Fifty years ago, the first Baby Boomers hit 18 with a ravenous appetite for anything outside the mainstream. The U.S. economy was booming, and the country was yearning to shake off the November 1963 assassination of President Kennedy.
Ford Motor couldn't have timed the entirely new car better.
On April 17, 1964, the Ford Mustang sporty car went on sale — and exploded into American culture as no other car had since the Model T.
The Mustang gave Ford a vehicle with a halo that to this day outshines less-exciting models. And it made Ford executive Lee Iacocca look like a genius for promoting production of the iconic model.
The Mustang, which was introduced at the New York World's Fair, carried a price tag starting at $2,368 — or $17,934 in today's dollars.
This week, Ford will mark the birthday at the New York Auto Show by recreating the 1964 public relations stunt of disassembling a Mustang, taking it up in elevators and reassembling it on the Empire State Building's observation deck.
Mustang fans also plan big events, including at the speedways in Charlotte and Las Vegas.
Iacocca, attuned to the value of symbolism, pushed to sell 417,000 Mustangs in the first 12 months, to mark the 4/17 launch. The car hit 418,812, according to Ford archives. That marked a huge success, considering that auto sales at the time were about half of what they are today. Sales of Mustang — a specialty car — were about even with today's mainstream, high-volume family sedans such as Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The car became so popular that just about everybody at Ford in those days had a story about the car. The favorite of the late Don Frey, the engineer who conceived the Mustang, was a letter he got from a Texas janitor shortly after the launch: "I've been courting this 5,000-acre widow for years. I finally got her in my red pony. Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Iacocca, known for his marketing savvy, pitched the Mustang as "the car designed to be designed by you." That was his way of inviting buyers to add high-profit options that did not come with the base vehicle, such as power windows.
A tough sell for Iacocca
Frey collaborated with Ford product engineer Harold "Hal" Sperlich under Iacocca's sponsorship to finally get the green light to build the Mustang — on their fifth try.
Iacocca "took the major burden of getting the thing (Mustang) sold to the top brass" — not an easy task, because Ford still was smarting from the spectacular failure of its 1958-1960 Edsel line, Frey recounted in a past interview with USA TODAY.
Frey, who died in 2010, had said came up with the Mustang concept after his children razzed him about Ford's boring lineup. As a big shot at Ford product development, he was singularly positioned to do something about it.
Sperlich quickly saw the potential in Frey's idea. "Hal Sperlich took the Ford Falcon economy car and used as many parts as he could," recalled fast-car guru and Mustang hop-up artist Carroll Shelby in a 2004 interview, as the car celebrated its 40th birthday.
Using the Falcon undercarriage to save money, Frey's crew and that of Ford styling chief Joe Oros made numerous prototypes until Oros' stylists finally got the desired "Italian" look: thin and elegant wrap-around bumpers, air scoops on the sides, a long hood to imply a big engine, small trunk to suggest an impetuous buy-what-we-need-when-we-get-there attitude, and a hefty medallion on the grille as Italian maker Maserati might use.
Company chief Henry Ford II finally gave the OK. He showed up at a styling studio in the fall of 1962, and in typically salty fashion, as Frey recalled it, said: "Frey, I'm tired of hearing about your (expletive) Mustang. I'm gonna approve it, and it's your ass if it doesn't sell."
In a past interview with USA TODAY, Oros, who died in 2012, said that Mustang was "the most exciting car that I worked on at Ford. It was just unbelievable."
Mustang's appeal is unique. It lures everybody from hot-rodders smitten with the car's hop-up potential to the mild-mannered who can have that same kick-butt image in a tamer model at a bargain price.
Purists might accuse Ford of stretching the truth by claiming the Mustang has been in continuous production since 1964. Yes, there have been cars called Mustang since the start. But the infamous 1974-1978 Mustang II was wholly different.
That car was a shrunken version of the traditional Mustang, built atop the Ford Pinto economy car chassis with a four-cylinder standard engine. It kept the name alive through the oil embargo of 1973 and the fuel shortages and small-car import invasion that followed.
Adding "II" to the name makes it clear that even Ford had trouble keeping a straight face calling that one a Mustang.
The car also almost died after the 1993 model. But Ford engineer John Coletti and other company Mustang enthusiasts, dubbed the Gang of Eight, couldn't imagine Ford without Mustang.
Working on their own time in an old Montgomery Ward warehouse away from Ford's Dearborn, Mich., headquarters, they developed a plan to carry over some parts and mildly modify others, to keep costs down, while designing a new body and interior. Then-CEO, flinty Harold "Red" Poling, gave it the "Go" after a grueling interrogation of the Gang and a written promise from them to deliver the car on time, under budget.
The classic Mustang debate remains about the first one — launched outside the then-customary fall new-model launch — is a "1964½" or 1965?
Ford archivist Dean Weber says the vehicle identification numbers (VIN) were coded as 1965 from the very first, so, in the minds of DMV clerks everywhere, the issue's settled. But, he says, some internal Ford documents refer to "the 1964½ car," giving license to that designation.
Regardless, those earliest Mustangs were anathema to Shelby, who died in 2012. His reputation is woven throughout the Mustang story, but he said in the 2004 interview, "I had nothing to do with the original Mustang."
It seemed lame, he said: "Secretary's car ... They didn't even have the 289 high-performance engine then."
From mule to racehorse
The 289 cubic-inch V-8 — a 4.7-liter in today's reckoning — was among a Ford series of engines that didn't weigh much or take much space, but were robust enough to modify for extraordinary power: 271 horsepower from the 289 engine, Ford eventually reached.
But that wasn't enough. "Iacocca called me and said, 'Carroll, can you make this a sports car?'" Shelby said his reaction was, "These guys want me to make a mule into a racehorse."
Which he did, building it at his own Shelby American operation instead of at Ford directly. "It's a constant fight over stuff in those big companies," he said. "Built it on the outside because you can do things twice as fast for half the money."
Those 1965 through 1967 Shelby Mustangs today are coveted by collectors willing to pay more than $100,000 for a good example at recent classic-car auctions.
On the Mustang's 40th anniversary, Bill Ford, the company's executive chairman, said, "The Mustang's always made money, but its importance has always been way beyond financial. It's a halo car for other products. Its contribution to the company always has been greater than its sales."
As Ford Motor readies a redesigned, 2015 Mustang due later this year, Ford hasn't lost his enthusiasm. In a recent video to employees, he said: "This is the most important product we have, at least to me personally. Every time we unveil a Mustang, the stakes are raised."