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Ford Mustang Through the Years

Art Michalik

Through the six Ford Mustang generations the model adapted to changing customer needs. This flexibility has kept the Mustang viable for decades with more to come.

How the Mustang Came to Be

As this story starts more than a half-century ago, it’s best to start with a little background. In the early 1960s, the first of Baby Boomers were coming of age. They rejected the norms of their parents and sought to blaze their own path in life. These Boomers completely changed the culture, in music, fashions, attitudes and even in cars. This transformation was bubbling under society’s surface needing only a few triggering events to bring them to the fore. The Ford Mustang was one of those events.

10 Millionth Mustang Celebration - ford.com
10 Millionth Mustang Celebration - ford.com

As early as 1960, Lido “Lee” Iacocca, the Vice President of the Ford Division, was casting about for a small sporty car that would appeal to young people. A teaser Ford Mustang I was created and displayed at car shows and races, but it was a prototype with no chance of serial production.

1964 Ford Mustang prototype - ford.com

1964 Ford Mustang prototype – ford.com  |  Shop Ford Mustang on Carsforsale.com

Iacocca approached company CEO Henry Ford II seeking funding for his young persons’ car. After the Edsel fiasco, Ford II was reluctant to deviate from safe products. Only after Iacocca presented market data that supported his plan did Ford II reluctantly agree. He made Iacocca pledge the program would make money, with Iacocca realizing what failure would mean to his career.

First Generation (1965 – 1973)

1965 Ford Mustang - ford.com
1965 Ford Mustang - ford.com
  • Iacocca needed an economical solution to deliver on his promise of profitability. With a minuscule budget, the assembled team used the Ford Falcon economy car as the platform. The body design was clearly inspired by European cars with their long hoods, short tails and reward seating positions. In fact, the driver’s seat in the 1965 Mustang was a full nine inches back from its placement in the Falcon.
  • Team Mustang set a goal of selling 100,000 cars in the 1965 model year (though some refer to early production as 1964.5, all those built in 1964 were recorded as 1965 models). Total Ford brand sales in 1964 totaled just under 1.6 million vehicles. Not a particularly high target.
  • There might have been some concern as to whether Mustang sales would reach that 100,000-unit sales goal. An extensive launch roll-out including TV commercials, magazine covers, print ads and the reveal at the NY World’s Fair. It worked as 22,000 Mustangs were sold on the first day.
  • As much as the exterior styling drew people’s attention, they were equally enthused by the interior. The Interior Decor Group featured embossed running ponies on the front bucket seats, integral armrests, woodgrain appliqué accents, and a round gauge cluster that replaced the standard Falcon instrumentation.
  • Car reviewers weren’t as impressed. “It seemed to us that Ford designers had a chance with the Mustang to genuinely improve the breed and introduce untold numbers of American drivers to driving pleasures they’ve never before experienced. Instead, they simply built all the familiar characteristics for which the typical American sedan has been cursed for so long, into a sporty looking package,” a Road & Track staff review published August 1964 concluded.
1965 Ford Mustang convertible - ford.com
1965 Ford Mustang convertible - ford.com
  • The Ford Mustang launched with convertible and notchback body styles, with the fastback joining the lineup in late ’65. The fastback gave the Mustang a more aggressive look. One million Mustangs would be sold by March of 1966, making Iacocca a superstar in the auto industry.
  • The 1967 model year saw the first significant changes to the original Mustang. It grew in every dimension, primarily to accommodate Ford’s FE 390 CID V8, the most powerful available engine, while a new 302 CID V8 replaced the 289 V8.
  • The transition from lightweight sporty car to something akin to a personal luxury car (remember those?) began in the 1969 model year. The 1969 Mustang was longer and wider than its predecessor. Ford axed the 289 replacing it with the new 351 CID Windsor V8 with either two-barrel or four-barrel carbs.
1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302 - ford.com
1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302 - ford.com
  • New models for 1969 included the 429 Mach I and the Boss 302.
  • As you might have noticed, there’s been no mention about the Shelby, and later Ford produced GT 350 and GT 500 models. That’s intentional as they deserve their own story. Look for a future in-depth article on those cars.
  • As sales dropped to 300,000 in 1969, Ford further softened the styling of the 1970 Mustang. It didn’t work as only 200,000 Mustangs were sold in 1970. The 1971 model year saw further gains in dimensions and bulk, as engine output was limited as Ford struggled to meet emissions requirements.
  • In 1973, the Mustang coupe weighed a massive (for the time) 3600 pounds, 1200 pounds heavier than the 1965 model. Sales were now in free-fall. The markets for the ‘big’ Mustang had dried. The original line of Ford Falcon-based Mustangs came to an end after the 1973 model year.

