Fifty years ago this week, Ford Motor Co. (F) introduced a new model it called Mustang at the New York World’s Fair. Ford executives, led by the irrepressible Lee A. Iacocca, were hopefully confident — or, perhaps, confidently hopeful — that the new car would be a hit.
This week, the No. 2 U.S. automaker after General Motors Co. (GM) will show its latest Mustang in New York to celebrate its golden anniversary.
To call Mustang a success would be to understate its impact on Ford or on America’s baby boom generation. Ford has built 9 million Mustangs of various models and configuration over five generations of the vehicle. Ford has never built and sold as many of a single car since its 15 million Model Ts were purchased at the beginning of the last century.
Iacocca, then a hot-shot vice president, eventually rose to lead Ford on the strength of his stewardship of Mustang. Later, he got fired from Ford, helped to rescue Chrysler, and wrote a blockbuster memoir of his career at both companies.
The development of the first so-called pony car by Ford designers, marketers, and engineers in the early 1960s converged with broad cultural and demographic trends that were favorable to automakers. In 1964, the first baby boomers were becoming teenagers, which bestowed upon them eligibility to drive. The early ’60s in the U.S. also was an age of rising prosperity and unbridled possibility. The Dow Jones Industrial Average reached new highs. The space program dominated the headlines. The Beatles were shaping youth culture.
At a base price of $2,368, Mustang was accessible to many families that were building homes with two-car garages since they could, for the first time, afford a second vehicle. “It was a market in search of a car,” as one Ford executive described it.
Iacocca, who was full of clever marketing gimmicks, managed to get the new model displayed on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. (He likewise understood self-promotion well enough to snag front covers of Time and Newsweek, with images of him and of Mustang, in the same week.) On Wednesday, Ford arranged for a 2015 model, the sixth-generation Mustang, likewise to be shown off on the top of the building. The car had to be disassembled a half century ago so it would fit in freight elevators; ditto, the 2015 model.
Later this year, Ford will put on sale in the U.S. the latest version of its eminent car. Today, Mustang is far less important to Ford’s bottom line than its F-Series pickup truck. But few car models will stir the soul or the blood of a loyal Ford customer more than the car with the galloping stallion on its grill.