On April 17, 1964, New York World's Fair visitors were the first to glimpse a vehicle that would become a cultural icon. The first Ford Mustang would go on to reach its yearly sales target in just three months' time, reaching a production milestone of one million units less than two years later. In 50 full years of production, the Ford Mustang seemed to sync with the decades as they passed, ultimately growing into a globally sold flagship built to compete with the world's best.
Borrowed parts and fast development were the staples of the first Mustang program, which mandated a four-seat sports car weighing under 2500 pounds and retailing for less than $2500. Early examples of the car -- produced in 1964, formally sold as 1965 models, but referred to by enthusiasts as "1964 1/2" models -- were equipped with a 2.8-liter inline six-cylinder engine that did not hint at the tire-smoking V8 reputation that would come in time. Late 1965 models did not host the quirks of their predecessors: alternators rather than generators, no hidden "Ford Falcon" script underneath the steering wheel tirm ring, a new inline-six and a range of available V8 engines marked the Mustang's maturation. The Mustang GT debuted this year, formally pairing a V8 engine with additional comfort and convenience features. Texas-based racer Carroll Shelby turned his attention to the car, setting in motion a series of racecars and street-going sports cars that would become significant points in American automotive history.
Larger and heavier the car grew, as yearly revisions of the hardtop coupe, swoopier fastback and topless convertible successfully fought to keep the public's attention. From the beginning, the Mustang would be known for its ubiquity, palatable to drivers of all types who craved the two-door silhouette of a personal sports car. Base versions of the car appealed to those simply searching for a somewhat compact daily driver, while thunderous V8-powered examples stirred up Detroit's horsepower wars with names like "California Special" and "Cobra Jet". In 1968, Steve McQueen forever cemented the Mustang into pop culture's consciousness in "Bullitt", where San Francisco set the scene for what might be the world's most famous fictional car chase.
"Mach 1", "Boss 302" and "Boss 429" were the talk of the tracks in their day, as both amateur drag racers and professional road racers found merit in the Mustang's formula. The onset of the oil crisis later placed the Mustang on a diet, reining in its physical dimensions and reducing its potency on-track. Sales of the second-generation slumped, but only modestly -- and though the second-generation Mustang was for some time regarded in automotive circles as a low point in the car's history, as decades passed, it became clear that those necessary measures kept the nameplate afloat.
Oil began to flow at the dawn of the 1980s, providing the lifeblood for a rejuvenated right-sized Mustang. Small, simple and sports-minded, the Mustang faced increasingly sophisticated competition from a crop of international competitors that had evolved from questionably constructed curiosities into balanced and interesting alternatives. As the Mazda RX-7, Toyota Celica and Datsun Z grew in both quality and performance, Ford seemed to struggle with a strategy to keep up. At one point, the decision was made to merge the Mustang with the Probe, a front-wheel-drive model jointly developed with Mazda. Mustang fans successfully appealed to the company to preserve the car's rear-wheel-drive layout, and the third-generation soldiered on while a proper Mustang was developed. Two particularly high points marked the third-generation "Fox Body" Mustang's enduring legacy: the internationally flavored turbocharged four-cylinder model dubbed Mustang SVO, and later models equipped with the iconic 5.0-liter V8.
The next Mustang evolution debuted in 1994 as a larger-bodied car with rounded corners to match the times. The liftback body style disappeared. Three-spoke wheels and three-bar taillamps were the type of bold details that would later serve to date the car somewhat. Though the swooping twin-cockpit interior theme could have been an interesting starting point, the environment suffered from a noticeable lack of detail and subpar material quality. In its first years, the fourth-generation Mustang's powertrains delivered an adequate level of performance to be expected at the time, but as the chassis grew to be eight and nine years old, a new wave of foreign competition began to exceed the Mustang's athleticism, coupled with measures of uniqueness and build quality that the Mustang simply could not match.
Chrysler had long abandoned the pony car segment, and Chevrolet's Camaro had taken indefinite leave. Ford's Mustang was left to carry the flag alone. A series of appetizing concept vehicles finally culminated in a pair of Mustang show cars penned by a team led by J Mays, whose "retrofuturism" aesthetic rendered classic cues with modern precision to appeal across generations. The production version of the fifth-generation Mustang in 2005 employed higher-caliber interior materials to send a signal to buyers and media: the car had evolved. Ford's reward was a catalog of reviews that recognized the car's cohesive execution. The all-important emphasis on styling served to take the focus away from the car's dated solid-axle rear suspension and less-than-refined engines, which did not seem to bother buyers in the end. So successful was the reborn Mustang that Dodge and Chevrolet soon followed in its tracks by reintroducing retro-styled pony cars of their own.
The fifth-generation Mustang was a clear sign that Ford was reshaping their entire product lineup to emphasize build quality and interior craftsmanship. An intensive redesign of the fifth-generation Mustang in 2010 finally fully demonstrated the company's changed thinking. Outside, retrofuturism's ethic tipped toward the future, with tight lines punctuated by sequential LED taillamps. Inside, meticulous details rendered in soft-touch premium materials came together to create an environment on par with grand touring machines that cost twice the price. A pair of all-new high-tech engines arrived in 2011 to add impressive power and fuel efficiency to the mix, inching the Mustang closer to international appeal.
At the end of the fifth-generation Mustang's run, it seemed its only asterisk was its archaic solid-axle rear suspension. It didn't seem to matter that the Mustang roundly outhandled the Dodge Challenger and Chevrolet Camaro -- the mere lack of independent rear suspension was an undying talking point among potential buyers and bench racers alike. Independent rear suspension seemed the only barrier keeping the Mustang from serious comparisons to the world's most prestigious sports cars. At last, fifty years after the world first met the Mustang, Ford announced that the all-new sixth-generation model would incorporate independent rear suspension to better challenge strong competition from Hyundai, Subaru, BMW and others on their own turf: the Mustang would be sold in a range of international markets, realizing its destiny of becoming an automotive ambassador to the world.