The Evolution Of An American Icon
Any comparison between the 1965 Ford Mustang vs. 2023 Mustang is hard to do because the two cars are radically different. Early Mustangs are a far cry from their current counterparts. Changes in design, performance, technology, and safety highlight its evolution. Here are some primary ways these legendary pony cars have captured our deep respect and admiration.
When Lee Iacocca conceptualized a new sports car based on the early concept vehicle
Mustang 1, in 1962, there was a great deal of debate as to what the initial car should look like. Ford tasked its three design studios to develop a car that could emulate the look of European models, a rear-wheel drive with bucket seats, which could also be sold at less than $2,500.
The result would be a sleek hardtop coupe (and a convertible) with a front-end design that would appeal to younger buyers, particularly women. The entry-level Mustang was rushed into production (only 18 months from the design to the assembly line) and borrowed many components from the popular Falcon and Fairlane. While initial plans were for a production run of less than 100,000, Ford would build over a million within eighteen months.
Buoyed by its success, the early seventies saw the Ford Mustang grow fat (both in size and weight), and sales declined. Frustrated by the new larger model's inability to capture Americans' attention, the company pivoted in 1974 to produce a smaller Mustang. Pressured by intense import competition, burdened by an oil crisis that was killing consumer’s confidence in large V8s, the company introduced the Mustang II as a radical departure. While the third generation continued the boxy design pattern, in 1994, Ford recognized the need to streamline the body, but the car retained a rather dull pattern. In 2005, with the release of the fifth generation Mustang, the design returned to its retro styling cues that had set the Mustang apart for so many owners in the ‘60s.
The subsequent generations have seen the Mustang improve its styling with more aerodynamic lines, sharper body contours, and low, sleek profiles, as reflected in the 2023 Mustang. The car has a dynamic, athletic look, wide stance, and aggressive front end. Its overall shape is more linear (flatter) than the original, which has helped improve both its performance and its aesthetic.
Ford Mustangs used a variety of engines during their day, but when it was initially offered to the public in 1964, it offered customers their choice of a 2.8L inline six-cylinder engine and two V8 options (4.3L and 4.7L). It wasn’t long before Ford replaced the small inline-six with an upgraded 3.3L (200 ci) six-cylinder, generating 120 hp. The V8 engine options cost between $105 - $327, which increased the price to $2.500 for the base model. The Fastback Mustang models with the 289 V8 also included a dual exhaust system.
Ford kept the inline six until 1974, but then Ford introduced such iconic, powerful V8 engines as the Boss 302 and the Boss 427 (1969 - ‘70). Both high-performance engines were homologated so that they could be used for racing applications.
But Ford downsized in the mid-seventies with the advent of the second generation and the Mustang II. It offered the Mustang with a four-cylinder engine borrowed from the Ford Pinto (2.3L) with an option of a 2.8L V6 (borrowed from the Mercury Capri). A year later (1975), the 4.9L Windsor V8 (302 ci) was the only eight-cylinder power option. Ford would continue to use the four-cylinder engine until 1993 through the third generation Mustang with various other V6 and V8 options.
Over the years, Ford continued to develop its engines, dropping the engine oil cooler in 2011 - 2014 due to issues but bringing an improved version back in 2015. The development of the EcoBoost engine was introduced in 2015 as a turbocharged four-cylinder revolutionized the lineup. The new 2.3L Ecoboost four-cylinder produces 310 hp, a 3.7L V6 (300 hp), and a 5.0L Coyote V8. In 2017, the V6 was dropped, with the 5.0L and 5.2L V8 engines offered as options. Direct injection became a reality for the Coyote engine around that time. Other modifications during this generation included an independent rear suspension, improved braking, dual-direct injection, and enhanced safety features.
Today, the 2023 Ford Mustang has the turbocharged 2.3L Ecoboost engine as the base engine, with GT models motivated by a 450 hp V8. Speed has also progressed, with the original Mustang V8 clocking an 8.3 second 0 - 60 mph. The 2023 Mustang’s Ecoboost four, paired with a six-speed manual transmission, can do it in 5.1 seconds. (The high-performance V8 shaves that time to a healthy 4.4).
The original Mustang did not come with any of the standard safety features that consumers are used to today. Seat belts were not an option until 1965 (lap belts only as a dealer option), airbags were added in 1990 (passenger side airbags in ‘94), and ABS didn’t happen until 99. In its initial stages, little attention was given to the safety of motor vehicles in general. Still, a best-selling expose, Unsafe At Any Speed, The Design in Dangers of the American Automobile, revolutionized the industry. Not only did it lead to the Federal government mandating seat belts in 1968 and other new safety regulations, but it also made car companies committed to building safer cars.
Today, safety features are more driver-centric. From ESC to rear parking cameras to adaptive cruise control to lane keep assist and blind spot monitoring, the car informs the driver when unsafe conditions occur. Reinforced cockpits provide safe havens from severe collisions, and airbags surround passengers in a protective cocoon, guarding everything from side impacts to legs under the dash.
Ford offered a push-button AM radio in 1965 (power brakes, power steering, and air conditioning were also options). Ford installed its driver-assistance system SYNC in 2007, which allowed for hands-free calling, 911 assistance, and audio streaming, among other things. Later versions included navigation, Sirius satellite radio, and upgraded HD radio.
Today, SYNC is on its fourth generation, with much larger screens and more intuitive interfacing. Natural voice control, cloud-based navigation, and wireless Android Auto or Apple Carplay allow riders to stream music from their smartphones. (While the 2023 Mustang doesn’t include a wireless charging station on any model other than the Mach-E, the 2024 model does, along with Alexa as a personal assistant interface and Blue Cruise).
The escalating price tag is one of the most significant evolutions the Mustang has had over the years. A base model 1965 cost only $2.320 back then, but today, the MSRP is a whopping $29,145 for the base EcoBoost. A Fastback model would have cost you less than $3,000 in the sixties, but today, the Mach 1 is nearly $60k, and a GT500 is more than $75,000.
Over the years, the Mustang has seen its share of iconic moments on screen and in song. While most remember the 1965 car chase through the Swiss Alps between the 1965 Mustang and Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, the car has had other moments in the sun. 1n 1966, the song Mustang Sally told the story of a girl who preferred her new Mustang to her lover. Steve McQueen used the 1968 390 V8 Mustang to chase the bad guys in Bullitt. A Ford Mustang appeared in the 2000 Gone in Sixty Seconds remake, and the 2015 GT500 quickly appeared in the 2014 film The Need For Speed.