“Let’s revert to the slab stern and high luggage compartment, the nearly vertical rear window, the leather strap and ‘chunk of road machinery’ feeling.” That’s from a multipage document describing the need for an American four-passenger sports car, a text leading to one of the most successful product launches Detroit ever enjoyed, Ford’s April 1964 Mustang. Written in 1956, it was presented to — and furiously rejected by — Harley J. Earl, General Motors’ styling chief. Its author, Barney Clark, wrote Corvette advertising copy at the time. A few years later, working for J. Walter Thompson on the Ford account, he talked with product planner Don Frey about it. Lee Iacocca may be the “father of the Mustang,” but he got the notion via Frey and Clark, and thus indirectly from GM. Even the final 108-inch wheelbase was first determined by GM’s Anatole Lapine, who subsequently became Porsche’s design leader. Nothing’s simple in the car-design business.
The Mustang came along at the right time, when the first of the baby boomers were coming into young adulthood and their forty-ish parents, about to be free of their offspring, could think about something other than four-door sedans and station wagons. So there were two generations that were ripe for buying something both financially accessible and sporty. The car was so perfectly attuned to the market that some 400,000 were snapped up in the first year of production, a record. The base price for a wheezing six-cylinder Falcon engine with a three-speed gearbox and drum brakes was $2368, but even when equipped with a high-performance V-8, the Mustang was a tremendous bargain.
Joe Oros led the winning design team, and quite a lot of the classic 1961 Lincoln Continental shows up in the car, especially the fender profile with the slight rear kickup. The front end, with the high rectangular center grille, is closely patterned on the 1950s Dual-Ghia, styled by Chrysler’s Virgil Exner. Once again, nothing is simple in the car-design business. Don Kopka, who retired as Ford design VP in 1987, did the first Mustang restyling when he arrived from Chrysler. He told me he’d thought the Mustang was too flat and rectilinear, so he made the 1967 car rounder and fatter, but he eventually believed “the ’64 1/2 was much better,” a handsome admission from any designer.
When the project was first conceived at GM, Mustang was one of many “cowboy movie” names that were entertained, most of which have subsequently shown up on cars and trucks — Bronco, Scout, Pony, Palomino, and Pinto come to mind — but the now-iconic name didn’t really matter. It could have been called Cayuse or Silver, two suggestions not yet used, because it was the concept and the look that mattered, as proven by the Mustang II deviation. To quote another bit from Barney Clark’s document, “You could, in a sense, ‘style it and forget it’ — there would be no necessity for yearly revisions or major face-lifts.” Today’s successful retro design just about proves that thesis.
Read gm’s original 1956 four-seat sports car proposal at here.
Front 3/4 view
1 The characteristic grille/air intake allows a long, flat hood, as in classic cars of the 1930s.
2 The line derived from the grille corners separates the engine cover from the flatter panels between the hood and fender peaks.
3 Starting exactly at the edge of the headlamp-surround molding, the fender peak recapitulates the profile of the great 1961 Lincoln Continental.
4 This little kickup simply emphasizes the Lincoln look, subliminally making the Mustang feel more expensive than it actually was.
5 The real inspiration for the roof profile was the 1963 Pontiac Tempest, much admired by Ford stylists at the time, but it’s also consistent with the first Thunderbirds.
6 This nasty piece of chrome trim was meant to suggest rear brake-cooling scoops, but they were fake. You could pay extra to have them left off, and Ford threw in a paint stripe around the perimeter.
7 Remember “wind wings”? They actually looked good and were extremely useful before air-conditioning became quasi-universal in cars.
8 Even the base models had full wheel covers — no cheap button caps for any Mustang.
9 V-8 cars got these badges, although sometimes they were left off. Production details were chaotic in the first eighteen months, when nearly 700,000 Mustangs — all listed as 1965 models — were made and sold to an eager clientele.
10 Despite the louvers, no air flowed through the headlamp hollow in the front end.
11 Lovely thin bladed bumpers were easily damaged but were adequate for most use.
Rear 3/4 view
12 Notice the exemplary way the creases fade into plain surfaces. Very nice indeed.
13 One of the nicest surface details was the indent that surrounded the backlight, giving clear definition to the upper structure.
14 The rear fender peak is so subtly curved that it’s very nearly straight. All the emphasis in the design is on apparent length. Nicely achieved.
15 The fuel-filler cap carried the badge and was quite elegant.
16 The way the body turned under at the back lightened the whole composition visually and helped to avoid the blunt, cliff like rear ends that we’ve become accustomed to today. Altogether, the Mustang was a really good, simple design, which is why it lives on with very few changes.
17 Sill trim is pretty much an anachronism now, but it was thought to be necessary in the 1960s.
19 Stamping the upper door panels with textured steel so it looked like leather was a clever detail.
20 Door trim panels were simple inserts and could be color-coordinated with the hue used on the faux-leather surround.
21 The deep-dish steering wheel was very Detroit but not particularly sporty, despite fake lightening “holes” in the spokes’ trim pieces.
22 The doublebump cowl was a nod to British sports cars like the MG TD — and it worked well.
23 There was nothing sporty at all in the instrument cluster — no tach and minimal gauges. But you could buy a “Rally-Pac” to get what you needed. Or thought you did.
24 Front buckets were an overt, and acknowledged, copy of the Lotus Elan’s seats.
25 This lever is for the optional four-speed gearbox, which had a nice reverse lock-out trigger. Mustangs were very easy to drive, with decent ergonomics.