Culturally speaking, the Ford Mustang is a lot like a classic rock band. It found super-stardom in the mid-’60s, had a bit of a lost period in the ’70s, and has launched enough successful comebacks to make any aging singer green with envy. The Mustang is a pop culture hero, and like any great hero, its history is filled with tales of greatness, failures, and redemption, which is a huge reason why it is such a huge automotive icon. The only other car that could possibly match its cultural resonance is the Corvette, but even “America’s Sports Car” lacks the egalitarian appeal that Ford’s pony car has on deck.
The brainchild of Lee Iacocca and Donald Frey, the two pitched the idea of a “youth car” to Henry Ford II several times before he reluctantly gave the green light. They could have their Mustang, Ford said, but if it was a failure, they would both be fired. By the end of the ’60s, Iacocca had been named executive vice president of the company, Ford had sold more than 2 million Mustangs, and everyone at its Dearborn, Mich., headquarters was very, very happy.
Part of what makes the Mustang so successful is its low entry price and its ease of personalization. From the beginning, you could option a Mustang as anything from a sensible sporty car to a fire-breathing track day monster — and if you couldn’t afford a track-ready model, you could buy a cheaper model and build it yourself thanks to a healthy aftermarket performance community. The Mustang can be almost anything to everyone, and after 50 years, Ford hasn’t deviated from this successful formula one bit.
Like the automotive equivalent of The Rolling Stones, the Mustang has more iterations and high points than most, but its history can be roughly distilled to a greatest hits package. While there have been plenty of track day specials and incredible performance variants, we’ve decided to stick with the basics and highlight the factory models that kept the car a vital part of the automotive landscape for the past five decades. Condensed to 13 noteworthy models, here’s a brief history of the Ford Mustang.
In hindsight, the Mustang seems like a preordained success. The car made its attention-grabbing debut on April 17, 1964, at the New York World’s Fair, and as Ford took 22,000 orders on day one alone, it sent its competitors scrambling to produce competitive models.
Beneath its sexy, groundbreaking looks were ordinary mechanicals sourced from existing Ford models like the Falcon and Fairlane, allowing Ford to keep production costs down while still meeting the staggering demand for its new car. By 1965, the coupe and convertible were joined by the sporty fastback version. The car saw few design updates for its first two years, but the public wasn’t complaining. By 1967, Ford had sold nearly 1.3 million of its pony cars.
When change finally came to the Mustang, it came quick. In 1967, the car became bigger, heavier, and more powerful, starting a trend that would continue for the next six years. By 1968, notable additions included three-point seat belts, a collapsible steering column, and the 302 V8 engine.
By then, the muscle car era was in full swing, with GM, Chrysler, and AMC all fielding models to unseat the best-selling pony car. Still, its role in the film Bullitt, and high-performance models like the Shelby, Boss, and Mach 1, ensured that the Mustang would reign supreme through the end of the ’60s.
After eight model years and nearly 3 million cars sold, the Mustang was in dire need of a change. It had outlived the compact Falcon that it was based on by four years, and its annual weight gains had amounted to an extra 1,000 pounds on the car’s aging frame. The party was just about over for other muscle cars, too, as the 1973 oil crisis, skyrocketing insurance rates, and increasing safety and emissions standards spelled the end of American performance as usual. In order for its pony car to survive, the sporty Ford needed to adapt, and fast.
In 1974, as gas prices were climbing and horsepower was falling, Ford unveiled its next-generation pony car, the Mustang II. Lee Iacocca had complained as early as 1967 about the Mustang’s weight gain, and the downsized car arrived just in time for the worst of the oil crisis. Based on Ford’s subcompact Pinto platform, the new car returned to the size of the 1965 car but had lost nearly all of its sporting pretensions.
The car lacked a V8 option until late 1975, and its small size and weak performance ceded what was left of the muscle car market to former competitors like the Pontiac Firebird and Chevy Camaro. Still, plenty of buyers thought the Mustang II was the right car at the right time, and Ford sold 1.1 million of them during its five model-year run.
By downsizing early and missing the worst of the fuel crisis, Ford may have spared the Mustang from an early death that claimed many of its muscle car competitors. By 1978, Ford was ready to try performance again, releasing the one-year-only King Cobra model. While its name recalled the race-ready Shelby Mustang models of the ’60s, the King Cobra shows just how pathetic performance had become during the disco era.
The Cobra was powered by a big 302-cubic-inch V8, but strangled by emissions and safety regulations, the big engine could only muster 139 horsepower. In contrast, the 302-equipped Boss Mustangs of 1969-1970 put out 290 horses. Still, the King Cobra was the light at the end of the tunnel and proof that the Mustang was getting back on the right track.
