As the Ford Mustang’s 50th anniversary approaches (I will be attending the celebration in Charlotte, N.C.) and we reflect on the rather singular accomplishment of an automotive nameplate staying in continuous production for half a century, we might also reflect on how the Mustang came very close to being called something else and how, if it had, we might not be reflecting on its 50th anniversary.
Strong, fast and, above all, free, wild Mustangs still roam the open plains of the American West as they have for centuries. The Merriam-Webster dictionary explains that the term ‘mustang’ is derived from the Mexican-Spanish word mestengo, meaning ‘stray’. (Equine) Mustangs of the American West are descended from horses brought to North America by Spanish explorers and were either let loose or escaped captivity and went on to establish feral herds.
Because of the popularity of Westerns in literature, movies and television, most Americans are quite familiar with such Wild West icons as the cowboy, the Colt .45, the saloon, the roundup and the Mustang. Freedom-loving Americans are particularly enamored of the concept of the Mustang, a strong, athletic animal unfettered by any boundaries. It resonates (or at least did in the early 1960s) with their own self image as a strong and free people.
Donald Farr, in his book Mustang, Fifty Years: Celebrating America’s Only True Pony Car, gives a comprehensive account of the development of the car, including how it got its name.
Shortly after being picked to head the Ford Division of Ford Motor Company, Lee Iacocca began planning a sporty compact car to cash in on what he saw as a “youth movement” that was about to sweep the country. To sell in significant numbers, he reasoned, it would have to be a four-seater and, to keep costs down, be based on existing hardware as much as possible. The car would, however, have to shed the stodgy image that Ford had become known for.
It’s tempting to assume that the production car descended from the 1962 concept car called the Mustang I but, in fact, the two cars are unrelated. A separate team within Ford headed by Gene Bordinat and Herb Misch started working on the Mustang I some time after Iacocca and his team – the Fairlane Committee – had begun working their car. Farr says it would actually be more accurate to trace the Ford GT-40’s roots, not the production Mustang’s, back to the Mustang I.
It is also tempting to assume that the success and high visibility of the Mustang I (it was a running prototype that toured race tracks and auto shows around the world) made the name a natural for Ford’s upcoming sporty compact but that was hardly a forgone conclusion.
Through much of its development the new car was called Cougar and internal preproduction photos show cars that are nearly identical to the production version but wear a stylized cat in the grille rather than a horse. (The “cat” looks suspiciously like the lion figure on Ford crests from the 1950s and early 1960s.)
Farr explains that at a May 1963 meeting four names were considered for the new car: Cougar, Monte Carlo, Monaco and Torino. Two of those were already spoken for so it was between Cougar and Torino but Iacocca wanted to keep looking. Ford’s advertising agency pulled up a list of animal names and then narrowed it down to Bronco, Puma, Cheetah, Colt, Cougar and Mustang. The ad men particularly liked ‘Mustang’ for its uniquely American feel and legend has it that after watching the Southern Methodist University Mustangs get beat by the Michigan Wolverines, Lee Iacocca visited SMU’s locker room and told the team that his company’s new car would be called the Mustang.
At the same time that audiences were enjoying popular television westerns such as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Wagon Train, Death Valley Days. Laramie and Have Gun Will Travel (not to mention Mr. Ed), ads for the Ford Mustang hit the airwaves, some of them portraying the car running the open plains alongside spirited horses – presumably Mustangs. The car was an instant hit.
It is tempting to assume that at least some of the car’s success was due to the almost visceral impact that the name had on a public that had a seemingly unslakable thirst for all things Western. At the very least, it is hard to imagine that it had no impact at all.
We’ll never know if the car would have been as successful had it been called Cougar or Torino but within three months of its launch on April 17, 1964, Ford had already sold 100,000 Mustangs and a million of them in 18 months, making it the fastest selling new car in history. We do know that there were cars called Cougar, Torino, Colt, Bronco, Monte Carlo and Monaco and that none of them are around any longer and none of them were on the market for anything like 50 years.
No other automobile on the American market can claim an unbroken 50 year history. The Chevrolet Corvette has a longer history but there was no 1983 model year and the Chevrolet Suburban has been in continuous production much longer than either of them but it’s a truck.
Lee Iacocca clearly is a marketing genius and the Mustang clearly was his greatest achievement. He cannot take credit for keeping the car in production for all these years but he can take credit for giving it something it would need if it were to have a chance of reaching that milestone. He gave it its name.