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Best Mustangs of 1965-1973: Gen One
The Mustang legacy started with the original ’65-’73 models
On April 17, 1964, Lee Iacocca and his “Fairlane Committee” had no idea that they were about to launch an iconic automobile. In fact, they considered themselves fortunate to have convinced Henry Ford II to fund their concept for a new sporty compact car after the expensive and embarrassing Edsel failure in 1958. But research showed them that America and its emerging Baby Boomer generation was ready for a youthful new car. And they were right.
Fifty years after Iacocca debuted the ’65 Mustang at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the first generation Mustangs, produced from ’65 to ’73, remain an American icon with legions of owners who live the Mustang lifestyle through clubs, shows, and cruises.
Some Assembly Required
By the spring of 1964, Ford’s Dearborn Assembly Plant was churning out Mustang hardtops and convertibles to try to keep up with demand. Even before the Mustang was introduced, Lee Iacocca added Mustang production to Ford’s assembly plant in Metuchen, New Jersey, followed soon by a third plant in San Jose, California. Mustang sales exceeded one million in less than two years.
Pacing the Race
Just a few weeks after the Mustang’s official introduction on April 17, 1964, a specially prepared convertible, driven by Benson Ford, served as the pace car for the 1964 Indianapolis 500. A number of pace car replicas were also available as dignitary cars and to transport the Festival Queens during the pre-race parade. And nearly 200 hardtop replicas were produced as part of a dealer contest.
Design of Excellence
During the 1964 launch of the Mustang, the Mustang received the prestigious Tiffany Gold Medal Award, presented to Henry Ford II during the New York World’s Fair introduction by the famous diamond company for “Excellence in American Design.” Ford even made up small medallions for key chains. Years later, however, Mustang product planner Hal Sperlich admitted that Ford first approached Tiffany and worked out a promotional deal that would benefit both companies.
Starting Them Young
If dad could have a Mustang, so could the kids with Ford-supplied models, from plastic dealer promos to motorized models with working headlights. Many of today’s Mustang enthusiasts got hooked by pedaling a Mustang pedal car, which sold for $12.95 new. In good condition, these miniature Mustangs are considered collectible today.
Two weeks before the Mustang’s introduction, Plymouth tried to steal the new ponycar’s thunder by introducing the Barracuda, basically a Valiant with a fastback roof grafted on. A few months later, Mustang got a fastback of its own when the ’65 Fords came out in the fall of 1964, providing the Mustang with a third bodystyle and an even sportier option for driving enthusiasts. Plymouth sold 88,000 Barracudas from mid-’64 through ’65; Ford sold over 769,000 Mustangs during the same time period.
In the early 1960s, Ford embossed its keys with vehicle logos. None were cooler than the ’65-’66 Mustang keys, which had an embossed running horse. The practice ended for ’67 when Ford switched to double-sided keys that could be inserted either way.
Slow Your Mustang Down
Intrigued by a friend’s interest in Ford’s new Mustang, R&B singer/songwriter Sir Mack Rice wrote a song about it, originally singing “Mustang Mama.” However, at the insistence of friend and fellow singer Aretha Franklin, he changed the name to “Mustang Sally.” Rice’s recording reached number 15 in the R&B charts, but when Wilson Pickett recorded the tune in 1966, it reached number four on the Billboard charts and remains a dance favorite to this day.
Ford called it the Décor Interior Group; enthusiasts to this day call it the “Pony Interior” because of the embossed running ponies in the seat backs. Both the luxurious Interior Décor Group and the performance-oriented GT Equipment Group joined the Mustang option list on April 17, 1965, to help celebrate the Mustang’s first birthday.
With competition arriving for ’67 in the form of Chevrolet’s Camaro, the Mustang grew is size to accommodate a 390 cubic-inch engine. Rated at 325-horsepower, Ford’s big-block was a torque monster, but it was no match for Chevy’s 396, which was available with up to 375 horsepower.
Carroll Shelby took advantage of the Mustang’s big-block availability by powering his new GT 500 with a dual-quad 428. For a Goodyear tire test in Texas, Shelby installed a 427 in a GT 500 called the Super Snake, which reached speeds of nearly 150 miles-per-hour.
