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Mustang Memories: Celebrating 50 years of an American motoring icon

There are very few American cars we can call iconic. Many cars that stand out from the crowded history of motoring in the US are usually memorable for bad things; the AMC Pacer for example or the Vega, the Prowler, the Cimarron, the Ion, the Aztek.

Ford is celebrating 50 years of the Mustang.
Ford is celebrating 50 years of the Mustang.
The new 2015 Mustang convertible is viewed on top of the observation deck at the Empire State Building in honor of 50 years of the Ford Mustang on April 16, 2014 in New York City

Very few cars have achieved a status that affords them the label of “icon.” The Ford Mustang is one of those few. It is a car that has become so ingrained into the landscape that is a treasured part of American society. Sure there have been a few bumps along the way, consider the “Dark Ages” of the early 1970s and the Mustang II, but Ford showed that when you get it right, there is very little that can stop you completely.

In all started in early 1961 when a group of Ford Motor Company engineers, designers, product planners, marketers and executives, no doubt wearing identical white shirts and skinny black ties and looking like an early episode of “Mad Men,” began a series of off-site meetings at the Fairlane Inn in Dearborn, Michigan. The goal was to come up with a way to tap into the changing demographics of the American automotive market. The first wave of the post-war baby boom was coming of age and younger drivers wanted to rebel. They wanted something different from what the traditional cars their parents drove.

That group became known as the “Fairlane Committee.” They came up with a business plan for a new sporty, stylish and affordable compact car derived from the recently launched Falcon. By the fall of 1961, designers from every Ford studio began sketching up their ideas for a car to fit this template and then rendering them in clay and fiberglass. But none of the proposals really caught on. That is until September 1962 when a new sketch from Gale Halderman finally became the “IT” design. Within 2 weeks, a clay model was ready and the car was on its way to production in April 1964.

Given the name “Mustang” the car was positioned three different ways at launch, as a practical car for young families, a European-style sports car and a glamorous touring car. When the all-new 1965 Ford Mustang was officially unveiled in the Ford Pavilion at the New York World's Fair, it grabbed the attention of not only automotive journalists, but the public as well. The first calendar year of production saw sales of more than 400,000 units, well over the 100,000 units projected in the original business plan, making it the fastest-selling new car of all time.

Since then there have been more good years than bad for the Mustang. It still sells and sells well. There have been variants from a GT to a Shelby and the Mustang has been seen on the street as well as racetracks all across America and the world. This week a Mustang was even seen on top of the Empire State building in New York as Ford replicated a PR stunt from 1965 when a convertible model was placed on the observation deck. Just as they did back in October of 1965, Ford engineers and technicians cut a new model into sections that would fit into the building elevators, then added brackets to enable quick disassembly and rebuilding.

So why all the fuss? Thursday April 17 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Mustang and in honor of that accomplishment, Ford asked some of its executives and drivers to talk about their favorite Mustang memory.

“My favorite Mustang memory, certainly like many others, is the day I got my first Mustang,” said Edsel Ford II, Member, Board of Directors, Ford Motor Company. “For me, it is still a very vivid memory. It was Christmas morning, 1964, and I was just 16 years old at the time.

I came downstairs that morning with my sisters, and my father indicated I should take a look outside. There was a brand new 1965 Mustang fastback sitting in the driveway with a big red bow on the hood. I immediately grabbed my coat and ran outside to check it out.

Of course, just looking at it was not enough, so I jumped into the car and proceeded to take several laps around our neighborhood. The rumble of the high-performance 289-cubic-inch V8 was intoxicating. I only drove it for a few minutes that first day because there was snow on the ground, but as soon as the roads were cleared, I drove it almost every day.

My father, Henry Ford II, had the car specifically prepared for me. It was a very special Mustang painted in a pearlescent white finish with slim blue racing stripes over the top of the body and along the rocker panels.

It also had a functional hood scoop, chrome trim on the three gills in the headlamp buckets, and fender-mounted rearview mirrors similar to the ones on the Mustangs in Europe at that time.

