The Mustang is one of, arguably, just two American automobiles that are so iconic, so recognizable, that most people know what they are without seeing the name badges. In fact, my 2011 Mustang doesn’t say “Mustang” on it anywhere except for the optional lighted door sill plates. Lest there be any doubt, though, nearly every Mustang since job one has been fitted with a chrome horse in the middle of its grille. Thing is, it hasn’t always been the same horse.
A friend of mine, knowing my interest in all things Mustang, recently presented me with a Mustang grille emblem which his wife had found in a box of trinkets she bought at a garage sale. As I held it, it was obvious that it was smaller than the grille bling on my own Mustang. But as I studied it further I realized that there was something else different about this one – it wasn’t running as fast as mine.
If you examine the grille emblems from Mustangs of the 1960s and from current models you won’t notice much difference. In each case, the horses are running at a full gallop, head down and jutting forward, tail whipping. The emblem on the current Gen V Mustang has a more chiseled, stylized look than in the original production emblem, perhaps reflecting the car’s more modern, angular take on traditional Mustang styling themes, but it’s still running hard. When Ford moved the Mustang to the Pinto chassis in 1974, though, designers took a long, hard look at the car’s graphics and came up with a number of alternatives.
Original 1965 Mustang grille emblem. Note how the rear legs are fully extended forward while the forelegs are fully extended backwards and the head is pointing forward. That’s a full gallop.
One proposal was a herd of four young horses sort of prancing and frolicking about. It’s hard to say just how seriously the designers were about the four-horse logo, but if you look closely at interior shots of some of the Mustang II prototypes, you can see the design embossed on the door panels.
In the end, the single horse emblem was retained but was redesigned and given a slightly slower gait, a bit faster than a canter but definitely not a full gallop. This could have been an acknowledgement that the Mustang II, with its standard 4-cylinder engine, wouldn’t be as fast as the Mustangs that came before it. It’s also possible that product planners were changing with the times. With increased emphasis on safety and fuel economy, the auto industry was entering the so-called “malaise” era, a period that would be marked be a severe diminution of automotive fun. Convertibles and muscle cars were about to go away and mini-vans were just around the corner.
Whatever the reason, the slower pony would only last as long as the Mustang II. When performance returned with the Fox body Mustang in 1979, the horse grille emblem did not return with it. Instead, for the next 14 years most Mustangs would have to make do with a blue oval in their grilles instead of chrome ponies. Finally, with the redesign in 1994, the horse was back and at full gallop just as before.
And it hasn’t stopped running since.
Editor’s Note: The original Mustang emblem was designed by Phil Clark, who most likely also had a seminal role in the design of the 1962 Mustang concept. Clark’s role in the design of the running horse emblem has been confirmed by the Benson Ford Research Center, the official FoMoCo archive and history department. The original production emblem was chosen from 9 variations Clark rendered.