Retro-review: 1964 Ford Mustang

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Like Jed Clampett, who inadvertently struck oil while he was out huntin’ ‘coon, Ford’s General Manager Lee Iacocca probably didn’t fully realize just what he was about to tap into with his new low-cost “personal car,” the 1964 Mustang.

In the early 1960s, there was no “youth market” for automobiles – and the term, “pony car” had yet to be coined. But Iacocca – who had risen from obscurity in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania to lead the Ford division in a span of just five years – was plugged into the post-war collective unconscious and saw the need for a new kind of car for the emerging market of young and restless twentysomethings – the group that would eventually be called Baby Boomers.

The parameters for what became the first Mustang were simple and straightforward. It was to be inexpensive to manufacture, with a unitized body and mostly off-the-shelf suspension and chassis components. It would use existing and already proven drivetrains borrowed from other Ford models; there would be no risky gambles on elaborate new technologies the market might not be ready for – as GM had bravely (but ultimately unsuccessfully) tried with the radical for the day, rear-engined, air-cooled Chevy Corvair. Which of course, failed.

Lee’s new car would be compact and light, seat four, be peppy and sporty – and most important of all,it would have a starting price under $2,500. That would make it accessible to the demographic Iacocca saw as  an untapped vein of  profits for Ford.

Riding on a 108-inch wheelbase and modified Ford Falcon chassis, the first-year Mustang met Iaccoca’s every specification. It was also an out-of-the-park home run – with sales topping 670,000 units by the end of 1965.

No car since then has equaled this feat.

The initial run of Mustangs was offered in two basic bodystyles – a notchback hardtop coupe and a convertible – with a fastback coupe joining the lineup later in the model year. A huge range of optional equipment and trim levels were offered from the get-go. This was deliberate strategy, intended to let buyers more or less custom-order their car. Mustangs could be fitted out as a luxury tourers, economical runners – or tire-barking muscle cars. There was truly a Mustang for everyone – from young single guys to young at heart retirees who felt good cruising in their drop-top ‘Stang.

Like the VW Beetle, the Mustang transcended class and economic strata; drivers who could afford far more expensive machinery bought them as eagerly as those who had to beg and borrow every dime for the down payment. The car’s multiple personalities were also key to its long-term “legs.” Because it appealed to a much broader audience than just young single guys – as was the case with muscle cars such as Pontiac’s GTO – the Mustang was able to weather many a storm and survive long after the GTO and its kind had been felled by declining interest in one-dimensional muscle cars.

A look at the Mustang’s roster of available powertrains helps give one an idea how different one Mustang might be from another under the skin. The standard coupe’s engine was a boilerplate straight six very similar to the one used in the economy-oriented Falcon, initially displacing a modest 170 cubes – and offering an equally modest 101 horsepower. This was for buyers who wanted a “just the basics” car. Next up was a small V-8, the “Challenger” 260 – shared with the mid-sized Fairlane. This engine gave 164-hp and was a good compromise between economy and sportiness.

As production ramped up, another engine became available – the 289 CID “Hi-Po” V-8. This was the engine that began the frenzy and really put the Mustang on the map as a performance car. The presence of the 289 V-8 was denoted by chrome call-outs on the front fenders and prominent dual exhaust tips out back. This engine featured a high-revving solid lifter camshaft, low-restriction dual exhaust and four-barrel carburetor. It provided the gumption to get the Mustang to 60 mph in about 7 seconds if you knew how to work the heavy-duty 4-speed – and became the centerpiece of a new “GT ” performance package that also included full instrumentation with tachometer, floor-mounted shifter (manual or three-speed Cruise-O-Matic auto), firm-ride suspension and special interior and exterior trim bits.

That first 289 Hi-Po model was a big hit and became the leading edge of a “Total Performance” program from Ford that culminated, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in fearsome big block-equipped Mustangs like the twin-carbed 428 Cobra Jet and Boss 429 Mustangs that were just a few bends of the rule book away from all-out race cars.

In 1965, sales once again topped half-a-million units . Huge – but not quite equal that spectacular first-year run of 680,989. Still, the Mustang was enormously successful – the 1960s equivalent of what the Ford Explorer would be to later generations. Within three model years, GM would have two “pony cars” of its own to answer the Mustang’s challenge – the Pontiac Firebird and Chevy Camaro. Chrysler jumped into the ring, too  with its E-Body Barracuda and Challenger coupes. Even frumpy AMC felt the need to get a Mustang fighter into circulation – and ginned up the Javelin and AMX.

By 1970, there were more than half-a-dozen Mustang imitators on the market – each of them trying to horn in on the market the ’64 Mustang singlehandedly identified – and arguably exploited better than any of them.

