In March of 1964, there was change in the air. You knew something was changing, but nobody could have predicted the turbulence and change that the remainder of that decade would bring. There were hints and clues, like the smell of rain or distant thunder. The music was changing. A year earlier the top 20 of the week included artists like Bobby Darin, The 4 Seasons, Eydie Gourme, Dion, Roy Orbison, Elvis, Tony Bennett. The same week in 1964 the Beatles held five of the top 20 spots. The Beach Boys were there continuing to sing about cars and surfing. The Dave Clark Five, another English invader was on the charts. Elvis was still there and so were The 4 Seasons, but Eydie and Tony had faded away.
On March 9, 1964, the first Ford Mustang rolled off of the assembly line in Dearborn Michigan. There had been some prototypes presented at design shows for a couple of prior years, but they looked like something Luke Skywalker would fly around it. The only American made sports car on the market at the time was the Chevrolet Corvette (the two seater Ford Thunderbird had evolved into a huge luxury car). Then, as now, the Corvette was expensive and because it only had two seats was impractical as only about 20% of American households owned two or more cars at that time, so for most people there was no “sporty” option.
Today we don’t see the amount of “hoopla” around the release of the new car season. And we don’t see the sometimes radical changes in models from year to year that we did in the 50s and 60. The new models came out with huge advertising budgets and great fanfare and we all eagerly waited to see what Detroit would make this year. There were no Japanese cars and honestly if you could find a car from Europe they were either only for the elite, like the Rolls Royce or they were mechanical disasters, like England’s MG, or the Peugeot from France.
When the Mustang hit the market, even folks with little or no interest in buying a new car, flooded the showrooms. The curiosity level was high. Ads had appeared in 2,600 newspapers around the country so there was a lot of “buzz” and everybody wanted a look at this new car. The hood was longer, the rear trunk area shorter and those features alone made it look sportier and differentiated it from the battleship sized competition. The list price was $2,300 (around $20,000 2021 dollars) so it didn’t break the bank to own one. The Mustang was based on the relatively small Ford Falcon chasse and used parts from both the Falcon and the Ford Fairlane. The dealers loved this feature since they didn’t have to stock an entire parts inventory for the Mustang.
Ford was hoping to sell 100,000 Mustangs in the 1963 model year, they sold 100,000 in the first 3 months and 318,000 by the end of the year. They sold over a million of them in the first 18 months. The 1965 Mustang was the best selling Ford car since the 1927 Model A. The Mustang is the longest running model name in Ford’s history and it is still going strong.
Detroit automakers were always looking for any new niche and when one car company found one the others were quick to jump in with both feet. The success of the Mustang gave rise to the Chevrolet Camaro, the Pontiac Firebird, the AMC Javelin, and others. Many of those models ushered in what is now thought of as the Muscle Car era.
Now days there is a great deal of competition in the auto industry. We are flooded with cars that, because of gas prices, fuel efficiency standards, safety standards, all look very similar. I was a young teenager when the Mustang debuted and I can’t think of any car since then that generated the same level of initial interest as the Mustang. The Hummer, the Chrysler PT Cruiser, maybe the Mazda Miata caught people’s attention but none of them filled the price/practicality/design niche that the Mustang did and certainly none of them caught the winds of change as firmly.