Freedom. Does any other word better sum up the aspirations of the sixties? And does any other image convey it better than a wild mustang running free? The symbols of the ’58 Thunderbird and the ’65 Mustang are perfect reflections of the profound changes that took place in the seven years between them. Flying, even the T-Bird way, is intrinsically exclusive. But running free with your mane trailing in the wind? Now that was a truly democratic and affordable dream, just like the Mustang.
The Mustang was the first baby-boomer mobile. Even if they were too young to buy them, the boomers’ influence on the market and their parents was undeniable. Youth and freedom were now the predominant cultural themes, and Lee Iacocca had the brilliant solution to bank it. The Mustang was the breakthrough of style and image over function, at a bare bones price. And although its time at the top of the pop hits chart was rather brief, its influence was enormous. The Mustang became an icon of American culture globally, and changed the word’s automobile market permanently. Youthful freedom and sportiness, real or pretend, seemed to lack borders or a sell-by date.
Conceptually, the Mustang had two significant sources of inspiration: the ’55-’57 two-seat T-Bird, and the ’61 Corvair Monza. Ford had a hard time letting go of the sports car theme, and played with various concepts ever since the ’58 Thunderbird sprouted a rear seat and a paunch. Budd, who had supplied the body for the two-seat ‘Birds, pushed a Falcon based update, the XT-Bird, using the old body dies. Wisely, Ford forged ahead with the goal to create a fresh, youthful and affordable sporty car, but with four seats.
The process that got them there, Project Allegro, resulted in some intriguing prototypes, and of course the two-seat mid-engine Mustang I. What its purpose was in incubating the final Mustang is a little vague, given how far it strayed from the definitive configuration. But it generated buzz and got the Mustang name imprinted. But the 1963 Mustang II was the real thing, almost. It gave a clear indication what Joe Oros’ styling crew was up to, minus the chopped top (like every concept ever) and pointed front end.
What really made the Mustang feasible, and madly profitable, was the Falcon. Its dubious underpinnings were lent to a raft of hum-drum compact and mid-sized Ford products, thanks to its many virtues like low cost and…low cost. But the resulting Mustang’s rock-bottom price was revolutionary, and had an explosive effect. A six cylinder coupe like this one was priced at $2368 ($16k adjusted), all of $47 more than a Falcon six coupe. In dollars per inches of hood length, it was a steal.
In the Corvair Monza’s best year, 1962, Chevy sold some 140k of the pioneering bucket-seat coupes. Although Ford hoped to do a bit better than that, actual demand exceeded supply by a 15-to-1 ratio. Almost 700k Mustangs were sold in its extended first model year. Nothing like it has ever happened before, or since. It was the automotive equivalent of the Beatles. If you were alive then, you’ll never forget the Mustang mania that swept the land. If you weren’t, I can’t do it justice with words. You either experienced the sixties, or didn’t.
If not, you might be tempted to think of first generation Mustang dynamic qualities in terms of its current iteration, or the mythical Shelby GT. Don’t, because it really wasn’t very sporty at all, unless you were among the few to check all the right (expensive) options, or shelled out for the Shelby. Think Falcon, with a long nose and a lower seating position. In Gene Bordinat’s own words: “the Mustang was a secretary’s car”. And every secretary had one or was waiting in line for one.
I can’t find the production breakouts, but I’m going to guess that close to half of ’65 Mustangs came with the six. Reality check: 101 (gross, about 88 net) hp from the 170 CI (2.8 liter) wheezer, if your ‘Stang was built before 9/24/64. Those that held out, or were forced to wait ‘till after that date were rewarded with its 120 hp 200 CI (3.3 liter) successor. Teamed with the automatic, it was a cruel abuse of the term “sporty”. The sole exception to six malaise was the 200 with the optional four speed stick and manual steering. That combination, ideally with a set of aftermarket Michelin or Pirelli radials and a quartet of Koni shocks, yielded a distinctly continental flavor and actually handled, unlike the the under steering front-heavy V8.
Our featured car is obviously a six from the tell-tale four-bolt wheels. There are actually some very redeeming features about these six-banger Mustangs, the biggest one being that they’re still out on the streets and in decent shape. Most V8s are either restored or retro-rods tucked in their garages, or the abused victims of various ill-advised and under-funded hot rodding attempts and now rotting away in a side yard. The only gen1 Mustangs still at work on the streets of Eugene are several of these sixes, and all in a similar state to this one: essentially original and reasonably well cared for, if not exactly pampered. And not insignificantly, they’re all sticks.
Mustang sixes had a cult tuning following, from the get-go. I remember as a kid reading a contemporary account of the legendary Ak Miller modifying one to ever hotter stages; the final version had four SU or Keihin side-draft carbs and pulled some 200 horsepower on the dyno. I’ve always had a fascination with inline sixes and the tuners that purposely set themselves the challenges of its limitations. Today, on the pages of www.fordsix.com, all manner of collective knowledge on uncorking power out of these fairly rugged mills is on tap. There’s even a new custom made aluminum cylinder head that has the potential to generate 350 ponies from a normally aspirated small-block six.
If the V8 Mustang is getting short shrift here, well, there are plenty of places to go for that. Or maybe I’ll find a decent V8 fastback to inspire me for a follow up. For some reason, I equate that body style only with the V8. Let’s just say the popular 200 hp 289 CI (4.7 liter) mill made the Mustang reasonably peppy, even with the all-too typical Cruise-O-Matic. But the heavier V8 and automatic combo most likely meant power steering; well, by then you might as well have been driving a Fairlane. Never mind the crappy little drum brakes. Sure, the hi-po 289, heavy duty suspension and brakes were all available, but none too common with the primary target Mustang clientele. The freedom to go fast wasn’t free, or even cheap.
Mustang mania lasted about as long as Beatlemania; by 1969, sales had crumpled by 50%; and by 1973, barely 130k of the oversized draft horses were sold. Until it found new purpose and rejuvenation in its Fox-body reincarnation, the Mustang muddled along under the weight of the seventies like so much of sixties’ exuberance.
So were the Mustang’s brief and glorious revolution anymore lasting than the SDS or Tim Leary? It single-handedly created a lasting genre that is showing surprising strength again today. Sedans never again had the same prominence post Mustang fever. Credit the overwhelming success of the “stylish” Olds Cutlass coupe during the late seventies and early eighties to ex-Mustang buyers. By then they just needed a bit more room for their growing waistline, and that padded vinyl landau roof was just the latest suburban mania. Anyway, relating to the image of a galloping wild horse was just harder to do after a long day at work and the longer commute home; the Cutlass coupe was comfort food to the Mustang’s lean horse-meat chops.
There will never be another ’65 Mustang for the same reason there will never be another Beatles. We’ve fragmented into way too many niches: psychographic, demographic, psycho, and just plain old graphic; your galloping wild mustang is now my political cause. Freedom has become a loaded word. And it’s neither quite as democratic nor as affordable as it once used to be.