Detroit’s original pony car stands the test of time

Editor’s note: This story initially ran in the summer 2006 issue of Hagerty magazine.

On Friday, April 17, 1964, Ford officially introduced America to a new breed of fun machine, kicking off a feeding frenzy Detroit watchers had never seen before, nor undoubtedly ever will again.

The few available showroom teases were claimed even before they were unveiled, and another 22,000 models were ordered that first day. As many as 4 million folks rushed their friendly neighborhood Ford lots that weekend to see Lee Iacocca’s baby.

Demand instantly overwhelmed supply for the lively compact named Mustang. Two-month waits for delivery were common; this after initial Ford forecasts pegged first-year sales at no more than 100,000. Iacocca, however, knew better. From the outset, his goal was to break Detroit’s new-model sales record, held by Dearborn’s 1960 Falcon, with his battle cry being “417 by 4-17.” The plan was to sell more than 417,000 Mustangs by 4-17-1965. No problem: 100,000 were bought within four months, and the tally read nearly 419,000 when the car’s first birthday came around.

Targeting emerging baby boomers was just one key to this overnight success. Another important facet involved “the three faces of Mustang.” With a base six-cylinder engine, a Mustang coupe was a frugal economizer in 1964, wearing a $2,400 price tag.

Customers with fatter wallets could’ve added V-8 power and seemingly countless options to create a relatively luxurious “mini-T-bird.” Last but not least was a hot-rod alter ego made possible by installing Ford’s 271 hp High Performance 289 V-8. While all Mustangs, regardless of equipment, looked sporty, some simply played the part more convincingly.

All also came standard with bucket seats and a floor shifter. Two body styles were offered from the start, with a sexy convertible going for about $2,600 when fitted with the budget-conscious six. The more practical notchback coupe outsold its topless counterpart by nearly 3½-to-1 that first year. A third variation, the 2+2 fastback, joined the original duo in September.

Six or V-8, top or not, the truly fresh 1964½ Mustang became as big as the Beatles that year. Headlines transcended the automotive press, with Iacocca and his pride and joy even showing up concurrently on the covers of Time and Newsweek.

A boy and his horse

Among those caught up in the promotional blitz 40-some years back was a then-18-year-old Ron Hermann. “Of course, I saw all the ads,” he recalls. “And I wanted to be the first on my block with a new Mustang.”

Hermann put down $100 to secure the chance to buy the one Mustang then touring the Philadelphia area. “I followed the car around town to make sure no one messed with it. This was my car; I didn’t want people touching it,” he says.
He stayed on watch for three months, tightly clutching his promissory contract all along. “One guy offered me $500 for that piece of paper,” he recalls, but it was no sale.

When Hermann finally did take his Mustang home from Philadelphia’s Barr Ford, he instantly became the talk of the town. “A lot of people stared when I drove by; a lot of girls wanted to take rides,” he says. Though he honored many of those requests, he never again drove the car regularly after that. He still owns his untouched Mustang, claiming it has never seen rain or snow, or taken on new tires. The odometer presently shows 17,000 miles.

“To this day, I don’t know why I did it,” he says. Looking no less new than it did in 1964, Hermann’s exceptional survivor was recently appraised at $30,000, a rather conservative figure he feels can be topped at “the right auction.” Guilty of false hopes he’s not.

Carroll Shelby takes the reins

Like nearly all early Mustangs, Hermann’s classic stacks up rather humbly beneath its sharp-looking skin. Power comes from a 260-cubic-inch V-8 that produced 164 humble horses in 1964. The aforementioned 271-horse “Hi-Po” model aside, the Mustang didn’t enter the performance arena full force until Carroll Shelby got his hands on the car late in 1964.

Shelby put a fourth face on Dearborn’s pony car, morphing it, at Iacocca’s request, into a real road rocket called the GT 350. All 562 GT 350 Mustangs built in 1965 at Shelby’s Southern California works were 2+2 fastbacks wearing Wimbledon White paint with blue Le Mans striping optional. Standard hot parts included a bone-jarring heavy-duty suspension and a specially modified High Performance 289 V-8 rated at 306 horsepower.

The idea behind the GT 350 was to create a special high-performance Mustang able to compete with Corvettes in Sports Car Club of America stock-class racing. And to this end, Shelby also put together 34 (plus two prototypes) GT 350R models during 1965 and early 1966. No one needed to explain what the “R” stood for as these gnarly, stripped-down vehicles were clearly meant only to tour racetracks, which they did with a vengeance. GT 350R Mustangs bullied their way through SCCA B/Production competition from 1965 to 1967.

Production of street-legal Shelby Mustangs carried on until 1969, with some leftovers sold as 1970 models. Shelby himself began drifting away from the project within a year after Ford pressured him to tone down the GT 350 in 1966. In 1968, Shelby Mustang production was moved from California to Michigan, but it was no longer the mean machine originally envisioned by its creator.

The legacy continues

But at least one of Shelby’s awesome R-models continued tearing up tracks even as the GT 350 legacy wound down. In 1966, sports car racer Charlie Kemp bought Roger West’s GT 350R, a car that had won an SCCA divisional championship earlier that year. According to Kemp, his GT 350R was the “winningest Shelby ever.” He ran it in 54 events, finishing first in 34. He took 17 straight checkered flags in 1968 and clocked 184 mph at Daytona that year. “That record still staggers me – to move that brick through the air that fast. At first, we didn’t believe the timer,” he says.

After racing his Shelby Mustang to SCCA divisional championships in 1967, ’68 and ’69, Kemp moved on to the Can-Am in 1970. He sold his GT 350R not long afterward, then later reacquired it. Like Ron Hermann, Kemp still owns his old horse, which is now valued just a bit higher than Hermann’s. In January 2006, a GT 350R reached $473,000 at a Russo and Steele auction.

Discounting Shelby’s variation on Ford’s pony car theme, Mustangs didn’t qualify as muscle cars until the 428 Cobra Jet V-8 was introduced in April 1968. According to Hot Rod magazine, the 335hp 428 CJ instantly transformed a 1968 Mustang into “probably the fastest production sedan ever built.”

The 428 Cobra Jet remained a strong Mustang option until Ford’s aging FE-series V-8 finally retired after 1970. As for collector value, a 1968-½ Cobra fastback went for $513,000 at Barrett-Jackson’s 2006 Scottsdale extravaganza.

Ford’s Mustang has never failed to turn heads. Few other vehicles can claim such a huge following, and this undying loyalty helps explain why Detroit’s original pony car is still around today while its rivals have been in and out of the picture.

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