American As All Hell


This is a 1966 Ford Mustang, and it deserves some cake. Also, a vacation in St. Thomas, a red sports car, and a country club membership. That’s because this car is right on the cusp of its mid-life crisis. That’s right: this year the Ford Mustang is fifty years old.


Ford commemorated the event by making a new Mustang, which will be released next year, and putting it on top of the Empire State Building. Now, they didn’t just do that just for laughs. To understand why they did though, we have to visit the year 1964. Small, foreign sports cars were all the rage back then, and the CEO of Ford at the time, Lee Iacocca, wanted a car that could compete. He and his second-in-command, Eugene Bordinat, held a contest to design the car among Ford’s three brands: Lincoln, Mercury, and- um- Ford.


The teams were given five parameters: the Mustang had to seat four, have bucket seats and a floor mounted shifter, weigh less than 2500 pounds and have various luxury and performance options all for under $2500. The winner was the Lincoln-Mercury team, as it turned out. But the car was eventually badged as a Ford. Life was unfair as a car designer in the 1960s. Still, the design was largely unchanged as it moved from the original mold to the production car, which is a relative rarity in the car world.


Now that they had a sexy, two-door sports coupe, the only thing left was to give it a cool name. The actual designer of the car suggested Cougar, which obviously never made it onto a Ford but was, interestingly enough, used for the later, Mercury-ized version of the car. Other names in the stable included Avventura (the mock-up of which ended up being beautiful), Avanti, XT Thunderbird, T-5, Allegro, Bronco, Turino and Pinto. But finally, and after months of debate, Lee Iacocca settled on “Mustang” because it had “the excitement of wide open spaces and was as American as all hell,” in the words of some Ford ad man.


There are conflicting reports as to how the Mustang name came about. Some say it was because the car reminded the Ford Executive Stylist, John Najjar Ferzely, of the P-71 Mustang, which, I’m told, is one of them newfangled “aeroplanes.” Another tale suggests that the name came from Phillip Clark, who was struck with inspiration when he saw some wild horses on a cross country trip. Ultimately, it was the horse story that stuck, thus making the Mustang the first “pony car.”


Then they had to decide on an emblem, because writing “Ford” on the front simply wouldn’t do (though they did that anyway, just for good measure). Back when the “Cougar” name was still on the cards, the car had a big cat in the grill, then after turning that down they settled on a chess piece, then after that they came up with the one you see above, only backwards, and then finally, at long last, they settled on the iconic, unforgettable, correctly-facing emblem that has endured for fifty years.


Now it was time. Now they were ready to unveil their creation that they had worked so hard on for months and months to the world (but really only America because that’s the only place it was sold). There was only one place for it: the 1964 New York World’s Fair. There, visitors could see Walt Disney with his new invention, audio-animatronics, or take a ride through General Electric’s glimpse into home electronics, Progressland (the finale of which included a controlled, nuclear-fission explosion). The Sinclair Oil Corporation had Dinoland, and the Bell System Pavilion had a demonstration of the computer modem. And Ford had the Mustang. Which they debuted (where else?) on top of the Empire State Building.


This Mustang is a 1966 model, which is the year they built the 1,000,000th Mustang. This could be it! Though I think it’s safe to say it isn’t. That one is probably locked up in a museum somewhere. Just think, though: in just a little over two years, people bought a million of these cars. That’s staggering. This one has the “Thriftpower” inline six cylinder engine, developing 120 horsepower through a three speed automatic transmission called the “Cruise-O-Matic.” I can’t help but love the words that this car makes you say when talking about it. I want everything in my house to have Thriftpower, and all cars should have a Cruise-O-Matic. Not because it was a good transmission, mind you- only because it’s fun to say. Cruise-O-Matic.


These cars are great. People bought them because it was a time when cars in general were cool, and this was a very cool car. It was designed to be fun, and it worked. I want one. You want one. Everyone at some point or another wants one. They’re kind of funny like that, in the sense that no one really dislikes early Mustangs. They exist as a part of history, a first car, a design triumph, a pop culture icon, a performance benchmark and a stunning piece of Americana. Happy birthday, you wonderful car.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Very early on in the Mustang project, the car had a four cylinder engine mounted in the middle. You can read more about it here, if you like.
  • The horse emblem on the front originally faced left, because that was the way racehorses were seen on the track. Eventually the design was flipped though, because the Mustang was a wild horse that could face whichever way it damn well pleased.

5 thoughts on “American As All Hell

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