Second Generation (1974 – 1978)

1974 Ford Mustang II - ford.com
1974 Ford Mustang II - ford.com
  • Recognizing that there was still great marketing value in the Mustang name, Ford applied it to a compact, Pinto-based import fighter. Most Mustang fans now consider it a placeholder between “real” Mustangs; it was among the highest-ever selling versions.
  • At first, America took to the smaller Mustang II, purchasing 385,993 in 1973 alone (over 250,000 more than the 1973 model year Mustang). It was available as a notchback or hatchback. There were two engine choices: a 2.3 L four-cylinder and a 2.8-liter V6. For 1975, Ford offered a 140 horsepower 4.9 L V8 in the Cobra II and King Cobra models (which had nothing to do with Shelby).
  • Also available in 1974 was a Ghia trim with 70s tacky half-roof vinyl top and oval opera windows in the C-pillar.
  • Again, Road & Track wasn’t impressed. The Mustang II is “neither fast nor particularly good handling” as posted in the September 1974 issue.
  • Enthusiasm faded quickly as these cars were troublesome. Sales didn’t top 200,000 units per year from 1975, resulting in the Mustang II’s demise after the 1978 model year.

Third generation (1979 – 1983)

1979 Ford Mustang - ford.com
1979 Ford Mustang - ford.com
  • The now-famous Fox body featured MacPherson strut front suspension, four-link rear axle with coil springs and rack and pinion steering. A sophisticated set up for an American sedan at the time. It was natural to use this platform as the underpinnings for the next generation of Mustang.
  • Engine choices in 1979 included an atmospheric 2.3 L four-cylinder engine with or without a turbocharger, two six-cylinder engines and the 140 horsepower 5.0 L V8.
  • Ford added an improved 2.3 L turbo for 1983, while the 5.0 L engine was upgraded to 175 horsepower. A new 3.8 L V6 replaced both earlier six-cylinder motors.
  • 1983 also saw the return of the convertible Mustang, which had disappeared from the line for over a decade.
Classic Ford Mustang vs Chevrolet Camaro
1986 Ford Mustang SVO - ford.com
1986 Ford Mustang SVO - ford.com
  • In 1984, Ford launched a limited-edition European-inspired Mustang SVO, with a more powerful turbo engine, upgraded suspension and four-wheel disc brakes. The Euro-influenced interior was only available in charcoal grey (leather or cloth) on Recaro-looking adjustable sport seats.
  • 1985 saw the introduction of the 5.0 HO (High Output) engine, which developed 210 horsepower (a sizeable output for the time). (The Corvette‘s 350 V8 produced 230 horses.) The following year saw fuel injection replace the four-barrel carb.
1991 Ford Mustang GT - ford.com
1991 Ford Mustang GT - ford.com
  • The 1987 model year arrived with only two engines and two models: The base Ford Mustang LX and Ford Mustang GT, with its aero-inspired body add-ons. Initially a police pursuit, the stripped-down LX V8 was 200 lbs. lighter than the GT with the same motor.
  • In 1993, Ford launched the SVT Cobra, with a 235 horsepower V8, stiffer shocks and struts, and more subdued styling versus the GT. A race-ready Cobra R (competition) was offered, almost completely stripped down, with added chassis braces, Eibach springs, and adjustable Koni dampers. As a track day car, it was ahead of its time.