My father also did something special for me. The rear fuel filler cap, which normally had the pony logo, had my initials on it – ‘EBFII.’

That car was special for sure. I drove it through high school and then one summer afternoon on Long Island I let a friend borrow it. He was driving the car home, lost control and rolled it in a potato field near our house. My beautiful Mustang was destroyed. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the car was totaled.

That Mustang was my first car and my favorite. Seeing the recent photos of the car that were discovered in the Ford archives brought back many fond memories.”

“My brother Louie in 1966 came back from Vietnam and he bought a Ford Mustang 289 automatic green fast back,” said John Force legendary NHRA champion. “I had just purchased a Lincoln Continental with suicide doors, an older model like a 60 or something. Louie knew I was a hot-rodder so he swapped me for the Mustang and he took the Lincoln because he was a family man. Actually. I swapped the Lincoln and a pick-up for the Mustang. I drove it for years. It wasn’t my first Ford though because in high school I bought a Ford Fairlane. It was British racing green and really a cool car.”

“I have owned a number of Mustangs over the years. It is just a great car,” he adds. “It can be a family car or it can be a cruising car or a hot rod. My favorite that I have now is a 1965 red convertible 289 Automatic and it is in my museum in Yorba Linda, California. I love that car and it was the first collector car I ever bought.”

Away from the drag strip in the competitive world of sports car racing, the Mustang has left drivers with pleasant memories as well.

“It’s always difficult for me to say ‘my favorite story,’ because I have so many great stories,” said Scott Pruett driver of the Ford EcoBoost Riley prototype. “With that being said, there’s truly one that comes to mind. It was 1986 and it was the Miami Grand Prix. Willy T. Ribbs was leading and I passed him for the lead with two laps to go. Putting the car in the lead was for sure, as a new driver, as new to Ford as I was, as new to the Mustang as I was, and all the things together it was a pretty sweet moment.”

Mustangs have made their mark in the world of NASCAR as well. It was only a few years ago that the world’s largest stock car racing sanctioning body changed the cars raced in its Nationwide Series. Ford was quick to introduce the Mustang.

“My favorite Mustang story is when the Nationwide Series went to the Mustang and we went to Michigan and the Mustangs were there,” said NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski. “They were the first cars to have the decals on the side that made it look like the production car. That was really cool. I felt like when the Mustang came into the Nationwide Series it really beefed it up and made it look like a real race car, a real car. I thought that was really awesome. It is such an iconic part of car history and racing history, so to have Mustang come to the Nationwide Series and to have it look like a Mustang, was a big deal.”

“One of my favorite memories is obviously being able to win the two Nationwide Series championships in a Mustang,” said former Nationwide champion turned Sprint Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. “That was really cool and will be something that obviously I always remember because up to now it is my biggest accomplishment in racing. When I was growing up though, my Dad, he builds engines for a living and a friend of his had a Mustang Mach 1. I was young, about seven or eight, so I don’t remember the exact year of the car. I believe it was a 1969 though. He took me for a ride in it one day and we got sideways. We were staring right at the back of a big truck and right at the last second he turned it and we spun around the other way and kept going. That was so much fun. I loved it. That was probably when I fell in love with Mustang.”

“My Mustang moment story is simple,” said Director of Ford Racing Jamie Allison. “As a kid who grew up in Dearborn and went to Fordson High School on Ford Road it was inevitable – all I wanted to do was work at Ford and drive a Mustang. My dream came true in 1987 when I was hired as an engineer at Ford and I bought my first new car, a 1987 Mustang GT convertible with a 225 HP 5.0L. Wow, I was in heaven every day I drove it. Every time I see or drive a Mustang it just reminds me of the feeling of joy a Mustang brings to our customers. That spirit of Mustang is what guides me as we develop performance parts or go racing with Mustang. Happy Birthday, Mustang!”

Indeed as it turns the half century mark, the Mustang shows no signs of slowing down. If the first fifty years are any indication, hitting the 100-year mark should be no problem at all for one of America’s most iconic cars, the Ford Mustang.

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