In the early 1960s, Lee Iacocca, vice president and general manager of Ford, envisioned a sporty youth-market car based on the compact Falcon. Developed in record time on a shoe-string budget, Ford introduced the 1965 Mustang at the World’s Fair on April 17, 1964, to instant acclaim. Ford planned for 100,000 first-year sales, but dealers sold 22,000 on the first day. The Ford Mustang launched a whole new genre of automobiles, known as pony cars.
The First-Generation Mustang
Ford marketed the original Mustang as a 1965 model, though Ford made several production changes to cars built after August 1964, by which time Ford had already sold 120,000. Hobbyists refer to early Mustangs as “1964½” models, while post-August cars are “late” 1965s. The Mustang launched with convertible and notchback body styles, with the fastback joining the lineup as a late ’65. A plethora of options enabled buyers to configure their Mustang as anything from an economical runabout to a weekend race car. Total sales for the 1965 model (including “1964½” cars) was 681,000—nearly seven times Ford’s projections.
The original engine lineup consisted of a 170-cid straight-six, 4.3-liter V-8, and the legendary 289-cid V-8 with up to 271 horsepower. For late ’65, the six was enlarged to 200 cid (3.3 liters) and the 260 was replaced by a 289 with a two-barrel carburetor. The Mustang roared into 1966 with only minor changes, and on March 1 of that year, Ford built the millionth Mustang.
The Mustang Grows …
The year 1967 saw the first major changes to the Mustang. The car grew in length, width, and weight, primarily to allow the installation of a big-block engine. The 390-cid (6.4-liter) V-8 produced 335 hp, displacing the 289 as the top performer. Interior and exterior trim was revised, and a new 302-cid (4.9-liter) V-8 replaced the higher-horsepower 289s. For drag racing, Ford offered a 428-cid (7.0-liter) Cobra Jet V-8 rated at 335 hp and 440 lb-ft of torque.
… And Grows …
In 1969, the Mustang got bigger still—3.8-inches longer and half an inch wider, with no change in the 108-inch wheelbase. Ford dropped the 289 and added a new 351-cid (5.8-liter) V-8 with 250 or 290 hp. New models included the Mach and the Boss homologation models. The Boss 302 was built to meet Trans-Am racing production requirements, while the Boss 429 put the 375-hp, 429-cid (7.0-liter) engine into street use as required by NASCAR rules. With sales waning, Ford restyled the 1970 models to look less aggressive. Sales dipped to fewer than 300,000 in 1969 and sank past 200,000 in 1970.
… And Grows
For 1971, the Ford Mustang gained yet more size and bulk, and a new buttressed rear window gave the sedan a distinctly different profile than earlier Mustangs. As emissions rules tightened and Americans moved away from muscle cars, engine choices eroded. The six was enlarged to 250 cid (4.1 liters), but the 429, by then the sole big-block, was gone for 1972, leaving the 351 as the biggest engine. By 1973, the coupe’s weight had ballooned to 3,600 pounds, 1,200 pounds heavier than the 1965 Mustang. Sales continued to nosedive; aside from General Motors and Ford, most automakers had ditched their pony cars by this time, but Ford had something completely different in the works.
1974-1978: The Incredible Shrinking Mustang II
Those who complained the Mustang had gotten too fat were about to see their concerns addressed. For 1974, Ford introduced the Mustang II, a subcompact based on a stretched Pinto platform and available as a notchback or hatchback. Engine choices were a 140-cid (2.3-liter) four-cylinder or a 171-cid (2.8-liter) V-6. Ford pitched the Mustang II as an upscale economy car, with the luxury-themed Ghia topping the lineup. The Mustang II arrived in fall 1973, just in time for the oil embargo, and the timing could not have been better: Sales rocketed to 386,000 for ’74, the Mustang II’s best year. Contemporary reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and the Mustang II won MotorTrend‘s 1974 Car of the Year Award.
As oil started to flow in ’74, Americans returned to big cars. Ford shoehorned in the 302 (4.9-liter) V-8 (labeled as a 5.0), which produced a timid 140 hp, and Ford offered Cobra II and King Cobra models that were eye-catching if not particularly quick. Sales held at not quite 200,000 per year for 1975-78. By the late 1970s people were ready for the return of a real Mustang, and Ford gave it to them.
