Few screeching Hollywood car chases have ever been so dramatic. For close to eleven minutes Steve McQueen’s Highland Green V8 Mustang GT390 hurtles after a jet black ’68 Dodge Charger, propelled up, over and around the saw-toothed streets of San Francisco. This was Bullitt, a cop-thriller from 1968, four years after the Ford Mustang first went on sale. What had been a laid-back, fun-for-all-the-family sports car had mutated into a muscular machine, packing a fast and furious automotive punch.
This Jekyll-and-Hyde quality was key to the early success of this characterful, value-for-money European-sized car from Dearborn, Michigan launched fifty years ago at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. A Mustang could be as gentle as a kitten or as fierce as a hungry tiger: there were countless options available to prospective buyers back then.
Before writing this piece, I drove the most junior model. Powered - if that’s the right word - by a 2.8l six-cylinder engine, it felt slower and far less capable around corners than, for example, today’s Fiat 500 Twin Air. And, with a three-speed manual gearbox, low-geared steering and drum brakes, anything but sporting. This Mustang looked good, though, and who really cares how fast it is on a sunny day with the hood down, cruising and playing the radio with no particular place to go?
Designed by an in-house Lincoln-Mercury Division team led by Joe Oros – born in Cleveland, Ohio to non-English speaking Romanian parents – at Ford’s Dearborn plant, the Mustang was a successful attempt to shape a sporting car embodying a fusion of American and European virtues. This, of course, was much like the legendary P-51 Mustang – the best World War II fighter and a very happy marriage indeed between British and American engineering – that appears to have given the new Ford its name. The Mustang was also named after the wild horse of the American West, enduring symbol of personal freedom and wide-open spaces.
Like all Fords, the Mustang was built to a price. Lee Iacocca, Ford’s vice president in charge of the project wanted the car to come in at under $2,500, which it did, and comfortably so at a time when the average US salary was $6,000 and ‘gas’ cost 30 cents a gallon. The new car was also wanted in a hurry to fill a perceived gap in the market for a sports car for young men and women who found themselves with children in tow but were not yet ready to settle down in the wide, bench-seats of big and sloppy American sedans. Using a variety of existing components drawn from other Fords, and notably the compact Falcon, the production Mustang was ready for sale in just 18 months. Ford predicted annual sales of 100,000. In the event, 22,000 were sold on the first day, with the millionth car rolling off the production line within a year and a half.
Not only did Time and Newsweek splash the new car on their front covers, but a Mustang was on the big screen within months of its launch, driving up Swiss mountain passes with a glamorous female at the wheel in the James Bond caper Goldfinger. This free publicity certainly helped to boost sales, yet for the design team, one of the best – because, the most glamorous – accolades came the following year when the Mustang became the very first car to be awarded the Tiffany Gold Medal for Excellence in American design.
Joe Oros had aimed to style the car so it had something of the look – from the front end at least – of a contemporary Ferrari or Maserati. This was, after all, the era when Europe came to the States and won American hearts, minds and ears. When the Mustang was unveiled in New York, Beatlemania was taking the country by storm, with A Hard Day’s Night at Number 1 on the US charts. Mary Quant’s mini-skirts were newly on sale in Fifth Avenue stores along with hip, flat-heeled ‘go-go’ boots from Courrege, while Goldfinger, the top performing film in US cinemas in 1964, took nearly ten times more in box office revenue than the next highest film, the Italian ‘spaghetti western’ . . But, 1964 was undoubtedly a complex and contradictory year for the States. President Johnson pushed his Civil Rights Act through congress and launched a ‘war on poverty’ even as his administration geared up for all-out war in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, if the ’64 Mustang had looked long and hard at Europe for inspiration, Steve McQueen’s Bullitt car was definitely born in and for the USA. Hardtop, soft-top, fastback: buyers paid their few thousand dollars and took their choice of Ford’s ‘Pony Car’, a phrase chosen by the motor industry for compact sporting cars with long hoods and short tails. But, if not inevitably, the original Mustang began to grow, putting on bulk and weight. It began to lose its looks and something of its sunny nature, too. Sales slipped.
Cars like Toyota’s Celica, Opel’s Manta and the Ford Capri from the UK all took cues from the Mustang. They muscled their way into the market as Ford’s ‘Pony Car’ lost its way, especially at the time of the 1973 oil crisis.
Nevertheless, the Mustang has been in continuous production in various more or less successful guises over the decades and is now into its sixth generation. If this bigger, contemporary car lacks anything, it’s that spirit of laid-back, wind-in-the-hair innocence embodied by the Mustang of half a century ago, along with its promise of a wilder side popularly expressed in the Bonny Rice song Mustang Sally - a hit for Wilson Pickett in 1966: “Mustang Sally, uh-huh/Guess you better slow your Mustang down”. In the words of Ford’s Lee Iacocca, thinking of that first, and best, Mustang: “The Mustang market never left us, we left it.”