Rivals tried, but none matched the Mustang's sales in the '60s
The Mustang's runaway success after its April 1964 debut left most of Ford Motor Co.'s rivals scrambling to develop their own pony cars.
Three years later, the Mustang had plenty of competition but no other sporty compact came close to matching the Mustang's sales in the 1960s.
The Mustang's formula was fairly basic: three body styles -- coupe, convertible and fastback -- engines ranging from mild to wild, a comprehensive options list that enabled buyers to personalize their cars, and most important, a low starting price, $2,368 at introduction, rising to $2,618 in 1969.
In mid-April 1964, the Mustang had little competition.
The Rambler 440 and Marlin fastback were the closest AMC had to sporty nameplates. Rambler was known as an economy brand, and the Marlin was a large car. Neither challenged the Mustang.
Plymouth beat the Mustang to market by more than two weeks with the compact Barracuda. Based on the Plymouth Valiant economy car -- much like the Mustang's DNA came from the Falcon -- the Barracuda offered just one body style, a fastback with the industry's largest rear window at the time. Many of the Barracuda's body parts were shared with the Valiant; Mustang shared no sheet metal with the Falcon from which it was derived. And that may have been one of the key reasons why the Barracuda couldn't bite into the Mustang's sales, says Rob Sass, publisher of Hagerty Classic Cars magazine.
"The Barracuda, by any means, was not a bad looking car," Sass said. "Just like the Mustang, the Barracuda was based on pretty humble underpinnings. But Mustang did a better job hiding the Falcon-ness than Barracuda did hiding the Valiant-ness. The Mustang was a prettier, sexier car that took the long-hood, short-deck theme to an extreme."
> General Motors
The closest Mustang-like car from General Motors was the Chevrolet Corvair, a rear-engine, air-cooled compact designed to compete with imports such as the Volkswagen Beetle and British sports cars from Triumph, MG, Austin-Healey and Sunbeam. Some Corvairs were turbocharged and had four carburetors, and there were many body styles, including a van, pickup, sedan, coupe and convertible.
The upscale Avanti also had a long hood and short trunk. But it was slightly larger than the Mustang and was far more sophisticated and expensive. Avanti was aimed at the luxury segment and was more of a competitor to the Ford Thunderbird.
The P1800 sport coupe came out in 1961 and was four-fifths the size of a Mustang. But it, too, was far more expensive than the Mustang and it didn't offer a choice of engines or body styles.
In the fall of 1966, GM introduced the Chevrolet Camaro, which went on sale later that year, and the Camaro's close relative, the Pontiac Firebird, which started sales in 1967. The Camaro gave the Mustang its biggest challenge in U.S. showrooms for the rest of the decade, coming within 92,386 sales in 1969.
The Camaro and Firebird, available in coupe and convertible, didn't copy the Mustang's three body styles but the GM cars were offered with high-performance options galore. In the 1960s, Camaro sales peaked at 213,980 in 1968, while Firebird production topped out at 107,112 units the same year.
Plymouth redesigned the 1967 Barracuda, giving it fresh looks, more power and three body styles: hardtop, fastback and convertible. Production in 1967 was 62,534, up 64 percent from the previous year, but nowhere near that of the Mustang.
American Motors in 1968 took two shots at the Mustang with the two-seat AMX and the four-seat Javelin. No convertibles or fastbacks were offered. But 1968 production -- 55,054 for the Javelin and 6,725 for the AMX -- fell well short of that of the Mustang.
In 1967, Ford's Mercury division used the bones of the Mustang to create the Cougar, a European-inspired luxury performance pony car. The Cougar shared the same suspension, powertrains and basic underpinnings of the Mustang, but had a sleek body that featured hidden headlights, sequential rear turn signals, and a dash with a full set of gauges that looked like they came from a Jaguar. Cougar was a huge success for Mercury in 1967, outselling every other non-Ford pony car except the Camaro.
From the beginning, Sass said, Ford had the right formula with the Mustang.
"Ford had a better idea of what it had going on. Baby boomers were starting to exercise their purchasing power," Sass said. "Ford's PR and marketing machine better comprehended the size of the youth market."
You can reach Richard Truett at email@example.com.