Looking Back: Fifty-Seven Years of Noteworthy Mustangs

By any count, 57 years is a lot of history for an automotive nameplate to survive. Yet, Ford Motor Company has achieved just that with its Mustang despite stock market crashes, gas shortages, recessions, and changes in public perception.

During that time span, Ford’s Mustang made it through all that to rightly claim the title as the world’s best-selling sports coupe. Even with its different incarnations along the way, it’s become nothing short of a legendary automobile.

Shown here at Bristol, Tennessee, in early 1965, Paul Norris looks on before making a test pass in this early carbureted A/Factory Experimental Mustang. Norris was among the very first to drive a 427-powered Mustang for Ford’s factory team.

Despite looking somewhat battered, this 1967 Mustang won both the SCCA Trans Am Manufacturer’s and Driver’s Championship with journalist Jerry Titus behind the wheel. That win helped further the growing legacy not only of the Mustang but also of Carroll Shelby. Titus was later killed in a racing accident in 1970.

Left: Al Joniec campaigned along the east coast with this 1965 “Batcar” Mustang which capitalized on the popularity of TV’s Batman TV series. Joniec would later go on to make Ford drag race history by winning the NHRA Winternationals in 1968 in the debut of the 428 Cobra Jet Mustang. Right: When Al Joniec won the 1968 NHRA Winternationals in a brand new 428-powered Mustang Cobra Jet, these rare cars became instant collectibles. Just 50 Cobra Jets were sent to select dealerships. Vinny Lyons is one of the few owners that still takes his original Cobra Jet out to the drag strip occasionally for some low 11-second fun.

It all began on April 17, 1964. Newspaper and magazine advertising supplemented by prime-time TV spots had the public looking forward to the introduction of what Ford called “a wild pony.” A PR blitz that included prominent exposure at the 1964 World’s Fair and as the Official Pace Car for the Indianapolis 500 reportedly led to 100,000 sales in just the first 90 days following its introduction.

As one of the most recognized cars in movie history, Ford surprised the automotive world by authenticating and displaying the original 1968 Bullitt Mustang driven by Steve McQueen. Displayed in 2018 to celebrate the Mustang’s 54th birthday, the car sold last year for $3.4 million at auction to become the most expensive Mustang Ford ever.

When the Mustang GT was unveiled in mid-summer 1964, the word “performance” found a place on the bandwagon of Mustang admirers. News of its exploits on the road courses and drag strips around the country filled the imaginations of buyers and buyers-to-be.

Over 2.4 million first-generation Mustangs were sold between 1964 and 1973. While that number included a collection of largely forgotten inline six-banger engines, these first-gen Mustangs made automotive history with some of the most formidable pushrod V8 engines ever made. With the K-code 289 small-block V-8 as a starting point, the FE family of 390, 427, 427 SOHC, and 428 cubic-inch engines gave Stang owners get-up-and-go while the 385-series Boss 429 became the top of the food chain for the Mustang.

Parnelli Jones retired from driving with six IndyCar and four NASCAR wins, but he’s best remembered by Mustang fans for winning the 1970 Trans Am manufacturer’s championship for Ford. Jones drove this Boss 302 for NASCAR Hall-of-Famer Bud Moore.

Left: The Boss 429 may well represent the top of the food chain of all FoMoCo performance cars from the sixties. With just 1,359 made between 1969-70, these cars had an advertised power rating of 375 hp and featured special equipment never seen on other production Mustangs such as a trunk-mounted battery, rear sway bar, oil cooler, and more. Right: The very first 5.0L was not a Fox body, rather a Mustang II option package which included a 2V 302 V8. Although not well-regarded today, these cars helped the Mustang survive while other ponycars from this era disappeared. With just over 4,300 cars produced, this remains the most desirable of all the Mustang II’s made.

Things changed dramatically in the early seventies as insurance regulations, gas shortages, a resulting recession, and declining sales forced Ford to re-think what the Mustang should be. The result was the 1974-78 Mustang II. Based upon the Pinto platform, Mustang II’s remain the least collectible of all the Mustangs made, but people forget that it was acclaimed as Motor Trend’s Car of The Year in 1974. It was also a financial success with over 1.1 million sold.

Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars are often instant collectibles. Mustangs have paced the event three times in 1964, 1979, and 1994. The 1979 Mustang Pace cars used at the event came with a Roush-prepped 5.0L V8 while the public versions came with either a tamer 5.0L or a 2.3 turbo engine.

During another energy crisis in 1979, Ford introduced the third and best-selling generation of the Mustang. Positioned as a “new breed” with technical innovations and European-based looks, these remained in production until the 1993 model year. Sales were once again strong with sales of nearly 650,000 units in just the first two years of production.

Left: Steve Saleen was the driving force behind a number of track-oriented Mustangs that are still popular today. With a slightly revived front fascia, taut suspension, and special graphics, this 1985 model was from Saleen’s first full year of production after just three cars made the year before. These cars still turn heads today. Middle: Intended to compete head-to-head with European imports such as the BMW, the Mustang SVO was marketed with a number of technological innovations. While ahead of its time, less than 10,000 were sold over its three-year production span from 1984-86. Right: Introduced towards the end of the production year, the 1993 Mustang SVT Cobra R represents the top of the food chain for all Fox-body production Mustangs. With a stiffer chassis/suspension and devoid of some creature comforts, just 107 of these nearly race-ready Stangs were targeted for the road racing crowd.

Originally available with a 5.0-liter V8 in 1979, this engine was dropped in favor of a weaker 4.2-liter V8 for the next several years. Ford corrected that mistake in 1982 by re-introducing the Mustang GT with a 5.0-liter engine. Rated at 157-hp, the 5.0 which got progressively more powerful the next year and again in 1985. In 1987, the Mustang GT and LX were available with a 5.0-liter rated at 220-hp, thanks in part not only to freer-flowing cylinder heads but also to fuel injection.

During this era, Saleen, Steeda, Kenny Brown, Roush began building aftermarket “tuner” versions of the Fox-body Mustang, among others. In the middle of this, Ford made a tuner car of its own with the Mustang SVO, which made a short-lived appearance during the 1984-86 production years. With this car came a number of firsts. The 1984 SVO had not only fuel injection, but also turbocharging, 5-lug wheels, aerodynamic refinements, and more.

Ford continues to build the legacy of some iconic Mustang nameplates such as the Boss 302, Mach 1, Cobra Jet with new models still today. The all-new, track-ready 2021 Mach 1 bridges the gap between Mustang GT and Shelby models with unique enhancements and 480 horsepower.

Left: Released in 2008 to commemorate the original Cobra Jet’s 1968 victory at the NHRA Winternationals, Ford has released a series of drag race-ready FR500CJ Mustangs for competition in Stock and Super Stock. Name racers such as Roy Hill have embraced these cars and taken the program to new levels on the track. Right: With the new millennium, the 2000 SVT Mustang Cobra R provided a new not-so-subtle look for Mustangs. With a removable front splitter, high domed hood, and a tall rear wing, the car looked very capable of the 170-mph speeds Ford claimed it could reach with its 5.4L 4V V-8. Just a few hundred were made.

Despite the popularity among enthusiasts, the aging Fox-body Mustang needed replacement. That change happened in late 1993 with the announcement of the SN-95 platform Mustang. The launch of this new Mustang was widely hailed as the car demonstrated a better ride and handling along with new looks that unmistakably marked it like a Mustang. For the third (and last) time, the Mustang was the official pace car of the Indy 500.

During its life span, the fourth-gen Mustang said “goodbye” to the 5.0-liter engine and “hello” to the 4.6-liter DOHC engine in 1996. The Mustang was re-skinned completely in 1999 with a new look before production ended with the 2004 model year.

Long before Mustang replicas began to appear in the NASCAR Cup Series, road racers were winning events with the Mustang FR500C. These cars won the manufacturer’s title in the Koni Challenge racing series in 2005 and 2008 despite numerous rules changes in an attempt to slow the cars down.

In 2005, the new S-197 was introduced. Styling cues that harkened back to the first-gen Mustang 2+2 gave it an attractive look that was popular with buyers. Until 2010, an all-aluminum 3-valve modular V8 rated at 315-hp was found in the Mustang GT.

Performance was back in a big way the following year with the “Coyote” 32-valve 5.0-liter V8 which produced over 400-hp and nearly the number in torque. Even the base six-cylinder, which now displaced 3.7L came with an aluminum block and produced over 300 horsepower.

Beginning in 1965, Carroll Shelby lit up the eyes of Mustang owners through several generations. Ford began making the cars themselves between 1968-70 and bought the name in later years. In 2020, new Mustang Shelby GT350 and GT350R models featured a unique throwback livery to salute Shelby’s historic 1965 GT350 fastback coupe.

The S-550 or fifth-generation Mustang, which is still being made, is the most powerful – and perhaps the best looking – of any made to date. Lower, wider, and definitely meaner looking, these cars came with three different engine choices as a turbocharged four returned to the line-up for the first time since 1986.

During the 2018 model year, the exterior received minor updates while the V6 was dropped from the engine line-up. The direct-injected 2.3-liter turbo-four, rated at 310 hp, was the base engine while the 5.0-liter V8 made 460 hp with 420 lb-ft of torque – which is more than twice what most Fox body 5.0-liters made in its heyday.

Left: Introduced in April 2020, the first all-electric Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 exceeded all expectations by carding an 8.27-second timeslip at 169 mph at the most recent U.S. Nationals. With 1,502 peak horsepower and 1,100+ lb/ft at the wheel, performances like this show that e-cars aren't just grocery-getters anymore. Right: The highest-profile Mustang today is the 2021 Shelby Super Snake, which traces its roots back to the one-off experimental car created by Shelby American in 1967. The 2021 model roars with over 825 horsepower from a supercharged 5.0L V8. With a starting price of $133,785, just 98 cars will be made available in the U.S., making this the most powerful and expensive Mustang ever sold.

Breaking through the conception of what a Mustang is (or was) however, is the Mach-E, which is a five-door all-electric crossover. Headlining that series are the Mach E-GT and GT Performance Editions. Priced at just over $60,000, it’s equipped with an electric 480 hp motor capable of a whopping 634 lb-ft of torque with a range approaching 250 miles.

Located in Concord, North Carolina, the Mustang Owner’s Museum has many examples of iconic Mustangs on display.  Visit www.MustangOwnersMuseum.com for the latest details on the postponed 2021 National Mustang Day birthday celebration which is now scheduled for July 29-31, 2021.

Looking back, Ford’s venerable Mustang was an iconic car that captured the appeal of car enthusiasts worldwide. It looks to continue that appeal going forward.

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About the author

Rod Short

With thirty-seven years of experience as a part-time photojournalist, columnist and editor, Rod Short’s byline has appeared in over three dozen media outlets. Now retired, he looks to help further the sport of hot rodding and drag racing.
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