ON APRIL 17, 1964, the day the Ford Mustang made its official sales debut, future funnyman and car collector Jay Leno was 13 years old and living in Andover, Mass.
“In those days, dealerships would cover the windows with curtains,” Leno says. “To see the new cars, we had to stand in line. You’d get a hot dog, a doughnut and lemonade, and wait.”
Once inside, young Leno, not old enough to drive and certainly lacking the money to buy, was impressed. “The Mustang was sporty and European looking,” he remembers. “And it was affordable.”
A reasonable price—just over $2,000 for a bare- bones model, and not much more to add options such as a radio, power steering or air conditioning— combined with the sleek style of the “Pony Car” for a winning combination. That spring day, Ford dealers nationwide took 22,000 orders for cars in colors from Twilight Turquoise to the super-popular Rangoon Red.
An instant hit
After one year, Mustang sales reached 417,000, more than quadrupling Ford’s projection. Within two years, sales topped 1 million.
“When the Mustang was first introduced, people ate it up,” says Matt Anderson, 38, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., home to Serial Number One (#0001), the first Mustang ever made. “The idea was to produce something like the Falcon [Ford’s then-bestselling workaday sedan], only with a sporty body—a grocery-getter that looked cool.” Fifty years later, more than 9 million Mustangs have been sold. But more significantly, the Pony Car has maintained a firm grip on car lovers’ hearts.
Symbol of America
“Mustang connects to people,” says Ford car marketing manager Steven Ling, 49, in Detroit. “That’s why people gravitate to it. It’s what the Mustang represents: Doing fun things, creating great memories. It’s about a sense of freedom and optimism.”
Today, Mustang has more than 5.5 million Facebook fans and has long affirmed its place in pop culture in hundreds of songs, such as Wilson Pickett’s 1966 hit “Mustang Sally,” and appearances in some 3,000 TV shows and movies, from the original white convertible in the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger to the blue and white striped 2015 model in the new film Need for Speed.
Through its many incarnations— among them the Shelby, Cobra, Mustang II, GT Coupe and now the 2015 anniversary model, currently being mass-manufactured at Ford’s assembly plant in Flat Rock, Mich.—the Mustang remains one of America’s most beloved automobiles.
“It’s like a member of the family,” says Ron Bramlett, 60, of the Mustang Club of America, the executive director of the Mustang 50th Birthday Celebration. “Everyone over 30 has a Mustang story.”
Hitting the road
Mustang fans will have the chance to swap stories, show off their rides, and see virtually every model of Mustang ever made, when Ford, along with the Mustang Club of America, host simultaneous 50th birthday celebrations at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., and Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Nevada, from April 16 to 20.
Getting there will be part of the fun for participants in the Great American Pony Drive, during which Mustang owners will motor to Norman, Okla., for a kickoff event April 13, then join the Official MCA Pony Drive to caravan west to Vegas or east to North Carolina.
“There will be 300-plus cars participating in each drive,” says Bramlett, who begins his trip from his hometown of Morada, Calif. “We’ll pick up cars at stops along the way. People will be waving and cheering from overpasses. It’s going to be a ball.”
From ’60s convertibles with long, sweeping hoods and sharp, sculpted flanks, to current models with 400 or more horsepower, the Mustang is a car that Ling believes inspires something in everyone.
“There’s no better symbol of America than the Mustang,” he says. “That’s how it started out, and 50 years later, it’s still that way.”