After the University of Michigan and Southern Methodist University announced that their football teams will play against each other for only the second time ever, SMU issued a press release about what the school says is the role the first game back in 1963 had on automotive history. Essentially the school, whose sports teams are called the Mustangs, is claiming that Lee Iacocca named the Ford Mustang after their football team. Quote SMU:
Even though it was just one game, the 1963 game at Michigan plays a big part in SMU lore. Legend has it that when Ford Motor Company was preparing to introduce the sports car that would gain fame as the Mustang, it was considering other names such as Cougar, Bronco, Cheetah and Colt. But on Sept. 28, 1963, SMU took an undersized but quick team to Ann Arbor to play a massive Michigan Wolverine squad. Michigan gained the early advantage, but had to fight off the feisty Ponies for a 27-16 win.
The story continues that after the game, Ford’s Lee Iacocca entered the SMU locker room and addressed the disappointed Mustangs.
“Today,” Iacocca said, “After watching the SMU Mustangs play with such flair, we reached a decision. We will call our new car the Mustang. Because it will be light, like your team; It will be quick, like your team; And it will be sporty, like your team.”
Ford’s new car got its name, and the rest, as they say, is history.
History? The press release was closer to the truth when it used the words “lore” and “legend”. For his part, Iacocca seems to prefer to leave the matter unclear. He’s discussed the various animal names considered and how he and Gene Bourdinat, who headed Ford styling at the time settled on Mustang, but Iacocca has also declined to either confirm or deny the SMU legend. Iacocca is the consummate salesman, the Mustang is part of his legacy, and I’m sure that he’d still like to see Ford continue to sell a lot of them in Texas. Still, while it’s possible that Iacocca did meet with the SMU team in their locker room after the loss, if he did do so and mention the name of the upcoming Mustang to the team, it seems to me that he was doing so as part of the publicity roll out of the pony car. Ford wanted to sell Mustangs in Texas back in 1964 too. September 28, 1963 was less than seven months before the Mustang was introduced and by then the name would have been set in chrome, if not in stone.
There are lots of stories about how the Mustang got named. John Najjar, a Ford design executive said that he named the car for a World War II fighter plane, the P-51 Mustang and Ford has used that story in publicity materials, but Ford historian John Clor doesn’t put much stock in that PR. It seems, though, that a persuasive argument can be made that the name Mustang was first suggested by a young Ford stylist named Phil Clark, who also had a hand in designing the Mustang’s running pony emblem.
How the name was chosen might be unclear but it’s certain that by the time that football game was played, Iacocca and his team had committed to the name Mustang. Ford had been using the name since at least 1962 when they introduced what is now known as the Mustang I concept, a small four cylinder midengine sports roadster. In the video about the Mustang I’s development below, you can even see Clark working on the shape of the galloping mustang mascot.
As part of the publicity campaign leading up to the April 17, 1964 start of retail sales of the production Mustang, Ford introduced the Mustang II concept, based on a preproduction 1964 1/2 Mustang body shell, at the Watkins Glen racetrack on October 6, 1963, just two weeks after the SMU/UofM football game. Contractor Dearborn Steel Tubing had been working on the car since the summer so it’s not likely that the concept (or the production car) was named just days before the concept’s first public introduction.
Finally, there is photographic evidence. While the use of a Cougar emblem on what appears to be the Mustang II concept in a Ford styling photograph dated June 1963 shows that a final decision may not have been made by early summer, Nick Bunkley of the Automotive News reports that he was sent three photos of a Mustang prototype by Ford that are dated Sept. 27, 1963, the day before the football game of lore. The car in those photos has “Mustang” badging on the back and the famous pony mascot on the grille.
I suppose that SMU can be forgiven for embellishing their lore. SMU is in Texas. Texas is part of the West, and in the West, Sir, when legend becomes fact, you print the legend.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS