At 25, The Mustang Is Still Going Strong

IT gave the nation a new class of automobile - the pony car. It gave young buyers an affordable, sporty car like none before it. And it gave the Ford Motor Company a much-needed sales boost. Twenty-five years ago this month, Ford's Mustang debuted at the New York World's Fair. Today, it remains one of the nation's most popular sporty coupes.

It was a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants idea hatched up by a bunch of Ford executives meeting at a motel near the company's world headquarters outside Detroit. It was originally supposed to be called the Cougar, but somebody liked the name of an old World War II fighter plane.

At $2,368, the Mustang carried a sticker price that put it within reach of the newly maturing baby-boom generation.

``The timing was crucial. A young, affluent and well-educated group of people was coming onto the market,'' says Michael Marsden, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green University. ``Price was crucial. Here was a car they could afford.''

Ford launched the Mustang with one of the most powerful media blitzes in automotive history. After investing $100 million in the car's development, the automaker could ill afford a repeat of the fiasco that accompanied the launch of the Edsel less than a decade earlier.

Ford got more than it ever imagined. The company would have settled for 75,000, even 100,000, sales the first year. Instead, American buyers raced to their dealers in record numbers, driving away with 418,000 Mustangs during the first 12 months the car was on the market. Those sales translated into more than $1 billion in profits in 1964 and '65.

The car's unique blend of styling, performance, and affordability made it a hit with the American public.

``There's only been four cars like this in automotive history: the Model T, the Corvette, the Volkswagen Beetle, and the Mustang,'' says Dr. Marsden.

Though it was based on the no-frills Ford Falcon, a very low-key economy car, the Mustang's long nose and short trunk deck suggested power and performance. But like many other success stories, Ford began to tinker with the Mustang. By its 10th birthday, a smaller Mustang II came along, lacking both power and prestige. The car didn't even offer a V-8. Not surprisingly, sales began to slide.

Trying to balance the newfound concern for fuel economy with the demands of traditional performance-car buyers, Ford redid the Mustang again in 1979. But the second oil crisis proved devastating. In 1983, sales plunged to a record low, 124,225. Ford began to think about dumping its fading pony car.

Rather than abandon the name entirely, the automaker turned to its Japanese affiliate, Mazda Motors. Using its new assembly plant near Detroit, plans called for Mazda to produce a brand new Mustang based on the same platform used by the Japanese automaker's front-wheel-drive MX-6 sporty coupe.

The news produced a howl of protest from purists around the world, recalls Jack Telnack, the designer of the 1979 Mustang and now head of corporate design at Ford. ``I'm definitely glad we didn't go through with it,'' he says. TODAY, as concern about fuel lines fades from memory, the Mustang has gained a new lease on life. Sales last year rose to 170,080, and this year ``sales will actually be up ... to as much as 200,000, even though the overall new car market is going to decline 4 or 5 percent,'' says Chris Cedergren, an auto analyst with J.D. Power & Associates.

Only a few years ago, Ford had planned to close down the aging assembly line at its massive Rouge assembly complex, now the only factory still building the Mustang. Mr. Telnack says there is no commitment to continue the car past the early 1990s, but ``I'd like to see another 25 years.''

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