Did focus group testing neuter the original Mustang?

Mustang prototype

Design Driven: Ford Mustang I

The Ford Mustang is as iconic as the American flag. It’s always stood out like a power-lifter among kale-chewing hipsters, and it was developed with an eye on performance from its inception. But, like Ford’s short-lived Edsel brand, focus-group testing watered down the original concept.

Yeah, the Mustang has been endowed with a V-8 every year it’s been in production since 1964 (except for 1974). And it has also successfully straddled the space between "muscle" and "sports" over its life as well. That’s the segment we all know as the "pony car," a segment largely defined by the Mustang.

But the very first Mustang concept – the aptly named Mustang I – didn’t straddle anything. It made zero compromises. It was every bit a pure sports car, indeed, a Ford “halo” car.

That the 1964½ Ford Mustang wasn’t any of these things was the public’s fault. Ford wanted to compete with Chevrolet and give the public an entry-level Corvette. It was meant, according to Popular Mechanics, “to fill the vacuum between the Go-Karts and the Corvette…” Clearly, it didn’t.

For starters, the Mustang should have been a two-seater. At least that’s what Ford VP and general manager Lee Iacocca wanted. And not only did the Mustang I concept sport two seats, they were actually molded integrally with the body, increasing its rigidity. It was also a capable handler, thanks to a four-wheel independent suspension, as every modern sports car should and now does include.

But the Mustang I’s real secret weapon was its mid-engine setup. While this layout was still relatively new to open-wheel racing series, it was already enjoying great success. Accordingly, a mid-engined Mustang would have made the 'Vette look like a Corvair Greenbrier (at least in the corners). The concept also had a tube-frame chassis, integral roll bar, anti-sway bars, and it located the battery on the passenger side. Then, depending on your perspective, Ford made a mistake.

The company began a dog-and-pony campaign across the U.S. to solicit the public’s opinion. People responded well, but in addition to its complexity, the Mustang I proved to have very limited appeal. After all, a family-man with a good job could afford a second car for himself. But selling a Corvette, or a sports car like it, to a person who could only afford one car was, and is, a risky proposition. After all, most folks need their car to provide utility.

And that was it.

In its next iteration – a second concept, much closer to the Mustang we know and love – the Mustang expanded and gained weight like Jenny Craig confronted with a buffet, added two seats and lost some of its jet-age styling. Thus, via the same process that gave us the Edsel brand, the Mustang lost its purity. Thanks, focus groups.

While we’re rabid sports car fans and really could have loved a mid-engine two-place Mustang, we also love cars that allow us to include friends in our fun. Sure, the Mustang we got was never a true sports car, but it is still a hoot to drive and it showed us that fun and usability could coexist in a coupe.