We’ve said much on this blog about the Mustang, Ford vice-president Lee Iacocca’s sporty, affordable little pony car that targeted baby boomers and scored a direct hit. In the words of Ford’s memorable advertising campaign, the Mustang was “designed to be designed by you.” Depending on how you optioned it, your Mustang could be a cool-looking economy car, a Thunderbird-like personal luxury coupe, or a V-8 powered factory-built hot rod. It was a recipe for success, and customers bought more than 680,000 Mustangs in the initial 1965 model year.
With the Mustang racing up the sales chart, it was only natural that Lee Iacocca would want the Mustang literally racing. The car’s launch came in the midst of Ford’s “Total Performance” racing initiative, through which the company scored impressive victories in NASCAR, in endurance races, at drag strips, on rally courses, and even in the exalted Indianapolis 500. A few Mustang wins would add nicely to the publicity bonanza.
Iacocca turned to one of the foremost figures in American motorsport, Carroll Shelby, to make the Mustang into a credible race car. The good news was that Ford had a productive working relationship with Shelby already. His Shelby American shop was busy reworking Ford’s budding GT40 race car into a winning machine. The bad news was… that Shelby American was busy with the GT40. His hands already full with a prestige project, Carroll Shelby was reluctant to take on the Mustang. But Iacocca - ever the salesman - talked Shelby into the assignment.
At the time, in mid-1964, the most powerful engine available for the Mustang was Ford’s 289-cubic inch, 271-horsepower “Hi-Po” V-8 – known to fans as the “K-code” engine for its designation in the Mustang serial numbering scheme. These surely were impressive figures when compared to Mustang’s standard 170-cubic inch, 101-horsepower 6-cylinder engine – or even the basic 210-horsepower V-8 – but Shelby American did even better, modifying the “Hi-Po” engine to produce more than 300 horsepower. Having added power, Shelby’s team next subtracted weight by removing the Mustang’s rear seat and replacing the steel hood with a fiberglass unit. With the suspension suitably beefed up, the Shelby Mustang GT350 was born.
That name, incidentally, is a big part of the car’s lore. The “GT” came from “Grand Tourer” -- strictly speaking, a luxury performance car suitable for long-distance races, but simply associated with racing by the general public. The “350” was much more random. Apparently, Carroll Shelby grew tired of Ford’s long deliberations over his modified car’s name. He asked an associate to pace off the distance to a nearby building. It was about 350 steps, so a GT350 the car became!
Carroll Shelby had one more trick up his sleeve. If the Mustang was going to compete in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) races, it was going to have to hold its own against more powerful Corvettes and more agile Jaguars. Thirty-six GT350s were further modified exclusively for competition. The GT350R (“R” for racing) had window glass replaced with lighter plexiglass, carpet removed, steel door panels traded for aluminum, and the front bumper replaced with a distinctive fiberglass apron to improve airflow to the radiator and reduce weight. The already potent engine was further refined to churn out better than 360 horsepower.
The GT350R dominated its class in SCCA’s 1965 racing season, taking five of six divisional championships, as well as the national championship. With the mission accomplished, and Iacocca satisfied, Shelby pulled his team out of competition for 1966, but other teams continued to win with the GT350R.
Fifty years later, the Shelby GT350 remains, to many fans, the ultimate Mustang. Given their low production numbers (only 562 GT350s were built for 1965, and just 36 of those were R competition vehicles), the cars command premium prices on the auction block -- on the rare occasions when they even cross the block. But they make for a fascinating sidebar in the history of Ford’s premier pony car.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Fifty years on, it’s almost impossible to imagine the American road without the Mustang. What would actor Steve McQueen have raced through the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt? What would singer Wilson Pickett have regretted buying for “Mustang Sally?” What would the 11,000 members of the Mustang Club of America celebrate? The Mustang is more than a car. It’s an icon, an image and a lifestyle.
Of course, none of this was predicted when Henry Ford II unveiled the Mustang at Ford Motor Company’s pavilion at the New York World’s Fair on April 17, 1964. Ford was taking a chance with an unprecedented concept pitched at an untested market. How and why the company took that gamble is a fascinating story of vision, determination and luck.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of an American automotive icon: the Ford Mustang. The Henry Ford counts among its collections three notable Mustangs: the 1962 Mustang I concept car, the first serial number of the 1965 production Mustang, and another 1965 Mustang on display at the Ford Rouge Factory Tour. In addition, our archives include photographs, design drawings (like this one for the 1963 Ford Mustang II prototype), and trade literature from every year of production. Relive the first half-century of the Mustang through the digital collections of The Henry Ford.
Andy Williams was off by a month. Auto industry insiders and enthusiasts know that January is the most wonderful time of the year, as it brings the annual North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). Since 1907, automakers have used the event to showcase fresh designs and innovative technologies. New models are introduced with suitable razzmatazz, and concept cars tantalize us with possibilities for the future. I set out to Cobo Center this year excited for everything, but with three particular must-sees on my checklist.
Chevrolet wowed crowds last year with the return of the Corvette Stingray (it took “Car of the Year” honors at this year’s event). For the 2014 show, the Bow Tie gives us the 2015 Corvette Stingray Z06. With 625 horsepower surging from its 6.2 liter V-8, the Z06 is a legitimate supercar. No, it’s not going to sell in any significant quantity, but these halo dream machines are what make NAIAS so much fun.
Chrysler is making headlines with its introduction of the next generation 200. This car could be a coup for the Pentastar. There’s a lot of money to be made in the mid-sized segment, and Chrysler wants to increase its take. The 200 also builds on shared design and technology from parent Fiat – efficiencies that can help the company thrive. Analysts will keep a close eye on the 200’s sales, but what really caught my eye is the 200’s rotary dial transmission shifter. I’m a fan of the traditional floor-mounted lever, but buttons and paddles have their supporters, so why not a dial?
Ford made its 2015 Mustang splash last month, so its NAIAS presence is heavily focused on the aluminum-bodied F-150. This is a big play by the Blue Oval. The venerable F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle in the United States for close to 20 years (and the best-selling pickup forever – well, at 43 years, practically so!). But fuel efficiency is vital for environmental and economic reasons. With the 2015 F-150, Ford improves gas mileage by converting much of the truck’s body structure from steel to aluminum and dropping 700 pounds of curb weight in the process. It’s a breakthrough, but it surely takes courage to invest in expensive new metalwork and try major experiments on your most popular product.
The F-150 gets the headlines, but don’t think that the Mustang is ignored. Prototypes of the 2015 model are there for ogling, and The Henry Ford’s own 1962 Mustang I concept car and 1965 Mustang Serial Number One production car are on prominent display. Best of all, though, Ford has created a sort of museum to Mustang’s place in popular culture. Head upstairs into the gallery and you’ll find everything from die-cast models, to Avon cologne bottles, to movie posters. (Yes, Bullitt is there.) There’s trivia too. Who knew, for example, that “Mustang” is one of the most popular computer passwords? Or that a Mustang was one of the original 16 Hot Wheels cars? My favorite display consisted of a jukebox playing nothing but Mustang-related songs, from Wilson Pickett to Vanilla Ice. “Rollin’ in my 5.0” indeed.
On a final note, there is a real treat in seeing Cobo Center itself this year. The new atrium and Grand Riverview Ballroom (fashioned from the old Cobo Area) are absolutely breathtaking. Detroit has much to be proud of this year – on both sides of the NAIAS showroom doors.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford