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Thomas Hine
The modern age of automobiles began on April 17th, 1964, in a most appropriate place- the 1964-65 Worlds Fair. Ford president Henry Ford II unveiled the car at the Ford Pavilion, to enormous press and public interest; 22,000 were sold the first day. At first, it was feared that might have been a fluke, but it turned out to be the beginning of a huge love affair with the car- within two years, one million Mustangs had been produced and sold. The car was an excellent value; not only was the base price of $2385 lower than the target price of $2500 had been, every Mustang buyer got an all-vinyl interior (an option on most cars of the time), as well as full wheelcovers instead of cheap hubcaps. Reliability was assured by the re-use of proven engines and transmissions. Ford had finally figured out what the customer wanted- a combination of sportiness, economy, luxury, and endless personal choices.

Most cars fell into a defined niche- the luxury coupe, the family sedan, the station wagon- and their essential character was the same no matter what the customer did or did not choose from the options list. The Mustang approach was vastly different- the car could be whatever you wanted it to be. The base model with its little inline Six and three-speed manual transmission looked sleek, but was actually an econobox beloved of schoolteachers and office clerks. Customers ordering the fancy two-toned Pony interior, a V-8, and air-conditioning got a poor mans Thunderbird. People who wanted performance as hot as the cars looks could have that, too, with a list of performance engines and options that grew every year.

The first seasons quirks were quietly addressed- among them a tendency to brake fade- and the concept expanded for 1965. A sloping fastback roof was grafted to the standard body to produce the 2+2 model, and disc brakes were later added for those customers who wanted to pay extra for more stopping power. Racing king Carroll Shelby decided the car was a perfect platform for a racer, and his wins resulted in an invitation from Ford to assist in building a production version, the GT350. One of the first conversion cars ever offered by a major manufacturer, the GT350 began as a standard Mustang shipped to Shelby with a 289 c.i.d. V-8 engine; racing parts like a fiberglass hood and modified suspension were added by the Shelby crew. The concept was so popular, Hertz Rent-A-Car requested 1000 somewhat toned-down GT350s for its rental fleet, hoping to attract younger customers. They got them: the Hertz cars had to be retired after a year of staggering losses incurred when those new customers professed to have no idea why the tires that had been new on Friday afternoon were in shreds on Monday morning.

Most cars got new options every year or two; Mustang got them much oftener, with Ford adding more performance and more luxury every few months. By 1966, the Mustang was the car that Fifties buyers would have killed for- sporty, even raffish, but with solid Detroit practicality built in. If that meant that the styling was more advanced than the technology under the hood, nobody cared: the car was not only Americas idea of a dream car, it was a dependable dream car.

A million sales in two years was something that made competitors want to sit down to the table, and they did, beginning with the 1967 introduction of the General Motors competition, Chevys Camaro and Pontiacs Firebird. Not quite as successful as the Mustang, the GM twins did very well, nonetheless. Chrysler tried to hedge its bets on entering the new youth market by putting a fastback body on the Valiant and calling it the Barracuda. The styling was uninspired, but the powerful Hemi (hemispherical-head) engine that was available gave the Cuda its own legion of fans. In 1970, Chrysler finally went whole hog with a new, rakish Barracuda body similar to the Mustang / Camaro look, and threw in a Dodge version called the Challenger for good measure. Even little American Motors got into the act with a 2+2 car called the Javelin and a two-seater version called the AMX. Both cars were cleanly styled and hot performers, but nothing to make the Big Three worry.

Knowing that GM would have all-new cars in showrooms in 1967, Ford revamped the Mustang for the new model year, reskinning the car extensively for a more hulking look. More comfort and convenience options were introduced; the car was now not only an alternative to Thunderbird, insouciance with the options list could bring it close to Thunderbirds price. Ford also developed a Mustang clone for its Lincoln-Mercury Division, called the Cougar, giving it a much more upscale interior in genuine leather, and European-style batwing switches on its dash.

By 1968, the genre was called the pony car, in obvious tribute to the car that had started it all, but there were already signs that all was not well. Manufacturers were ignoring the fact that the lightweight cars performed quite adequately with even their smallest engines, and were stuffing larger and larger powerplants into them, in response to what can only be termed a size matters mentality among male customers. Highly dangerous power-to-weight ratios were the result: when it was said that one of these cars could fly, it wasnt necessarily a figure of speech. Accident, injury and death statistics for the cars became staggering in proportion to their numbers on the road, and finally, the insurance industry put its foot down. By 1970, insurers were charging astronomical rates to insure pony cars with the larger engines; a few wouldnt touch them at all. Lack of insurability was bad enough, but new Federal emissions standards and an oil crisis also mandated the end of the horsepower race. After 1974, Chrysler and AMC had dropped their pony cars entirely, and GM cut the performance of the Camaro and Firebird to a fraction of former levels.

Ford developed an all-new Mustang, called Mustang II, in an attempt to reinstate some of the virtues of the original car. Introduced in 1974, it was smaller than any Mustang had been since 1967, leaner, trimmer, intended to give peppy performance on a smaller engine. It even looked more like the original than any Mustang since 1969, when a massive restyling had resulted in an oversized, boatlike, unsporty car. But the thrill was gone; the new model was never the sensation the first Mustang had been. Today, the Mustang is back in the position it enjoyed in its first two years- its not only the leading pony car, its once again the only pony car. GM dropped the Camaro / Firebird twins in 2003, leaving the field to its originator.

Americas love affair with the original Mustang continues unabated; a well-restored example from the first two years can easily fetch $25,000- more for Shelbys and convertibles. Adjusted for inflation, many of these cars fetch twice as much as they did when new, delighting a whole new generation that wasnt even born when the cars were built. Even better, theyre not viewed as cool old cars to be shown and garaged; their contemporary feel, dependability and lasting quality makes them a common sight on the road- nearly forty years after Introduction Day.

There was a lot of Mid-Century futurism that never went anywhere, mostly for good and sufficient reason. But the original Mustang- 1964s Car of the Future- has actually lasted into the future, being driven further into it every passing year, with no end in sight. As long as theres a road, theres a Mustang headed towards tomorrow.

Thomas Hine

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