Mustang Memories: Tom Cotter Recalls April 17, 1964—and What Came Next

Henry Ford II gives the world its first look at the all-new Mustang on April 17, 1964. Ford

April 17 marks sixty years since the Ford Mustang’s public debut at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The original pony car immediately became a pop-culture and automotive phenom, and it remains one of the most impactful cars in history. We’re celebrating with stories of the events surrounding the Mustang’s launch, the history of the early cars, and tales from owners. Click here to follow along with our multi-week 60 Years of Mustang coverage. -Ed.

As a car-crazy fifth-grade kid, I drew pictures of hot rods in my notebook. I could identify the year, make, and model of every car on the road, and I spent more time looking into the parking lot from my classroom than at the blackboard. So, when Ford introduced the Mustang to the public on April 17, 1964, I was easily swept up in the new car’s hype.

I wasn’t alone, of course. It was easily the greatest new-car launch in the history of the auto industry. People flocked to showrooms during the days leading up to the car’s official launch, only to be turned away at dealership doors. Paper covered showroom windows, preventing prying eyes from seeing the automotive delights inside. Months of PR hype had men, women, and 10-year-old boys salivating like so many of Pavlov’s dogs. Telling potential customers to go away only made them more anxious to see Ford’s new product.

1964 Worlds Fair Mustang Henry ford II
Henry Ford II with the all-new Mustang at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York, on April 17, 1964.Ford

A few days before the launch, my friend Walt Pierce, now 73 and a former Mustang restorer, and his friend, Paul Neggia, skipped their last three ninth-grade classes at Manchester Regional High School in Haledon, New Jersey, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the new Mustang. And because they were not yet old enough to drive, they paid an upper-classman to drive them to Berry Ford in Paramus.

“The transporters showed up, but all the Mustangs had covers on them,” Walt says. “There were no convertibles or fastbacks, just white coupes. I later heard that they were all sold on the first day.”

A couple of days after April 17, I had my first Mustang sighting: A pair of new Mustangs showed up in the parking lot of Nokomis Elementary School in Holbrook on Long Island, where I was a student.

A sixth-grade teacher took delivery of her black convertible on the same day that our school’s custodian received his Vineyard Green coupe, complete with a 289 V-8, dual exhaust, and four-speed transmission.

The arrival of those two cars caused such excitement that Nokomis principal Mr. Fenner authorized a “private launch” for students. Teachers were allowed to escort their classes into the parking lot to see the new Mustangs up close.

1964.5 Ford Mustang print ad
22,000 customers placed Mustang orders on the first day, with 419,000 cars sold the first year.Ford

I still remember peering into the cars’ windows and seeing the bucket seats divided by a stylish console—the first I had ever seen. The green coupe had a manual shifter similar to the one in my family’s Volkswagen Beetle, but the convertible had a chrome T-handle shifter. We had never owned an automatic transmission in our family, so I wasn’t quite sure how that device operated. When I saw the long horizontal brake pedal, I surmised that pushing the left side of the pedal must engage the clutch, and pushing the right side must engage the brake….

There was something magical about the car’s grille—that chrome horse!—that made the Mustang unique. And the simple three-bar taillight was a huge and welcomed departure from Ford’s standard round taillight, which, except for 1958 and 1960, had been in use since 1952.

The Mustang was so different from my parents’ Beetle. It was low and sporty, but in a different way than my neighbor’s MGTD. As a kid, I was at a loss for words to describe my passion for the Mustang. As it turns out, folks many years older than I had the same difficulty.

With wind in its sails, Ford thought big prior to the launch and decided to introduce the Mustang at the New York World’s Fair. Division president Lee Iacocca, considered the father of the Mustang, had begun planning for it as early as 1961, when the car’s concept was first conceived.

Ford Mustang 1964 New York World's Fair Lee Iacocca
Lee Iacocca speaks to the press.Ford

On April 13, four days prior to the Mustang’s public unveiling, Iacocca addressed 124 invited media, then invited them to drive new Mustangs from New York to Detroit, a 750-mile trip.

