The First Pony Car: From the 1964 Ford Mustang to the 2017 Ford Mustang Jun 10, 2016 by James (Driver Weekly)
One of the most popular and beloved automobiles ever built, the Mustang is the original pony car. Unlike its many imitators, the Mustang has been in continuous production since 1964. That doesn’t mean that the car hasn’t changed over the decades, but it does mean that contemporary Mustangs have to live up to a daunting legacy of performance and style. Let’s take a look at the history of the Mustang and how it’s reflected in the new cars available today. This is the history under the hood—from the first pony car out of the gate to the latest model available today.
Ford was breaking new ground when Lee Iacocca spearheaded a search for a new car that could fill the gap between sedans and sports cars, a market segment revealed by the unexpected popularity of the Chevrolet Corvette. Like the first Corvette, the 1962 Mustang I concept car was a small two-seater convertible. Presciently, the group decided that the two-seater had limited appeal and went back to the drawing board. The team of designers bent dozens of in-house engineering rules over just eighteen months to create a new look that could fit on the body of the four-seater compact Ford Falcon. The result? The iconic long hood, short deck, powerful engines, and aesthetic louvers. The new look became the first production model, 1964½ Mustang, and you can see the same lines echoed in the latest model. All that Ford needed was a name for the new car. Enter lead designer John Najjar, a fan of the P51 Mustang from World War II, and market research manager Robert J Eggert, who bred thoroughbreds. The Mustang: it was a perfect combination.
The Glory Days
When the first ‘Stangs rolled off the production line in 1964, Ford had expected a successful but limited run. Instead, it became a massive success. Initially introduced as a hardtop and a convertible, with a fastback added in 1965, over one million ponies were sold in the first four and a half years. In 1967, the Mustang started a stellar second act, adding a full-throated V8 and going down in film history with Steve McQueen behind the wheel in “Bullitt.” In 1969, the Boss 302 and Boss 429 hit the racetrack. After that, however, critical opinion was divided. The first four and half years are considered the glory days, but in 1969 the Mustang started adding a few pounds and lost some of its luster. From 1971 to 1973, the pony grew into a full-sized stallion. At the same time, we have to admit that the first models had a serious lack of legroom and Ford responded in the 1970s with larger vehicles and plush interiors. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the “swagger wagons” of the 1970s were too large to survive the economic and fuel crisis on the horizon.
The Dark Ages
Collectors and critics despise the 1973-1978 Mustang II. The optimism of the 1960s had given way to huddled retrenchment. The sunny interior of 1965 became a padded bomb shelter buried beneath the high beltline of 1971. By 1972, the Mustang had already stretched the design that had made the original an instant classic—it was larger and heavier, good but not great. In 1973, Ford went too far in the other direction and sent the pony to the butcher. In the 1970s the pony market collapsed during the fuel crisis and recession, and in response the Mustang got smaller and less powerful. Ford slapped the nameplate on the body of a Ford Pinto, a truculent economy car, and introduced a pathetic four-cylinder engine. Ford might have believed they were “rightsizing” the Mustang, and we have to admit that downsizing might have saved the nameplate, but at a high cost. But the darkest secret of the Mustang II? Sales were a success in 1974. Lee Iacocca gets a lot of flak for hobbling the original, but the smaller more accessible vehicle was in the spirit—if not the image—of the original launch, rather than an imitation Thunderbird. Of course, the Mustang II lacked staying power. Contemporary designers need to remember that you can’t just butcher an iconic car to fit the brief, and passing, mood of new buyers. A new car needs more than one good year. If the Mustang II had been the first incarnation of the ‘Stang, we don’t think it would have escaped the miserable 1970s.
The Fox Mustangs
In 1979 the Mustang was reborn from the ashes. Ford replaced the anemic economy car of the 1970s with a new platform based on the Ford Fox. The spacious new model returned to the image of a serious sports car. Many drivers will remember these Mustangs cruising down the highways over the decades because the third and fourth generation Fox Mustangs ran from 1979 to 2004. Critically, the Fox Mustangs succeeded where the Mustang II failed, attracting a loyal customer base and remaining popular over the decades, surviving another fuel crisis and another recession and roaring back with a new Boss 302 V8 engine and a convertible. In 1988 there was a close call when Ford considered redeveloping the Mustang using a front-wheel drive Mazda, or “Maztang,” but outraged drivers convinced them to change their plans. It seems obvious that the last thing the Mustang needed was a Japanese makeover. The committed engineers succeeded in appeasing consumers before the arrival of the fourth generation in 1994. Over the following years, the Mustang got rounder and rounder with each update. But the Fox Mustangs paired the sporty new look with side louvers, iconic grilles, and beefy engines. The Fox Mustangs demonstrated that the Mustang could honor the car’s legacy while also updating and restyling the vehicle, all without sacrificing the essence of a pony car: power and accessibility.
Last Man Standing
In 2002, the Chevy Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird finally bit the dust. The Mustang was the sole survivor of a noble breed. In 2005, the previous model was taken out to pasture and the fifth generation Mustang was rebuilt on a modern platform. The updated appearance was “retro-futuristic” and combined vintage style with modern engineering under the direction of Sid Ramnarace and J Mays. Honestly, we’re impressed with how the exterior styling honored the 60s fastback models while the overblown “cockpit” design was similar to the comfortable (but bloated) interior of the 70s. At the same time, the new model could seem large, slab-sided, and stern from some angles. While it reflected the original proportions of the first Mustangs, it was a radical change from the preceding generation. When Ford announced that the sixth generation would be designed for global sales, drivers were concerned that the new ponies would be “Europeanized,” losing some of their unique grit, Thankfully, the 2015 Mustang refined the new formula without losing the full-throated power and gritty drive that defined the pony car.
The latest model is a subtle improvement to the new look, wider and lower with tighter wheel gaps and larger wheels. The fat was trimmed, the interior is more reserved, and the iconic car emerged with the same proportions as the original ’64 with a look that echoed the ’69 fastback. The danger of a vintage approach is that the new car can feel like an aging champion doing one last victory lap rather than a real competitor. But the news ‘Stangs have dodged the bullet, once again. For the first time, after years of argument, the Mustang has independent rear suspension and increased fuel efficiency. Fair warning, while the turbocharged four-cylinder EcoBoost is an improvement in performance over the V6, it’s too quiet. Timid and unassuming, the EcoBoost Mustang doesn’t have the right feel when you’re in the saddle, even with the turbocharged capability. At the same time, anyone complaining about modern improvement shouldn’t forget that the original ‘Stangs came with only 101-120 hp, while even the base 2015 3.7L V6 has triple the horses and the 5.0L V8 charges off the lot with 435 horsepower. Go for the V8 and the thrill of revving up the engine captures the automotive magic that made the first Mustang an instant hit. The current generation embodies the difficulty, and the reward, of drawing on fifty years of design cues and balancing them with fifty years of technological improvement.
A new model can’t just look like a Mustang—it has to feel like a Mustang. It’s not just collectors and enthusiasts that want a car that respects the nameplate. New drivers deserve the same attention and respect that went into the first Mustangs. The Mustang II and the “Maztang” proved that it’s not enough to claim you’re making a big improvement in technology or performance. You have to honor the legacy under the hood and in the driver’s seat. We’ll see if the latest model stands the test of time, but we’re confident that the legacy continues.
Article updated 26-July-2017