Playing from behind is not a familiar position for Ford.

The Mustang is the only pony car to maintain continuous production since the mid-1960s, said Edward Loh, editor in chief of auto enthusiasts magazine Motor Trend.

“It has dominated all of its rivals, from Camaro to Challenger, even foreign competition like the Celica Supra and Genesis Coupe,” he said.

In the process it has become the industry’s cover girl, making the face of Motor Trend 87 times over the last 50 years.

Ford tried to ignore the Camaro and sales concerns in sketching out the new Mustang, said Fields, the operations chief.

“Sales crowns are nice to have,” he said. “But it is more important to run a profitable business that has satisfied customers. We are out of the days of running an individual sales race.”

Although Ford’s top-selling F-series line of trucks account for far more profit, the Mustang “is the most iconic name in the Ford family,” said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto information company “The new model creates a buzz that will resonate across the entire brand.”

That so-called halo effect is important, but often misunderstood, said James D. Farley Jr., Ford’s executive vice president of global marketing, sales and service.

“People don’t walk into a dealer looking at a Mustang and walk out with a Fusion,” Farley said.

The effect is more subtle, he said, but no less vital to the automaker’s image, sales and profits.

“Every point in brand favorability is worth a couple of hundred dollars in the price of our cars,” Farley said.

That’s one reason why there was “no end of opinions” on what the new car should look like coming from management, dealers and enthusiasts, said Ford designer Joel Piaskowski.

Many debates focused on the front end, which blends a classic Mustang grill with the modern design language seen in other Fords, notably the Fusion sedan.

At one point the team considered offering two grill designs, one for the high-powered V-8 version and another for four- and six-cylinder models. Some grill designs were tossed because they didn’t “capture the essence of the Mustang and still look modern,” Piaskowski said.

Headlamps were another issue: An early design featuring smaller lights was scrapped after a panel of customers said they “didn’t feel Mustang enough.”

Boeckmann, the dealer, served on a Mustang product advisory committee that wrestled with the balance of classic and modern.

“The biggest concern was that it would start to look too European,” Boeckmann said. “I think they pulled back from that and got the best balance.”

PHOTOS: Mustangs through the years

The new model had to have what Piaskowski, the designer, called the three hallmarks of a Mustang: the shark nose, the tri-bar tail lamps and the fastback roof profile.

This will be the first Mustang with a push-button start. Paddle shifters are now standard.

Inside, there is a bit more interior room and trunk space.