29 March 2016

Mustang and the Birthing of the Pony Car

A beloved favorite for myriad reasons, the Ford Mustang’s foremost accolade may well be its role in creating the genre that came to be known as the Pony Car. This can be a touchy subject, especially when considering that Plymouth introduced its Barracuda a couple of weeks before the Mustang debuted.

That head start didn’t matter; the Barracuda never ignited the sales frenzy or connected with the youth market the way Mustang did. By those measures, Chrysler Corporation’s entry in the class was an also-ran. And so Ford’s sporty two-door, the one with a horse in its grille, gave the new market segment its moniker – and saved us from forever having to refer to it as the “ray-finned fish” class.

Much like the Barracuda’s relationship to the Valiant, the Mustang was based on the chassis of a corporate sibling. In this case, it was the Ford Falcon, which in some ways was the perfect starting point for building a small 2+2 because it allowed for the sacrifice of some interior space to help achieve Mustang’s classic long-hood/short-deck proportions. It was these dynamic proportions that eluded the Barracuda and made it less appealing to shoppers when compared with Ford’s attractive offering.

That long-hood/short-deck formula also established a silhouette that GM, Chrysler and American Motors followed when they raced to catch up by creating models like the Camaro, Challenger, ’Cuda, Firebird and Javelin. Ford, too, capitalized on the popularity of the class it defined with the Mercury Cougar.

And while these proportions would eventually be commonplace, in America they were nearly exclusive to the Mustang and one other car at the time — the Chevrolet Corvette. Even the contemporary Thunderbird favored a more visually balanced appearance. What’s truly interesting about the long-front/short-rear aesthetic is that it wasn’t anything new, neither in the U.S. nor Europe.

In the U.S., consider Duesenbergs, Cadillacs and even Ford coupes from the late 1920s through the late ’30s, particularly in 1932-34. Designers have long understood that accentuating the power plant by extending the front end speaks to a car’s potency. That theme worked especially well for Ford’s two-seat concept car of 1962 known as the Mustang I, which naturally did not require a large trunk. The production Mustang’s proportions were derived from this design exercise, using the shape to establish a form language for youth and performance.

The ’65 Mustang’s surfacing was straightforward, but its details were fresh in many ways. For instance, the side scoops were inspired by the concept car, which had a midengine drivetrain influenced by the Chevrolet Corvair (and more broadly by the ongoing shift to midengine layouts in racing at the time). Even though they were just a detail, they affected the theme so strongly that they made it to production.

The Mustang logo and name were nods to various inspirations, including the World War II P-51 fighter plane. The most direct link, of course, is to the wild quarter horses, which were said to have inspired a designer of the Mustang I concept, Phil Clark, when he saw some running in Nevada while driving to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

Regardless of what it’s called, how it was developed and what influences shaped it, the Mustang is the car that led the genre’s charge.

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