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25 Years of Pony Rides : Baby Boomer Loyalty Helps Keep Ubiquitous Mustang Going Strong

Times Staff Writer

Monday was yet another watershed day in baby boomer history, a day sure to make every member of the Davy Crockett set feel ever so old.

The Mustang turned 25.

Perhaps the most influential and successful American car of the post-War era--with more than six million sold worldwide--the Mustang is still going strong. It remains today the best-selling car in its class.

So on Monday, Ford officials gathered in the ancient assembly plant here that turned out the first Mustangs in April, 1964--and which continues to stamp them out today--to celebrate a car that has become a cultural icon for a generation.

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To the strains of the ‘60s classic, “Mustang Sally,” Ford executives, led by chief designer Jack Telnack, rode through the Dearborn assembly plant in mint-condition early Mustangs. Later Telnack and other Mustang watchers talked about the impact the original “pony car” has had on Ford, and on America’s car culture.

“It was a great statement of American design and of American ingenuity,” Telnack says. “From day one the Mustang has created a wave of excitement few other cars can match.”

Indeed, the Mustang--introduced at the New York World’s Fair on April 17, 1964--has become one of the most beloved cars in American history, argues Michael Marsden, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who has worked with Ford on researching the car’s history.

Marsden says only three other cars--the Volkswagen Bug, the Chevrolet Corvette and the Model T Ford--have evoked the same kinds of deep emotional attachments from American car buyers as that first evoked by the Mustang in the spring of 1964.

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The Mustang became such a cultural phenomenon partly because of its timing; it was the first car designed specifically for the baby boomer generation. With a base price of just $2,368 at the time of its introduction, the Mustang virtually created a market for sporty cars that teen-agers and college kids could afford. It was the first pony car.

“It was a car that came along at the right time and for the right people,” Marsden says. “The first baby boomers were just turning 17 and 18 and were entering the car market. Ford recognized the demographic trends and came forward with a car that combined all the qualities they wanted. It was sporty, yet it had the luxuries their parents’ cars had, and it was affordable. It created a whole new class of cars.”

Despite the fact that it was really just a derivative of the old Ford Falcon--with better-looking sheet metal--the Mustang was an overnight success; right after its introduction, buyers lined up in showrooms all across America to see one.

Quickly, the Mustang became more than just another successful new product; like the VW Bug, it became a symbol of youthful freedom for a generation. So much so that its prime champion inside Ford--one Lido Anthony Iacocca--quickly found himself on the cover of Time Magazine and on the path to stardom.

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Staying Power

Yet perhaps the Mustang’s most remarkable achievement has been its staying power.

Although Ford hasn’t redesigned the car in a decade, it is still the best-selling sports car on the market, outpacing 30 other imported and domestic models in what analysts call the small specialty segment of the car market. In fact, with sales of 170,080 in 1988, the Mustang outsells the Pontiac Firebird and the Chevrolet Camaro--two other 60s holdovers--combined.

The Dearborn gathering Monday was one of several events held across the nation commemorating the Mustang. In Southern California, Mustang enthusiasts participated Sunday in a “Fabulous Fords Forever” car reunion at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park. Among those present was Ford Chairman Donald E. Petersen, who was a member of the original product planning team that brought the vehicle to market.

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No one has been more surprised by the Mustang’s continued success than Ford management.

Indeed, Ford has repeatedly planned to kill it off.

Ford executives, sure that the Mustang’s dated, rear-wheel-drive design couldn’t compete with the newer and fancier imports, have officially scheduled the Mustang’s demise several times. The car has frequently been dropped from the company’s internal product “cycle plan,” Ford’s master schedule of its new car development projects.

Ford was certain, for example, that its new Probe, a front-wheel-drive performance car built for Ford by Mazda in its U.S. plant, would kill off the market for the Mustang. As a result, Ford planned to cancel the current Mustang and put its name on the Probe instead.

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Intense Loyalty

But Ford hadn’t reckoned on the intense loyalty of Mustang owners and buyers. Aging baby boomers seeking to recapture their youthful glory have kept Mustang sales so strong in recent years that Ford officials have been forced not only to keep the car in the lineup, but to invest $200 million to modernize Ford’s Mustang production line here in Dearborn.

Now, Ford officials say, the Mustang is likely to stay in the Ford lineup at least through the early 1990s.

Marsden of Bowling Green is sure the Mustang won’t vanish anytime soon, at least not as long as there are baby boomers with enough money to buy a piece of their youth. After all, the Mustang’s passing would be a sign of their own mortality.

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“This was a car they grew up with,” Marsden says. “Now they are in middle age, and they are buying it again. They aren’t going to let it die.”


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