The Ford Mustang Wasn't The First Pony Car

Petersen Publishing Archives

When the earliest 1965 Ford Mustangs – or the ’64 and ½ cars, as they’re sometimes called– hit dealer showrooms in early April 1964, they did more than provide an immediate boost to Ford sales and Ford Motor Company’s bottom line. These cars helped define what came to be known as the "pony car" -- a compact, stylish, affordable American sports car.

“We were very fortunate in that we hit at exactly the right time,” Lee Iacocca, the former Ford vice president largely responsible for shepherding the project says in Gary Witzenburg’s Mustang! The Complete History of America’s Ponycar Pioneer. “It was just dumb luck that we had the world’s biggest showroom – the New York World’s Fair – as a launching pad. It was the combination of the World’s Fair launch, the fact that we did have a rather unique and different car, a realization that the youth market was bulging, and most of all an economy that was really being heated up by the government’s cutting taxes and telling people to go out and spend some money. With those ingredients, it would have been hard not to succeed.”

Perhaps so – but Ford wasn’t the only automaker noticing the rising interest in small, , sporty cars and the increasing importance of younger customers, nor was it the only automaker working to produce a vehicle to compete in that very segment. The Ford Mustang’s styling, pricing, and a pitch-perfect PR blitz (including placement on the covers of both Time and Newsweek) may have helped bolster its popularity, but had any of these next three vehicle either gained traction in the marketplace or been built as originally intended, there’s a chance Ford’s pony car legend might not be quite as tall a tale as it stands today.

1962 Budd XR-400

In the lengthy preamble to Ford management signing off on the Mustang, Iacocca asked Tom Case, a former Thunderbird product manager then assigned to the Ford Falcon, to see if it might be possible to do a new four-seat car based on the original Thunderbird body. Case, in turn, approached the Budd Company. Known for its steel handicraft, Budd had also been responsible for producing the bodies for the original T-Bird. Case wanted to know how much it would cost to refurbish the old Thunderbird tooling for future use, but that sparked a new idea at Budd: a two-seat roadster by adapting a ’57 Thunderbird body to fit atop a Ford Falcon chassis.

Budd had a running prototype, known as the XT-Bird, built by early 1962, and pitched its idea to Ford brass. Tooling for the proposed car would amount to no more than $1.5 million, roughly a sixth of a completely new car design. That low investment, coupled with what Budd felt was a “ready-made market” for such a car, could have been profitable – but Ford said no. Not only did it look too much like a sectioned Thunderbird, but Iacocca was firmly against the idea of a two-seater. “We were talking about a sports car for the masses, and our research said it better have 2+2 or four-seat capability. We could have gotten the car quicker with the Budd idea, but it didn’t take long before we decided to go with a whole new car instead.”

Budd may have been spurned by Ford, but it was convinced the idea held merit. A year later, it pitched a very similar idea to the American Motors Corporation. Budd was already supplying the new one-piece “Uniside” assemblies, which blended rockers, pillars, and door frames into an integral stamping, for use in the upcoming 1963 Rambler Classic. The automaker envisioned pitching AMC a sports car built on that very vehicle, but only had a smaller 1962 Rambler Ambassador to work with.

Regardless, Budd set to work creating a proof of concept, which it christened the XR-400. Uniside construction was considered a must, since it helped provide some tooling commonality, though the car’s cabin – with seating for four -- was moved rearwards by a 16 inches, providing for a long hood. At the same time, the Rambler’s frame rails were shortened by just over a foot, providing for a short deck. The engine – AMC’s 327-cubic-inch V-8 -- was lowered by two inches, and its radiator dropped by three, allowing for a thinner body section. Budd said the look was “similar to many European sports cars,” but these very proportions were also remarkably similar to a certain sports car being developed in a design studio in Dearborn.

Budd’s planners felt the XR-400 could be tooled up and in production by October 1963, which would have beaten the Ford Mustang to the market by roughly half a year. Tooling was estimated to be in the neighborhood of $4 million -- significantly more than the XT-Bird, but still half of what AMC would have spent to develop a car from square one. The idea was sound, but American Motors was in flux. Not only was it in the middle of a leadership transition, but it wasn’t fiscally ready to invest in something of a frivolous vehicle. After two years of meager fiscal returns and the expense of re-engineering the Classic for 1963, American Motors likely viewed redesigning the Ambassador for 1964 a much more sound investment than a sports car.