1979-1993: The Fox
The new-for-1979 Mustang rode on a new platform called Fox, which it shared with the Fairmont sedan. Available in both notchback and hatchback styles, the new Mustang offered a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine in naturally aspirated (88 hp) and turbocharged (132 hp) form, 2.8 liter V-6 (dropped later in the year), 3.3 liter I-6, and the 4.9 V-8 still labeled as a 5.0. Ford replaced the 4.9 with a 4.2 V-8 for the 1980 and ’81 model years, just in time for the second oil crisis. Ford dropped the troublesome turbo for ’82, when the 4.9/5.0 made its triumphant return. The bad news was that Ford was now building 140-mph Mustang cop cars.
As automakers got a handle on emissions tuning, real performance returned to the Mustang lineup. An improved 2.3-liter turbocharged engine returned for 1983, along with the first convertible Mustang in a decade and a new 3.8-liter V-6 to replace the old straight-six. The V-8 was up to 175 hp. In 1984 came the limited-run Mustang SVO, with a 175-hp 2.3T engine (later 205 hp) and a revised suspension featuring Koni adjustable shocks. The new-for-’85 5.0 HO (High Output) engine delivered 210 hp, and in 1986 it swapped its four-barrel carburetor for multi-port fuel injection and 200 hp.
Mustang Goes Aero
When 1987 arrived, it brought a stunning redesign that featured Ford’s aero-themed styling, with flush headlights and a new interior. The V-6 was dropped, leaving two engines and two models: The economy-themed Ford Mustang LX and the flashy V-8 powered Ford Mustang GT, with its lower-body side skirts and louvered taillights. While most LX cars had the 88-hp, 2.3-liter engine, Ford made a stealthy LX 5.0 that combined the V-8’s 225 hp (205 hp after 1988) with the LX’s tame looks. Without the extra 200 pounds of body cladding, it had a performance edge over the GT.
Sales began to decline after 1989, and with a new Mustang in the wings, changes were minor. In 1993, Ford gave us a going-away present: The SVT Cobra, with a highly-modified 235-hp V-8, Tokico shocks and struts, and less aggressive styling than the GT. The race-ready Cobra R jettisoned extra weight in the form of the A/C, stereo, back seat, sound insulation, and power accessories—and added chassis braces, Eiback springs, and adjustable Koni dampers. Ford built fewer than 5,000 SVT Cobras and only 107 Rs.
1994-2004: Mustang Returns to its Roots
Ford surveys showed that Mustang fans wanted more recognizable Mustang cues, so the 1994 Mustang’s jellybean shape was augmented with first-gen styling nods and plenty of prancing horses. The resemblance was clearer in the cabin, which featured a stylized version of the original Mustang’s twin-cowl dashboard.
Under the skin the new Mustang had a stiffened and enlarged version of the Fox platform. The suspension was tuned for a softer ride with comparable handling, though critics lamented its more benign understeering nature. The 4.9-liter V-8 returned with 215 hp, and the new base engine was a stout 3.8-liter V-6. In 1996, Ford replaced the 4.9 with the “modular” 4.6-liter OHC V-8. Output was similar to the 4.9, but the engine was criticized for a lack of low-end torque. A more powerful limited-run SVT Cobra remained in the lineup.
Ford facelifted the Mustang in 1999 with the company’s “New Edge” styling motif. The V-6 was bumped to 190 hp, while the V-8 produced a more competitive 260. The 1999 SVT Cobra was the first Mustang to feature an independent rear suspension. Chevrolet discontinued the Camaro in 2002, leaving the Mustang in a class of one.
2005-2014: Mustang Goes Retro
The 2005 Mustang debuted with a squared-off shape that payed proper homage to the first-generation Mustang. Ford had finally ditched the 25-plus-year-old Fox platform, though the new Mustang retained its live rear axle in order to keep costs down, a move the automotive press harshly criticized. The base V-6 Mustang used a 4.0-liter V-6 that produced 210 hp, while the 4.6-liter V-8 was now up to 300 hp. Consumer reaction was so positive that General Motors embarked on its own program to bring back the Camaro while Chrysler resurrected the Dodge Challenger.