Sometime after the launch, probably during our summer vacation, my father loaded my 8-year-old brother, Rob, and I into the VW and drove us about 50 miles to the World’s Fair. Though we enjoyed seeing the Hell Drivers Thrill Show—“risking life and limb”—as they jumped their 1964 Dodges over ramps and drove on two wheels, the real thrill was visiting the Ford Pavilion.

There, we could choose any Ford convertible to “drive” through the pavilion—Galaxies, Falcons, Montereys, and Comets—but of course we climbed into a Mustang convertible. The car was mounted on a rail system called the Magic Skyway, which had been designed by Walt Disney, and took us on a virtual tour of world history. I wasn’t too interested in the history and instead pretended I was old enough to drive as I “steered” the Mustang through the turns.

“Driving” merrily along the Magic Skyway in a Mustang convertible.The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

As with the VW Beetle, it seems almost everyone has a Mustang story. “I had one in high school,” “I never should have sold mine,” or “My uncle had one,” are regularly heard even today, especially among baby boomers.

Soon after introduction, my Uncle Bob actually did purchase one, a red 1965 coupe. Every time he and my Aunt Beth drove it from Boston to visit my family on Long Island, I couldn’t wait to wax it! I remember one Sunday during a visit, my uncle and aunt borrowed my parents’ VW to go to church so that I could wash, compound, and wax the dulling Mustang. I got that car so clean that when he returned from church, Uncle Bob said, “Tommy, it shines like a million bucks!” He didn’t give me a million bucks, but I seem to remember three dollars coming my way.

These were heady times at Ford Motor Company. The saying “A rising tide lifts all boats” applied to the Mustang as well. Folks visiting Ford dealerships to see the Mustang often bought the Galaxies, Falcons, or pickup trucks sharing the showroom; sales of all Ford products were boosted with the increased traffic.

1965 Shelby GT350 launch
Carroll Shelby’s GT350 was quick to prove itself on track.Ford

With memories of the ill-conceived Edsel launch a half-dozen years before fading into history, Ford chairman Henry Ford II had his foot firmly on the company’s throttle. Ford had recently engaged Carroll Shelby to build the mighty Cobra to compete with and beat Chevy’s Corvette on race tracks across the country and around the world. By 1965, Shelby had his hands on the Mustang, too, with GT350 fastbacks swiftly dominating their own race classes. And Ford’s Charlotte-based racing operation—Holman-Moody—was winning on the NASCAR circuit and grabbing headlines with legendary drivers like Fred Lorenzen and Fireball Roberts.

Wasting no time after the Mustang launch, Holman-Moody built the world’s first Mustang funny car, which quickly became a hit at drag strips across the country in the hands of drivers like Gaspar “Gas” Rhonda.

On the local front, one of my boyhood heroes was a Suffolk County police officer and ex-Marine named Mike Mooney. Mooney both drag raced and road raced his souped-up Mustang notchback, and with its 271-horsepower High-Performance 289 engine, it was tough to beat. Once in a while, he would invite me to accompany him to either New York National Speedway or Bridgehampton Race Circuit to help him crew. It was Mooney’s early influence that briefly had me consider law enforcement as a career choice, although it was more for being able to speed legally than to fight crime.

In 2008, Tom finally got his Mustang, a ’66 GT350H in white and gold.Tom Cotter

As I sit here considering the Mustang’s 60th anniversary, it occurs to me that the car has been part of my life those full 60 years. But as much as I loved the Mustang, for too long I had never owned one. I resolved that issue in 2008, when I purchased a Hertz Edition 1966 Shelby GT350. Most Hertz cars were black with gold stripes, but this Mustang was one of the few painted white with gold stripes.

I love it. Just had the engine rebuilt and of all my cars, the Hertz is the one I enjoy driving most. That fastback design still increases my heart rate. And I get so stoked when the automatic transmission shifts from low to second gear and the rear tires give a little chirp. In the years since I saw that first automatic Mustang at Nokomis Elementary School, I’ve learned a lot about cars in general and Mustangs specifically. Most importantly, I now know that the long horizontal brake pedal serves only one purpose.


