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The College-Student Special: Lee Iacocca loaned new Mustang convertibles to 44 college student journalists in 1964
The concept of social media is thought to be a little more than a decade old, coinciding with the advent of Facebook and Twitter in the mid-2000s. Since then social media has been embraced by car manufacturers around the world as a means to “move the metal.” But in reality, social media is just a way of more directly communicating one’s message on a more personal level, and marketers have used it for decades.
The car you see presented on these pages, an early-build 1965 Mustang convertible, is proof positive of that axiom—called by some a 1964½ Mustang since it was one of the 121,538 built prior to August 1, 1964, when a number of running changes were incorporated. These changes included the replacement of the charging system’s generator with an alternator, the base six-cylinder 170ci inline-six replaced with one displacing 200 ci, and most notably the 260ci version of Ford’s small-block V-8 being discontinued, replaced with a two-barrel version of the 289ci V-8. So if you encounter a Mustang with a 260 badge on its front fender, you know right out that it is a “1964½” Mustang.
But you’re probably already asking, what makes this 1965 Mustang so unique? After all, every possible story on the Mustang’s launch has probably been written, told many times over in the 50-plus years since the Mustang’s introduction. Is there a unique story yet to be told? This story is likely one you’ve never heard before.
In the run-up to the Mustang’s introduction at press conferences and its unveiling at the New York World’s Fair on April 17, 1964, Ford Vice President Lee Iacocca knew he had a huge hit on his hands, but probably not as big as it ultimately turned out to be. Iacocca left no stone unturned. 1964 was an era before cable television and hundreds of channels. In the United States, there were three broadcast networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC. Iacocca placed commercials for the Mustang on all three between 9:30 and 10:00 p.m., so if you were watching network television on the evening of April 16, 1964, there was a better than even chance that you got a look at the first Pony car. The placement was called a roadblock, and it helped to cement Iacocca as a legendary marketer.
What Iacocca and his team at Ford realized before anyone else was America’s changing demographics. The first of the so-called baby boomers, those Americans born between 1945 and 1964, came of driving age in the early 1960s (in a time before smartphones), and wanted the freedom and mobility that came with owning a car. The Mustang, with its sporty styling and mile-long options list, could be personalized to any taste. This ranged from a basic six-cylinder two-door hardtop model with a base price of $2,368 to a 271hp version that offered sports car performance.
But how to reach this youthful demographic? At the time of the Mustang’s introduction, Iacocca invited 44 college journalists to Dearborn a week after its official launch, on April 24, 1964. Each would drive back to campus in one of 44 identical red 1965 Mustang convertibles, each equipped with the half-year 260 V-8 and a three-speed Cruise-O-Matic automatic transmission. This is one of those 44 Mustangs that has survived and thrived over the past 53 years.
On April 24, 1964, this Mustang was driven off from Iacocca’s press scrum by Bruce Fabricant. Fabricant didn’t have to drive far back to campus, as he was the editor of Michigan States’ daily student newspaper. The trip from Dearborn to Ann Arbor is about 85 miles. For the next two months Fabricant was truly the BMOC (big man on campus); his Mustang convertible was always the center of attention, no matter where he parked it.
After it served its purpose as Bruce’s daily driver, it was returned to Ford where it went into the Ford sales fleet and was delivered to Backus Ford in Owosso, Michigan. There it was sold to Dorothy Jack on October 17, 1964, as a used car for $2,811. Dorothy’s husband, Robert, restored the car in the 1970s and the family owned the car for more than 40 years. Dorothy passed away in 1998, and the car was placed in a family trust in 2005. It remained in the trust until 2010 when Richard and Gloria Strayer, residents of Southern California, purchased the car from her estate through her son-in-law, Gary Woodruff, from an ad placed on carsonline.com. Thus in 2010, Richard became the car’s second registered owner but its third driver. At the time, the car’s odometer showed just 89,564 miles. Although Strayer was unable to verify that those were the only miles, the overall condition of the car led him to believe that those were the original miles.
This is not Richard’s first Mustang. Since this baby boomer first started driving in the 1970s, he’s owned 15 Mustangs, including a 1969 Cobra Jet with shaker hood. After his children became adults, he searched for his dream car, a 1964½ Mustang convertible with a V-8 and automatic. Sitting in his garage next to his 1964½ convertible is a 2016 Shelby GT-H.