1964 Plymouth Barracuda

The Plymouth Valiant was many things – affordable, economical, practical – but it wasn’t the least bit sporty or desirable. Although it ditched its original lumpy, misshapen form for a cleaner, more rectangular form in 1963, its notchback coupe still wasn’t quite desirable. A sexier fastback coupe variant had been planned for introduction as early as 1962, but was shelved – until, that is, Chrysler got wind later that year that Ford had approved a sporty, compact coupe of its own. Plymouth’s product planners scurried like Kennedy’s cabinet during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and work resumed on developing the fastback project.

The Barracuda was very much cut from the same cloth as the Mustang: sporty sheetmetal wrapped around powertrain and chassis hardware borrowed from a high-volume compact car. A long fastback roof extended nearly all the way to the end of the car, while a large rear-window cascaded into the sides of the roof, just aft of a cantilevered B-pillar. Dramatic, certainly, but the Barracuda shared far more with its Valiant brethren than the Ford Mustang did with the Ford Falcon. Not only did the Barracuda share its 106-inch wheelbase with other Plymouth Valiant offerings, it also shared the majority of its front clip with the base Valiant models. The Barracuda may have had its own discrete brochure and sales pitch, but it was hard to break it away from the stodgy Valiant line, especially when Plymouth itself affixed “Valiant” badges to the Barracuda’s hind quarters.

Chrysler launched the Plymouth Barracuda in the marketplace on April 1, 1964, technically beating the Ford Mustang’s official on-sale date by sixteen days, but any plausible advantage provided by the abbreviated head start proved fruitless. Ford took 22,000 orders for Mustangs on April 17, 1964, its first day of sale. In contrast, Plymouth sold 23,500 Barracudas over the course of 1964. Barracuda sales rose to 60,000 units in 1965 and leveled off to 36,000 in 1966. Improvement, certainly, but the figures paled to Ford’s competitor: over a million Ford Mustangs had been built by February of 1966.

The Mustang’s PR blitz and prominence at the World’s Fair might have helped it steal the limelight from the Barracuda, but there was something the Ford Mustang offered that the Plymouth Barracuda simply didn’t: power. The Barracuda’s base engine, a 170-cubic-inch “Slant-Six,” offered 101 horsepower, equal to the Mustang’s base 170-cubic-inch inline-six. The next-step, a 225-cubic-inch six, provided the Barracuda with only 145 horsepower. In contrast, the next rung in the Ford Mustang’s engine ladder, a 260-cubic inch V-8, yielded 164 ponies.

Thankfully, the Plymouth Barracuda did offer eight-cylinder power, but the added displacement didn’t render the Plymouth much more competitive. A 273-cubic-inch V-8 was optional, but it was rated at a measly 180 horsepower. Not only was that a minute step above Ford’s 260-cubic-inch V-8, it trailed the Ford Mustang’s top-dog engine – a 289 cubic-inch V-8 – by 30 horsepower. Chrysler tried to rectify the power disparity by adding a “Commando” version of the 273 in 1965, producing 235 hp thanks to reworked cams, increased compression, and a less restrictive exhaust. Even so, the engine still trailed the Mustang’s high-performance 289 cubic-inch V-8, which served up 271 horsepower.

Chrysler finally conceded to the horsepower wars when it launched a restyled Plymouth Barracuda in 1967, offering its 280-horsepower 383 cubic-inch V-8 at the expense of luxuries like power steering due to the cramped engine quarters. When the Barracuda switched to the E-body platform in 1970, the car finally gained room for monstrous motors like the 440-cubic-inch V-8 and the 426 Hemi V-8, but by that time, the Ford Mustang had soundly won the pony car wars and secured its place in the annals of history.

1964 American Motors Rambler Tarpon Concept

The photos you see here are of a 1965 American Motors Rambler Tarpon, a bulky fastback coupe considered too large and too heavy to truly be a Mustang competitor. But had the Marlin been built as originally intended, and as portrayed by the 1964 Rambler Tarpon concept, it could have been a shot across the Mustang’s bow, if not a direct hit.

According to a public missive penned by Richard Teague, AMC’s vice president of design, for the March 1965 issue of Motor Trend, the Tarpon project began in early 1963. “Management expressed interest in a new car with a sports flair,” Teague wrote. “We presented our sketches to B.A. Chapman, executive vice president for automotive styling. He approved going to a clay mockup for further evaluation by [AMC CEO] Roy Abernathy and our policy committee. It turned out that everyone approved. We had to move very quickly – we knew our competitors were thinking along the same lines.”

