Hype, hipness, price propelled the Mustang to early success

UPDATED: 4/17/14 4:02 pm ET - corrects engine description

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the layout of the six-cylinder engine in the first-generation Ford Mustang. The car was available with an inline six-cylinder.

This story is part of a special section in the April 14 print edition of Automotive News marking the 50th anniversary of the Ford Mustang's debut.

In the spring of 1964, everyone was talking about the Ford Mustang.

Behind the record-breaking sales and cultural shockwave created by Ford Motor Co.'s original pony car was a massive advertising campaign with a scale and message that broke new ground for the era. Automotive News at the time called the Mustang's advertising bonanza "one of the largest promotional splurges in history."

Mustang ads from the 1960s pitched not only the Mustang's attributes -- sporty styling, standard bucket seats, inline six-cylinder engine, padded dash, floor shifter and "wall-to-wall" carpeting chief among them -- but the idea that owning a Mustang could turn even a dullard into the life of the party.

In short, the Mustang was hip. Ford knew it, and that's how Ford pitched it.

"That was the idea -- that the car was fun. If you drove a Mustang, you were cool. You knew what was going on in the world," said Austin Craig, a lifelong Mustang enthusiast and former advertising executive at Ford ad agency J. Walter Thompson who worked on Mustang advertising in the 1980s.

Farr: Nothing like it in 1964

Donald Farr, a Mustang historian and the author of Mustang: Fifty Years, says the Mustang was a special car because there was nothing else like it on the market at the time.

Its compact size, sporty style, performance, affordability and more than 70 customization options made it a home run, especially with its target market -- the coming wave of baby boomers who were reaching driving age and wanted something different from the "boring" cars driven by their parents, Farr said.

"Ford sold or took orders for 22,000 units that opening weekend, and I think the advertising campaign is part of what got people out to the Ford dealerships to create this frenzy," Farr said.

A pony car stampede

The Mustang's introduction on April 17, 1964, at the New York World's Fair allowed Ford to own the news cycle at a time when new cars were almost always introduced in the fall.

Underscoring the spectacle of the Mustang's debut, Ford held simultaneous introductions in major European capitals including London, Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Lisbon, despite the fact that Lee Iacocca, then Ford Division's general manager, said at the time that no sales outside North America were planned initially.

The Iacocca-led Fairlane Committee at Ford that created the Mustang picked the World's Fair as the car's launch venue. Farr said the decision was a shrewd move, one that maximized publicity by introducing the car to the members of the press, automotive and nonautomotive, already covering the fair. As the only car shown there, the Mustang was the automotive game in town.

"The one big thing that made it different was that they introduced it in April not in September -- it was introduced all by itself," Farr said. "It wasn't going to be absorbed with all the publicity for new Chevrolets or something else."

The World's Fair introduction was widely covered by the press. Iacocca and the Mustang appeared on the covers of the Time and Newsweek that hit newsstands the week of the Mustang's introduction, something only President Kennedy had done before that.

Ford took out ads in more than 2,600 U.S. newspapers announcing the Mustang's arrival, reaching some 75 percent of American households, Automotive News reported at the time. Ads for the car appeared in 24 of the country's biggest magazines.

On the eve of the introduction, Ford sponsored half-hour programs about the Mustang on NBC, ABC and CBS, reaching an estimated 29 million people, and it ran spots heavily on 24 TV shows during the car's initial launch.

Ford even bought advertising for its advertising. A TV Guide ad promoted the Ford-sponsored Mustang programs on the major networks. "The most exciting thing you will see on television tonight is a commercial," the ad said.

The result was an undeniable success. The 47,000 Mustangs that Ford planned to build through May 1964 were sold out days after the car went on sale. U.S. sales hit more than 400,000 units in the first 12 months and the Mustang became the first nameplate in U.S. auto industry history to sell a million units in 24 months.

Mustang advertising touted the car's standard features, sportiness, good looks and the long list of options that consumers could choose from to customize their ride.

But perhaps the most important attribute in early Mustang ads was its starting price of $2,368.

The Mustang's low entry price made it affordable to the young baby boomers for whom the car was created. Widely promoting the car's base price was so important to the car's mission that Ford broke its own policy of not including a price in national advertising, a practice that was in place at Ford for decades.

"Not since before the war has Ford featured a nationally advertised price in a major advertising campaign," Chase Morsey Jr., Ford Division national marketing manager, told Automotive News in March 1964. "Yet the price of the Mustang is such a key ingredient in our marketing plans for this car that price will be included in virtually all of our national advertising beginning at announcement day."

Mustang, 'Mad Men' style

Peeking at Mustang ads from the 1960s provided by Ford Motor Co. reveals scores of ads featuring slogans, themes and artwork that seem like they have been plucked straight from an episode of AMC's "Mad Men."

A big theme of the ads was that Mustangs made their owners cool.

One print ad from 1965 featured "Desmond," a smiling, nerdy, bespectacled man in a bow tie sitting on a park bench with his blue Mustang hardtop in the background.

"Desmond was afraid to let the cat out ... until he got his Mustang," the copy read. "Mustang! A car to make weak men strong, strong men invincible. ... Desmond traded in his Persian kitten for an heiress named Olga. He had to. She followed him home."

That theme of the Mustang's transformational powers continued through the decade and gained steam as competitors such as the Chevrolet Camaro hit the streets.

The original Mustang TV ad

Other pony cars could outgun the Mustang in a war over performance specs, but Ford stuck to its cachet of cool for the Mustang. A magazine ad from 1968 focused on yet another bespectacled man, clad in corporate standard-issue white shirt and tie.

"Sidney spend Sundays seashelling at the seashore. Then Sidney started digging the '68 Mustang -- the great original," the ad said.

"Now Sydney's making waves all over. Last week he saved 3 bathing beauties. (And they all could swim better than Sydney!)"

Car ads up to that point had generally focused on pitching features, options and performance. Economy cars touted the low impact on your pocketbook. Luxury cars sold you on their sumptuous comfort and elegance. Mustang sold an identity, Craig said.

"There was never a car like the Mustang, so this advertising was new, it was different," Craig said. "You've got luxury cars and economy cars, and here comes Mustang that seats four, it's fun, it's got that great styling, it's fun to drive and it transforms the world for somebody whether they're 18 or 81. That's why the car sold so many."

Pitching the Mustang

You can reach Ryan Beene at autonews@crain.com

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