November 1960 was an important moment in the history of the United States.
The Explorer 8 was orbiting the Earth, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe were wrapping on their final film together, Wilt Chamberlain pulled down 55 rebounds in a single game, President Eisenhower was defending the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, and Democrat John F. Kennedy beat out Vice President Richard Nixon to become the next U.S. president.
Also in November 1960, Lee Iacocca became vice president and general manager of the Ford Division of the Ford Motor Company. He had been with the company since 1946 as an engineer and then part of the sales and marketing department but was starting to climb up the ladder quickly.
And as a result, cars in the U.S. never would be the same.
Iacocca’s Big Plan
Iacocca knew that Ford had an older, stiff, dodgy reputation, but he had his eyes set on creating a stylish, youthful car that would appeal to a new generation of car buyers
Hal Sperlich, special studies manager of the Ford Division’s product planning group said of the time following Iacocca’s promotion:
“John Kennedy was president, and the country was taken by the enthusiasm of that youthful leader. The excitement, the promise … everything was upbeat and youthful at the time. Iacocca was a vibrant kind of guy, a go-go type who wanted to make his mark, and he seemed to fit all of that. It was one of those wild times when the chemistry of the people was right, and the times were right.”
The chemistry was right, and Iacocca was motivated. He wanted to create a car that was created especially for a youthful age group, a sporty car that would set trends and appeal to consumers just starting out in their careers. Most importantly, he wanted it to be affordable, and he wanted to beat the competition to the punch.
The Development of the Pony Car Plan
Iacocca’s initial intent was to create a sportier version of the Falcon, which was a small, light and economical car that was in stark contrast to the gas-guzzling cars of the 1950s. Immediately, the Falcon was a success, becoming Ford’s best-selling car and easily outselling the competition at Chrysler and General Motors.
The Falcon’s powertrain and suspension were strengthened to accommodate the 221-cubic-inch Ford Fairlane and its small-block V-8. All eyes were on using the Falcon to create something newer and sportier. But as product planner, Dick Place said, “It just was out of character. Falcon was not a sporty car and couldn’t be made into one.”
In the meantime, Chevrolet’s rear-engine Corvair was starting to pique interest with the introduction of the Monza in 1961. Though the Monza didn’t really take off the way that Chevrolet expected, Lee Iacocca saw potential. He asked Ford’s styling chief Gene Bordinat to line up every available Ford car against its Chevrolet counterpart, and there was a void exactly where he expected it. Ford had nothing like the Corvair Monza.
Ford had the luxurious Thunderbird but nothing similar that was more affordable, more accessible, and more appealing to young people. Iacocca said, “We had some pretty good hunks of hardware, but we didn’t have the wrappers to put them in. Everybody was Thunderbird nuts at that time, and I felt we should have a poor man’s T-bird.”
Iacocca wanted a “working man’s Thunderbird.” To keep things under wraps, Iacocca collected a committee at a series of offsite meetings at Dearborn’s Fairlane Hotel. They established that they needed a car that was no more than 180 inches or 2,500 pounds with a short-deck low profile and a Thunderbird-style long hood.
They also decided in these meetings that their new car would carry four people, have a six-cylinder V-8 engine, and meet a variety of tastes. And they decided instead of coming up with a skin change on their existing Falcon, they needed a completely fresh new look.
Hurdles to Overcome
In 1962, Bordinat had come up with some small, sporty car designs and showed them to Henry Ford himself, excited at the prospect of what was to come. Ford’s reaction was not what Bordinat was expecting:
“He was cold toward the whole idea, and we couldn’t understand it because he’s a car buff. But he wasn’t having any part of it. In fact, he said, ‘I’m leaving,’ and he walked out of the meeting. I had never seen him so cold about a car. It turned out that he went straight to Ford Hospital and spent the next few months there with mononucleosis. He wasn’t interested in anything that day because he was feeling terrible.”
But it wasn’t just an ill-timed meeting with Ford that would stand in the way of Bordinat’s new designs. When the designs were shared in a formal presentation, they were rejected flatly. There wasn’t much interest from management or styling. It seemed that Iacocca’s dream and Bordinat’s design weren’t going to go anywhere.
Lee Iacocca wanted to see his project through. He called for a competition.
Iacocca gave Bordinat two weeks to come up with half a dozen models. He enlisted the help of his Ford, Lincoln-Mercury, and Advanced studios to tackle two models apiece, working quickly to get the work done.
Of the six designs, four of them were too rounded, too straight-edged, or too heavy looking. But the other two were clear standouts. Iacocca liked the “Stiletto,” but it would be too expensive to be the approachable car he wanted, The “Cougar” model had promise. It was submitted by David Ash and previewed almost exactly identically to the eventual production Mustang.
The moment of truth came when they showed the model to Mr. Ford once again. This time, this reaction was an affirmative one, even if it was also fairly lukewarm. He said, “OK, I’ll approve the damned thing just to get you guys off my back.’”
To the Races
Iacocca was given a reluctant corporate blessing and a mere $40 million to design, engineer, tool, and develop his small sports car. He often was heard commenting on how challenging it was to sell Ford on the car—as the hardest he ever had to work at something in his life, which was not an insignificant comment from someone who had risen through the ranks of Ford from an engineer.
The Mustang was named for a World War II fighter plane and was introduced in record time at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York on April 17, 1964. On that same day, the car debuted in Ford showrooms across the country. The Mustang was the first car in a new class of cars known as “the pony car,” paving the way for similar cars from Chevrolet, Plymouth, Pontiac, and others aiming to take their part of the market.
The folks at Ford expected a modest showing from the Mustang, projecting they would sell only 100,000 models in its first year.
Instead, they sold 22,000 Mustangs on the first day alone, and over 400,000 units in the first year of production.
The Mustang showed no immediate signs of slowing down. In the two years following its debut year, Ford sold over 580,000 units each year.
While Ford’s Mustang quickly became a legend, so too did Lee Iacocca, who would have a long career at both Ford and Chrysler. However, nothing he did could compare to that first icon he created: The Ford Mustang.
The Mustang has been loved for decades, like the Shelby GT500, and has even been pictured in countless movies, and it’s all thanks to Iacocca’s vision and the hard work and dedication of his team at Ford.
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