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The first modern car

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Sandy McLendon
There was nothing like the original Mustang. Not even the ones that came later.

If you wanted to be modern during the mid-century years, you could have almost anything your heart desired. Modern houses, modern furniture, modern dishes- even clothes like nothing Mama ever wore. A family could have an entirely modern life, with one exception- the family car. For all the tailfins and two-toning of Fifties automobiles, the cars function was the same as it had been for decades- it was meant to carry a family in formal, ritual style. Fifties mass-market cars looked like a lot more fun than they actually were; once you got past the glitzy styling, you might as well have been driving a

Model T.

There were some small exceptions; Ford and Chevrolet both built two-seater sports cars, the Thunderbird and Corvette. Chrysler had a luxury sports model called the Dual Ghia for a time, and there was even a sporty wagon from General Motors, sold as the Chevrolet Nomad and as a Pontiac version called the Safari. There was just one problem- all these cars were unaffordable for the average Joe, much likelier to be seen in magazine ads and layouts than in real life. These glamour cars drew huge crowds at auto shows, and customers flocked to see them in showrooms. But as much as families wanted to have something really different in the driveway, budget constraints meant that Dad always seemed to leave the dealership with a new car just like the old one, only with different two-toning and bigger fins.

Change was needed, and it began with the impetus Detroit fears most- consumer backlash against existing models. In 1958, something unheard-of happened when the new models were unveiled: they were mocked, scorned, laughed at. Too big, too bulky, too gaudy, too shoddily built, the cars were so out of touch with consumer needs that the resulting downturn in sales spurred a recession. Not coincidentally, 1958 was the year the unassuming, cheap-to-buy Volkswagen made huge inroads with buyers who wanted transportation and function, not status. The VWs success was so dramatic that Detroits Big Three decided they could do small cars, too.

Except, it turned out, they couldnt- at least not at first. Chevrolets Corvair was meant to be a highly Americanized Volkswagen, complete with rear-mounted, air-cooled engine, but its weird handling was soon criticized, and then became the focus of Government investigation after comedian Ernie Kovacs lost control of his Corvair wagon in a low-speed accident that ended his life. Chrysler weighed in with the Valiant, whose styling made it look like a creature from an American International Pictures sci-fi movie. The one low-priced small car that was comprehensible to the average mechanic and conservatively styled was from Ford- the Falcon. Engineered as much as possible with tried-and-true, off-the-shelf parts already used in Ford products, the Falcon got high marks for sales, but low ones for excitement.

There were signs that buyers wanted some real pizzazz mixed with economy, and were willing to pay for it. The Corvair Monza, with a stick shift and some handling upgrades, was a favorite of young drivers who couldnt afford Corvettes, despite the hard-to-service engine. Ford itself had a sporty model, the Falcon Futura. Never as desirable as the Monza, the Futura was sporty mainly by virtue of its vinyl bucket seats. Seeing customers come into showrooms to look at the Futura, then leave empty-handed, was puzzling to Ford at first. Clearly the customer wanted something that wasnt being offered, but what? Ford found its answer at auto shows.

Every car company toured experimental and dream cars throughout the country, more to drum up excitement for existing models than through any real desire to give consumers the cars being shown. Occasionally, dream cars did hit enough of a nerve that manufacturers hastened to give drivers a watered-down version, like the Mercury X-100 that became the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser. GM had used its Autorama series of shows to introduce dream cars that were exaggerated versions of cars actually being planned, to condition customers into acceptance of new styling themes. Beginning in 1962, Ford sent a concept car called the Mustang to shows, and the response told them everything they needed to know.

What the customer was looking for was a dramatic, modern shape; Futuras problem was in its bland, loaf-of-white-bread styling. The Mustangs long hood and short rear deck gave it a European flair, managing to look purposeful and elegant at the same time. Auto-show attendees flocked around the car so much, Ford began to see if a production version would be feasible. A Ford management group headed by Lee Iacocca (later to gain fame as the man who brought Chrysler out of its 1980s bankruptcy), green-lighted and funded the job of turning a dream car into a real car.

The development program began with two hard-and-fast parameters: the target price was $2500, and the car had to be built with as many off-the-shelf parts as possible. Ford stylist Joe Oros was given the job of turning the dream cars styling into something that could be produced at a price, yet retain the originals excitement. He collaborated with another Ford stylist, Dave Ash, on a clay model that was amazingly close to the final car; a few curves were toned down for cost control, and a few louvers eliminated for a cleaner look. Once the final body was decided on, the cars engineering was taken care of in very short order; the management groups demand for off-the-shelf components paid huge dividends. Most of the cars running gear came from the Falcon; what was yawn-provoking on the earlier car got a whole new feel on the sportier body of the Mustang, with its lower center of gravity.

Sandy McLendon

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