Success has many fathers, whereas failure is an orphan.Ford Mustang

So true with the Ford Mustang.

Learning from faults

In the decade before the Mustang was launched in 1964, Ford Motor Company was no stranger to success and to failure. For the 1955 model year, Ford had introduced the Thunderbird as a competitor to Chevrolet’s Corvette sports car, and soon the Thunderbird was out-selling the Corvette. It was a success all of Ford could be proud of.

When Ford management decided to turn the Thunderbird into a four-seater model for the 1958 model year, the company again had a winner on its hands. In fact, the modified Thunderbird invented its own market segment, the personal luxury class.

Though, sandwiched between those two victories was the introduction of a car line whose very name is still synonymous with failure. The Edsel definitely wasn’t the worst car ever produced, but it did bear what was arguably the worst name a car line has ever been saddled with. (My apologies to you in the reading audience who are christened Edsel.) Perhaps even worse that the name was the fact that the Edsel line was introduced into a market niche that was narrow as a razor blade to start with and was on a significant downhill slide. If those incidents weren’t bad enough, the Edsel’s stand-up “horse collar” grille might have been the stylists’ idea of a neo-classic look but to the buying public it was just plain ugly. Suffice it to say, the Edsel was a failure. And suffice it to say that the money pit that was the Edsel division still had Ford top brass looking anxiously at new models when it came time to stare at  the new Mustang.

Triggers to victory

Ironically, it was a new car from the competitor Chevrolet that put the impetus behind the Mustang concept. In 1959,  Chevrolet brought out the Corvair, a blatant clone of the Volkswagen and Porsche air-cooled rear-engine theory. It was a successful launch for Chevrolet, and the model that quickly caught the public’s interest was the sporty Monza two-door. With its floor-mounted shifter and bucket seats, it was the most European-inspired model an American car company had ever proposed, and this fact wasn’t lost on Ford brass, who were turning out models each seemingly more mundane than the previous.

Among these snoozemobiles was the Falcon, Ford’s answer to the VW Beetle, Corvair,  and Rambler American. The Falcon was a “compact” car, but instead of going Chevrolet’s route in trying to emulate the Volkswagen, Ford’s concept was simply a smaller water-cooled, front-engine/rear-drive car – conventional American practice to a (Model) T. Equipped with dull four- and six-cylinder engines, the Falcon was hardly sporting stuff, but it eventually became important to the Mustang’s success.

As the 1960’s started, the families of World War II veterans were maturing into affluence that spawned the Baby Boom, which would keep the American populace “young” for years into the future. Ford market researchers believed they could catch both the parents of Baby Boomers and then the Boomers themselves with sportier offerings.

This belief was endorsed by Ford division President Lido A. “Lee” Iacocca, a fast-track sales executive who had assumed his vaunted position at the ripe old age of 36. Like many Ford executives, he was a fan of the two-seat Thunderbird but knew the vehicle’s inadequacies as a volume seller: it was expensive and didn’t offer much versatility.

Engineering and design

So the  instructions to the design teams that competed in the development of the Mustang were simple: the car must be inexpensive to produce and it must have four seats. The four-seat portion of the equation was relatively easy to achieve compared to the “inexpensive” portion. A target price of $2,500 was set for the vehicle, which meant that major portions of the car would, by necessity, come from Ford parts bins. No specially planned engines as in the Corvair.

After intense competition among the Ford design staff, the work of Dave Ash and Joe Oro was the chosen finalist.  Dubbed “Cougar,” a name that would eventually grace its Mercury division cousin, the clay model unveiled to Ford executives in August of 1962 exhibited the key characteristics that would catch the public’s fancy two years later, including the short-deck, long-hood,  muscular rear fenders and expansive, forward-leaning grille.

Below the designer wardrobe were some rather mundane mechanicals. The front and rear suspension componentry was nearly pure Ford Falcon: a simple separate front suspension and, at the rear, a live axle mounted on leaf springs. Brakes were drum-type also taken from the Ford parts catalog.

The Mustang’s base engine continued on the ho-hum concept. The in-line overhead valve six cylinder wrested only 101 horsepower from its 170 cubic inch (2.8-liter) displacement.

Only with the optional engine did the original Mustang live up to the promise of its appearance. The 164-horsepower OHV V-8, which displaced 260 cubic inches, could move the 2,500-pound Mustang with alacrity, although car magazine testers at the time decried its braking and handling shortcomings.

Public’s acknowledgment

The truth was the public liked the Mustang far more than the motoring press did. Introduced at the New York World’s Fair on April 13, 1964 as a 1965 model, the Mustang almost quickly took on a life of its own. With Ford’s public relations and advertising teams grinding night and day, the Mustang was the cover story in both Time and Newsweek and network TV advertisements were soon reaching everyone who could change a channel. Viewers and readers liked what they saw, particularly when it was attached to a palatable base price of just $2,368. They stampeded Ford display rooms, buying every Mustang in sight and ordering thousands more. Iacocca’s decision to devote several factories to Mustang production before the car’s presentation proved to be a brilliant stroke.

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In the first year, Mustang sales reached an astonishing 518,000. For the 1966 model year, sales  upped even higher, to 540,000 units. Then rivalry, primarily from the rushed-to-market Chevrolet Camaro, began to take its toll on Mustang sales, but the model had already made its spot.

As the years passed by, Ford parts bins continued to supply the Mustang with an increasing powerful group of V-8 engines. The 260 V-8 was mainly supplanted by the 289, which offered as much as 271 horsepower in factory trim. Top speed for Mustangs so equipped was accounted as 120 miles per hour with acceleration from zero to 60 mph taking 8.3 seconds, not stellar numbers by contemporary standards, but numbers that put to shame most European-bred sports cars.

What Ford built up in the early Sixties remains the Mustang formula today. It is a car that lacks the sophistication of its European opponents, but offers a wad of slam-bang performance for relatively little money. Oh, and, to many eyes, it simply plain looks cool.

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