Today the Ford Mustang turns 47. That doesn’t seem like a significant milestone, except that the average age of a Ferrari buyer in North America is 47. So with all the money the Mustang has made over the years, the galloping horse could easily trade itself in for a prancing one.
But this column isn’t going be about comparing Fords to Ferraris. Instead, as the Mustang starts to descend into its midlife crisis, it can take solace in knowing that no other American car since the original Mustang has set the world on fire in quite the same way...pity.
The Mustang was, of course, a success at home. At $2,368 (about $17k in today’s money), the base Mustang was the perfect secretary’s car that offered a little flair for little money. Before it was released, focus groups were asked how much they thought the car would cost. Most people over guessed by $1,000, which is probably why when it hit the market, the average 1964 Mustang was ordered with $1,000 in optional equipment. Even after the styling and engine upgrades, these loaded Mustangs were still only about $24k in today’s money.
It appealed to single people who wanted an affordable sports car, and it appealed to families wanting a little extra style for their second car. The Mustang was cheap speed without looking inexpensive, and Ford sold about 680,000 examples in the first 18 months of production. The era of the pony car in the U.S. was born.
But that is not the whole story. Across the pond Europe was catching Mustang fever. Where the Mustang was a sensible size in the U.S., this Ford was a large GT car by European standards. Still, this was one of the first American cars that almost actually fit on European roads.
Ford officially exported the car to Germany under the name “T5” because a commercial truck already took the Mustang name. But that did not stop U.S. cars from unofficially making the trip across the Atlantic. Ford could never sell a whole lot of Mustangs in Europe because there was just too much metal weighing them down for it to be an economical Euro car. So instead, Ford applied the Mustang idea in a smaller (size and engine) package. The 1969 Capri (pictured right) was considered Europe’s Mustang, and it became just as big a hit.
It was not just North America and Europe that were having all the fun. Ford would eventually serve South America with a Mustang factory in Venezuela. But by the beginning of the 70s the Mustang’s excess of success was turning into gluttony. The car had grown to become too overweight and overpriced for the original secretary’s car. Ford tried to shed weight and reverse the tide by slimming down the second generation. The 1974 car (called the “Mustang II”) was not a pretty machine, but it still could trade on the old reputation. The first Mustang II was even given as a gift to Soichiro Honda.
The Mustang is still a hot seller in America, but it would never capture that kind of lightning in a bottle again. On its 47th birthday the Mustang knows its best days are likely already behind it. We haven’t created a car with the same international stature since the original Mustang. But it is not entirely our fault in North America, because the world has changed.
Today’s cars are a global effort, and the strongest preference right now comes from European vehicles. So good carmaking is now about knowing where to pull the best resources. It is a good thing that an American-made Ford Focus takes most of its cues from its European-developed cousin, and Opel developed the chassis on the Chevrolet Malibu. Ford’s failed bid for Ferrari in the mid-60s ensures that there will never be a Ferrari-based Mustang, but those are two horses that don’t need to play together. I am still optimistic that America will create another Mustang, but until then, I am happy we are not too stubborn to play follow the leader.