25 February 2014

Design Analysis: First generation Ford Mustang (1964½-1973)

Editor’s Note: this analysis primarily considers the 1964½-1968 Mustang

Regardless of whether you measure success in terms of sales, accolades, fans, buzz or the competition’s response, the first Mustang was an undeniable success. It was the perfect car at the perfect moment for an American generation itching to hit the road and discover freedom. Now, it may seem like a cliché echoed in thousands of auto ads since, but at the time there were no cars that were marketed and linked so specifically to youth than Ford’s Mustang.

The design brief for the Mustang was simple, requiring that five objectives be met:

  1. Seat four and have bucket seats
  2. Include a floor-mounted shifter
  3. Weigh no more than 2,500 pounds (1,100 kg) and be no more than 180 inches (4,572 mm) in length
  4. Sell for less than $2,500, base price
  5. Have multiple power, comfort and luxury options

While the initial concept was a mid-engine two-seater, management wanted the production Mustang to be a four-seater because the original Thunderbird (a two-seater) was seen as a sales failure. Whether Ford considered building a mid-engine four-seater is another question, but based on the target base price, it seems this was never a real option because the Mustang depended so heavily on stable-mates for its floor pan, architecture and hardware to minimize cost.

That the Mustang is an American invention cannot be argued; however, much like the Corvette, its styling was heavily based on European cars. According to the Mustang’s project design chief, Joe Oros, “I wanted a Ferrari-like front end, the motif centered on the front — something heavy-looking like a Maseratti [sic], but, please, not a trident — and I wanted air intakes on the side to cool the rear brakes. I said it should be as sporty as possible and look like it was related to European design.”

And if considered honestly, there is a fair amount of Maserati 3500GT in the Mustang’s front fascia, yet the Mustang cost roughly a quarter of what the Maserati cost. You could also bring three friends along for the ride. And if you only took one, it had a rear bench seat, in case.

The Mustang’s proportions are pleasing but not revolutionary in any way. It has a well-documented long hood/short deck commonplace to performance cars of any era that are front-engine, rear-wheel drive. The real genius of the Mustang is that despite the fact that the door is centered almost perfectly on the wheelbase (thereby allowing space for a rear seat and some ease of ingress/egress) the car still manages to look like it’s all engine and front end.

This is accomplished by providing a visual line-break in the form of the rear fender’s C-scoop. It stops the eye and divides the car into thirds: two-thirds for the front, one-third for the rear. Additionally, the C-pillar’s angle mimics the C-scoop’s and helps to reinforce this visual break.

The Mustang’s surfacing is clean, simple and elegant, occasionally making use of recesses in order to emphasize details (headlights, grille details, taillights) and give a more upscale, designed appearance. Details, with the exception of the C-scoop, are limited to the front of the car in order to give it more emphasis and visual weight. This also reinforces Ford’s assertions that the Mustang was a performance car.

Ford’s clarity of message and design with this product was of such a high level that it is still astounding. The Mustang was a car designed to maximize your enjoyment of life and it didn’t matter if you couldn’t afford a top-shelf V-8 or not, all trims of this car were quick, sporty and let you enjoy freedom with your friends. The democracy of the Mustang is what makes it so intrinsically American.

