How the Mustang conquered America
This undated image provided by Ford shows the 2015 Mustang. (AP Photo/Ford)
Published Tuesday, April 15, 2014 7:53AM EDT
In the U.S., 1964 will be forever remembered as the year that two cultural epidemics swept the nation -- Beatle Mania and Mustang Fever. The Beatles flew into New York in February and the Mustang debuted two months later at the World Fair in the same city on April 17. Both had the same immediate, yet lasting impact.
As well as arriving within a few weeks of each other, both followed a similar route. Just like the Fab Four, the Mustang didn't simply turn up unannounced one day, hoping for the best: a considerable and considerably-well orchestrated buzz had been building for months in advance. In fact, Ford's all-out marketing blitz was just as beautifully designed as the car it was promoting.
For example, on the day the Mustang made its first public appearance, ads and editorials on the Mustang appeared in 2,600 publications, and the evening before, the company had booked the 9pm slot on each of the three major TV networks to advertise the car's coming. It even made it onto the front covers of Newsweek and Time Magazine.
A new generation of marketing for a new generation of car aimed at a new generation of driver.
Brad Bowling has written 10 books on the history of the Mustang and when asked why the original car had such a huge and immediate impact, he calls it a perfect storm. It's not so much that Ford got everything right as it is that it left nothing -- who the car was aimed at, how it would appeal to them visually, and how much it would cost them -- to chance.
A car designed and marketed to a new generation
"The Baby Boom generation was entering its first years of having discretionary income. They had a sense of style very different from that of their parents' generation -- clothes, hairstyles, furniture, and music were being influenced by European aesthetics," explains Bowling of the car's primary target market. "What's more, demand for a light, four-seat sports car was already strong in America; there just was nothing to truly fill that need until the Mustang debuted."
Chevrolet had tried and failed with the Corvair, but crucially, in meeting this need for speed, Ford ensured it didn't create something overly masculine, or overly effeminate either, as the car's chief stylist, Joe Oros, said at the time: "We were told to design a car that the ladies would love that the men would love just as much, and that's exactly what we did."
That meant getting rid of the fins and the jet and rocket inspired exterior styling of the US cars synonymous with the 1950s that were already starting to look dated to a younger generation growing up against a new cultural backdrop. "The Mustang's body benefited from Italian minimalist influences at a time when bathtub-shaped car designs with acres of chrome seemed like something from the Dark Ages to the consumers who were about to be introduced to the Beatles," Bowling continues.
This changing aesthetic also worked to Ford's advantage in that the minimalist design and relatively small proportions of the Mustang was much cheaper to mass-produce. Also helping to keep costs down was the fact that the car was based on the existing Ford Falcon rather than being a ground-up creation. And those cost savings were passed on to the consumer.
The standard, six-cylinder, three-speed model came with a $2,368 price tag, at a time when the average US salary was $4,576.32, making the car as affordable and accessible as it was desirable. And this desirability extended well beyond the baby boomers.
A pioneer of cark personalization and packaging
The low entry-level price meant it was possible for more families to become two-car households while the incredible range of optional extras available, from V8 engines and air conditioning to disc brakes, leather trim and in-car radios and speakers, meant that each customer could personalize his or her Mustang exactly to suit their specific needs. As Car Life magazine wrote at the time: "It is a sports car, a 'gran turismo' car, an economy car, a personal car, a rally car, a sprint car, a race car, a suburban car and even a luxury car."
Ford had reinvented packaging, and the giant options list that helped keep the base model price down is now a mainstay of all carmakers -- only 10 percent of Mustangs sold in 1964 were sold for $2,368, all of the rest were ordered with options adding between $400 and $1000 to the list price. An incredible piece of business when you consider that Ford received 22,000 orders on launch day and set a world record for first-year sales -- 418,812 -- that has never been bettered. Within 18 months it had built its one millionth Mustang.
The other ingenious move was the company's use of women in its advertising as a means of making the Mustang appealing to potential female customers rather than to unreconstructed men. The result was that roughly 50 percent of Mustang buyers were women and in the first year, most buyers of either sex were 34 or younger -- just like The Beatles' growing US fan base.
Star of the silver screen
1964 also saw both cultural phenomena make their big screen debuts. "A Hard Day's Night" hit cinemas that summer, and the Mustang pulled up alongside James Bond's Aston Martin DB5 that December in the biggest film event of the year, "Goldfinger" -- the first of over 500 cinema appearances that the Mustang would go on to make. But the best was yet to come. Steve McQueen was still four years away from getting behind the wheel of a 1968 Highland Green V8 Mustang GT 390 Fastback and racing it through the streets of San Francisco as Bullitt. However, 1968 would prove to be the high watermark for the Mustang.
"Just like any commercial art form from popular music to movie franchises, there is a constant need to improve a product through evolution. Very few companies are allowed to freeze their product in time -- Harley-Davidson comes to mind, but that's the rare exception -- and still stay in business," says Bowling.
Like The Beatles' output, the Mustang had to start evolving to stay relevant, reflect fashion and to counter competition -- by 1970 all of the big US car brands had their own take on the Mustang. However, while the Beatles continued to break new ground right up until 1970, before calling it a day, the Mustang soldiered on, getting bigger, heavier and slower and shy of performing -- thanks to stricter regulations regarding safety and pollution and the impact of the oil crisis that gripped the world in the mid-70s.
Yet rather than dying a death, the car and the mystic around it has stayed alive and well for some 50 years. A remarkable feat and one that no one, even the car's biggest fans, could have ever predicted.
"No one at Ford ever thought the Mustang would still be in production a half-century after its birth. American buyers have traditionally tired of hot auto trends within the first decade. Look what happened to the 1955-57 Thunderbird -- the market turned it into a heavy personal-luxury, four-door car in only 10 years. In much the same way that The Beatles predicted their music would be forgotten within a year of their first American tour, the smart money for the Mustang would have been to bet on its demise during the Mustang II years of 1974-78," says Bowling.
Yet, the levels of excitement around the official production launch of the 2015 Ford Mustang, scheduled for April 17, haven't been seen since the original Mustang was unveiled exactly 50 years earlier on almost the exact same spot.