With their small, sporty shape and peppy engines, Mustangs were quickly adopted for the stunt driving thrill shows that were popular across America in the 1960s. The “Mustang Hell Drivers” from the late 1960s and early 1970s used Mustangs for their two-wheel driving demonstrations, crashing through flaming barriers and jumping ramp to ramp.
Peeking into the Future
Ford used concept Mustangs, like the Mach 1 seen here at the 1967 Detroit Auto Show, to test public reaction to future styling and equipment. For the public, the concept cars were often a peek into the next generation (or two) of Mustang. The Mach 1 concept provided a glimpse into the Mustang’s future with center-mount exhaust tips (’69 Shelby), a hatchback (’74 Mustang II), and a name that would become a separate Mustang model for ‘69.
For ’68, the Shelby Mustang added a convertible body style—with a roll bar, no less—providing performance enthusiasts with the thrill of acceleration combined with air streaming through the hair. Today, convertible Shelbys are among the most sought-after Mustangs by collectors.
Bullitt Begets Bullitt’s
In the 1968 movie Bullitt, Steve McQueen portrayed the tough detective Frank Bullitt, who drove a Highland Green ’68 Mustang fastback that established cinematic history with its 10-minute chase scene with a black Dodge Charger over the hills of San Francisco. To this day, owners of ’68 Mustang fastbacks copy McQueen’s Bullitt Mustang with Highland Green paint and Torq-Thrust wheels. Dave Kunz owns one of the best. It was used by Ford for promotional photos during the launch of the ’01 Mustang Bullitt GT.
Although the 289 High Performance engine was available in other Fords at the time of the Mustang’s introduction in April, demand for the 289 V-8 delayed the Hi-Po’s debut in the Mustang until June 1964. Motor Trend got an early look at the 271-horsepower Mustang when Ford supplied an early production hardtop for testing. With its clattering solid-lifter camshaft, the MT writers described the Hi-Po Mustang as, “Few test cars have given us more sheer pleasure per mile.”
Cobra Jet Plus Shaker Equals Speed of Sound
Mustang joined the late 1960s musclecar wars in earnest with the introduction of the 428 Cobra Jet engine in the mid-’68 Mustang GT. However, Ford took full advantage of the CJ’s capabilities with the ’69-’70 Mach 1, a new model that added unique trim, a special interior, and a “Shaker” option that poked a functional scoop through the hood. It was image marketing at its best, something the Mustang had lacked during the mid-1960s.
Few, or perhaps no other, car can boast such enthusiast ownership as the Mustang. Today, there are hundreds of Mustang clubs worldwide. However, in the 1960s, Ford promoted the Mustang through dealership-sponsored organizations that were part of the National Council of Mustang Clubs, which grew to over 200,000 members by 1970.
Big Bad Boss
Thanks to NASCAR’s homologation rules that required manufacturers to sell what it raced, we had cars like the Plymouth SuperBird with its pointy nose and tall rear wing. Ford also had the Torino Talledega, but to homologate the hemi-headed Boss 429 engine, Ford president Bunkie Knudsen wanted to create the baddest Mustang of all. Thus, Ford contractor Kar Kraft was enlisted to widen the shock towers of ’69-’70 SportsRoofs to make room for the massive Boss 429 engine, which was installed on Kar Kraft’s final assembly line.
Like the Boss 429 for NASCAR, Ford also needed to homologate a special Cleveland-headed small-block for the SCCA Trans-Am. In addition to creating the stripes and spoilers, designer Larry Shinoda also came up with the name–Boss 302. “It was something the kids could relate to,” Shinoda said.
By the 1990s, at least six newsstand magazines were devoted to the Mustang. However, in 1970, Coronado Publishing issued Fabulous Mustang, a one-shot publication that covered all things Mustang, from the Grande to street racers and Trans-Am. Try finding a copy today!
You gotta love this Ford photograph that highlighted the use of fiberglass on the ’69 Shelby. We’ve never seen it used in any Ford advertising to determine if they planned to airbrush out the wires.