The fifth-generation Mustang got a facelift in 2010, just in time to greet the new Camaro. One of the styling highlights was the sequential taillights, though the original Mustang never had them (the ’64 Thunderbird, ’67 Mercury Cougar, and ’68 Shelbys did). The year 2011 brought new engines: A 3.7-liter V-6 with 305 hp and a new 5.0-liter V-8 that actually displaced 5.0 liters and put out an impressive 412 hp. The 2012 Boss 302 upped the power to 444, while the Boss 302 Laguna Seca edition was a proper track-ready car.
2015-Today: The Modern Mustang
Ford revealed the latest iteration of the Mustang in December 2013 as a 2015 model celebrating the Mustang’s 50th anniversary. An independent rear suspension was finally fitted as standard equipment, and the 300-hp V-6 and 435-hp V-8 were complemented by a new 310-hp, 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. For 2018, the styling was refreshed and the V-6 was dropped. In 2019, Ford announced a new four-door electric crossover to be marketed as the 2020 Mustang Mach-E.
The Shelby Mustangs: Round 1
From the earliest days of the Mustang, Ford worked with Carroll Shelby to develop a high-performance version, shipping new Mustangs to Shelby American for modification. The 1965-66 Shelby GT350 had a modified 289 rated at 306 hp, as well as improved suspension and brakes. There was a race-ready GT350R version and a special version for the Hertz rental car agency, the 1966 GT350H.
In 1967, as Ford began to exert more control over the engineering of the Shelby cars, the GT500 was introduced, powered by a 335-hp 427-cid (7.0-liter) V-8 fitted with twin four-barrel carburetors. For 1968, the GT350 switched to a 250-hp, 302 (4.9-liter) V-8, while the GT500 KR (“King of the Road”) used the 428 Cobra Jet.
By 1969, Ford was making most of the design and engineering decisions. The GT350 switched to a 290-hp, 351-cid (5.8-liter) engine. Carroll Shelby terminated his relationship with Ford, and leftover 1969s were sold as 1970 models. Ford did modify a small number of 1971 Mustangs, called Shelby Europas, for a Belgian dealer, but the Shelby-Mustang association would go dormant for nearly four decades.
The Shelby Mustangs: Round 2
The re-association of Shelby and the Mustang started with the 2006 Shelby GT-H, a 325-hp version designed expressly for Hertz Rent-A-Car. The real deal came in the form of the 2007 Shelby GT500, which had a 5.4-liter V-8 supercharged for a staggering 500 hp. Ford also offered the Shelby GT, a civilian version of the GT-H available with a manual transmission.
Ford updated the Mustang in 2010, and the 2010 Shelby GT500 gained an additional 40 horsepower. Knowing a track-ready Camaro was on the way, Ford switched to an aluminum engine block for the 2011 GT500, taking 102 pounds off the nose to improve handling. The company also introduced the Shelby GTS, a package of appearance and braking add-ons for V-6 and V-8 cars. For 2013, the GT500 went haywire on horsepower with 663, enough to give it a claimed top speed of 200 mph.
The new 2015 Mustang brought about a new round of Shelby cars. The factory-built GT350 now had a 526-hp, naturally aspirated 5.2-liter V-8, and a race-ready GT350R variant. The 350 received updates and enhancements for 2019. In 2020, Ford launched the most powerful factory Mustang yet, the new GT500, with a supercharged 5.2-liter V-8 that turned out an unbelievable 760 hp. The car won several accolades, including a spot on the 2020 Automobile All-Stars list.
Ford Mustang Highlights
- The Mustang was reportedly named for the World War II fighter plane, not the horse. Other names under consideration included Cougar and T-Bird II (a suggestion from Henry Ford II). The car nearly went to market as the Torino, with ad campaigns already prepared, but consumer surveys showed Mustang to be a better name.
- In Germany, the Mustang name was in use on a heavy-duty truck built by Krupp. As a result, the first-gen Mustang was exported to Europe as the Ford T-5, which was the internal project name.
