You’ve heard the stories. The original Ford Mustang was the fastest-selling new car to date. First-year sales were a record 418,812, one million were sold in just twenty-three months, 22,000 orders were taken on the first day. Dealers had to lock car doors to prevent a crush of people, a guy was so distracted by the Mustang that he drove his truck into a showroom window, one buyer who beat out fourteen others slept in his Mustang overnight so the dealer wouldn’t sell it to someone else before the check cleared.
But what really caused the frenzy? Why did the Mustang so resonate in the marketplace? And why did it take off so quickly? A look back reveals that, while Mustang sales far exceeded expectations, its success was no accident.
The 1960s saw two major trends unfold that would dramatically affect the new-car market, and the Ford Mustang was designed to capitalize on both. The first shift was the changing demographic landscape, with the leading edge of the baby boomers starting to reach driving age. In 1964, the 16-to-24-year-old age group was the fastest growing in America. Young people did not want to drive the kind of cars their parents drove. They wanted bucket seats, floor shifts, and the sporty feeling of being close to the road. (What a difference from young drivers today.) The second trend was the massive increase in two-car households. In 1959, only a million families had more than one car; by 1964, that number had skyrocketed to thirteen million.
“We had a lot of research that showed the postwar boomers coming, and multiple [car] ownership at a time when only two or three percent of families had two cars,” said Hal Sperlich, who was a Ford product planner at the time. “We needed a car we could sell to this new market.” Sperlich had a knack for developing the right car at the right time – he later went to Chrysler where he fathered the minivan.
The Mustang’s fresh, sporty proportions and standard bucket seats and floor shifter appealed to youth. And its low starting price ($2368 – or $17,813 in today’s dollars) put it within reach of its natural audience. At the same time, the car had a usable back seat big enough for kids and a decent trunk, which made it a practical second car for young families. The car was also launched with what Ford’s Lee Iacocca claimed was “the longest list of options and accessories ever offered on a new line of cars.” That allowed it to be tailored to the widest possible audience.
Although the Mustang was well positioned, Ford made sure to give the car every advantage. The effort started in October 1962, when Ford unveiled the Mustang I concept at Watkins Glen. The mid-engine two-seater was nothing like the production car in the works, but it was great publicity for the Mustang name. One year later came the Mustang II concept, and this lightly altered version of the upcoming production car really whetted the public’s appetite.
It was decided the real Mustang would debut in the spring of 1964 rather than the traditional fall new-car season, so it would have the spotlight all to itself. And the reveal would take place at the New York World’s Fair, giving the new car the biggest possible stage.
To generate publicity, Ford put 124 journalists in Mustangs and sent them on a 750-mile drive from New York to Detroit, generating numerous feature articles. Both Time and Newsweek had cover stories on Iacocca and the Mustang – the first time the two magazines had ever had the same cover subject. Public placement and marketing tie-ins would see Mustangs in major airport terminals, in the lobbies of Holiday Inns, and as television game show prizes.
Then there was the advertising. Announcement ads ran in 2600 newspapers, reaching three out of four American households, and in twenty-four major magazines with a combined circulation of 68 million. In the first-ever “roadblock” TV ad buy on the eve of the public debut, commercials for the Mustang appeared on all three major networks (there being only three major networks back then) during the 9:30-10 p.m. time slot, broadcasting to some 29 million homes.
The Mustang wasn’t just the right car. It was the right car, at the right time, given the right push. No wonder it created a stampede.