For most automotive enthusiasts, Ford Mustang is the first association that will go through their minds when speaking about muscle cars. That is not a surprise, as this American icon is what actually set the foundations for this automotive segment when it was first launched. Even up to these days, this is the longest-living model in Ford’s lineup, with its production spanning over six generations and more than half a century.
During this time, Ford Mustang was often the best-selling sports car in the world, as it is today. Drivers always liked its muscular design and capable performance, all of which came in a format suitable for everyday use. In this article, we will cover all Mustang generations and see how the differences between them.
The story behind the Ford Mustang
In the early 60s, the US automotive market was a dynamic and rapidly changing place. With the economy booming, average car buyers had a lot more money at their disposal. Right about that time, several European manufacturers were looking to take their share of the market by offering a new type of car – the sports roadsters. These light and agile cars were so much different from what Americans used to drive at the time. But this uniqueness had its appeal, especially among younger drivers. Eventually, roadsters started to turn over their hearts and, more importantly, wallets.
Ford quickly picked up on this new trend, partially to the insightfulness of their executives, but mostly thanks to the dropping sales of their traditional models. The problem was nothing in their lineup would match this new vehicle type. Sure, there was the Thunderbird, but this was more of a luxury cruiser than a sports car. With all that, there was no other option than to develop a new car. And after just 18 months, it was ready.
The first Ford Mustang
Introduced in April 1964, the all-new Ford Mustang was a lightweight 2-door sports car. Its shape, with a long hood and short trunk lid, was heavily influenced by popular European roadsters. However, the Mustang was much more than a mere copy, as it featured a recognizable design, with sharp body lines and boxy shape. Almost every surface or edge on it was flat and straight. The most prominent is its front end, with protruding grille and single, round headlights. Over the years, Mustang’s design received several significant updates, with the car becoming longer and broader.
The Ford Mustang was available as a convertible and as one of three hard-toped variants. Besides a traditional coupe, there was a hatchback with a larger trunk lid and a fastback with a sweeping rear end. All versions had four seats, with bucket seats at the front and a single bench at the back, with enough space for an adult person at each of them.
As for the mechanics, Ford Mustang had a wide range of engines and transmissions available. Besides a pair of straight-six units, there were two more powerful V8s with 4.3 or 4.7 liters of displacement. Depending on the engine size and carburetors, the power ranged anywhere from 105 to 270 horsepower. Later during production, Mustang received even bigger V8s, with the 7.0-liter Super Cobra Jet pushing out 375 horsepower. Transmission choices included two manual gearboxes and a 3-speed automatic.
Why was the first Ford Mustang so successful?
Ford was riding a lot on the new Mustang, so the new car had to be successful. They were hoping to sell 100,000 Mustangs a year, but their estimates turned out to be conservative, at least to say. By the end of 1965, more than 680,000 buyers decided the Mustang was the car they wanted. This made it the fastest-selling vehicle of all time, a record that hasn’t been beaten up to today.
Sure, this stunning-looking car offered excellent performance and was fun to drive. However, the endless list of optional extras for the buyers could choose from is what made it such a hit. Besides several engines and transmissions, there was a wide choice of colors and interior trims. But the options didn’t stop there, as buyers could choose between other things, like wheels, dashboard styles, or seats, just to name a few. As a result, one could configure a Ford Mustang to perfectly match their needs and wishes. This is standard nowadays, but back then, however, it was revolutionary and groundbreaking.
As if this wasn’t enough, Ford Mustang also got a significant popularity boost when it appeared in the Bullit movie. In this classic, Steve McQueen drove the 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback on the streets of San Francisco in, by many, the best car chase scene of all time. This cemented its position as a segment leader and ensured its spot in the automotive Hall of fame.
Second-generation Ford Mustang
The original, first-gen Mustang grew in size with each restyle and consequently became a much larger car than first intended. So, for its successor, Ford decided to downsize it. Introduced in 1974, the second-generation Ford Mustang was smaller than the original 64 car. The styling was heavily influenced by its predecessor, whose overall shape served as a base for refinement and evolution. This generation was only available as a coupe or hatchback, with no convertible as an option.
