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."