50 Years of Ford Mustangs

Las Vegas--Even without the plangent wailing of V-8 engines on the Las Vegas boulevards, we would have known the Mustang Club of America was in town on Thursday, April 17, as members celebrated the 50th anniversary of their favorite car. We were able to break the code. In the casino, people wearing the matching garb of a regional chapter referred to R-code Mustangs. In the souvenir shop, it was different clothing but a similar conversation on K-code models.

Odd trivia was another thing: A bearded, pony-tailed, pot-bellied savant discoursed on the challenge of selling unwanted six-cylinder models in 1966. Ford couldn’t produce enough V-8 engines, he said, so it pushed special trim packages for the sixes. Of course, everybody knew the fundamental fact that Ford division president Lee Iacocca officially revealed the Mustang to the public on April 17, 1964, at the New York World’s Fair. Base price was $2368.

Beyond the coded conversation and the tongue-wagging, foreign tongues reminded us that the Mustang was introduced in eleven European capitals on the same April day that Iacocca charmed the New York press. So it should have been no surprise to meet some Dutchmen, a few Swiss, a band of Aussies and Kiwis, maybe 40 Swedes, and around 300 members of Mustang Club of France. We even encountered nine members of the Mustang Club of Aruba, who spoke their native Papiamento patois. Many foreign visitors rented Mustangs at various arrival points and drove to Vegas.

Besides the car display outside the Las Vegas Motor Speedway grandstand, a few dozen participants lapped the 2.5-mile LVMS road course on the first day of the four-day gathering. People also cruised the Las Vegas Strip or ventured out of town to see weird rock formations at Valley of Fire State Park.

The MCA threw a simultaneous party at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, and a larger contingent of Arubans went there. But we heard it rained. True or not, the ultimate suitability of Las Vegas is demonstrated by the fact that a production like Zombie Burlesque, showing nightly at the V Theater, is practically impossible to find anywhere in the Carolinas.

While everybody had the Mustang in common, what was demonstrated in the LVMS parking lot was how many variations and mutations exist. Because of the Mustang’s mass production—more than 1,000,000 sold in the first 24 months—they exist in quantity. We couldn’t count all the 2+2s, coupes, convertibles, Bosses, Mach 1s, Mustang IIs, Roushs, Saleens, and Shelby Snakes being shown. Here you will note three truly vintage examples in the first row, ahead of a rental fleet flying Swiss and French flags.

Incredible differences among Mustangs, indeed. The Mustang started out as an expression of modest personal luxury and sporty but unintimidating performance. Chevrolet’s general manager Bunkie Knudsen raved after driving it on April 20, 1964. “Things that are outstanding on the car are the cost in the instrument panel, the cost of the steering wheel and the glove box door which is a die casting,” Knudsen confided to his diary. The sewn pleats in the seat cushions were another surprise-and-delight feature. “The trim in the car would be considered out of the question for even our highest-priced Impala.” The ’68 coupe pictured here still has the lithe body, but with twin 750-cfm four-barrels, a supercharger, and nitrous, it’s a street machine in need of some fat Hoosier tires at the rear.

Thanks to Knudsen, who became Ford Motor Company president in 1968, the Mustang got pumped up and began to swagger. He used the formula he had successfully implemented at Pontiac and Chevy: find a big engine and make the car’s stance bolder. Iacocca, who thought he should have been named Ford president after leading the Mustang’s development, hated what was going on. “As soon as Knudsen arrived at Ford, he began adding weight to the Mustang and making it bigger,” Iacocca wrote in his autobiography. Knudsen was fired after nineteen months, and the jibe against him floated out of Ford and into the press. “Henry Ford said history is bunk,” it went. “But, today, Bunkie is history.”

The Mustang is so many cars. A police car, for example. Around 15,000 examples of the Mustang Special Service Package were made from 1982 to 1993.

The Mustang is a Playboy car. Donna Michelle, the 1964 Playmate of the Year, received a pink Mustang convertible, along with a pink Honda motorcycle, pink luggage, and a suite of other gifts from the magazine. Ford couldn’t exactly be associated with Playboy in a special-edition car, but pink was an off-the-books optional color. Bob Post spent $30,000 to restore this ’64 1/2 coupe after the fashion.

The Mustang is also a pace car, having led the Indianapolis 500 field for the fateful 1964 race. It reprised the role in 1979 and again in 1994. Assessing the car pictured above, a burly fellow took a long time to step away for this clear shot, but in listening, we heard him determine this example is a replica.

The Mustang is a racing car. With Las Vegas in the background, J. Bittle of San Diego drives the Hinchcliff Ross Mustang, a ’68 GT coupe with the 302-cubic-inch V-8 and famed tunnel-port heads. The car raced eight times in the Trans-Am series through 1970 and also saw some NASCAR Grand American action. Bittle has owned it since 1998. “I restored it to its original, patinated warhorse condition,” he said. Goodyear Blue Streak bias-ply tires add to the authenticity.

The Mustang was also a laughingstock. Iacocca, who replaced Knudsen, finally had his heyday with the Mustang II. But Peter Bulcock vigorously defended the Mustang II as a car of its time. He was wiping away 1200 miles of road grime, accumulated on the trip from Chilliwack, B.C. His 1978 Cobra II, purchased in the fall of 1977, has accumulated 205,000 miles. Modifications and updates include a Boss 347-cubic-inch stroker engine and Tremec TKO five-speed transmission. “I bought it brand-new, had fun with the car, and built it this way for me,” Bulcock said. We went away feeling a little envious, because he gets to drive it home.

materialman80
A lot of great stories in my life involve a Mustang.  I guess that's true for many folks. That's why it's still around 50 years later. 

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