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The 2014 Mustang. (Ford)
The 2014 Mustang. (Ford)

Ford Mustang GT

Cato: An icon turns 50 - Ford tinkers with Mustang's DNA Add to ...

Here we are, nearly 50 years later and Ford has sold more than 8.5 million Mustangs.

On April 17, 2014, the American icon officially turns 50, and for the sixth-generation, something big is going to happen.

Starting in the new year, Ford will begin setting the stage for the arrival of an all-new, 2015 Mustang. Rumours are swirling that the new Mustang will be designed for the global market, compromising North American tastes in order to appease European, Asian and South American buyers.

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America will be watching. The Mustang embodies the spirit of an era characterized by American power, optimism and consumer aspiration. Built on humble mechanical underpinnings, it is a 1960s dream car, striking a lasting chord with its perfect, breezy style.

Originally designed to win over women, the Mustang tapped into the hearts of middle-aged men – Second World War veterans like my father. A child of the Depression who survived convoy duty in the North Atlantic, going from Halifax to Liverpool and back while just a teenager, my dad was smitten with the Mustang. He envied our next-door neighbour, who had the first one on the block.

Dad and the neighbour would spend hours leaning against the ’Stang, talking about it, admiring it – even as they swapped stories about their war years while looking ahead to the future of their children, the baby boomers. They loved that Mustang and they loved the progress it represented. To them, it in part said: “We made it out of all that, and life is pretty good now.”

All this passion for, as Jack Roush once told me, a car that was “nothing more than a Ford Falcon in different sheet metal – and no self-respecting, red-blooded male would have been caught within a hundred yards of a Falcon.” Roush was a Ford engineer (1964-69), legendary racer and NASCAR team owner whose first car was a 1965 Mustang.

The original Mustang product manager, veteran engineer Don Frey, had been tapped by Henry Ford II to oversee the project.

“He [Ford] said: ‘Sell it or your ass is out of here,’” Frey once told me. Frey said he was more than ready to sell something sexy like a Mustang. After all, Ford’s pre-Mustang 1961 lineup was a sad spectacle.

“One day my kids said to me: ‘Dad, your cars suck,’” – a comment he would pass on to Hal Sperlich, a senior Ford boss who later went to Chrysler to help invent the minivan. “I told him and others that our cars suck and that we should do something about it,” said Frey. “But you have to remember that, at that time, Ford was still reeling from the failure of the Edsel, and really wasn’t anxious for a new car.”

Joe Oros, the original chief designer, once told me the secret to the success of the legendary pony car: “Keep the ladies in mind because they decide what the men buy. Two, I said: Let’s design a front end that has a feel of a Ferrari. Three, let’s use a European bumper. And let’s have a three-light design at the taillights.”

The very first Mustang to roll off the assembly line ended up in the hands of airline pilot Stanley Tucker of St. John’s, Nfld.
 

While other Mustangs were made first for promotional purposes and testing, the first Mustang to roll off the assembly line was a white V-8 convertible, later sold by mistake in St. John’s, Nfld., to Stanley Tucker, an airline captain with Eastern Provincial Airways. Today, it’s in the Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich.

Sadly, the modern version has almost no appeal in England and Japan. Raj Nair, Ford’s vice-president of global product development, recently told an industry publication that while the 2015 Mustang will be made in keeping with the One Ford product strategy, the company won’t be going out on a limb.

“We’ve got a very strong idea of what a Mustang is. That’s what Mustang will always be,” he told Automotive News. “It’s an American icon, but it’s not solely an American passion.”

Perhaps the car’s greatest champion inside Ford is Jim Farley, group vice-president of marketing and head of the Lincoln brand. Farley raced his own 1965 Mustang Shelby Cobra at the recent Monterey Historics and finished second in his class.

He did not deny the reports that the next Mustang will have an independent rear suspension, turbocharging, and right-hand drive for markets such as Britain and Japan. He called the Mustang a “broad American idea of self-expression.” But unlike a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, the Mustang is aspirational “for Europeans and people around the world.”

That means Steve McQueen’s idea of a Boss 302 is too limiting for a 21st-century global Mustang. It also means the growling, grumbling 2014 Mustang GT that I test-drove is surely the last of its breed.

If a Mustang is a Mustang, the future surely must be found in the past – where the Mustang came from, how it came to be. Ford introduced it on April 17, 1964 at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. To create buzz, Ford aired Mustang commercials on the major American television networks the night before. The world was ready when Henry Ford II performed the unveiling and then joined Walt Disney in a convertible Mustang down Disney’s Magic Skyway creation at the Ford Pavilion.

The first 1964-1/2 Mustang was an instant hit. (Sources say that Ford of Canada is planning to showcase the car at the Montreal auto show in January).

Ford sold nearly 22,000 the day it went on sale. In the first year, more than 400,000 were bought and in the first two years, more than one million.

The Mustang defined the pony car segment, but it evolved into a muscle car, spawning rivals such as the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Dodge Barracuda and AMC Javelin. That was quite an achievement for a car based on the modest, inexpensive Ford Falcon.

The high-performance Mustangs that came later were nothing like the first Mustangs, though. The first coupe and convertible Mustangs came with one of four engines – from a base 101-horsepower, 170-cubic-inch six-cylinder to a four-barrel 289-cubic-inch V-8 with 271 horsepower. A 200-cubic-inch inline V-6 and a two-barrel version of the 289 came later in the model year.

Even with a weak product lineup, Ford’s finance department vetoed funding for a sporty car four times before Henry Ford II approved it. Then-Ford division chief Lee Iacocca was central in all this. He championed the future Mustang.

“The Mustang was bare-bones stuff,” said Iacocca, the executive credited with being father of the Mustang, in the 2005 book Six Men Who Built the Modern Auto Industry. Ford had based the Mustang’s financials on selling 75,000 in the first year; actual sales reached nearly 525,000.

Not only did the car promise to transform Ford’s image, it made business sense. Iacocca loved the idea of taking the low-cost, high-quality chassis of a Falcon and turning it into what came to be known at Ford as the “Sporty Car” – until the name Mustang was settled upon. It could be sold at a premium on the Falcon while creating a sensation in showrooms and neighbourhoods.

“Lee Iacocca had to sell it to senior management and he did the job,” said Frey. “Senior management hated it. Henry Ford didn’t even like the name. He wanted to call it Thunderbird II. But my God, we created an icon.”

Ford’s senior management today doesn’t need to be sold on the Mustang. The problem for Ford, a company that flirted with bankruptcy a few short years ago: what should a 21st century Mustang be?

I am betting the next Mustang will return to its roots in one way: it will appeal to women. Again, as Oros told me: “Keep the ladies in mind because they decide what the men buy.” That hasn’t changed in 50 years, and never will.

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