16 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Chuck Minn. February 26, 2014 at 14:43
    I love how they look. Had a 64 1/2 and a 66. Too bad they had such a small V-8 as standard equipment. All I ever saw was tail lights in a race unless I raced another Mustang. The 275 H.P. engine helped a little. But still love'm.
  • 2
    rdww Michigan February 26, 2014 at 16:02
    All good points, but this writeup makes the first Mustang seem like less of a reskinned Falcon than it truly was.
  • 3
    Euphonium The Great Northwest February 26, 2014 at 16:05
    I've owned my 66 GT Coupe since '67. It provides great pleasure and over 20 1st place trophies and plaques.
  • 4
    Scott Kennedy SoCal February 26, 2014 at 21:16
    Again, there is no such thing as a '64 1/2 Mustang, they are all VIN tagged 1965. Early production '65 is historically accurate. Scott Kennedy Member, Society of Automotive Historians
  • 5
    Chris Campbell Traverse City, MI February 26, 2014 at 23:02
    In 1964 I drove down to Paul K. Ritter Ford in Bay City, MI with my younger brother, just to look at the new Mustang. It was a red, 6-cyl. coupe. As a 1960s teen, I wasn't so sure about that 6-cyl. stuff, but I approved the color. It was the first and only time I've gone to a car showroom just to look at a new model. 23 years later I had my first Mustang, a pretty red '86 GT hatchback with T-tops. It's the only car I've ever named--Pegasus (the flying red horse of Greek and Mobil mythology).
  • 6
    Dan A Gville NC February 27, 2014 at 13:50
    I just recently restored a 66 Mustang Convertible, 289cid, automatic, dual exhaust. Every piece of sheet metal had to be replaced complete, overhaul from ground up...put a 68 blue color on it just because I liked it.....love this veh.....sweeeet...and sounds so good...I also have a 61 Austin Healey that has now taken a back seat to the Mustang.....
  • 7
    John Adams Wilmington, N.C. February 27, 2014 at 14:33
    Good design targets and great follow through with subsequent improvements. I bought a 651/2 GT fastback new. It was called 651/2 because it was '65 but it came out mid year with the 66 round gauges and 140 mph speedo and disc brakes in front. With the Hi performance 289/271 engine and 4 speed it was fast and handling was great. I loved it and wish I still had it...it was my first new car.
  • 8
    vince b. new jersey shore February 27, 2014 at 19:08
    I think its a great article . I love to read about the car that changed me from a gm diehard to a true ford diehard . My mustang that I still own to day is a 1970 rag top . I've taught my sons how to drive and cruised alot of shore line with .
  • 9
    Frank S. Charlotte February 27, 2014 at 08:03
    It didn't do badly for what was essentially a glorified Falcon. Amazing what marketing hype and a little sheet metal can do.
  • 10
    Dale Brown Louisville, KY February 27, 2014 at 08:43
    I agree completely with this article. I own a Candy Apple Red 1966 Ford Mustang 289 V8 convertible with manual top, optional AM FM radio, Rally Pac, and GT wheels. I bought it in January 1995 when I was 16. It has been one of the best cars that I have ever owned. Although I have owned other old and new cars since then, the Mustang is as American as apple pie. It is one of the easiest old cars to work on and parts are plentiful. It also turns a lot of heads and almost everyone seems to have an old Mustang story to tell. They either owned one or knew someone who did. If you are thinking of purchasing an old car, I would definitely recommend a first generation Mustang.
  • 11
    gary mississippi February 27, 2014 at 11:19
    i agree with dale,the mustang is very easy to work on. probably the best beginners car for the money,plus they hold their value well.
  • 12
    PAUL MEADE ST.CLAIR SHORES,MI February 28, 2014 at 06:41
    I bought a honey gold w/palamino interior with 289/225 horse fourspeed, limited slip,disc brakes in the spring of 1965. I still miss it. I do still have the hub caps and the pony corral from the grill.
  • 13
    janine west palm beach February 28, 2014 at 11:48
    Sorry Scott you're wrong. When a vehicle comes out example: Sept of 2013, that is a 2014. The mustang came off the assembly line March 9,1963 and was introduced in NY April 17, 1963. That is a " 1/2 " a year. My parents have a 64 1/2 convertible . I have a 1968 GT convertible and my brother has a 1969 Mach 1 429 cobra jet. The 1965 came out later in 1964.
  • 14
    B Decker Novi, MI March 1, 2014 at 19:16
    I bought my April 1965 GT Fastback with the 289 A block, four speed, red on red in 1982 fresh out of high school and am still totally in love with the car. It's a real head turner and I drive it all the time in the summer. Feel like I'm eighteen again every time I get in it. Plan on passing the car down to my son someday.
  • 15
    tim arizona March 2, 2014 at 10:44
    have 65 coupe v8 3 spd needs very little to be road ready for sale .
  • 16
    1963-1/2 Falcon SPRINT Convertible Route 66 March 2, 2014 at 11:56
    Very cool article -- I learned something new about the "C scoop" dividing the car into thirds. One of the comments in the article is from rdww, who said, "All good points, but this writeup makes the first Mustang seem like less of a reskinned Falcon than it truly was." I own a 1963-1/2 Falcon (SPRINT V8 Convertible), and I have to agree with rddw -- give the Falcon it's due props!

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