This week the Ford Flat Rock Assembly Plant outside Detroit produced its one millionth Ford Mustang. It was fitting, since yesterday the Mustang turned 49, having first been unveiled in its production form on April 18 at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It’s been almost half a century and since then few American cars have captured our attention like the Ford’s sprinting horse. Twenty-two thousand Mustangs were ordered on the first day it was available.
But why are we celebrating the 49th anniversary? Why not the 50th? Because we have a feeling that we’ll be covering bigger news around this time next year, when Ford pulls the sheet off the 2015, 6th generation Mustang.
We haven’t seen that car yet, so we’ll just take a moment and trace its heroic lineage, starting with the first generation, widely remembered as the best.
Most Americans first saw the Mustang when it showed up briefly in the 1964 film Goldfinger. But auto enthusiasts had been gushing over it since the concept version, the Mustang I, appeared at Watkins Glen in 1962. Dan Gurney was behind the wheel of that car, and took the mid-engine, 2-seat roadster around the Glen faster than some F1 cars of the day might have made it.
So the production version, though vastly different from the concept, debuted to a market warm with enthusiasm. Gas was cheap, engines were growing, and enthusiasts were itching for a car with the small, tight feel of the British sports cars that had been sliding across the Atlantic since the War ended, and the power they knew American engines could crank out. They landed somewhere in the middle with the pony car, a format with a long roof, a short deck, plenty of power, and seating for four.
And the Mustang was the first of them, hitting the market in 1964 as an “early ‘65” or “64 ½” model. The distinction is important, because the not-so-early ’65 model was the first to get the Mustang’s most popular engine of the time, the 289 Windsor V8. The 289 cranked out 200-271 hp depending on your choice of carburetor. This may not seem impressive, but the Mustang weighed less than 2,500 lbs, impressive even by today’s standards, leading to a 0-60 time of 7.5 seconds.
The “Late” ’65 models also saw the introduction of fastbacks, which have since skyrocketed in value. That’s also when Sir Carroll Shelby the Awesome jumped on board, creating the infamous Cobra Mustang, the GT350. These were all fastbacks, their 289 V8s massaged to 306 hp. Shelby later introduced the GT500, featuring 355 hp 428 V8
As the years rolled on, the engine options multiplied. Soon you could get your Mustang with a 302, a 428, or a 390 like Steve McQueen’s in Bullitt. Ford was quick to offer performance options, too. That 390, for instance put out 270 hp under the 2-barrel carb, but with 4-barrel, it made 320.
1969 saw a styling refresh with a wider body and about 600 pounds of weight. But nobody cared, because the horsepower was up, too. At the highest end, the incredible Boss 429 made 375 hp. Not too shabby at all for a 3,100 lb car.
The 1971-’73 models again swelled with the times, getting 3 inches wider still, and another 400 lbs heavier. Curves were creased, fastbacks became “sportroofs,” and headlights stayed inside the grille area. But power froze under tightening emissions restrictions, and by 1973, even the special edition Mach 1 could only manage 266 hp.
It should have been some kind of warning, a prophecy of the dark times on the horizon, but it seemed that when those times hit, no one saw them coming, and it would be years before another great Mustang rolled out of Detroit.