The Ford Mustang could easily have been an esoteric sports car; one more specialist oddball in the copious footnotes of motoring history. Instead, in 1964, it was the hottest thing to hit the mainstream US motoring scene in a quarter of a century.
The catalyst for change was a brash young Italian-American Ford executive called Lee Iacocca. You may be grateful to him today for starting the MPV era in a later post at Chrysler. But in 1962 he was a Ford vice-president, and when he saw the Mustang prototype - a dagger-shaped two-seater sports-racer with a German Ford V4 engine mounted behind the driver and passenger - his instincts cut in like a turbocharger.
"When I looked at the guys praising it," he said, "the offbeat crowd, the real buffs, I thought: 'That's sure not the car we want to build, because it can't be a volume car. It's too far out.'" You could have argued with Iacocca, then 37, but you'd have had trouble winning. He knew what customers would buy - his career at the company, after being recruited as a Princeton graduate, was built on his making unheralded Philadelphia the number one territory in Ford's US sales league.
So the original Mustang brief was shelved (although the car did influence the design of the Ford GT40 sports-racing car) and Iacocca's new one created. His extraordinary grasp of unfolding demographics told him that the market was ripe for a car that was sporty rather than a sports car; something desirable without being off-putting. The customers were of the post-war "baby boom" generation, who were staying single (or, at least, childless) for longer as they pursued careers and burnt through that addictive new commodity: disposable income.
They didn't need, or really want, the traditional American sedan - even in its new so-called "compact" size - but an imported two-seater roadster was just too risqué. What they craved was a "personal" car. Something, well, just like the Mustang that Iacocca and Ford gave them. Ford's design team, led by Gene Bordinat, created a starched, smart two-plus-two around the mechanical components of the Ford Falcon, retaining only the side air vents (now dummies) from the original Mustang concept. There was little chrome ornamentation and the look was determinedly European.
Walking into a Ford dealership was the 1960s motoring equivalent of entering Starbucks - you could have your Mustang any which way, from skinny latté to full-fat caffeine blast. You could choose between three body styles - fastback coupé, convertible and hardtop coupé - and then add any one of five engine options, from a feeble 101bhp straight-six to a fiery 271bhp V8. Then there were six transmission options, three suspension packages, three braking set-ups, three wheel sizes and dozens of style and comfort embellishments.
Walking out of a Ford dealership was a virtual impossibility; you'd drive out... in a new Mustang that you'd specified like a personalised kitchen. No wonder it became the fastest-selling new car ever, up to that point.
Such was the hype surrounding the Mustang when it appeared at the New York World Fair in April 1964 that the first cars were auctioned to the highest bidders. In that first model year, 1964, 418,000 were sold, and sales topped a million by 1966, making it the first vaguely sporty car to reach this dizzy pinnacle. Between 1964 and 1966 - the era of the original Mustang - 1,288,557 were shifted.
In the minds of car buffs, these early Mustangs are defined by the Shelby GT-350, a pioneering "muscle car" created in 1965 by Texan Carroll Shelby and featuring highly powered V8 engines transplanted into modified Mustang carcasses. But this is misleading. The typical Mustang was an automatic six-cylinder machine for cruising through the suburbs.
The 1967 Mustangs, announced in spring 1966, offered wider, longer bodies and ever more options in the face of hastily concocted rivals from General Motors and Chrysler. The magic soon dissipated and, by 1971, the once-lithe Mustang had become something of an overweight nag.
The Mustang has always been hard to appreciate in a British context. Far from being attainable, the first few examples that found their way to this country in 1964/65 seemed as exotic and glamorous as anything from Italy. A white Mustang convertible - never mind what engine - was a film-star machine, ideal for photo-ops outside Pinewood or burbling lazily through Antibes. Ford never offered it with right-hand drive (although there was a British conversion available, from a company called Ruddspeed), and that just added to its mystique.
First-generation Mustangs are simple cars. A vast spares network across the US means you'll never have to wait for long if you do need parts. Get one if you like to pose in comfort but have little inclination to fumble for the bonnet catch. Eschew the temperamental European sports car alternative, such as an Alfa Romeo Spider, and succumb to the Mustang's indulgent allure. After all, you'll be doing what Iacocca knew you would...Reuse content