The Evolution of the Ford Mustang, America’s Pony Car

No car is more widely considered an American standard than the Ford Mustang. Sure, there’s the Corvette, Camaro, Thunderbird, and GTO, but when you think of the Fourth of July Parade, which car comes to mind?

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This horse has legs.

No car is more widely considered an American standard than the Ford Mustang. Sure, there’s the Corvette, Camaro, Thunderbird, and GTO, but when you think of the Fourth of July Parade, which car comes to mind? That’s what we thought. It’s the original pony car that created the segment, birthed more than fifty years ago in 1964, and it gave rise to six more generations of automotive Americana. Attend a vintage American car show anywhere and you’ll no doubt find a pristine Mustang displayed proudly amongst other great domestic metal, getting just a few more affirming nods and awe-stained stares than the surrounding menagerie of beasts.

From the original car all the way to the sixth-generation version that pays direct homage to its forefathers, the Mustang simply can’t be confused for any other automobile. Here’s a look at the life of the Ford Mustang.

First Generation (1964–1973)

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No one could’ve predicted the enormous success of the Ford Mustang. Who would’ve thought that cost-cutting measures like using Ford Fairlane and Falcon componentry would result in a such a bold new car? Ford completely crushed the 100,000 model sales projection for its first year, instead selling nearly half a million in that same time period. The base Mustang in 1964 delivered 105 hp and 156 lb-ft of torque via its inline-6 engine; the first generation car’s power maxed out in the bonkers 1969-1970 Boss 429 with 375 hp and 450 lb-ft. The 429 was just one of the performance models that made the Mustang even more popular. The Mach 1 and the Boss 302 also made a reputation for themselves, and will live on forever in the annals of street racing. Unfortunately, the Mustang got bigger and heavier as its run went on, diluting some of the purity of the original car. The double headlight setup migrated to quads and then back again, and the body grew in length and width. Though the car got a bit bloated in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it’s this first generation car that cements the Mustang’s identity in the automotive pantheon.

Second Generation (1974–1978)

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The next ‘Stang was influenced by, of all things, Italian coachbuilder Ghia, resulting in a smaller and more fuel-efficient car that proved to be the right Mustang for the times. Rather than attempt to compete with bigger muscle cars, the newly named Mustang II was targeted at fuel-sipping competitors from Japan like the Toyota Celica. As a nod to the fuel-miser mindset, the Mustang II was originally available only with a 2.3-liter inline four cylinder and a 2.8-liter V6. Ford’s intelligent approach to the new Mustang was rewarded with record-setting sales, despite the convertible being noticeably absent from the lineup.

As the fuel crisis waned, Ford re-infused their pony car with more power, installing a 4.9-liter V8 as an option in the Mustang II in 1975. To make the smaller ‘Stang more appealing to power hungry consumers, Ford offered the Cobra II and Stallion packages, replete with racier paint, body trim and wheels with all three engine options available. The King Cobra showed up in 1978, the Mustang II’s final year. A V8 engine and a prominent Cobra decal on its hood served as lovely sources of intimidation. It’s this odd second generation that most departs from the Mustang ethos, but thankfully, its exhaust still reeked of pony car meanness.

Third Generation (1979–1993)

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The third-generation Mustang embodies the ’80s like virtually no other car except the Pontiac Firebird and the Chevy Camaro. This ‘Stang was built on a Ford Fairmont platform and came in coupe, convertible and hatchback styles with quad rectangular headlights and an eggcrate grille. The front fascia changed dramatically in 1987, replaced by a more modern Ford “aero” fascia with longer dual headlights and a nearly grille-less front end.

Today, it’s hard to believe that the Mustang was almost killed during this era due to diminished sales numbers and the fuel crisis. Multitudes of fans of the tried and true Mustang grew outraged when the new Mustang was planned as a front-wheel-drive car based on a Mazda MX-6 platform. Ford wisely listened to their constituents and changed their direction, releasing the new car as the Ford Probe: the rear-wheel-drive Mustang lived on. The third-generation ‘Stang’s powertrain choices included an 88 hp, 2.3-liter Pinto inline-four cylinder, a 109 hp 2.8-liter V6 and a 140 hp 4.9-liter V8, all carried over from the second-generation car. The Pinto engine was later replaced by an 85 hp, 3.3-liter straight-six, and later a brand new 132 hp 2.3-liter turbo four was offered with nearly the same power as the V8. The 4.9-liter V8 was later dropped for a new, more efficient 4.2-liter V8. The third-generation car clearly received the most dramatic mid-cycle change of any Mustang, ever. Our stuck-in-the-eighties alter ego still pines for a limited production black 1986 Mustang SVO with a 200 hp turbo inline four cylinder and that wicked double spoiler.

Fourth Generation (1994–2004)

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The third generation car had a long life, and by 1994 it was time for a changing of the guard. The new Mustang took on a wholly new design direction. The body was far more rounded than the last car, and Ford ditched the hatchback style altogether. Engine options came in the form of a 3.8-liter V6 with 145 hp (’94 and ’95) and 150 hp (’96-’98), a 4.6-liter V8 with 215 hp (’96-’97) and 225 hp (’98). Two years in, Mustang tweaked the rear taillights from three horizontal slits to three vertical sections, a noticeable change in the rear fascia that was more traditional Mustang than the initial attempt. A mid-cycle refresh brought more angles to the car via Ford’s “New Edge” styling, though the overall shape remained the same. As an homage to Mr. McQueen’s character, a Bullitt version was sold in 2001. The Mach 1 was released in 2003 and 2004, and the potent 390 hp Cobra was sold toward the end of the generation.

Fifth Generation (2005–2014)

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Disproving the notion that going retro with modern cars is a bad move, Ford returned to its first-generation roots by bringing back the original ‘Stang’s shape and spirit in the fifth generation. The fastback style returned, and Ford coined the design “retro-futurism”, or a sexy way of copying the first generation car for the 21st century. Though it was considered unoriginal (duh), fans bit and the car was a huge success for the most part. The base ‘Stang was powered by a 210 hp 4.0-liter V6, and the GT housed a 4.6-liter V8 good for 300 hp. In 2010, it was refreshed with a more aggressive front end and new taillights that made the car look less bulky from the rear. The 4.6-liter V8 was boosted to 315 hp. Ford revamped the engine lineup in 2011 with a new 3.7-liter aluminum block V6 with 305 hp that was lighter and more fuel efficient; GT models got a 5.0-liter V8 producing 412 hp (later increased to 420). The ridiculously awesome GT500 housed a big 5.4-liter supercharged V8 with a huge 550 hp (later increased to a 5.8-liter V8 with 662 hp), and later a new Boss 302 made its way to market with 444 hp.

Sixth Generation (2015-)

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The 50th Anniversary of the iconic Mustang also marked the biggest change in the car’s history — the replacement of the solid rear axle with an independent rear suspension, much to the delight of track hounds and possibly the chagrin of dragstrip lovers everywhere. It also marked Ford’s big dreams of making the Mustang a world muscle car, not just one sold to us red-blooded Americans. The sheet metal’s been pulled more tautly while the overall refinement of the car has been bumped up a few notches, which should appeal more to an international market. It’s kind of like putting Springsteen onstage in a bespoke suit. Also a big deal for the new ‘Stang is the use of a 2.3-liter EcoBoost 4-cylinder engine, which provides impressive gas mileage for our changing times. Lest muscle heads cry out in pain, there’s also a 3.7-liter V6 and a big 5.0-liter V8 in the GT with at least 420 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque. Sure, it still looks like a Mustang, but the paradigm shift ushers in a new era for America’s greatest pony car.

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