Fourth Generation (1994 – 2004)

2003 Ford Mustang Mach 1 - ford.com

2003 Ford Mustang Mach 1 – ford.com  |  Shop Ford Mustang on Carsforsale.com

  • While still on the Fox body, the chassis was reworked into a larger, stiffer structure. The base engine was now a 3.8 L V6. The 5.0 L V8 returned, now producing 215 horsepower.
  • In 1996, Ford replaced the 5.0 L engine with the “modular” 4.6-liter OHC V-8. While the initial version wasn’t terribly impressive, the modular V8 was the start of the path to more horsepower.
  • Market surveys indicated that likely buyers were seeking a car that was more recognizable as a Mustang. For 1994, more Mustang badges were placed around the body and inside a stylized version of the original Mustang’s twin-cowl dashboard drove the point home.
  • The 320 horsepower 1999 SVT Cobra was the first Mustang to feature an independent rear suspension. Along with the IRS, the SVT package included 17-inch wheels and 13-inch Brembo disc brakes. Leather seating surfaces were standard. A stripped-down SVT Cobra R, intended for competition, was available
  • Across town, Chevrolet discontinued the Camaro in 2002, leaving the Mustang as the only remaining pony/muscle car.

Fifth Generation (2005 – 2014)

2005 Ford Mustang GT convertible - ford.com
2005 Ford Mustang GT convertible - ford.com
  • Ford ditched the aging Fox platform, replacing it with the modern D2C chassis. The styling was clearly influenced by the Mustangs of the late 1960s, across the interior and exterior. It was an immediate hit with buyers.
  • The S-197 Mustang featured a long list of standard features including power windows, dual power mirrors, power door locks with remote keyless entry, front airbags, AM/FM stereo with CD player, 16-inch painted aluminum wheels, and larger brake discs with twin-piston calipers in the front.
  • There were three primary engines available across the run of the S-197 Mustang: the most frequently ordered were the 4.0L V6 and the 4.6 L Modular V8. Other engine options were a 4.6 L V8 DOHC that produced up to 310 horsepower, and a 5.4 L supercharged version that developed 390 horsepower.
2011 Ford Mustang GT California Special - ford.com
2011 Ford Mustang GT California Special - ford.com
  • There was a plethora of packages available throughout the ten-year run of the S-197 from which a buyer could select. There were GT, California Special, various Shelby versions, Cobra Jet, Boss, Laguna Seca and a USAF Thunderbirds edition.
  • Consumer reaction to the 2005 Mustang was so positive that General Motors embarked on its own program to develop a new Camaro while Chrysler introduced the Dodge Charger and Challenger.

Sixth Generation (2015 – Present)

2015 Ford Mustang - ford.com

2015 Ford Mustang – ford.com  |  Shop Ford Mustang on Carsforsale.com

  • Ford revealed the wider, lower S550 Mustang in December 2013 as a 2015 model celebrating the Mustang’s 50th anniversary. The design, largely a modern interpretation of the Mustang theme, included several Mustang characteristics. For example, the taillight features the traditional three-bar design, though they’re now lit by LEDs.
  • On the inside, the cockpit was clearly influenced by the Ford GT supercar, with its driver-centric design.
  • At launch, three engines were available: a standard 3.7 L V6, an optional 2.3 L EcoBoost turbocharged, four-cylinder, and 5.0 L Coyote V8 engines. The V6 was dropped for 2018.
  • For the first time, the entire Mustang line was equipped with independent rear suspension (IRS).
2018 Ford Mustang GT - ford.com
2018 Ford Mustang GT - ford.com
  • For 2018, the Mustang‘s styling was refreshed with a new front clip. On the inside, the dashboard was redesigned, including an optional twelve-inch LCD instrument cluster that can be customized by the driver.
  • For 2021, Ford announced the return of the Mach 1, a nameplate that’s not been used since 2004. The Mach 1 will be propelled by the 480 horsepower 5.0 L V8 from the GT model. Many performance-enhancing components from the recently canceled GT350 will find a home in the Mach 1.
  • Ford has been steadfastly supportive of the Mustang. Lee Iacocca predicted at its launch that it will rank with the Model T and Model A, which proved to be correct. And with its 55th birthday in 2020, the Ford Mustang shows no signs of slowing down.
2021 Ford Mustang Mach 1 - ford.com

2021 Ford Mustang Mach 1 – ford.com  |  Shop new Ford Mustang on Carsforsale.com

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2016 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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Art Michalik
Art Michalik

Art Michalik brings a career full of experience in the automotive industry to his writing. He has guided marketing at two major tire companies, represented some of the biggest names in the automotive aftermarket at an ad agency, built the enthusiast social media presence at a major online retailer and even managed one of the most famous racing schools in the world.

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