Sometimes things take on a life of their own and become so much a part of our culture, we forget, what life was life before they came along. My dad was proud of his 59 Chrysler Imperial with a big block hemi, bragging he’d get 17 miles to the gallon on the highway. Not bad for a car built out of several thousand of pounds of iron and steel, chrome and glass. The car was a behemoth; a rolling living room filled with 1950’s overstuffed furniture, chrome and opulence. To dear old dad, this car was it. It was his statement of success to the world, a big rounded over-sized automobile, complete with satellite turns signals in the back.
To the higher minds at the Ford Motor Company, arithmetic was the subject of the day in the late 1950’s. If they had calculated correctly, WW2 ending in 1945 by 1965, the children of the post-war baby boom, would be in the market to buy a car! By hard hours of research they determined the young consumer wanted something sporty, smaller, like an MG or other European sports cars. Ford put some of their most creative minds on the project, to develop a prototype car.
The two seat roadster concept incorporated a welded tubular frame and a rear engine V-8. The concept Mustang, debuted at Watkins Glen in October of 1962. Racing legend Dan Gurney put the little roadster through its paces, posting impressive lap times and creating a buzz. The car was revolutionary; there had never been such a far reaching prototype. The concept car was put on a tour of college campuses and the excitement around the little roadster, steadily increased.
The marketing people and the creatives, armed with loads positive data, took their results to the corporate board armed with glowing status report. They were promptly introduced to Mr. Reality; the board refused to build a two seat sports car, saying it limited the potential market. Next to go, was the welded tubular frame, too expensive, likewise, the rear engine and the Offenhauser manifold and by the time they’d finished, all that was left of the little concept car which the public had so admired was a Mustang logo, some racing stripes and a replicated version of a spoked steering wheel.
Ford was still reeling from the Edsel debacle; Ford management had heard glowing reports and sales projections before, back before the company had invested a billion dollars in the Edsel program. Once burned, twice shy, management would not build a new car from the ground up, marketing and the creatives would have to build from with in the current Ford platforms. In the shadow of the Edsel, Ford Chief Robert McNamara had built “safe” cars, square in more ways than one, boxy. The Edsel had been filled with new gadgets and gismos, a three thermostat cooling system and a push button shifter on the steering column, wrap around windshield and compass built into the dashboard. So filled with innovation was the Edsel, that after its spectacular failure, innovation was almost a dirty word at Ford.
General Manager Lee Iacocca, and his design team would have to return to the drawing board assigned by management to build a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Led by Donald Frey the team would only have 18 months to bring the car from concept to showroom rather than the normal two years. The North American Ford Falcon, was an established platform, selling well as an economy car for five years. Frey would later say, “If we hadn’t been in such a hurry, we’d have made more mistakes.”
Meanwhile, Ford was playing fast and loose, presenting a car to the public, it had no intention of building. They blended the concept with the Mustang name, while they built another car entirely, on an economy car chassis. The car was set to debut at the New York World’s Fair, displayed on an island surrounded by a moat. A sophisticated media operation placed 2,600 articles and advertisements across the country and on the night before the grand unveiling, Ford aired a television commercial teasing the audience with distance shots contrasted by close-ups.
Early estimates by Ford’s marketing department had predicated 80 to 100,000 units sold, the first year. Focus groups were shown the car and the features offered and asked to guess the list price for this car. Consistently, the answer given was $3,000 and Ford upped the estimates to 150,000 units the first year. List price on a plain grocery getter was $ 2,368 For $2,800 you could have the whole package. Making ready for the day of the grand unveiling, Ford had built 14,000 Mustangs, but because Ford was sincere in keeping its secret, most dealers had only received a few floor models. Expecting a torrent, Ford received a Tsunami, the car selling 22,000 units in the first day of sales.
Never mind, this wasn’t the concept car, never mind that it was a re-skinned Falcon. The public loved this car, and when they love a car this much, you give them more. Over the next eighteen months Ford Motor Company would sell one million Mustangs. The car was a phenomenon; it was a car movie stars wanted to be seen in, that could be purchased by school teachers. I was nine years old and rode my bicycle to the local elementary school. Something was up; there was a crowd gathered in the parking lot. I sidled with my bike into this circle of adults; and in the center was an orange car. I’d never seen an orange car before, actually it was called Poppy Red, but it looked orange to me.
This car was far different from the old man’s lead sled; this car was sleek and low. Today we might look at a first generation Mustang as quaint. But compare with other offerings for 1965 in that price range.
Only the Model A Ford has outsold the Mustang domestically.
Ford Motor Company has reaped mountains of gold from this re-skinned Falcon. It has never gone out of style, it was popular, it is popular and probably always will be popular. It’s impossible to say why, it just is.