Indeed they were. Much like Ford and Plymouth, Teague’s team suggested making a sporty coupe from the company’s economy-oriented Rambler American. Although the clean-cut 1964 American had yet to debut when work began, Teague’s team took an early 1964 American sedan prototype, and transformed it into a striking 2+2 with an elongated fastback roof. The roof itself was a single piece of fiberglass that stretched from the windshield to the rear bumper, where it wrapped over the edge of the rear decklid – or, what would have been the decklid had the Tarpon actually had a trunk opening. A long roof portion, along with surprisingly large rear quarter windows, helped ensure rear seat passengers wouldn’t suffer from claustrophobia, despite American Motors' designers trimming the interior as a 2+2.

Work on the concept, dubbed the Tarpon, finished in June 1963. The Rambler Tarpon quietly made its debut at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ annual Detroit conference in January of the next year, but it wasn’t released to the auto show circuit until months later, when AMC placed the car on its display at the 1964 Chicago auto show. “This Tarpon styling exercise got an enthusiastic yes vote from people surveyed at the exhibit,” Teague claimed in his MT piece. “Over 60 percent said they’d like to own a model with the Tarpon’s fastback styling. Some offered to place orders on the spot. Dealers and stockholders were likewise impressed, and they asked us about production plans.”

Given the positive reaction, it’s natural to think the Tarpon’s design would have been “frozen” and the car readied for production – but that didn’t happen. For starters, AMC wanted its sporty fastback to boast eight-cylinder power. The Rambler American offered only six-cylinder engines, and AMC’s 290-cubic-inch V-8 wouldn’t be introduced to the model line until the middle of 1966. Further, there was considerable push from AMC’s management, especially CEO Abernathy, for increased interior space, and to transform the 2+2 Tarpon into a six-passenger coupe, as product planners felt the configuration would appeal to “young married” couples. Moving the Tarpon treatment from the Rambler American to the larger Rambler Classic solved both issues, but also meant the car’s wheelbase swelled from 108 inches to 112.

The result, which launched in 1965 as the Rambler Marlin, looked more disproportionate than the Tarpon. Bob Nixon, an AMC stylist was once quoted as saying the Marlin was “an ugly embarrassment,” and the project was akin to “trying to build a Corvette on a Buick sedan body.” In his Motor Trend piece, Teague was forced to be a little more polite. “Frankly, we had some misgivings about the outcome, as there’s a direct relationship between size and the expression of certain automotive styling concepts,” he wrote, “In the final clay model of the Marlin, there was no cause for concern about reaction to this expanded version off the Tarpon’s styling. The flair and excitement were still there.”

Off the record, Teague was much more candid. “It was too long,” he told the editors of Consumers Guide years later. “Its stance was wrong. We should have built the Tarpon instead.”

Given its maritime nameplate, perhaps it’s fitting the Marlin essentially floundered in the marketplace. It was hard enough comparing such a large car to the comparatively lithe Mustang, and comparing sales figures of the two vehicles was even more difficult. American Motors sold only 10,327 Marlins in 1965, and that figure dropped like a rock in 1966, with only 4547 built. Despite a refresh for 1967, which ironically increased the wheelbase by another six inches, Marlin sales dropped further to just over 2500 cars. Even compared with the first-generation Dodge Charger, a large fastback coupe that was more a direct competitor to the Marlin than any Mustang fastback, Marlin sales still looked pitiful. Dodge sold 31,209 Chargers in 1966, and 14,666 units the following year. AMC killed the Marlin after the 1967 model year. The company wouldn’t have something close to a proper Mustang competitor until both the Javelin and AMX launched in 1968.

John Shea
Fascinating article, Mr. McCausland, about a fascinating time. I wonder how many people now remember it was the Democrats, in the form of JFK and LBJ, who implemented the first of the three great tax cuts that have occurred in the USA at twenty year intervals since 1960.
Christopher Taylor
Don't forget the Studebaker Avanti! A 2+2 long nose short deck car as the same type as the Mustang but before it!
Benedetto Salerni
Mustang
Tim Nofullname
Imagine just how big American Motors could have been if the Tarpon had been built.
Glenn Brown
Concept cars don't count.
eric in oregon
"The photos you see here are of a 1965 American Motors Rambler Tarpon, a bulky fastback coupe considered too large and too heavy to truly be a Mustang competitor" I've looked and looked, no Tarpon pictures. What's up with that?
Gregory Easton
Wasn't the 'Cuda rushed into production just to beat Ford & their Mustang? The Plymouth suffered for it both in quality & style.
Jeffery Pelton
Good thing the Barracuda wasn't deemed 1st or we'd be calling them fish cars.
John Shea
@eric in oregon Click 'See all photos' and scroll right.
CALI-LIFER
@Jeffery Pelton lol

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