The Rearview Mirror: The Pony Car is Born


This week, on April 14, 1964, the automotive press saw what the general public would see three days later, a new car that was first confirmed by a Ford Motor Co. press release in February.

Ford Motor Co. executives Lee Iacocca and Don Frey with the 1964-1/2 Ford Mustang.

“Ford Division confirmed today that it will introduce a new line of cars this spring,” said the press release issued Feb. 6, 1964, by Lee Iacocca, vice president of Ford Motor Co. “The new line of cars will be called the Mustang … no further details on the new car line will be revealed until the time of its public introduction.”

The car would become an icon for Ford and create a new class of automobile, the Pony Car.

With a 108-inch wheelbase, 2,500-pound curb weight and a $2,368 price tag, Ford sold 22,000 Mustangs on the first day. Its popularity proved unprecedented. But its development was a long one, having started in 1960. 

Healthy sales despite stodgy cars

Ford’s bestseller at the time was the Ford Falcon, a sensible unexciting compact sedan introduced that year alongside such new competitors as the Chevrolet Corvair, Plymouth Valiant, AMC Rambler and Studebaker Lark. Ford’s bird was the most successful, selling more than 400,000 units in its initial year. The car was emblematic of the Ford line under Ford Motor President Robert McNamara: solid, conservative and dull. 

The 1960 Ford Falcon platform was dull but popular, and used as a basis for the first Ford Mustang.

As Ford Automotive Division general manager and vice president, McNamara took the two-seat Ford Thunderbird, introduced for 1955, and added rear seats in 1958, instantly eliminating its cache. The elegant, Lincoln Continental Mark II was dropped and the ungainly Edsel introduced instead, leading to a $250 million flop. In its wake, Henry Ford II proved reluctant to consider any new cars and the company’s products became increasingly stodgy and dull.

By 1960, McNamara was named Ford Automotive Division’s president, with Lee Iacocca inheriting his old spot, but the arrangement wouldn’t last long. When McNamara left Ford in late 1960 to become Secretary of Defense under President John F. Kennedy, Iacocca was named Ford Division President. He was 36 years old.

A market looking for a car

The first Mustang, the 1962 Mustang I, is a two seat, mid-engine sports car.

But Iacocca was becoming aware of the emerging youth market, one that was entering their teenage years and would soon be driving. He felt a car should be made to meet the market. In late 1960, Iacocca formed a committee of Ford managers to investigate the possibilities, but knowing Henry’s reluctance, convened the new team at The Fairlane Inn, a motor lodge two miles west of Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, and away from prying eyes.

What the The Fairlane Committee discovered was what they termed “a market looking for a car.”

Ford market research had consistently shown that college educated consumers, like the Baby Boomers now coming of age, accounted for 46% of new car purchasers despite the fact they only made up 18% of the overall population. Research also showed that women car owners were one of the segments growing most quickly and that they would be the ones most likely to use a second car. But it would have to be small, maneuverable and be easy to park.

The Euro-styled Ford Allegro was one of the early proposals for what would become the Mustang.

As committee pondered its emerging customer, they noted that “given the ingredients of youth, education, good pay and a desire for style and sportiness in automobiles, we still had to keep in mind that a large segment of the market we were aiming at was made up of young people … had good potential and fancy tastes in durable goods — but relatively little ready cash.”

Ford begins work on a new steed

Research in hand, Iacocca wanted to launch the car in April 1964 at the New York World’s Fair. But first, they had to bring the car to life. 

As designers started creating proposals for the new car, Hal Sperlich, Ford special projects assistant, proposed building the car on the Ford Falcon chassis, which would save $400 million in development costs, an important consideration in light of the Edsel’s losses. And, the Falcon was about the size of the car they hoped to build.

In 1962, Gene Bordinat’s version Allegro established the basic proportions that would define most Mustangs.

But what to call it? Monte Carlo, Monaco, Torino and Cougar were all considered. Advertising agency J. Walter Thompson suggested Bronco and Colt. As they wrangled over names, designers got to work in spring 1962. 

Mustangs that never were

The first Mustang, the 1962 Mustang I, was nearly a race car, with a tubular frame, aluminum skin and a fully independent suspension. Measuring 154 inches long, weighing 1,200 pounds and boasting two seats, its 90-horsepower, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine propelling it to 60 mph in about 10 seconds. Ford general manager Lee Iacocca declared it too radical. 

The next proposal was the 1962 Ford Cougar a fastback designed by Jack Telnack, who became Ford’s vice president for global design in 1987. The Cougar name, later used by Mercury, was one of the names employed until the Mustang name was approved. Another was Avanti, which was changed to Allegro when Studebaker introduced a coupe using that name.

In 1963, there was considerable debate about which direction the Ford Cougar’s cat should face.

Ford built 13 versions of the Allegro, none of which resembled the production Mustang. But they did establish its proportions: long hood, short rear deck and a compact passenger compartment. Yet by summer, the Allegro was shelved and designers were given two weeks to create something fresh. Seven proposals resulted, with a concept named Cougar given the go-ahead for production. 

But there still one person who could scuttle the project: Henry Ford II.

The pony car gets a thumbs up

On Sept. 10, 1962, Iacocca presented the full-sized clay model to Henry Ford II. He approved the car, still called the Cougar, with three caveats. First, its cost to the company will be $45 million, not the $75 million Iacocca requested. Next, it has to have an inch of added legroom in the backseat and, finally unlike the Edsel, it has to sell.

Once approved, Ford built a premium sporty car for an economy car price.

To prove that it will, The Mustang I is taken to Watkins Glen, N.Y., where racecar driver Dan Gurney dazzles the automotive press and crowd when he surpasses 100 mph. 

In the meantime, Hal Sperlich, who would later develop Chrysler K-Cars and minivans, was named the Mustang’s program manager, and within a year, 200 pilot production cars are being evaluated. 

An icon is born

By March 10, 1964, the first Mustangs are being strategically shipped to Ford dealers worldwide, awaiting its debut. Iacocca took no chances with its unveiling, running ads in 2,600 newspapers nationwide, and airing and prime time commercials on all three broadcast TV networks the night before the launch at the World’s Fair.

The car and the executive who stewarded its birth land on the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines. It’s a hit. Ford sells 22,000 Mustangs in the first day, peddling 418,000 in its first year of production. It would spawn a host of imitators, and a whole new class of car — the Pony Car.

It’s this week that we salute the birth of an icon that survives until today, a reminder that cars that cater to the young and young-at-heart remain an eternal part of the automotive industry. 


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