri, of all things. The model’s slogan was: “Mustang: II, Boredom: 0.” That was Hank the Deuce-level wit, and by all rights, it should have failed and sent Lee Iacocca back to the chrome mines he came from. Except the car launched on September 21, 1973 – two months before the OPEC boycott and gasoline crisis that plunged the Dodge and Chevy lead-sleds into despair. Suddenly, Lee Iacocca was a genius, and his disappointing Pinto/Capri hybrid thing was a winner.
One of the worst things the U.S. government ever did, from an automotive perspective, was mandating emissions controls on domestic cars in the early ‘70s. Environmentalism was hardly a concept before the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, and when panicky voters demanded action from the government, the government was all too happy to toss some red meat out in the form of seriously ham-fisted rules that got passed with hardly any input from experts in the field. True, some kind of control was probably inevitable, considering the mileage and pollution levels ‘60s-era cars were capable of, but a sudden blanketing of rules and regulations took the American auto industry by complete surprise and force everyone to break their best cars. If you’re wondering why the Dodge Charger turned into a hatchback, and the Chevy Nova became the joke car Eddie Murphy drove in Beverly Hills Cop, those emissions standards are the answer.
The Mustang II was partly built to conform to the new rules, which included a national speed limit of 55 mph. Younger readers may not know how much that era sucked, but it was bad enough that at one point even the president went on TV and told everybody the country was in a malaise. Carter’s aides never confirmed that he was talking about the Mustang dropping the V8 option for a 140hp V6, but you could tell he had it in mind.
The 1980s were morning in America, and in keeping with the theme, there was a peppy new Mustang on the road that hadn’t put its face on yet. Generation 3 Mustangs replaced the II’s starting in 1979 when Ford made the excellent and in no way stupid decision to adopt the Fox body style that made the chassis feel even more big and boatlike than the Gen-2s had. On the other hand, Mustangs now had legroom in the back, which made a nice switch.
They were also hideously ugly. On top of the frame that was originally designed for the 1978 Ford Fairmont and Mercury Zephyr, the ‘80s-era Mustangs had the angular front ends and nonsensically sharp corners of a DeLorean, but with the nasty fake-feeling Playskool plastic interiors of the SV-1s.
Ford spent the entire decade trying to find the right gear for the Mustang III’s power base. Engine models kept getting dropped and replaced, then the replacements would go, and then there’d be a new V8 to try out. In the event, Ford never really did get that issue settled, and the 1978-93 Mustangs ranged from deeply unsatisfying straight-6 fart machines to great rambling 302 V8s that somehow never got above 235 hp. The line hadn’t died, of course, but something was certainly missing from the engineering as much as from the design.
You know how sometimes you can look at a car and know what it feels like to drive it? Like, you just know without being told that the Cadillac Eldorado feels like a magic carpet when you’re going 90 on the interstate, or the Chevy Spark will jerk like a mama bird distracting a cat from her nest? Fourth generation Mustangs had that kind of vibe, but with sportiness and a bit of power under their hoods.
First, Ford fired the blind alcoholics it had evidently been staffing the design teams with in the ‘80s, and finally put a prototype in the wind tunnel to work out a good drag coefficient. The ’94 Mustangs looks much sleeker than the last generation had, and they had the juice boxes under the hood to back it up.
The base model in this lineup came with a standard 3.8 OHV V6 engine that could push 145 hp through the back end at 5,500 rpm. Now, on a Camaro or a Challenger, that kind of power would sound like cold death, but the Mustang chassis had been lightened up a lot, and a lot of lightweight plastics were being used now, so this was actually pretty sporty. On the top end, you could get the 4.6 L V8 that was good for 225 hp after 1998. At last, Ford was getting serious again.
Knowing Ford like we do, there’s no way the company is going to let smart planning and smooth execution get in the way of a massive waste of effort and money, and so was born the single goofiest initiative in the history of the FoMoCo: selling Mustangs in Australia.
Now, on the surface, this was a good idea. Mustangs were powerful and slick-looking again, and Australia is full of Australians, so there’s no way to make it fail, yeah? Except somebody at Ford forgot to engineer a right-hand drive for the overseas market. If you or I were running a multi-billion-dollar motor company, we’d probably fire the idiot who forgot that and make a note to fix it in future model years. What Ford did instead was to ship 250 Mustangs to Australia and have each of them expensively re-engineered to work from the right-hand drivers’ position. This cost $4 million. For 250 cars. $4 million. That’s $16,000 extra per car so drivers on the road from Sydney to Canberra won’t feel homesick sitting on the left side of their car. Sales flopped and Ford decided to just do better in the next model year.
Fifth generation Mustangs were a lot more fun. Continuing the trend set in the ‘90s, Ford’s post-2005 models were bulkier, though not necessarily heavier or less aerodynamic than previous models. There was still the kickass V8 as an option for drivers who aren’t sure they’re really driving if they have less than 250 hp under the hood, and the higher trim models had an aluminum V8 with 24 valves and Twin Independent Variable Cam Timing that kicked at 305 hp. Things were definitely looking up, even while every other line Ford had gone to hell.
Ford launched its sixth generation Mustang in 2016, just in time to drive it to the funeral Ford was having for the other two- and four-door cars in its lineup. The Mustang has outlived an awful lot of other models in its time, from the Thunderbird and the Fairlane to the Taurus and the Focus. Then there was the regrettable Fiesta, which is probably best left unmentioned. Now, as Ford trims its gear to include just the winners in its inventory, the trucks, SUVs and Mustangs, the verdict of car history is in: Mustangs actually are winners after all. Suck it, Chevy.