Friday, August 10, 2018

Let's all pause for a moment and give the 10 millionth Mustang the moment of honor it deserves

Formation of cars celebrating the 10 millionth Ford Mustang
Photo: Ford Media Center
What can you say about a single American automotive model that forever changed the everyday car owner’s sense of what the driving experience can be, and that has now endured for more than half a century?

On Wednesday, Ford marked a major milestone in automotive history with the production of the 10 millionth Ford Mustang at the Flat Rock Assembly plant in Michigan. Just to reach that production number with one brand, now in its sixth generation, is a momentous achievement.

In homage to “Mustang #001,” the first serialized Mustang that rolled off the assembly line in 1964, the 10 millionth Mustang, like that legendary original, is a Wimbledon White convertible—but now powered by a 460 horsepower beast of an engine, before which the 164-horsepower original pales in comparison.

Even if you’re not particularly a Ford fan, even if there are other vehicles in the sports car, muscle car, or pony car categories that you would rather own, the Mustang at a minimum merits a certain level of respect with virtually any enthusiast—if nothing else, for its unique place in automotive history.

After so many decades of being able to virtually take it for granted as a near certainty that Mustangs in some form would always be around, it can be hard to go through the thought exercise of putting yourself in a 1964 frame of mind to realize what a stroke of genius—a simple kind of genius, but genius nonetheless—that creating the first Mustang really was.

American automotive manufacturers weren’t exactly known for creating sports cars. Yes, there was the Corvette, and there was the Thunderbird—both originally inspired by small British and European roadsters of the era.

But the Mustang—not quite a sports car in the same sense—created a new and uniquely American category. The simple stroke of genius was to start with a relatively nondescript platform—the Ford Falcon, an economical everyday commuter and grocery getter—and make it into something very different that could amp up the heart rate and inspire the imagination into a new category of driving experience.

A little more length in the hood, a little less length in the rear, a little less overall weight, and a little more horsepower from a simple cast-iron 289 cubic-inch V8—that’s all the innovation it took to carve out a new class of vehicle that became known as the Pony Car. Mustang was a bit too big to fit into the traditional sports car box. Yet it was smaller and nimbler than the muscle-car category that was also taking shape at the time.

Mustang was something new, yet the market’s response suggested that it was a phenomenon that was just waiting in the wings to happen, like the hidden shape in the block of marble gradually revealed through the painstaking effort of the sculptor’s chisel.

When Ford unveiled the Mustang, it was as if the culture—a culture in which a generation of youth-oriented baby boomers was just beginning to come of age and looking for new sensations—made one collective gasp of affirmation.

“Oh, yes! Of course. That! That’s what we’ve been waiting for. Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?”

The mere reality that Ford found itself unable to keep up with demand for the Mustang for the first few model years attests beyond doubt that Ford had stumbled over not only exactly the right car, but the right new category of car at just the right time.

Retrospectively, the launch of Mustang was a great example of a marketing principle that Steve Jobs would articulate many years later: sometimes, it's a mistake to let the market tell you what it wants. Sometimes, the market doesn't know what it wants until you show it to them. That's exactly what happened with Mustang. American consumers wanted that car—they just didn't know it until Ford unveiled the Mustang.

It’s hard to imagine a family of vehicles that could have meant more different things to more varied people over so many iterations and variations over the years, and yet all brought together under that common symbol of a pony taking air in the midst of a glorious gallop—a gallop into Mustang’s claim on its own unique slice of car culture.

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