By 1975, all of them except the Camaro and Firebird would be gone – victims of changing times and changing tastes they failed to adapt to. But the Mustang continued to evolve and so remained popular – even when Ford took a huge risk and downsized (and down-powered) the car in 1974, shifting the emphasis back toward the original 1964 concept of economy with touches of sportiness rather than all-out performance. This move – mocked at the time by enthusiasts – enabled the car to make it through the bleak desert of the 1970s and eventually stage a huge comeback in the early 1980s, when the resurrected “Boss 5.0” Mustang GT became (once again) one of the hottest sporty cars on the road.

The Mustang continued to slug it out with Chevy’s Camaro (and the Pontiac Firebird) through the 1990s – gaining ground by sticking with the proven formula of offering buyers multiple Mustangs to suit any need, from family-friendly runabout to head-banging quarter-miler, with a wealth of sub-models (Saleen, Cobra R, SVO). Camaro and Firebird, meanwhile, became ever-more single-minded – with horsepower and performance becoming the major (some critics say only) selling points by the mid-1990s. Unfortunately (for GM), this cost the Chevy and Pontiac sales – which dropped to an unsustainable low by the year 2000 that led to GM canceling production of the Mustang’s last Detroit-built competition after the ’02 season.

This left the Mustang as the sole survivor of the era of its conception – and as popular as ever following a hugely successful “retro-restyles” beginning with the 1994 models that gave the young buyers of the 21st century a chance to enjoy an automotive experience very similar to the one their Baby Boomer parents got to experience more than 40 years ago.

In a car called Mustang.

Throw it in the Woods?

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Eric,

    You forgot to mention the first pony car – the Plymouth Barracuda. It was actually introduced to the American market a few weeks BEFORE the Ford Mustang!

    Like the Mustang that was itself based on an existing platform – the Ford Falcon, the Barracuda was based on Plymouth’s Valiant.

    I think that there must have been some sort of exchange and passing back-and-forth in the learning curve between Ford and Chrysler back in those days trying to figure out just exactly what it was the American consumer wanted. Ford obviously had a better feel for it. The Mustang outsold the Barracuda by a wide margin and is still in production long after not only the Barracuda, but Plymouth itself has been resigned to the dust bin of history.

    But the Barracuda was first and credit where it is due.

  2. I love your articles on cars.
    I well remember the 1964 Mustang. There was a huge billboard announcing its introduction in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. As a (clueless) high school kid I had a faded-out red 1965 Mustang “notchback.” Unfortunately, it had a 200 cubic inch straight six and was slow as Christmas. It rode low and had skinny 4-lug stock wheels. It was a laughing stock at Pete’s Drive-In.
    In my neighborhood there was a real bad ass (“Hey, man, you wanna RUN that piece of shit?!) who had a 1965 convertible, black with gold pin stripes, a 289 High Performance, and DUALS! Man, was I jealous. The local dragway of choice was a downhill stretch of frontage road off Interstate 185. I later had a bottom-of-the-line 1969 (red with a black vinyl top, flat black hood with a fake air scoop, and a 302, two barrel). The ’69, however, could scorch its right rear tire and I got it over 100 mph on I-385 entering the city of Greenville, trying to impress a date. The highway took a slight dogleg at that point and I quickly learned the handling dynamics of a car without a rear anti-roll bar. The girl was impressed, all right. She danged near fainted. (My first brush with the law, however, was doing 60 in a 35 mph zone in my Mom’s 1972 Buick Estate Wagon. That car would FLY. It had a 455, if my memory serves me correctly).

    Later, my old man bought a nice yellow 1973 convertible (302, two-barrel). Meanwhile, my brother, the worst male driver I’ve ever known, wrecked the ’69 (Rear-ended a friend’s Corvair, I kid you not). Dad passed the ’73 on to me when I joined the Navy. I drove it back and forth between Greenville and Norfolk, Virginia, obtaining speeding tickets in three states. I crashed the ’73 in rural Virginia on a trip home while making an ill-advised u-turn in order to get gas and, ironically, to take a gander at a hopped-up Boss Mustang parked nearby. The old man had it fixed but it leaked and was never the same. In retrospect, I shudder to think what my Dad paid for auto insurance with two sons under 25, both with wrecks and moving violations.

    I knew another guy in high school who drove a gorgeous blue Boss 351. He was a twerp, but his girl friend was to die for! (Wonder if they’re on Facebook?)

    By the way, Car and Driver says the new 2012 Boss 302 is the best Mustang ever. I’ll leave that for people with 50 grand to decide.

  3. Are you kidding me? What a piece of S**t that car was. I was excited by the Mustang prototype in ’62 which was a mid engine 2 seat real sports car. the mustang Iacocca produced was a recycled 1940 ford with a sexy body and some more power. It couldn’t corner. It was the perfect car for the time, superficial appearance vs substance. The corvair was much more fun to drive. My god, it had worm gear steering, and a live rear axle! It was a great chick magnet though.

    • You’re gonna make the Ford people unhappy!

      I’ve owned a Corvair (’64 Monza coupe)… fun, but slow and fussy to keep up (multiple carbs had to be synched/balanced). Mustang was a simpler, easier to keep car and also had the advantage of being a very versatile car, which the Corvair was not.