We asked how he discovered the car’s unique provenance, and Strayer said, “In the paperwork that came with the car was a note that the car had been involved in a Ford promotion, wherein Ford loaned 44 identical Mustangs to college newspaper editors across the country; this one was loaned to Michigan State University, and the name of the editor, Bruce Fabricant, and his email address was listed in the paperwork. After that I communicated with Bruce via emails and he agreed to write for me a short history on the car that I used on the storyboard that’s with the car when I display it at shows.” [That storyboard, which I saw with the car at the Los Angeles Classic Car Show in February, is what led to this story––Richard Truesdell]
Upon receipt of the car, Strayer found that several items had been replaced over the years that were not specific to the 1964½ model. Strayer tells what he did to return the car back to its unique 1964½ configuration, saying, “Upon research, I discovered Mustangs and Fast Fords in Santa Ana, California, that had several older Mustangs, including an award-winning 1964½. Consulting with Paul, he inspected the car, told me what was not original, and we began the process of returning the car to as original as possible. The process took approximately one year. California has a ‘Year of Manufacture’ license plate program so I was able to determine the exact alpha and numeric sequence for the Mustang and was able to find the plates and proper stickers.”
Strayer says that his car is driven monthly, usually to car shows in and around Southern California. It also made an appearance at the 50th anniversary Mustang event in Las Vegas. Strayer noted that it was trailered to Las Vegas, as it is still a 54-year-old car that it is a little loose in the steering, and braking is a concern at high speeds. Strayer is a longtime member of the Orange County Mustang Club, a club with 450 members, and his car is number 8,067 on the Red Mustang Registry.
When we first contacted Richard to set up locations to photograph the car, we asked if he and Gloria could dress up “in-period” for our photo shoot in a mid-century subdivision in nearby Orange, California. Arriving at their home, the couple showed that they were really into the spirit of 1964. We drove to one of the three historic Eichler subdivisions in nearby Orange, all of which were built in the early 1960s—just about the same time Strayer’s Mustang rolled off Ford’s Dearborn assembly line, putting the car in a perfect historical context.
What the preservation of cars like this clearly illustrates is that there are still great early-Mustang stories yet to tell. Several years ago after the car’s restoration, the Strayers had the opportunity to meet Lee Iacocca, who signed the passenger-side sunvisor.
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How it All Began at Michigan State University
In the words of Bruce Fabricant, this Mustang’s first owner
“Lee Iacocca, the Mustang’s Godfather as well as Ford Motor Company’s Vice President, was right when he said on April 24, 1964, that I wouldn’t hurt his feelings a bit by admitting that the prospect of riding a Mustang on Michigan State’s East Lansing campus for five or six weeks had a wee bit to do with my decision to be in Dearborn, Michigan that day.
“Iacocca was some marketer. The Mustang was introduced to the world a week earlier at the New York World’s Fair. So he invited 44 editors from major universities throughout the country to a College Editors’ Conference at the Ford campus. He said he wanted to tell us about the Mustang that would be so popular with the nation's youth.
“I was editor-in-chief of the Michigan State News, the student daily, and one of those selected editors. The carrot for all of us was our own red convertible Mustang to drive on campus for the rest of the school year at no cost. There were 44,000 prospective buyers on the East Lansing campus. Iacocca knew that. All I had to do was fill the gas tank and drive it.
“So after a day’s indoctrination in Dearborn, we were all taken to Ford’s test track. Lined up were 44 identical red Mustangs with white convertible tops. I hopped into the car, posed for a picture, and then started an enjoyable 88-mile ride back to Michigan State. I was gawked at, honked at, and smiled at as I drove that Mustang home. It was the first time these people had seen a Mustang, even though they heard so much about it.
“I was a senior at MSU in the spring of 1964 and had special on-campus driving and parking privileges. Not a day went by that I didn’t see a group of students peering into the car from all angles. It was the only Mustang on campus.
“My longest ride was to my girlfriend’s home in Glencoe, Illinois. Most of the driving was around the East Lansing campus. I could have bought that Mustang. I didn’t. I should have. It was priced at $2,368. But I was entering the U.S. Army soon thereafter. Luckily, I was able to parlay that Mustang into a lifetime career in public relations, which eventually introduced me to my wife. I worked for Ford at its World’s Fair exhibit that summer where the Mustang was on display. The job at Ford opened many business doors.
“For the next 40 years I have often thought about ‘that’ car and stared at old Mustangs on the road and wondered what happened to mine. Then I received a phone call in 2006 from its then-owner, Gary Woodruff (son-in-law of Dorothy Jack) of Laingsburg, Michigan. He had tracked me down since my name and the Michigan State News was on a key car document. We talked, exchanged pictures, and I was reunited in a way with my Mustang. He told me how my little red convertible led Fourth of July parades for a number of years in his hometown. Now thanks to Richard Strayer, the long, winding story of truly an American original Mustang continues today.”