The rearview mirror: the Pony Car was born
This week, on April 14, 1964, the automotive press saw what the general public would see three days later, a new car that was first confirmed by a Ford Motor Co. press release in February.
“The Ford Division confirmed today that it will introduce a new line of cars this spring,” said the press release issued February 6, 1964 by Lee Iacocca, vice president of Ford Motor Co. “The new line of cars will be called the Mustang…no further details about the new line of cars will be revealed until its public introduction.
The car would become an icon for Ford and create a new class of automobile, the Pony Car.
With a 108-inch wheelbase, a curb weight of 2,500 pounds and a price tag of $2,368, Ford sold 22,000 Mustangs on day one. Its popularity proved to be unprecedented. But its development was long, having started in 1960.
Healthy sales despite heavy cars
Ford’s bestseller at the time was the Ford Falcon, a reasonable and unexciting compact sedan introduced that year alongside new competitors such as the Chevrolet Corvair, Plymouth Valiant, AMC Rambler and Studebaker Lark . Ford’s Bird was the most successful, selling over 400,000 units in its first year. The car was iconic of the Ford lineup under Ford Motor chairman Robert McNamara: solid, conservative and lackluster.
As general manager and vice president of Ford’s automobile division, McNamara took the two-seat Ford Thunderbird, introduced for 1955, and added rear seats in 1958, instantly eliminating its cache. The sleek Lincoln Continental Mark II was discontinued and the unsightly Edsel was introduced instead, resulting in a $250 million flop. In its wake, Henry Ford II proved reluctant to consider new cars, and the company’s products became increasingly tasteless and boring.
In 1960 McNamara was named president of Ford’s automobile division, with Lee Iacocca inheriting his old position, but the arrangement did not last long. When McNamara left Ford in late 1960 to become Secretary of Defense under President John F. Kennedy, Iacocca was named president of the Ford division. He was 36 years old.
A market looking for a car
But Iacocca was becoming aware of the emerging youth market, the one that was entering adolescence and would soon lead. He felt that a car should be designed to meet the market. In late 1960, Iacocca formed a committee of Ford managers to investigate the possibilities, but knowing of Henry’s reluctance, convened the new team at the Fairlane Inn, an RV two miles west of the Ford’s world headquarters in Dearborn, and away from prying eyes.
What the Fairlane committee discovered was what they called “a market looking for a car”.
Ford’s market research has consistently shown that college-educated consumers, such as baby boomers now entering adulthood, make up 46% of new car buyers despite making up only 18 % of total population. Research also showed that female car owners were one of the fastest growing segments and would be the most likely to use a second car. But it should be small, manageable and easy to park.
As the committee pondered its emerging client, they noted that “given the ingredients of youth, education, good pay and a desire for style and sportiness in automobiles, we still had to keep in mind that a large segment of the market we were aiming for was made up of young people…had good potential and refined tastes in durable goods – but relatively little money available.
Ford begins work on a new courier
Research in hand, Iacocca wanted to launch the car in April 1964 at the New York World’s Fair. But first they had to bring the car to life.
As designers began creating proposals for the new car, Hal Sperlich, Ford’s special projects assistant, offered to build the car on the Ford Falcon chassis, which would save $400 million in development costs. , an important consideration in light of the Edsel’s losses. And, the Falcon was about the size of the car they were hoping to build.
But what to call it? Monte Carlo, Monaco, Turin and Cougar have all been considered. The J. Walter Thompson advertising agency suggested Bronco and Colt. While arguing over names, the designers got to work in the spring of 1962.
Mustangs that never existed
The first Mustang, the 1962 Mustang I, was almost a race car, with a tubular frame, aluminum skin and fully independent suspension. Measuring 154 inches long, weighing 1,200 pounds and featuring two seats, its 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine developing 90 horsepower propels it to 60 mph in about 10 seconds. Ford chief executive Lee Iacocca called it too radical.
The next entry was the 1962 Ford Cougar, a fastback designed by Jack Telnack, who became Ford’s vice president of worldwide design in 1987. The Cougar name, later used by Mercury, was one of the names used until until the Mustang name is approved. Another was Avanti, which was replaced by Allegro when Studebaker introduced a coupe with that name.
Ford built 13 versions of the Allegro, none of which resembled the production Mustang. But they established its proportions: long bonnet, short rear parcel shelf and compact cabin. Yet, in the summer, the Allegro was discontinued, and the designers had two weeks to come up with something new. Seven proposals resulted, with a concept named Cougar being given the go-ahead for production.
But there is still one person who could derail the project: Henry Ford II.
The pony car gets a boost
On September 10, 1962, Iacocca presented the life-size clay model to Henry Ford II. He approved the car, still called Cougar, with three caveats. First, his cost to the company will be $45 million, not the $75 million requested by Iacocca. Second, it has to have an extra inch of rear legroom, and finally, unlike the Edsel, it has to sell.
To prove it, the Mustang I is taken to Watkins Glen, NY, where racing driver Dan Gurney dazzles the motoring press and crowd when he tops 100 mph.
Meanwhile, Hal Sperlich, who would later develop K-Cars and Chrysler minivans, has been named Mustang program manager, and within a year 200 pilot production cars are being evaluated.
An icon is born
On March 10, 1964, the first Mustangs were strategically shipped to Ford dealerships around the world, awaiting their debut. Iacocca took no chances with its unveiling, running ads in 2,600 newspapers nationwide and running prime-time ads on all three television networks that aired the day before the launch at the World’s Fair.
The car and the executive who ran it are born on the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines. It is a success. Ford sells 22,000 Mustangs on day one, peddling 418,000 in the first year of production. This would spawn a host of imitators and a whole new class of car – the Pony Car.
It is this week that we hail the birth of an icon that survives to this day, a reminder that cars that cater to young and old remain an eternal part of the automotive industry.