It’s been a wild ride: Looking back at 50 years of Mustangs

How many cars can you name that have been around for 50 years? There’s the Porsche 911, the Chevrolet Corvette and Suburban, and a few others, but the list isn’t long.

In 2014, the Ford Mustang will join that distinguished group. It was launched on April 17, 1964 at the New York World’s Fair, and since then it’s been a pop culture icon, a trend that’s likely to continue with the all-new 2015 Mustang.

The Mustang’s iconic status may seem inevitable with hindsight, but its history is a more complicated story. Over five decades, the Mustang has seen glory, mediocrity, and plenty of destroyed tires.

Here’s the best, and the worst, moments of the Mustang’s 50-year history.

In the beginning

The Mustang was created when Ford Division vice president and general manager Lee Iacocca had the bright idea to give the terminally uncool Falcon economy car a makeover.

Designers draped a stylish 2+2 body over the Falcon’s chassis, named the resulting car the Mustang, which evoked both the horse and the legendary P-51 fighter plane of World War II. The name was also shared with a Ford concept car from 1962.

Designed to attract younger buyers with its good looks and low price, the Mustang created an entirely new type of car. It spawned rivals in the form of the Chevrolet Camaro/Pontiac Firebird, Dodge Challenger/Plymouth Barracuda, and the AMC Javelin. 

Collectively, they would become known as “pony cars.”

The muscle-car wars

The Mustang arrived just in time for the 1960s muscle car craze, but it didn’t start out as a real performance car. The original 1965 model only offered a 289-cubic-inch V8, but the car was more about style than speed.

Carroll Shelby, creator of the Ford-powered, AC-bodied Cobra, famously called the Mustang a “secretary’s car.” Still, Ford was able to convince him to tune one, and the 1966 Shelby GT 350 was born.

Shelby turned the Mustang into a racecar for the street, and created a legend in the process. The GT 350 would be followed by more powerful GT 500 and GT 500KR (“King of the Road”) models. There was even a GT 350H model drivers could rent through Hertz.

Soon, Ford began modding its own Mustangs. In 1967, the Mustang received a facelift and a GT model with a 390-ci V8, two things that would become seared into the American collective conscious thanks to the movie Bullit.

In 1968, Ford introduced a 428-ci “Cobra Jet” engine for professional drag racers; this was back when modified street cars were still the main attraction at the strip.

1968 Bullitt Ford Mustang

Things just got crazier from there. For 1969, the Mustang got another facelift and three new performance models that would become legends. 

The first was the Mach 1, which featured a potent combination of V8 muscle and ‘60s styling. It essentially replaced the GT as the main performance Mustang, and might be making a comeback soon.

Then there was the Boss 302, a “homologation special” Ford built to make the Mustang eligible for the SCCA Trans Am racing series. 

Since Trans Am racing was for showroom models, the SCCA required manufacturers to sell a certain number of the cars they planned to race. That worked out really well for Mustang fans.

The Boss 429 was also a homologation special, sort of: Ford didn’t want to use the car for racing, just the engine. 

The Blue Oval wanted to use a 429-ci version of its “385”-series engine in NASCAR, and for some reason putting it in a Mustang was considered legitimate by the regulators.

Decline

The 1960s were the golden age of the Mustang – and American performance cars in general – but things changed rapidly with the close of the decade.

Ford introduced a completely restyled Mustang in 1971. It gained fame as “Eleanor” in the original Gone In 60 Seconds, and featured a few high-performance engine options, but consumers weren’t interested.

The 1973 Oil Crisis and tightening emissions regulations quickly made big muscle cars irrelevant, so Ford redesigned the Mustang for 1974.

The Mustang II was definitely a low point in pony-car history. It was based on the Pinto, had cartoonish styling, and absolutely no inkling of performance.

1979 Ford Mustang Fox Body

It would take decades for the Mustang to regain its luster, and the first step toward that goal happened in 1979.

Still a favorite among tuners, the “Fox-body” Mustang featured a new “5.0 High Output” V8 (actually 4.9-liter) and styling that was perfect for the 1980s.

Ford developed the Fox throughout its lifespan, adding a four-cylinder SVO performance model in 1986, and the SVT Cobra in 1993.

Despite the improvements, Mustang sales declined through the 1980s, leading Ford to consider replacing it with a front-wheel drive model. Fans wouldn’t have it, and instead that car launched in 1989 as the Ford Probe.

Rebirth

With the Probe debacle behind it, Ford redesigned the Mustang for the 1994 model year, bringing back some of the classic proportions of the ‘60s cars. But why have some, when you can have it all?

Emboldened by its success with the 2002 Thunderbird, Ford remade the 2005 Mustang as a virtual carbon copy of its ‘60s predecessor.

The new car rode a wave of nostalgia, and soon you could be forgiven for thinking that LBJ was still president. 

The base model was joined by a new Shelby GT500 and GT-H Hertz rental model. Motor Trend even re-created the classic Bullit chase scene (without the speed, or the explosions) with a 2005 Mustang and 2005 Dodge Charger.

World beater

Still, the Mustang wouldn’t last forever as a retro fashion item. An inability to adapt has come close to dooming the car before, but not anymore.

Ford used a 2010 facelfit to begin implementing changes that would recast the iconic American muscle car as a bona fide performance machine that could take on the best from the rest of the world.

First came a new 3.7-liter V6 and 5.0-liter “Coyote” V8 for the base models. Then, Ford added a track-focused, reincarnated Boss 302 to the lineup. While previous Bosses were built to to beat Camaro Z/28s in Trans Am, this one was built to beat BMW M3s at track days.

2010 Ford Mustang 3.7 liter V6

Then there’s the current GT500, with a 5.8-liter supercharged V8 that, Ford says, can propel it to a top speed of over 200 mph. Who ever thought a Mustang would be able to hang with a Ferrari?

The recently-revealed 2015 Mustang continues this trend. It abandons the old car’s primitive solid-axle rear suspension for a more sophisticated independent setup, and features styling that blends retro cues with a more modern overall look.

Will the 2015 have the staying power of the greatest Mustangs of the past? Even if it doesn’t you’re unlikely to see that running pony badge go away anytime soon. The Mustang has definitely earned its place in the American automotive pantheon.

Here’s to 50 more years.

Do you have a favorite Mustang from the last five decades? Tell us in the comments.

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