- Ford Performance worked on a mid-engine Mustang prototype in the late 1960s.
- In the early 1980s, with demand dropping, Ford considered moving the Mustang to a front-wheel-drive platform shared with Japanese partner Mazda. The car was developed, but instead of replacing the Mustang, it was marketed as the Ford Probe.
- All factory-fitted four-cylinder Mustang engines have a displacement of 2.3 liters.
- The vaunted “5.0” Mustang V-8 from the Mustang II and Fox eras displaced 302 cubic inches, which translates to 4.9 liters. Ford presumably used the 5.0 label to match the 305-cid V-8 employed by the Chevrolet Camaro starting in 1976, which actually did displace 5.0 liters.
- In the summer of 2018, Ford built the 10 millionth Mustang.
Ford Mustang Buying Tips
The Ford Mustang has been one of America’s most popular sport coupes for half a century, and it was identified as a future classic from the day it launched. Ford built plenty of Mustangs, and there are survivors from nearly all generations, though the 1970s models were not highly valued and many went to the crusher.
When considering an older Mustang, it is important to check VIN, engine ID, and fender tags to verify originality. Many older low-end six-cylinder Mustangs were repowered with V-8 engines, and while it’s fine to buy one of these, keep in mind they should not command prices (and will not hold their value) like a factory-built high-performance variant. Very rare, valuable, and limited-run cars should be authenticated by a Mustang expert before purchase.
Mustangs, especially V-8 and later V-6 and turbo models, were prone to abuse, so check carefully for signs that a car has been driven hard and/or damaged in a collision and repaired. Bodywork, uneven tire wear, and damage to, or obvious replacement of, wheels and suspension parts are all signs of abuse.
Mid- to late-1970s Ford Mustangs aren’t exactly collector magnets, but if you are looking for one of these cars, be aware they had complicated emissions systems that made the engines difficult to keep in tune. Pre-1986 V-8 cars had feedback carburetors with tamper-proof settings. Some cars were refitted with non-emissions carburetors, which can cause the car to fail a smog inspection. Fuel-injected cars are easier to keep tuned and running.
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Ford Mustang Quick Facts
- First year of production: 1964 (1965 model year)
- Total sold: 10,000,000+
- Original price (base): $2,368
- Current price (base): $27,865
- Engine size range: 2.3 to 7.0 liters
- Characteristic feature: Continuous production since 1964
Ford Mustang FAQ
Is the Ford Mustang a good car?
Yes, and it (almost) always has been. The Mustang was a hit with buyers from its introduction in 1964, and aside from the Mustang II, which was focused on economy, it’s usually been a reliable grin-generator. Though quality wasn’t always Ford’s strong suit, Mustangs are generally well-built cars that deliver big smiles.
Why are Ford Mustangs so cheap?
The Mustang was designed to be an affordable performance car, and Ford has tried to keep prices down throughout its history, even though that meant holding onto old technology like the live rear axle. Mustangs sold well, so there’s always been a good supply of them on the used market, which keeps prices down.
How much is the cheapest new Mustang?
The entry-level Mustang usually hovers around $28,000 before you add options.
Are Ford Mustangs cheap to maintain?
Yes. Modern Mustangs have few service requirements beyond oil changes. Older models are plentiful, which means a good supply of parts and plenty of mechanics who can work on them.
Are Mustangs dangerous?
Though modern Ford Mustangs have a plethora of active safety features, higher-end models have a combination of high horsepower and rear-wheel-drive which can make them a handful in wet or snowy weather—and “dangerous” in the hands of young, inexperienced drivers. Unfortunately, their low price makes them easy for younger drivers to obtain, so they tend to have a high crash rate compared to other cars.
Which Mustang is the fastest?
Ford claimed a 200-mph top speed for the 662-hp 2013 Shelby GT500, though it would take a lot of road to reach that speed. The 2020 Shelby GT500 has 100 more horsepower than that, so it should, in theory, be faster—but Ford electronically limited its top speed to 180 mph. Most other high-performance Mustangs are limited to 155 mph.