While Ford tried to take the Mustang back to its roots with the ’74 Mustang II, it really brought it all back home with the completely redesigned ’79 Mustang. Out were the Pinto underpinnings and the sequel suffix, and in were the new Fox platform and razor-sharp styling. The Fox body architecture proved to be so durable that Ford was willing to reintroduce a host of performance options again, firmly returning the Mustang to the muscle car stable. Compared to the aging Camaro and Firebird (both relatively unchanged since 1970), the new Mustang was a modern pony car ready to take Ford into the ’80s.
By the mid-1980s, performance wasn’t exclusive to Detroit anymore. After a few successful years, sales for the Fox-body Mustangs had begun to slump, and Ford quietly began plans to discontinue the Mustang after 1986. Unwilling to let the nameplate die, Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations set about to create a radical Mustang model that could compete in the rapidly changing performance car market.
Bowing for 1984, the SVO Mustang used a special 175-horsepower turbocharged inline-four and an upgraded suspension that could both outperform the V8 model and take on import contenders like the Toyota Supra, Nissan 280ZX, and Porsche 924. The SVO wasn’t a major sales success (only 11,788 were built), but it was enough to keep the Mustang relevant — and off the chopping block for a few more years.
After deciding to keep the Mustang around, Ford changed tack and began work transforming America’s favorite rear-wheel-drive sporty car into a Japanese-engineered front-wheel-drive coupe. After a cover story exposé by Autoweek in 1987, Ford was swamped with angry letters demanding that they reconsider, and luckily, it did. Unfortunately, the company had sunk the Mustang’s development budget into the new car (which became the forgettable Ford Probe), leaving the Fox platform to soldier on until 1993.
But Ford made sure to send the old car out on a high note with the Cobra, the hottest Mustang since the end of the muscle car era. With a 5.0-liter V8 putting out 239 horsepower, upgraded suspension, and massive brakes, it was a true modern-day muscle car. If the Cobra wasn’t extreme enough, Ford also offered the track-day Cobra R, but it was only sold to buyers with valid SCCA racing licenses.
By the early ’90s, the Mustang’s future was secure, as Ford sunk $700 million into developing the fourth-generation Mustang for 1994. While the car’s side scoops and fastback profile recalled the ’60s models, old-school performance also returned in a big way. The GT model had the 5.0-liter V8 putting out a respectable 225 horsepower, and the fire-breathing Cobra and Cobra R models were carried over as well. While the R was limited to just 250 cars, it put out a tire-scorching 300 horsepower from its massive 5.7-liter V8. For the first time in nearly 25 years, Detroit had the rumblings of a competitive muscle car segment.
Getting a facelift before entering the 21st century, the “New Edge” Mustangs were introduced in 1999 and set the refocused pony car even further apart from its aging Camaro and Firebird rivals. While the car could still be had as a sensible V6-powered sporty car, the star of the show was the 2000 Cobra R. Limited to just 300 cars, the R’s 385-horsepower 5.4-liter V8 made it the most powerful Mustang ever built, and its top speed of 175 miles per hour took it out of the muscle car realm and made it a true competitor to cars like the Chevy Corvette Z06 and Dodge Viper.
Just as the “New Edge” Mustangs were hitting the dealer showrooms, Ford began work on an all-new fifth-generation car that would end up taking the Mustang back to its 1960s roots. Designed while J Mays (the designer behind retro-themed cars like the Volkswagen New Beetle and the Ford GT) helmed Ford’s design department, the new Mustang was the closest thing Ford had built to its original pony car since the moon landings.
But this new Mustang was no empty nostalgia car — in 2007, Ford’s Special Vehicle Team unveiled the Shelby GT500, a blisteringly fast 500-horsepower bruiser that prioritized straight-line speed over everything else. Not only did the new Mustang look like it was from the ’60s, it behaved like the muscle car wars never ended.
For its mid-cycle refresh, Ford kept the Mustang’s retro looks and sharpened its road-handling manners. By 2010, The Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro had returned, and suddenly America had a thriving muscle car segment again. As the base car received a thorough revision so too did the Shelby models. The range-topping GT500 had now grown to a sub-$60,000 662-horsepower speed demon, making it one of the best high-performance bargains in the world.
For the Mustang’s 50th anniversary, Ford wanted to pay proper tribute to its most iconic modern car, and the all-new Mustang does it in the best way possible. No longer a complete retro-mobile, the new car still references the nameplate’s storied past while blazing its own stylistic trail. The new car also breaks from tradition far more gracefully than earlier models.
A turbocharged four-cylinder is available for the first time since the SVO Mustang, and the car’s ancient solid rear axle setup (it was the last American car to have one) has finally been replaced with a modern independent rear suspension. The result is a modern, well-built, and world-class car to wear the Mustang name since 1965.
After 50 years of highs and lows, the Mustang is fixed in the firmament of American icons, and it’s unlikely that it will go anywhere anytime soon. The sixth-generation car embodies everything that has always made the Mustang great, and if Ford continues to develop a car that combines performance, individuality, and affordability like no other model before or since, then the Mustang will have its place in the automotive landscape for decades to come.