Initially, there was only a choice between a small 4-cylinder engine and a new V6 unit, with power outputs ranging between 89 and 106 horsepower. This was nowhere near the numbers its predecessor offered. Furthermore, the new Mustang was heavier due to extra safety and emission control equipment. Although this significantly hampered the performance, the 70s Oil crisis and consequent high fuel prices made this combo tempting for the buyers. Still, a bigger V8 eventually became available in the second-gen Mustang.
Third-generation Ford Mustang
The third-generation Mustang, which hit the market in 1979, featured a radical change in its design. Apart from the general layout, the new Mustang had no visual similarities with its two predecessors. Signature-mark round headlights gave way to squared ones, while the grille was heavily redesigned. Because of its flat surfaces and body lines, this generation was quickly nicknamed Sqarebody. This time, available body shapes included a convertible alongside a 2-door coupe and hatchback.
As for the engines, Ford decided to be true to Mustang’s origins and offered a wide range of options. Depending on the year, buyers could choose between a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, a straight-six or a V6 one, and several burly V8s. In the first years of production, most of them used carburetors, only to be replaced with fuel-injection systems later. Transmission choices included a pair of manual gearboxes and two automatics.
Fourth-generation Ford Mustang
In its fourth iteration, released in 1994, Ford Mustang adopted a much softer and sleeker design, characteristic of the early 90s. This car is known among enthusiasts by its SN-95 code name. Later in the production, the Mustang received an extensive overhaul, adopting Ford’s new design language. Nowadays, these cars are referred to as New Edge Mustangs. The hatchback was dropped, so the fourth-gen Mustang was available as a coupe or convertible.
Buyers could choose between a pair of V6 engines and several V8s. Depending on the model year and displacement, power outputs varied between 145 and 390 horsepower. This was the first Mustang with a 4-valve DOHC engine, available in late GT and Cobra models. The multi-valve technology improved performance and throttle response while reducing fuel consumption. A five-speed manual transmission and a 4-speed automatic were the only options.
Fifth-generation Ford Mustang
While developing the fifth-gen Mustang, codenamed S197, designers at Ford took their inspiration from the original 64 car. This retro styling would, they hoped, help the new model will successfully cope with the challenges of the shrinking muscle car market in the mid-2000s. The fifth-gen Mustang featured a modern styling with many old-school details, making it both fresh and classical. This proved successful, and Ford’s long-lasting rivals, Chevy and Dodge, used this formula when reintroducing their muscle cars. As with the previous generation, convertible and coupe were the only body shapes available.
Although the fifth-gen Mustang had a brand new platform, its drivetrain components were initially carried over from the outgoing car. But when the S197 Mustang was redesigned in 2010, it also received new engines. This included a 3.7-liter V6 and, now legendary, 5.0 V8 Coyote. The smaller engine produced 305 horsepower, while the larger one had 412 horsepowers on the tap. There was also a supercharged Shelby GT500 variant, whose engines produced up to 662 horsepower, depending on the model year.
The current sixth-gen Mustang
While all previous versions were primarily sold in North America, the current Mustang is the first to be globally available. This called for a completely new design, which would appeal to buyers worldwide. Because of that, the upcoming S550 model had many design details borrowed from other globally sold models, such as Mondeo or Escape. The new design was successful and well-received, although some purists viewed it as too generic and import-like. Like the outgoing car, the S550 came in a coupe or convertible form.
Apart from familiar V6 and V8 engines, the new Mustang offered a brand new, turbocharged 4-cylinder EcoBoost. This 2.3-liter unit produced 314 horsepower and had a lot of tuning potential. In addition, a larger 5.2-liter engine was introduced in the Shelby GT350. This high-performance unit developed 533 horsepower in its early versions and 771 horsepower in the later ones. The sixth-gen Mustang is available with a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic, which was later replaced with a 10-speed variant.
Ford Mustang – in short
Undoubtedly, Ford Mustang is one of the most significant American cars ever. Throughout its lengthy production run, it was often the best-selling sports vehicle in the world. And more importantly, it ushered the way for the whole new automotive sort – the muscle car. Without Mustang, we probably wouldn’t have its competitors like Dodge Challenger or Chevrolet Camaro, either. And that’s more than a compelling legacy, for sure.