Thursday, June 23, 2011

History of the Ford Mustang ... because I never write about Fords

I asked a friend, who happens to be a regular reader of this blog, what he thought a good car-related topic would be to write about. He said, “You never write anything about Fords, why don’t you do something on, say, the history of the Mustang for a change.”

Never mind that I just this year I drove the new Focus and F-150, posted about the all-Ford show in Olathe, did a history of Carroll Shelby, and lamented the passing of the Crown Victoria; I never write anything about Fords.

Well here it is, brother, the story you’ve been waiting for—the history of the Ford Mustang.

Much of the Mustang’s history has been rehashed so many times that a lot of guys can recite it in their sleep. Ford General Manager Lee Iacocca green-lighted production of the Mustang in 1961, and when the production version debuted in 1964 (and a half); it was a runaway smash hit. 22,000 Mustangs were sold on the first day; 263,434 by the end of the year. These were staggering, head-spinning numbers. People loved the thing.

The first Mustangs were built on the compact Ford Falcon platform, but they looked nothing like the dowdy little econobox. Sporty, affordable, and dazzling, there was a Mustang variation that appealed to anyone who didn’t need a full-sized car.

By ’65, the Mustang was starting to show its full potential. A fastback was added to the lineup, and Carroll Shelby came on-board to help build the Mustang performance legend. Sure, you could still get a 200-hp straight-six (up 30-hp from the year before), but people lusted over that 306-hp Shelby GT350. Mustang was becoming a performance icon.

The Mustang was restyled in 1967. It was a little longer and wider. It just looked tougher. And as the muscle car era really began to heat up over those next three years, the Mustang hosted a dizzying array of special editions and stump-pulling engine options to go along with its badass appearance. If you wanted to rule the drag strip, you might choose a Cobra Jet. Road course-carver? Check out a Shelby GT350. Looking to stomp your friends into the local pavement between stoplights? A Boss 302 might fit the bill. Or maybe you want to look fancy while you smoke the rear bologna. How about a California Special?

There were so many special editions of the Mustang during this time, they were truly hard to keep track of. And most of them really were special. To many people, 1967, ’68, and ’69 were the benchmark years of the Mustang. Of course, they also coincide with the golden age of muscle cars.

By 1971, there were still lots of different engines and options, but the car was restyled as more of a boulevard cruiser. This version was a little more portly; a little softer; not the airy, athletic sprinter people had come to know and love. Ford still sold big numbers of the upsized Ponycar between ’71 and ’73, but the cars were continually getting slower, gas mileage was becoming more important, and there were going to be some big changes if the Mustang was to remain in Ford’s lineup.

The Mustang II appeared in 1974. It was smaller. Much smaller. The Mustang II was more like a cheap compact car than a hairy-chested muscle car. And indeed, it was built on the same platform as the economy-minded Pinto. In Chevy-vs.-Ford terms, a four-cylinder Mustang was a more equivalent rival to the Vega or Monza than the Camaro.

And yet, the Mustang II thrived. The cute little guy sold three times more than it did in 1973. And as the Mustang II continued its tenure, Ford worked marketing magic up-and-down the scale. A fancy Mustang II may have been equipped with a hoity-toity Ghia-designed vinyl top. A sporty version might have been decorated with retro Shelby stripes or a big, scary Cobra decal on the hood.

By the end of the ‘70s, the fuel “shortage” was starting to subside, and people were beginning to crave performance once again. The “Fox” Mustang was introduced in 1979, and it eventually became the basis for one of the most modified cars with some of the most performance potential in automotive history.

The Fox platform also underpinned the more substantial Ford Fairmount and Mercury Zephyr. More than 396,000 were sold in 1979, which proved that people wanted their Ponycars to be more than just econo-boxes.

A convertible was reintroduced during this time frame (1983), and Mustangs could be ordered as GT’s, Ghias, LXs, and Cobras. There were four-cylinder versions and turbocharged fours. But this era in Mustang history also revealed the enormous potential of Ford’s 302-c.i. V8.

As the 1980s wore on, the 5.0, as it was normally referred (302-c.i. translates to 5.0-liters), increased in power and increased in popularity.

Composite headlights and other trim changes turned up in 1987, and the Mustang continued to be a hit on the street and strip. The top-of-the-line GT model is fitted with a trendy ground effects and body cladding package. People tend to like the looks of a Mustang GT in the late ‘80s, but hardcore enthusiasts pointed out that all that gingerbread added weight.

For quieted the critics in ’88 when the same 225-hp, 5.0-liter engine that came standard in the GT would now be an option on the bare-bones LX model. A notchback LX coupe was the perfect platform for the Stoplight 500, or it could be transformed into a formidable competitor on the drag strip. Thanks to a solid starting point and enormous support from the aftermarket, 5.0-liter Mustangs from ’87 to ’93 are some of the most popular budget performance cars ever.

Mustangs were redesigned in 1994 to the chagrin of the performance crowd. Airbags and safety upgrades made them heavier and slower than before, although the robust 5.0-liter power plant was still on the options list. Still, there were some great retro touches. The dual-pod dashboard layout was a big hit, and the return of “triple taillights” attracted plenty of buyers.

A 215-hp, 4.6-liter V8 replaced the venerable 5.0 in ’96 as the Mustang tried to be a little more refined than before. Cobras were fitted with a 305-hp 4.6-liter engine.

The Mustang received a major redesign in 1999 as Ford celebrated the Mustang’s 35th Anniversary. Ford continued to bring in more design cues from the early days of Mustang, and these changes combined with increased horsepower proved to be well-received by consumers. A supercharged, 390-hp Cobra version in 2003 would have put the Mustang at the top of the Ponycar performance food chain even if rival Camaro hadn’t been discontinued after the ’02 model year.

The latest generation Mustang came out in 2005. Unlike the previous iteration, Ford started with a clean sheet of paper, and designed something that looked like a truly modern interpretation of the original ’64 concept. The Mustang was more refined than ever, and it offered more technology and options than the original designers could have ever imagined. Certainly, it was the best driving Mustang straight from the factory that had ever been produced.

Ford tweaked the design again for 2010. New sheet metal front and rear and a markedly better interior are on-tap to mark what is arguably the best Mustang to come out of Dearborn in the nameplate’s 47-year history. Then, in 2011, they added some new power trains to make the already popular car even better. The latest Mustang may be equipped with a 305-hp., 3.7-liter V6; a 412-hp, 5.0-liter V8; a 444-hp version of the 5.0-liter with the Boss 302 package; or a 550-h.p., 5.4-liter monster in the Shelby GT500.

The Mustang has been many things during its history. From a hard-core muscle car, to an economy-minded fuel-miser, to a refined boulevardier, there has been a Mustang to suit every taste and style. Who knows what the future will bring to this popular Ponycar? One thing is for sure, as it evolves, it will continue to provide customers with affordable, sporty performance while always giving a nod to its roots.

There, I did a Mustang story. Hope everyone’s happy now.

Below is a slideshow of nearly 200 pictures from throughout the Mustang’s history. This seems like a big slideshow, but honestly, it was pretty easy to come up with. Ford seems to hold the history of this car in a higher regard than you see at most car companies, and they make historic photos easy to access for journalists. So you’ll see lots of examples from every generation of Mustang. The thing that really struck me is how many different models, trims, and versions there are for a car that has remained basically the same concept throughout its lifespan. Enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. Love this Craig! Even though you are out of your normal area of interest.
    Good job.