The first-gen Mustang is America’s most popular classic car export
We talk a lot about cars sold overseas that Americans covet, and for good reason. The United States is home to nearly 20 million enthusiast car owners, according to a Hagerty market study. That’s a huge group whose desires ripple across the globe; when Americans decide that Land Rover Defenders are neat, for example, they become more expensive everywhere.
But it’s important to remember that the United States is not only a major source of demand for cars but also has the world’s biggest supply of them—some 275 million vehicles in all, of which some 31 million, according to Hagerty, are enthusiast vehicles. To put that in context, there are more enthusiast cars in the United States than there are cars, total, in Canada. No surprise, the rest of the world prizes our old cars, and the ones they go after the most tend to rise in value.
Looking through shipping data, we can see thousands of vehicles headed from U.S. ports to points abroad. Many are old rental cars, cheap SUVs, and the like, destined for a new country and a second life that’s probably no more interesting than the one they lived here. When we tighten our aperture to cars older than 25 years that appear in the Hagerty Price Guide, though, we see what foreign car collectors in particular want.
In a word, it’s Mustangs.
Specifically, the iconic first generation (1965–73). More than 20,000 have been shipped abroad in the past ten years, far more than any other classic car. Of those, most have made their way to Europe—the United Kingdom alone brought in more than 2300 of them—but they’re relatively popular everywhere from the United Arab Emirates (which brought in 283 Mustangs in the last 10 years) to New Zealand and Israel (149 and 97 Mustangs, respectively).
“When a British buyer looks for their first piece of Americana, it’s almost always a Mustang,” says Keith Barclay, managing director of U.K.-based Essex Mustang, which imports cars as well as parts to the United Kingdom. He credits the car’s global popularity to largely the same factors that have made it a staple for enthusiasts at home, namely the readily available parts and the instantly recognizable styling. But the biggest thing in its favor, he says, is the simple fact that it is so unmistakably American.
“What’s the most iconic U.S. vehicle? Mustang,” he says.
Barclay trades mostly in 289-equipped notchbacks, but other shops, such as Pilgrim Motorsports, venture into the higher-end variants and restomods.
The classic Mustang has likely also received a boost from Ford’s concerted effort to export new Mustangs starting in 2015. In a given year, exports account for between a quarter and a third of sixth-generation Mustang sales—Ford sold 9900 of them in Europe alone in 2019. Quantifying the relationship between a new car’s popularity and an old car’s value is difficult, but surely the burst of marketing didn’t hurt.
The only thing that could slow the export of early Mustangs is an increase in prices at home. Early Mustang values, practically flat for years, have been ticking up as of late, gaining some 15 percent since the beginning of 2020, according to the Hagerty Price Guide. That appreciation hasn’t gone unnoticed overseas.
“We are struggling to replace stock,” says Barclay. “Ten thousand can’t buy anything. Go back a year, and we could buy cars for five to seven thousand.” Factor in the cost of shipping and taxes, and even a well-worn Mustang can become too expensive for a typical enthusiast. “We bring [a more expensive car] over here, and there’s no margin.”
The irony, of course, is that demand from overseas outfits like Essex Mustang has likely contributed to the spike in values. “Those who are buying them [abroad] may have a little more disposable income and are willing to spend more to get the good examples,” notes Rob Bennett, a Hagerty vehicle data specialist who has tracked Mustangs for our price guide.
We’ve seen this before: Air-cooled 911s—also high on the export list—left the United States in large numbers early in the last decade as European collectors seized upon what were, for them, excellent prices for clean examples. As American collectors caught on and started paying more, fewer left the country.
If classic Mustangs indeed become too expensive to put on a boat, collectors abroad will probably do the same thing classic car shoppers do in the states—move on to the next cool car.
“If I had my way, I’d bring over Tri-Five Chevys,” says Barclay.