Donald Farr
Former Editor, Mustang Monthly
April 15, 2014
Photos By: Ford Photomedia, Source Interlink Archives

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.

Fastback Attack

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.

Cool Keys

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.

Embossed Ponies

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.

Big-Block Power

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.

Super Snake

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.

Dare Devils

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.

Topless Shelby

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.

Hi-Po Magic

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.”