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    My father’s first new car when he was in grad school was a 66 red 289 fastback 4 speed. Unfortunately I never got to enjoy that car because they sold it in 1974 the year before I was born because you couldn’t exactly fit a baby and baby stuff in it, and bought a Volvo. A Volvo that incidentally saved my mom’s life a few months later when she was broadsided by a truck on the way to work. So, in the grand scheme of things, everything worked out, because I doubt neither the Mustang nor I would be here if they’d kept it.

    I read in the April, 15, 2024 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times that a woman in Park Ridge, IL owns the first Mustang sold in the United States, a one owner convertible she bought new.

    My dad took my brother and me to the Ford dealer in St. Charles, Missouri the evening before the launch. He sweet talked the sales manager into giving a us a look.
    We went back to the service area and in the very back, in front of a windowless brick wall, was a small car under a tarp. The sales manager pulled the tarp back and there was a white Mustang coupe with a blue interior. We had never seen anything like it before. Quite the experience.

    In 1964, I was a 10 year old Military Brat attending school at the Paris American Elementary and High School Complex located on the highway from Paris to Versailles. The post exchange was in an area called Bel Menoir that provided a PX, commissary, dry cleaners, snack bar, toy store and the all important Stars and Stripes Newstand. My father took us to see the Mustang when it arrived which was displayed on a military low boy trailer. Famous french movie stars could be seen in Paris driving around in their Mustangs which were called T5s. Yellow headlights were mandatory for French cars and those were often supplemented with fog lights covered with checkered Marchal covers and two fender mounted Talbot mirrors. Naturally, the favorites were the convertibles revealing the semi-famous drivers which included the French rocker “Johnny Hallyday” known as the French Elvis driving his car around Paris. Now 60 years later, I have owned 5 or 6 of various generations and have appraised hundreds. My favorites are the Trans Am cars of the late 1960s.

    Your appreciation of the early Mustangs was clear and ever-present when you appraised both of my pre-productions cars. I definitely enjoyed the time we spent together.

    My first car I ever drove was a ‘641/2 Mustang. We started drivers training in High School and out in the parking lot sat two new white Mustangs and a ’64 Galaxie 500. We had seen Mustangs on the trucks but not in person. Yeah, I’ve been a Ford guy ever since.

    I was 19. My then girlfriend was 18. Her dad thought of himself as quite a sport. He bought a new 1966 yellow convertible, V8, automatic, black interior. Girlfriend and I had to sit in the back during a two hour drive to a lake, then again later that day for the ride home. My opinion then was that the car wasn’t ideal for much except for ego and image projection. Same today. Lotsa money changes hands because of that car, though.

    They weren’t meant to be family haulers>>>buy a Galaxy or a wagon for that. Even midsize 2 door cars had lousy back seats.

    My first car at 16 was a 67 HiPo 287 Green fastback. Loved that car however it was ran into 3 times and had to scrap it. I have owned many since. I now own a 2007 Shelby GT. I guess I got the bug.

    Does Mr Cotter recall hearing about a Ford Executive’s wife driving Mustang to a movie theater in Detroit a day or two before the introduction? Made quite a splash in the Detroit papers.

    I remember going to Harold Ford in Sacramento to see the new Mustang when it debuted. Nothing but a Falcon with a sportier body. Not being Ford guys we called it a ladies sport car. Then Mr. Shelby got hold of them.

