In 1962, dedicated engineers John Najjar and Philip T. Clark, both working for Ford Motor Company, set out to develop a low-cost sports car prototype. This vehicle, the “Mustang I” concept was mid-engined and retained compact proportions. If Ford’s sports car was to beat the Chevrolet Corvette in the sales race, it would need an exciting name. Of course, focus groups agreed on that the name “Mustang” chosen out of other proposed names such as “Cougar” or “Torino” suited the concept car the most. Upon its debut at Watkins Glen, New York on October 7th, 1962, the Mustang I concept was met with high public acclaim. Then vice-president of Ford, Lee Iacocca, was keen on starting production of a Mustang-named sports car.
The first generation Ford Mustang rolled off the production line at Ford Motor Company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan and its San Jose Assembly Plant in Milpitas, California in spring of 1964. Although it had larger exterior dimensions than the 1962 Mustang I concept, it was still compact. The mid-engine configuration was dropped in favor of a more conventional front-engine design. Ford used the compact Falcon model as the base for the Mustang, making the Mustang measure relatively the same: a wheelbase of 108 inches and an exterior length of 181.6 inches. Ford optioned base Mustangs with either a Falcon-derived 170 CID (2.8L) inline 6 or a 200 CID (3.3L) inline 6. The 170 engine developed 101 horsepower, and the 200 got 120 horses. Although the Mustang was initially produced as a “1964 1/2”, the vehicle was officially a 1965 model.
Although in 1965 Ford offered a sportier fastback Mustang and an available GT option package, which added a 4-barrel 289 V8 with up to 271 horsepower, it seemed to Carroll Shelby of Shelby American that the performance potential of the Mustang could be vastly tweaked for more panache and fun. Familiar with building sports-car racing winning Cobras, he invented the iconic Shelby GT350 and GT350R, race-ready Mustangs that looked and felt the part of an SCCA champion. These Mustangs employed a high-power variant of the 289 cubic inch Windsor (“K-code“) V8, which in the most basic GT350, developed 306 horsepower and 330 ft/lbs of torque. All this was mated to a 4-speed Borg-Warner transmission, which sent that power to the rear wheels. The “Blue Dot” Goodyear tires were up to the task of hauling the Shelby Mustang to a top speed north of 130 miles per hour (210 km/h). The Shelby did away with the rear seats found in conventional Mustangs, and relegated that rear cabin room to a spare-tire space.
Little was changed for the 1966 Mustang, save for a grille design revision. Whereas past Mustangs had honeycomb grilles, the ’66s gained a slotted grille. The “rally-light” configuration on the grille remained on the GT model. American rental-car company Hertz bought 1000 Shelby Mustangs, rebranding them as Shelby GT350-H. Mostly these rental variant Mustangs wore a black and gold-stripe livery, and proved to be popular rental race cars for the track. The “Hertz Sports Car Club” entered a few “rent-a-racer” vehicles in some SCCA events. The initial few Hertz Shelby Mustangs were manual transmission, but later production shifted to producing automatics only. Sales for 1964 1/2 through 1966 were tremendous: 126,500 Mustangs were sold in 1964, followed by another 559,500 Mustangs in 1965. 1966 saw the highest Mustang sales numbers for this generation: 607,500 overall.
Ford beefed up its Mustang in 1967, lengthening it by 2 inches to 183.6 inches. However, it still retained its Falcon-based 108-inch wheelbase. To further enhance its stance, the ’67 Mustang’s width was increased to 70.9 inches (1800 mm). A new addition to the Mustang’s engine lineup was the 4-barrel carb 390 CID (6.4L) V8, which threw 320 horsepower and 427 ft/lbs of torque. 1968 saw a facelift to the Mustang lineup. The chrome accents on the front grille were toned down, giving the impression of a larger air intake. The GT model still retained its grille-mounted lights. An iconic green Mustang GT fastback was made for Steve McQueen’s action movie Bullitt.
Shelby also followed suit with their 1967 model year refresh. Included in the refresh were the addition of the more powerful “Cobra” variants and the “K-code” 289 (4.7L) small-block engine. A new model, the GT500, featured a potent 7.0L 428 Cobra Jet V8 engine. Paxton Automotive supplied Shelby with a few superchargers for some ’67 to ’68 GT350s, upping their power to 390 horsepower. The GT500’s power output for 1967 was 355 horsepower, and increased to 360 horsepower for 1968. Another version of the GT500, named GT500KR, started production in spring of 1968. Although it retained the same 428 Cobra Jet engine as its counterparts, power output was considerably lower, sitting at 335 horsepower and 440 ft/lbs of torque. After 1966, Mustang sales began their steady decline. 1967 saw 472,000 Mustangs sold, and 317,500 Mustangs for 1968.
The Mustang was again beefed up for 1969. Exterior length was increased to 187.5 inches (4762 mm). A new high-performance variant called Mach 1 came available only as a “sportsroof” (fastback). Engine options for the Mach 1 included the 351 (5.8L) Windsor V8 (250 to 290 hp), 390 (6.4L) FE (320 hp; 1969 only), and the 428 Cobra Jet V8. The 428 engine came in a few different variants, which were the non-Ram Air Cobra Jet, Ram Air Cobra Jet, and Super Cobra Jet. However, they all produced the same 335 horsepower and 440 ft/lbs of torque. The Mach 1’s grip on the road was provided with Goodyear Polyglas tires and exterior treatment came in the form of optional (but very popular) thin side-stripe livery and front and rear spoilers. The Mustang was facelifted for 1970, and the 6.4-liter FE was dropped from the engine lineup. The 5.8-liter lineup saw the Windsor V8s being replaced by the Cleveland V8s. The 4-barrel M-code was slightly more powerful than 1969’s 4-barrel Windsor: the Cleveland engine made 300 horsepower and 385 ft/lbs of torque, thanks to its 11:1 compression.
Mustang sales continued to decline in the next few years, especially with the upcoming Energy Crisis. 1969 saw 300,000 Mustangs sold, with 1970 sales barely scraping past 190,000 units.
Former General Motors executive Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, now president of Ford Motor Company, oversaw production of the Mustang from model years 1971 through 1973. He was credited for making the Mustang a much larger vehicle. The wheelbase was increased to 109 inches and the exterior length to 189.5 inches. Three body styles were made available: base/Grande hardtop, base/Mach 1 sportsroof, and convertible. While the base and Grande Mustangs produced between 1971 and 1972 had chrome bumper covers, the Mach 1 gained body-color urethane bumpers. 1973 saw the transition to urethane bumper covers for all Mustang variants. A special Mustang variant called Boss 351 came equipped with the last true V8: the 351 CID (5.8L) Cleveland “R-code” for 1971 and the Cleveland HO (high-output) for 1972. 1971’s Cleveland R-code made 330 horsepower and the “high-output” R-code for 1972 made 275 horsepower. The 4-barrel Cleveland V8 was dropped in 1973.