Some argue a collectible car must have been built in fairly small numbers to make it exclusive, and thus more desirable and valuable. So how do they explain why the 1965 Ford Mustang is such a popular collectible?
After all, it attracted a staggering 680,989 buyers after its early public introduction at the New York World’s Fair in April, 1964.
The 1965 Mustang set an all-time record for first-year sales of any new model. Today’s auto market is too fragmented with different types of cars for a single model to ever get the wildly enthusiastic reception of the first Ford Mustang in America.
The top-selling car in 2008, for instance, was the Toyota Camry, with 436,616 buyers.
Since its arrival, the Mustang has been a highly visible part of the American auto scene. Owners have former President Bill Clinton and baseball star Reggie Jackson to celebrities Jay Leno and Cher. Most likely, you’ve either owned a Mustang or know someone who did.
Americans had few foreign models from which to choose in the 1960s, so domestic autos ruled the market. Lee Iacocca, then the young, savvy head of Ford Motor’s Ford division, felt a sporty, inexpensive model would be hot because it would be youth-oriented and World War II baby boomers were getting their first driver’s licenses. Also, the 15-29 age group was expected to grow by almost 40 percent between 1960 and 1970.
Young drivers had been snapping up sporty bucket-seat versions of Chevrolet’s Corvair with its European-style rear-engine design. Iacocca felt that Ford — Chevrolet’s main rival — could beat the Corvair with a conventional front-engine sporty car, which would be more easily understood by most Americans.
The Mustang had the long-hood/short-rear-end design of post-World War II sports cars and initially was sold as a coupe and convertible and as a semi-fastback model with a fold-down rear seatback, added in September, 1964.
The first Mustang prototype was a small, low, slick mid-engine fiberglass body two-seater powered by a European Ford V-4 engine with 90 horsepower. Iacocca took one look at it and said it wasn’t what Ford wanted to make because it was too “far out” to be a volume model.
Additional prototypes were made, culminating in the larger four-seat, front-engine Mustang. “Now, that’s what we want,” Iacocca said with a grin.
Iacocca then shifted Ford Motor’s high-powered publicity and advertising machines into high gear. The automaker had a sneak photo of the Mustang taken March 11, 1964, and the picture was used by major publications. About 100 reporters got Mustangs for test drives near the car’s introduction date in hopes of getting good reviews.
There was no internet or cable television, so time was bought on the three television networks on the night of April 16 to showcase the car for nearly 30 million viewers. And more than 2,500 major newspapers contained announcements and reviews on April 17.
The Mustang made such a splash Iacocca was pictured with the car on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines. That development didn’t sit well with Henry Ford II because, after all, he was the chairman of the automaker.
But Henry couldn’t be unhappy about the fantastic reception of the Mustang, which had no serious competition until Chevrolet rushed to put its first Camaro into production for 1967 as a Mustang fighter. Corvair development was dropped because the Mustang buried it.
Despite styling that couldn’t be better for the masses at the time, there was nothing mechanically advanced about the 2,572-pound Mustang. It was based on Ford’s bland, reliable Falcon economy car, which Ford had introduced as strictly a “basic transportation” vehicle in 1960.
But so what? Using the Falcon let Ford avoid the enormous expense and time needed to develop a “ground-up” car. The Mustang used the Falcon’s simple construction and let Ford come up with a base Mustang price of only $2,368, when many cars began at more than $3,000.
The base 1965 Mustang had bucket front seats, a 101-horsepower six-cylinder engine and a three-speed manual transmission with a floor shifter.
A relatively new compact, lively 260-cubic-inch V-8 with 164 horsepower also was offered and soon was followed by a 289-cubic-inch version of that V-8 with 200, 225 and 271 horsepower. Both the 260 and 289 V-8s were so potent they were put in racer/car builder Carroll Shelby’s legendary Cobra sports cars.
A larger 120-horsepower Mustang six-cylinder was added, but buyers chose the V-8 by a three-to-one margin. You also could get a four-speed manual transmission or a three-speed automatic, both with floor shifters.
Besides the engine and transmission choices, the Mustang offered an option list that covered nearly every aspect of the car and was a major reason for its success and enormous profitability.
The Mustang could be tailored to individual buyers with the wide variety of options, and many buyers loaded it with extras. It was fairly easy to spend more than $4,000 for a Mustang, which made the car look as if it were printing money for Ford.
Dealers loved the 1965 Mustang because less than 10 percent were bought near the base price. Most had an average retail price around $2,800, and the majority were sold at or above full retail price.
The Mustang’s options included power steering, air conditioning, center console, deluxe steering wheel, push-button AM radio, rear-seat speaker, special wheel covers, tachometer and a clock. It could be ordered with a front bench seat with a center armrest instead of buckets, although few were.
Sexy option packages also were available, including the GT Package with front disc brakes, full instrumentation, driving lights and special identification. There also were a special Handling Group for V-8 models and an Instrument Group with gauges for fuel, water, oil pressure and amperes.
While the standard Mustang had a plain interior, with a cheap, Falcon-based instrument panel, a variety of interiors was offered. They included an Interior Decor Group with a five-dial instrument cluster, woodgrain appliques on the dashboard and door panels, simulated wood-rim steering wheel and unique duotone vinyl upholstery with a herd of running horses embossed on upper seatbacks.
The Mustang had a chameleonlike ability to assume different personalities. You could order a basic-transportation Mustang, a sporty one, a small luxury liner or a high-performance version.
“It is a sports car, a ‘gran turismo’ car, an economy car, a personal car, a rally car, a sprint car, a race car, a suburban car and even a luxury car,” Car Life magazine enthused with some degree of exaggeration.
The variety gave the first Mustang enormous appeal to both young and older buyers — although more than half of first-year buyers were under age 34. Women bought as many Mustangs as men.
The 1965 Mustang hardtop coupe drew 501,965 buyers, the convertible 101,945 and the fastback coupe 77,079.
While the general public was crazy about the Mustang, most auto experts greeted the car with qualified enthusiasm because they knew under its sexy body was a humble Ford Falcon. But they also knew performance equipment was available to turn it into a serious driver’s car.
Iacocca even told Carroll Shelby to build an affordable, modified, limited-production 1965 Mustang that could beat no less than Chevy Corvettes on race tracks. Shelby did just that, using the semi-fastback body.
Shelby’s Mustang “GT-350” had a modified 306-horsepower version of the 271-horsepower V-8 and such things as a revised suspension, quicker steering and special brakes. It was a “steal” at $4,547, although it was essentially a race car that wasn’t very comfortable for street driving. Still, 562 were built.
The 1965 Mustang was chosen as the pace car for the 1964 Indianapolis 500 race, and a Mustang convertible was used in the popular James Bond movie “Goldfinger,” alongside an exotic Aston Martin sports car.
The 1965 Mustang was the type of car that auto executives and dealers often dream about — “the right car for the right time.”
Dan Jedickla, the former automotive editor the Chicago Sun-Times, has been writing about the car industry for more than 40 years. To read more of his work, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.
Article Last Updated: May 31, 2013.
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A sports, travel and business journalist for more than 45 years, James has written the new car review column The Weekly Driver since 2004.
In addition to this site, James writes a Sunday automotive column for The San Jose Mercury and East Bay Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., and a monthly auto review column for Gulfshore Business, a magazine in Southwest Florida.
An author and contributor to many newspapers, magazines and online publications, James has co-hosted The Weekly Driver Podcast since 2017.