    I’m a year or two younger than Tom, but I’ve got a Mustang launch story.
    (I think it’s the baby boomer equivalent of reading an “Extra” about Lindbergh’s flight or VJ-day. It would only be supplemented in 5 years by Apollo 11).
    My dad was sort of in the market for a new car, he liked cars and liked fords, so the next weekend saw us in a rare family-wide shopping trip. We found ourselves at a Ford dealer in suburban Kansas City.
    I recall sitting in a Prairie Bronze convertible with white interior and thinking it was the coolest car I’d ever seen.
    Sadly, reality intervened when it became apparent that no Mustang could hold a family of six.
    A decade later I would buy my first first new car, A much loved 1974 Mustang II coupe. I was going to college and needed a reliable car, so the red Mustang fit the bill.
    It was stylish for the time, well appointed and built. Yes, with the bade engine and auto it was underpowered, but I sure didn’t need a five year old ’69 Mach One with a big block to drive the two miles to school.
    My next car was a fully loaded ’79 Ghia fastback. Again a nice car.
    Then, like many others of my time, I was seduced by the lure non of imports….a Scirocco, Z, Miata and a few Mercedes. I call my Stuttgart coupe a “Mustang for grown-ups”.
    But I’ll always love and remember my first Mustang.

    The first car that I bought new was the ’79 Capri. It was the Mercury version of your car. German 4 speed and 2.8L V6. It was a lot of fun.

    In 1979 my slightly older neighbor was a Camaro guy, so I couldn’t do the same, so at 16 I got my first Mustang, a 67 coupe with a 289 2 barrel and four speed. Started modifying it right away, learned how to rebuild an engine and just about everything else.

    I fell in love with my Uncles 1967 GT350 in dark green with a black interior. My first Mustang was a stripped down 2.3 L 4 speed Notch back in 1981, I say the 20th Anniversary Mustang in 1984 and ordered that in March and picked it up in May it was the Mustang GT TURBO White with Black 2 tone. Rebuilt the motor and added a new fuel management system and was running 11.47 seconds in the 1/4 mile in 1999 used as a street strip car. Bought a 1991 nothc back and made this into a drag car with a 1996 4.6 Cobra motor with a T trim supercharger, this ran 9.62 seconds in the 1/4 mile. I no longer have those Mustangs and own a 2011 Shekby GT 500 an dlove it! Allot of great friends and memories because of the Mustang!

    I have been an admirer of the Mustang since before reaching adulthood.many Mustangs have come to call my garage home.I still own the first one I bought brand new….the one I went to tour Dearborn assembly plant the day it was built…..truly an unforgettable adventure… celebrate the Mustang’s 60 th anniversary I’ve done something a little different.As an employee at the local Subaru dealer I found out that one of the Subaru’s features allowed you to enter a birthdate ….and the car would remind the driver of that birthday… the day after the Mustang’s 59 birthday I started setting April 17 as the Mustang birthday in every car I could access… well over 700 cars will be announcing the Mustang’s birthday to their drivers…..even though they drive Subarus…..

    At age 22 I acquired a 1968 Mustang GT Fastback. Meadowlark Yellow, black interior, 390 S code, 4 speed, traction lok, console, etc. Kept it until marrying in 1971. Wish I still had that car!

    However, now at age 78 I have a pristine 2004 Mustang Mach1 40th Anniversary edition. Only 22000 miles and never been driven in the rain or Canadian winter. I love it, but I still dream about that 1968 GT!

    I saw my first in-person Mustang in the Spring of 1964 on the campus of Duke University, where I was a junior. To be honest, I was not that impressed. I had seen photos in magazines of the much slicker concept Mustang coupe that had previewed the production car’s styling, and the production Mustang was a bit disappointing by comparison — clunky three-element, chrome taillamp cluster looking glued on rather than the concept’s three separate vertical lamps frenched into the deck (as I remembered it), etc. I saw my first ’64 Pontiac GTO in town a few days later and was much more impressed by that very serious performance car.

    Gary, I was a sophomore at Duke that spring.

    Once classes were over my folks picked me up and we drove to the World’s Fair. Rode in one of those Mustang convertibles at the Ford exhibit–me behind the wheel, Mom in the passenger seat and Dad in back. As a history major I actually paid attention to the historical facts during the ride. After the fair visit, it was back to reality and my college car, a 28 hp Renault 4CV…the 2002 came later.

    Good Lord, one if those Renaults (used) was my very first car. It was all I had the money for at the age of 16, $395.

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