Could Have Been a Contender
In late 1970, Ford was considering a new performance Mustang that combined attributes of both Shelby and Boss. The idea was shelved when Ford dropped out of racing, but the two prototypes became known as the Quarter Horses because they were part Mustang, part Shelby (front end), part Boss (Boss 429 engine), and part Cougar (interior). Had the project survived, the Quarter Horse Mustang could have become one of the best Mustangs of all time.
Best of the Bosses?
When Ford dropped all forms of racing in the face of rising insurance costs, the Boss 302 became “the last rose of summer,” as racing chief Jacque Passino put it. With no need for a small displacement, race-oriented engine, Ford raised the bar with the ’71 Boss 351, a 330-horsepower Mustang better equipped to compete with the 350-powered Camaro Z/28. The increased displacement in combination with the 4-barrel Cleveland heads created what is arguably the best of the Boss Mustangs, a performance car that boasted 13-second quarter-miles plus excellent street drivability.
Car Crash King
Because the Mustang was one of the last of the musclecars, southern California producer H.B. “Toby” Halicki chose a ’71 SportsRoof named “Eleanor” as the star of his 1974 car-chase classic, “Gone in 60 Seconds.” A skilled stunt driver himself, Halicki performed much of the driving duties, climaxing the movie’s 40-minute chase scene with a 128-foot jump that further crumpled Eleanor’s sheetmetal. As an independent film-maker, Halicki promoted “Gone in 60 Seconds” by displaying the actual movie car in front of theatres. Halicki died in a freak movie accident in 1989; his widow, Denice Halicki, still owns the wrecked and crumpled Mustang.
Ringbrothers Do It Right
Over the years, first generation Mustangs have served as canvases for thousands of modified and personalized versions, from the first street machines through the Pro Street movement of the 1980s and right into today’s restomods that combine restoration with modification. In 2004, brothers Mike and Jim Ring burst onto the scene with their GT-R convertible, a wild but tastefully modified Mustang that led to a string of future award-winning creations. At the 2013 SEMA Show, the Ringbrothers debuted their latest Mustang, “Blizzard,” a ’65 fastback powered by a NASCAR engine.
As early Mustang values have risen over the past decades, we’ve seen some amazing prices paid at the popular auctions. The trend climbed to a new peak last year when a ’67 “Eleanor,” one of the actual cars used in the 2000 remake of “Gone in 60 Seconds,” sold for a cool $1 million at Mecum Auction’s Spring Classic in Indianapolis.
Rat Rod Shelby
While the Ringbrothers and others built immaculately detailed Mustang restomods, Florida’s Tim Suddard took the popular “Rat Rod” path with his survivor ’67 Shelby GT 350. Choosing to leave the exterior in its well-worn patina, Suddard upgraded the drivetrain and suspension to modern specs, and then drove his “Terlingua Terror” on the high-speed Texas 1000 vintage rally.
Proving its everlasting popularity for restorations, the early Mustang is one of the few vintage cars that can boast the availability of a brand-new reproduction body shell to replace rusted and wrecked originals. Dynacorn International currently offers Ford-licensed body shells for the ’67-’68 fastbacks, ’69-’70 SportsRoofs, and ’65-’66 convertibles.
Stamp of Approval
The Mustang was officially inducted into America’s popular culture when it was selected for a U.S. Post Office stamp as part of the “Celebrate the Century” series in 1999. The USPS recruited Dave Williams’ red ’64½ convertible as the model for the 15-cent stamp, which was introduced by Ford Division president Jim O’Connor (right).
Lee Iacocca’s vision for the Mustang stretched beyond a secretary’s car or college student transportation. He also envisioned the Mustang as a sports car competing in SCCA competition and asked Carroll Shelby, who was campaigning Cobras and Ford GTs for Ford, to transform the Mustang fastback into a race car. With SCCA rules requiring that 100 be built for homologation, Shelby found himself in the Mustang business with the GT 350, a two-seater Mustang with more power and improved handling. The first hand-built cars were assembled at Shelby’s small shop in Venice, California (pictured), but production soon moved to a larger facility near the Los Angeles airport. Shelby built 562 GT 350s for ’65, plus another 36 in competition trim, known today as “R-Models.”