Editor's note: 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.
Fifty years ago, Lee Iacocca gamely predicted the Ford Mustang would represent "more things to more people than any other automobile on the road."
But even Iacocca, the young but masterful head of Ford Division, couldn't predict the sensational success of the first pony car.
Backed by an unprecedented marketing blitz, the Mustang became an overnight symbol of personal freedom and moderately priced mobility to young people with big expectations.
An emerging generation of car buyers bored by the staid cars of the Eisenhower era helped generate Mustang sales of over half a million units each in 1965 and 1966 -- unheard of for a new model at the time.
The golden shine from the Mustang's spectacular launch has long since faded. But with a series of anniversary celebrations planned this week from coast to coast, Ford aims to shower at least some of the original pony car's magic dust on the redesigned 2015 model, the first Mustang crafted for global markets.
In New York, where the car was unveiled 50 years ago this week, Ford will stage a 2015 Mustang on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building and hold a ceremony Thursday at the Flushing Meadows site where Henry Ford II introduced the Mustang at the 1964 World's Fair.
At racetracks in Concord, N.C., and Las Vegas, Ford and the Mustang Club of America will host more than 5,000 Mustangs and about 100,000 owners and fans.
"If we look at what Mustang was originally, it appealed to the masses," says Mark Schaller, Mustang product marketing manager. "It had a certain appeal we're trying to recapture with the 2015 model."
The 2015 Ford Mustang arrives this fall in an automotive marketplace that's radically different from those heady days in 1964. Smartphones and tablets now rival or eclipse automobiles as objects of desire among younger consumers.
Pony cars have become a niche segment in a marketplace crowded with choices. The days of half a million sales are ancient history. The Mustang never topped annual sales of 400,000 after those heady early years. U.S. deliveries totaled just 77,186 last year.
IHS Automotive predicts the 2015 Mustang will catch and pass its bitter rival, Chevrolet's Camaro, in 2015, with U.S. sales topping 100,000 for the first time since 2007. Altogether, sporty coupes, convertibles and roadsters accounted for just over 3 percent of all light vehicles sold in the United States in 2013 -- a rate that is forecast to rise slightly to 4 percent in 2017, according to IHS.
The 2015 Mustang is going high tech with gizmos connected consumers now take for granted. The redesigned Mustang will include Ford's AppLink smartphone connectivity system. It will get a backup camera; push-button ignition; cross-traffic alert, which warns drivers of traffic when backing out of parallel and perpendicular parking spaces; forward collision warning; and adaptive cruise control.
Independent rear suspension, available only on a few limited-edition performance Mustangs of the past, will now be offered across the board. A new 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder engine will give Mustang some appeal to customers in search of fuel savings.
Calling all millennials
Karl Brauer, senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book, says one key element of the marketplace today isn't as different from 1964 as it might seem: "What's similar is you've got a budding potential youth market called millennials we've all heard of that is big and potentially would be very intrigued by a sporty coupe, especially an affordable sporty coupe, which is exactly what Ford was targeting in 1964 with the original Mustang."
Older consumers with fond memories of the Mustang's original introduction will also be drawn to the 2015 model, Brauer says.
The challenge, says Brauer, is that household finances in 2014 are not as robust as they were in 1964.
"The economy isn't particularly good, especially for young car buyers," Brauer says. "We see that with the lack of young car buying activity right now."
Beyond the Detroit 3's venerable pony cars, the personal coupe market these days is much more diverse, ranging from the Hyundai Veloster and Volks- wagen GTI to the Subaru-Scion half siblings.
"The [Subaru] BRZ and [Scion] FR-S are doing well. They're selling better than either of those brands thought they would," says Brauer.
Still, few other segments are as fickle and prone to peaks and valleys as sporty coupes.
Dave Sullivan, an analyst for AutoPacific, describes today's pony car segment as stagnant.
It's one of those "iconic segments where automakers feel the need to play in" even though the annual volumes per model aren't 100,000-plus anymore, he says.
The current Mustang and its pony car rivals now cater to a grayer audience -- including many boomers old enough to remember the car when it arrived half a century ago.
In 2013, 37 percent of Mustang customers were age 55 and older, compared to 30 percent for the Chevrolet Camaro and 29 percent for the Dodge Challenger, according to Edmunds.com data from U.S. retail registrations compiled by Polk.
Jessica Caldwell, an analyst for Edmunds, says boomers and those aged 35 to 54 are likely to remain the Mustang's primary buyers. The groups are also more likely to be able to afford a car like the Mustang as a second or third car.
"Millennials like it," Caldwell says, "but whether they have cash to pay for it is a whole separate matter."
Men still dominate the segment overwhelmingly. In 2013, 74 percent of Mustang buyers were men compared to 68 percent for the Camaro and 73 percent for the Challenger.
The Mustang plays a bigger, symbolic role that reverberates well beyond its sales volume, Caldwell says.
"It's a good tool for dealers," she says. "People talk about Mustang more than volumes would suggest. People talk about Mustang more than they would the Camry even though the Camry outsells it."
Palm Springs Ford, Cathedral City, Calif.
Defying segment boundaries
Some Ford dealers say consumer interest is already high even though they won't be able to place orders until August.
"It's going to be in very, very short supply when it comes to market because we're getting all sorts of inquiries," says Paul Thiel, owner of Palm Springs Ford in Cathedral City, Calif. "They're not just people asking but people wanting to place an order."
Thiel says he's getting interest from a wide range of customers.
"It's going to create its own market," he says. "You're not going to be able to say the Mustang is X percentage of this segment."
Randall Reed, CEO of World Class Automotive, a Dallas-based dealership group that owns five Ford stores in Texas and one in Oklahoma, says the 2015 Mustang is generating a lot more interest from women than the current Mustang.
Reed, who normally sells about 750 Mustangs a year, is buying 2014 Mustangs aggressively. He says he has ordered 1,000 2014 Mustangs and isn't worried about the 2014 sell-down hurting demand for the 2015 car.
"The old Mustang is a little long in the tooth, and the Camaro has been kicking our butt the last few years," Reed says. "The new Mustang styling is a game changer."
Reed says he is happy the Mustang will have independent rear suspension because he believes the new setup will boost its track performance and give it more street cred in Europe.
Larry Taylor, owner of Beau Townsend Ford-Lincoln in Vandalia, Ohio, acknowledges the Mustang's market is more limited these days.
"Mustang is a specialty car. It's not for everybody. They're rear-wheel drive, not as good for bad weather."
But Taylor believes the Mustang still has something that defies logic.
"It's going to create a buzz. It will create enthusiasm around our showrooms. It improves the image of Ford Motor Co. For a while we were dialed into demographics -- 50 to 60 years old. These days we're seeing younger buyers."
John Wolkonowicz, a former design consultant on the Mustang, said the Mustang and other sporty cars maintain a special place in a market that has become highly homogenized.
The Mustang's legacy is one reason automakers such as Toyota and Kia, bidding for more brand spirit, are hinting at plans to offer new sports cars.
"Mustang is part of a very elite group of muscle cars, along with a handful of rear-wheel-drive American cars," Wolkonowicz told Automotive News last year. "The Mustang is in some ways more special than it was in 1964 because the average car today is very bland."