The pony car was all about personalization -- 'do your own thing'
Try to think about the Ford Mustang from a rational perspective, and its phenomenal early success just doesn't compute. The Mustang was a two-door, sporty car, the very definition of a niche product with limited appeal.
Because Ford was strapped for cash and reluctant to spend more money on new programs, the Mustang was developed on a shoestring and built on the bones of the humble Falcon compact, a car to which it bore no resemblance.
Despite the obstacles, the Mustang roared out of the gates and sold in crazy numbers with 22,000 orders the first day, spurred by its low starting price of just $2,368.
Ford sold 524,785 in 1965 and 549,436 in 1966, accounting for nearly one in every five vehicles the company sold in the United States during those giddy years.
Buoyed by an avalanche of publicity, including the covers of Time and Newsweek, the Mustang blew even the most optimistic forecasts out of the water. Ford had expected to sell about 100,000 the first year. At a bargain-basement program cost of $75 million, it was one of the best deals ever.
Almost by itself, the Mustang went on to create a segment, an industry, a lifestyle and a state of mind. With its long list of options and a choice of engines, the pony car was all about personalization -- "doing your own thing," to borrow a phrase from the 1960s.
Within three years of its debut, some 500 Mustang clubs had formed with 32,000 members.
The Mustang established legends, including that of Lee Iacocca, the man most often credited with fathering it, and Carroll Shelby, who spun its performance mystique.
The Mustang rode a tidal wave of youthful optimism as baby boomers got their driver's licenses. Conceived when John F. Kennedy and his glamorous wife, Jackie, occupied the White House and the first astronauts were rocketing into space, the Mustang was born when the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love" topped the Billboard charts.
The moment could not have been more propitious for Ford, which had been reeling from the Edsel disaster of the late 1950s.
"It was a big, emotional success with this cadre of young buyers coming into the market," recalled Hal Sperlich, who was a 31-year-old Ford product planner in 1960 credited with being the genius who saw the market opening for a sporty, spacious car with a long hood and short rear deck. "Most cars were really dull. Here was this drop-dead gorgeous car, and it was from another planet."
An unlikely survivor
Against the odds, the Mustang has soldiered on for a half century from the age of the Beatles to Beyonce as Ford has worked, clumsily at times, to adapt its pony car to changes in culture and the marketplace. Rivals such as the Chevrolet Camaro have come and gone and come again. The Mustang itself nearly perished at least once.
The Mustang survived Henry Ford II's firing of Lee Iacocca and the multiple oil crises of the 1970s. It remained true to its rear-wheel-drive roots when the entire industry was migrating to front-wheel drive. Ford's pony hung on even as its sales dwindled and ever-more-stringent government safety regulations required carmakers to make steeper investments in new platforms.
The Mustang spawned hundreds of fan clubs and legions of loyal followers. It has been honored in song, on postage stamps and calendars and in coffee table books, and has been glorified in movies such as Goldfinger and Bullitt.
In its latest star turn, the 2015 Mustang plays the "hero car" in Need for Speed -- another Hollywood homage to car culture that gives viewers a thrilling but genuine perspective of what it's like to drive at high speeds and in close proximity to other cars.
The Mustang has joined a pantheon of history's longest enduring automotive nameplates, including the Chevrolet Suburban and Corvette, Ford F series and Porsche 911.
Beyond the horizon
Over the years, the Mustang has become the niche vehicle some expected it to be in the first place. Annual U.S. sales have not topped 200,000 since 1980. Sales dropped below 100,000 in 2008 and have stayed there.
Developed with Falcon underpinnings and later moved to the platform of the unloved Pinto, the Mustang these days sits on Ford's only rwd platform.
It is poised to go global in yet another incarnation, its sixth generation. Unlike its predecessors, which were designed mainly for American roads, the 2015 Mustang has now been retooled for the world and will even be sold with right-hand drive.
It must be capable of cruising at 150 mph for hours on the German autobahn, and upscale versions will be loaded with luxury appointments worthy of a BMW or an Audi. No longer is the Mustang aiming only at domestic rivals such as the Camaro and Dodge Challenger.
The Mustang has survived because it defies easy categorization. When Iacocca introduced the car at the New York World's Fair on April 13, 1964, he laid out Ford's vision: "We don't claim the Mustang is a universal car, or that it can be all things to all people. But we do believe the Mustang will be more things to more people than any other automobile on the road.
"The secret lies in its remarkable versatility. For a modest price it can be an economical compact car with traditional Ford quality and all the flair of a high-priced, highly styled European road car."
'Not one car, but three'
Iacocca continued: "In essence, the Mustang is not one car, but three.
"First, it is a basic economy car, and with its back seat is particularly suited for the young married couple with two children. It is also a leading candidate for a second or third car for larger families.
"Second, the Mustang is a luxury car. The wide range of options permits a customer to start at a low price for the standard package, and then add such items as automatic transmission, power brakes and steering, a full-length console between the front bucket seats, a vinyl roof on the hardtop, air conditioning, and so forth.
"Finally, it is a sports car suitable for street use or competition."
When Ford was doing research in preparation for the sixth generation, 50th anniversary car, product planners took their inspiration from Iacocca's wide-screen view of the car rather than the narrower muscle-car approach of some past generations.
"We did a lot of research and asked ourselves a lot of questions," Jim Farley, Ford's global marketing, sales and service chief, told Automotive News last year. "We came to the conclusion at the end of the day that Mustang is a quite broad American idea of self-expression. Whether you drive a V-6 convertible or GT500 or you have a base V-6 that you customize, everyone's Mustang dream is a little different."
Though the Mustang is no longer among Ford's top sellers, it's the car still most closely identified with the brand, and not just in the United States. Ford sold only 77,186 Mustangs in this country in 2013, but the Mustang is about more than mere numbers.
John Coletti, the Ford product design engineer who led the team that built the 1994 Mustang, once explained the Mustang's importance to Ford: "If you go to a man in the deepest part of Tennessee and ask him what a Jaguar is, he might tell you it's a car. But if you ask him what a Mustang is, he'll tell you it's a Ford."
You can reach Bradford Wernle at email@example.com.