Iacocca’s Little Secret for Ford

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Iacocca’s Little Secret for Ford

By Randal C. Hill

The debut of the Ford Mustang—named after the famed WWII P-51 Mustang fighter plane—took place at the New York World’s Fair on April 17, 1964. That same day, 22,000 people (undoubtedly fueled by ads on all three TV networks and in 2,900 newspapers) bolted to their local dealers to secure a shiny new 1964½ Mustang for themselves. The car became such an overnight hit that a New York diner posted a sign in its window that read “OUR HOTCAKES ARE SELLING LIKE MUSTANGS!” 

Iacocca’s Influence on Ford

By the early 1960s, a young Princeton-educated Ford executive named Lee Iacocca had become the head of the product-development division and supervised a 20-person market-research group with its eyes fixed on the prize. “We have experts who watch for every change in the customer’s pulse-beat,” Iacocca explained, “For a long time now, we have been aware that an unprecedented youth boom was in the making.”   

It was obvious to Iacocca that Ford needed to offer a “youth car”—something stylish yet affordable—aimed squarely at the upcoming generation that longed to own a car that was different from that of their parents. It was almost as if Baby Boomers were saying, “Please, we don’t want another ho-hum four-door sedan. Give us something exciting! Something unique! Something for us!”  

Lee Iacocca sitting in an original Ford Mustang.
Lee Iacocca sitting in an original Ford Mustang

The Mustang’s style had been influenced by low-slung British roadsters such as the MGB and the Sunbeam Alpine, and Ford’s product offered a comparable elongated hood and a chopped rear deck. The Mustang could seat a family of four (okay, so it offered only a token back seat) and it was affordable, priced at $2,368 for the basic models. To lower costs, Mustangs were built on the same platform as Ford’s boring old Falcon, which lent its engine to the new vehicle. Customers could choose from a list of 50 different options.  

Mustangs graced the covers of Newsweek and Time. Assembly plants ran 24-hour shifts and still couldn’t keep up with the demand. By 1966, 1 million Mustangs had found their way into the garages of enchanted owners. Not since the 1928 Model A had Ford hammered such a home run in terms of sales.  

Yet for a long time, Iacocca kept silent about something: The Mustang couldn’t be too idiosyncratic. “The American public doesn’t [really want] a sports car,” he said. “It wants one that looks like a sports car.”  

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