      Still miss the ‘Vair, though!

    • I shouldn’t bite, but what was borrowed for the Mustang came from the Falcon’s rather new concepts and engines. It wouldn’t be until the early 80s that the basic chassis design would vanish from production when the Granada/Monarch was moved to the Fox platform. Roughly a 25 year run, certainly not a ’40 Ford.

      Corvair was too radically different for most people. And because it was different, because it required something different of drivers it became (unfairly) a target of Mr. Nader, who despite his recent reasonableness on foreign policy is someone who effectively wants risk and innovation replaced with sameness and regulation.

      • I’m no fan of Nader, but I don’t agree that he killed the Corvair. Bad timing killed the Corvair. It came out just shortly before the horsepower/muscle car trend took off. Though designed to be primarily an economy car, it was looked upon to a great extent as a sporty car – but it couldn’t deliver the goods. Even the turbo Spyders were slow; easy meat for a V-8 Mustang GT.

        They were better engineered than the similar in layout VW Beetle. I’ve owned both, by the way – so I’m speaking from direct personal experience.

        However, the multi-carb system in the ‘Vair was not easy to keep synched and balanced and the thermostatically controlled doors for the air-cooling system were failure prone and not very reliable. The early (’60-’63) cars did have a major lift-throttle, oversteer/”tuck-in” problem – but the transverse leaf installed in ’64 fixed this. Still, maintaining correct air pressure front to rear was crucial.

        I think the ’65-’69 Corvairs were much better. But, again, the timing was just not right. Now, had this car (the ’65 Corvair) been released as a new model around 1974 or so, when people began to care about fuel costs/economy again, etc., – I think it would have done well.

        • I don’t think he killed it, only that he made it a target because it was different (which didn’t help).

          Corvair was more of a platform. It was a van, a pickup, a four door sedan, and a coupe. A sporty car was just one facet of the corvair program but usually the only one people remember. It failed across the board. For whatever reasons people eventually grew tired of or rejected the concept.

          GM did produce an economy car some years later in the 80s that fits the corvair coupe mold, the Fiero. Another good idea poorly executed by GM that will take decades for people to try again.

          • I would not say the Corvair failed at all. Production run over ten years was 1.78 million cars. (http://corvaircentral.com/production_totals.html) They were in production for a decade, through two distinct variations, not including the forward control trucks. GM stopped developing them due to lessened demand, caused by Nader, and GMs response to him. If they had continued… think the American 911. In fact, a 66 Corvair Corsa, either with turbo 180 HP, or the 4 carb 140, was a match for the same year Porsche. The Porkers had better brakes, Corvairs could carry 4 people and in some, you could put the top down. With the F41 HD suspension, and quick steering, they handled better than any rear engine car had a right to. Think of them as a sports car. The most successful British sports car of the era was the MGB. They only sold a half a million cars over 18 years and were considered a roaring success. ( they were decent cars to be fair.

            So, give the ‘Vair it’s due. It sold as many cars as the Falcon did, over pretty much the same time period. Besides, thanks to Nader, it is the last truly innovative American car. Like 4 door hard tops, things like this are gone forever.

          • Well, sort of…

            The first generation (’60-’64) cars were successful. Especially the first 2-3 years. But they were in decline by ’64 (when the “handling issue” was addressed by adding the transverse rear leaf). Sales of the second generation (’65-’69) were weak even though the car was much sportier, more refined and (arguably) better looking. (Chevy stylist Bill Mitchell, who did the first generation Camaro, also penned the body of the ’65-’69 Corvair). The final 2 years were in steep decline. I don’t blame Nader for this- even though he tried.

            It was just the wrong time for the car. The mid-late ’60s were all about horsepower and V-8s. The Corvair’s flat six could not compete with those V-8s, not as a volume car anyhow. And Chevy needed volume (unlike Porsche). And the Corvair lacked the cachet to compete with Porsche. It didn’t fit Chevy’s model lineup at the time, or the market at the time…

            I agree that GM should have stayed with it and continued to develop the car. It might have done much better had it survived into the ’70s, when the market for that sort of car – a inexpensive compact that was light/agile and fairly efficient – greatly increased.

  4. I love the 1965 mustang production record figures… there’s no straight answer it seems. It’s really in how the measuring points are decided. 1966 Mustang and 1970 Maverick are both up there depending on what time period is considered a “model year”. ’66 mustang for a oct-sept model year was over 600K, ’70 maverick for an april-aug or sept run was 579K. Maverick can be subdivided into 69.5 and 70 too. ’65 mustang is often quoted as april’64 – december’65 (680K ) or april to april (418K), or april ’64-oct’64 is ‘64.5 and Oct’64-Oct’65 for 1965. It’s all so very convoluted and I am sure I missed some common dividing lines. Every source seems to do it a little different. Some even just go to the first million units which was reached some time in ’66 or the end of ’66 run. Clear as mud. Regardless “1965 Mustang” sold a ton of cars in figures that will probably never be seen again for a single model.

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