Happy 50th to an automotive legend

By Roy J. Eaton | Published Wednesday, April 9, 2014

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It’s not often that you get to witness the birth of a legend, but I was there.

It was 50 years ago, April 13, 1964, and I was at the New York World’s Fair for the introduction of what would become an American icon – the new Ford Mustang.

Mustang Fever

MUSTANG FEVER – This 1966 Mustang convertible has been owned by Roy and Brian Eaton for 28 years. Submitted photo

Ford Motor Co. had flown auto writers from across the nation to New York for the big event at the Ford exhibit at the World’s Fair. Lee Iacocca, then head of the Ford Division, presented the car to the hundreds of media people from all over the world at the event.

Roy J. Eaton

Roy J. Eaton

“We can’t think of any product we have introduced, certainly in recent years at least, that has generated more advanced interest than the Mustang,” Iacocca told us before unveiling the new car.

The new Mustang was one of Iacocca’s brilliant ideas and landed him on the cover of Time and Newsweek during the same week, something that had not happened in years.

The Mustang was built on the chassis of the Ford Falcon, but with an astonishing new design – available in both hardtop and convertible models and later as a fastback.

“It has probably the longest list of options and accessories ever offered on a new line of cars,” Iacocca told us.

Iacocca said the new car would have “an astonishingly low price” of $2,368. Ford had no idea what it had started. Later, cars like the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird and Dodge Charger would also be known as “Pony Cars.”

There were both six- and eight-cylinder engines available and manual and automatic transmissions. Some collectors have what is called 1964-1/2 models, but Ford officially called all of them 1965 models. Within a year after the introduction, 418,812 Mustangs had been sold.

At the time there were only three major television networks, and Ford had purchased half-hour programs on all three at the same time for the introduction.

“We expect to show the Mustang on TV screens in more than half the homes in the country, “Iacocca told us.

After the introduction, we were bused to the Westchester Country Club where we “paired up” with another auto writer to drive a new Mustang to Niagara Falls for an overnight stay and the next day drove across Canada to Windsor and over the Detroit River to Detroit.

My partner for this drive was Bill Foster, automotive writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. We took turns driving this car, and it was a sensation in every small town we went through.

Back in Detroit, we were offered a new Mustang to drive home, but I passed and flew home instead. I still have a copy of Iacocca’s speech and the press kit we were given at the introduction.

I have never owned a new Mustang, but when I decided to start collecting older cars, the first car I bought was a 1966 Mustang convertible, which I still have. Our son Brian, then an “SMU Mustang,” wanted a Mustang from 1966 – the year he was born. He carefully watched the classified ads in the Dallas papers and found “our” convertible in Highland Park. He and I pooled our money and bought it.

Iacocca told us that Ford had designed the Mustang “with young America in mind” and he was right – and that holds true to this day. Mustang fever runs deep in our family as our granddaughter and grandson both have modern Mustang convertibles. Another granddaughter is still in the “Pony Car” generation, but she opted for a Chevrolet Camaro.

Iacocca, always the showman, pulled the wraps off the Mustang with dramatic flair as the car sparkled under the spotlights at the World’s Fair. It was a great event – one that obviously I will never forget.

So “Happy Birthday” to the Mustang – one of America’s legendary cars for 50 years.

Roy Eaton is publisher of the Messenger.

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