Celebrating America’s Pony Car: Six Decades of the Iconic Ford Mustang, and Counting

March 8th, 2024 by

A black 2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse is shown performing a burnout.

As we stretch into 2024, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers long for the days of the muscle car, those gas-guzzling, four-on-the-floor, big block V8s that dominated showroom floors, defiantly heavy and big on style. No vehicle embodied the muscle car era like the Ford Mustang. Launched at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, the Mustang triggered a buying frenzy. Ford estimates more than 420,000 Mustangs sold during the first calendar year the Mustang was available. A star was born, and the automotive industry quickly learned buyers craved a little glamour and style in their daily drivers.

Flash forward to today, where the internet age has ushered in a new era of high technology, leaving old-world styling and high-emissions cars in the rearview mirror. Still, some wisps of the past endure, namely the 2024 Ford Mustang. Earning a 9/10 rating from Car and Driver for its seventh-generation version, the 2024 ‘Stang still comes with an available manual transmission and a powerful V8 engine. Unlike the 1964 model, this version does so while simultaneously taming emissions and enveloping occupants in a state-of-the-art cabin protected by sensor-based safety technology.

Each end of the spectrum marks a significant design initiative and consumer-driven approach to features and style, but what about the sixty years in between? Over its seven generations, the Mustang has worn many hats, yet the iconic vehicle has held fast to its muscle car roots, stubbornly defying the industry’s push for more SUVs and nestling into a category of its own. Here’s a look back at America’s original pony car that started a muscle car revolution.

The Sixties and Seventies

Ford sold its one-millionth Mustang in 1966, a feat accomplished in a mere two years after its launch. The new pony car was a favorite among young buyers for its stylish exterior and affordable price tag. Women especially favored the Mustang, with Ford reporting nearly half of buyers were female. The Mustang was offered in several body styles, including a hardtop, a convertible, and a fastback with a slanted rear window. Most buyers opted for the more powerful V8 engine and a set of classic whitewalls.

A decade later, in 1974, Ford launched the second-generation Mustang. By this time, legendary automotive executive Lee Iacocca was at the helm as Ford’s president. After years of growing in size and weight, the Mustang would undergo a series of not-so-big changes. Under his guidance, the Mustang shrank and received a new name: the Mustang II. His timing was prescient since fuel prices spiked during the 1973 oil crisis, and many gas stations ran out of fuel, leading to long lines and scores of stranded drivers. Along with a shrinking footprint came new requirements for safety and emissions, which reduced the Mustang’s performance ratings and rendered the pony car more of a practical, vanilla option. Ford added trims like the Mach 1 to retain performance buyers, but the downsizing continued.

The third-generation Mustang, also known as the Fox body, hit dealerships in 1979 and was slightly larger than its predecessor. Offered as a two-door coupe, a hatchback, and later a convertible, the third-generation ‘Stang came with multiple engine options, including a 4.9L, 302 cu. in. V8. During its third generation, Ford reintroduced the Mustang GT and celebrated the pony car’s 20th anniversary by launching a limited-release GT350 version with a distinctive cherry red interior and white exterior paint. Overall, the seventies saw a stark departure from the original Mustang’s design and purpose, but it remained a popular pony car.

A red 1965 Ford Mustang is shown angled left.

The Eighties and Nineties

Continuing on the Fox platform, the Mustang trudged along through a series of minor changes in the early and mid-eighties. Engine tweaks and small design updates ensured the Mustang remained a solid performer. It wasn’t until 1987, when Ford redesigned the Mustang with a new front end, a completely revised interior, and a polarized powertrain choice between the fuel-efficient LX trim and the go-fast V8 Mustang GT, that the Mustang regained its footing as a unique alternative to the more sedate coupes on offer.

The ’87 Mustang GT offered 225 hp and body trim that gave it a stealthy curb appeal. In 1988, Ford refined the Mustang GT further, tweaking the engine to a steady 205 hp and backing down from its high-style cladding to more closely resemble the economical LX. For the 1993 model year, Ford engineers injected the lineup with a much-needed dose of adrenaline: the SVT Cobra. Featuring a 235 hp V8 and a performance-tuned suspension, production was limited to only 5,000 vehicles. The SVT Cobra R, a tricked-out track-ready version of the Mustang, sold only 107 units.

Then came the nineties and a generation of reconnection with the Mustang’s muscle car roots. The newest version more closely resembled the original model. It still rode on the Fox platform, albeit a stiffer and larger version, with multiple powertrains available. The Mustang’s versatility drew buyers from a wide range of demographics, from economy shoppers to commuters, as well as those seeking a performance coupe with V8 output. Among the Mustang trims offered was the go-fast SVT Cobra, the first-ever Mustang outfitted with an independent rear suspension.

The New Millennium

Competition continued to dwindle in the performance coupe segment, thanks to a glut of SUVs flooding the market in response to consumer demand. Sport utility-loving drivers eschewed the sedan and coupe for a raised driving position and cavernous passenger and cargo space. Chevy quietly retired the Camaro, leaving the Mustang to anchor Ford’s lineup as one of the only remaining American sports coupes. In the early 2000s, Ford launched a new retro-styled version of the Mustang. Boxy and aggressive, it looked like a modern version of the original. High-end versions boasted a powerful 300 hp V8, a feature that breathed new life into the beleaguered coupe category.

Ford launched a revitalized fifth-generation Mustang in 2010 in response to Chevy’s all-new Camaro. By 2011, the Mustang offered powertrains capable of up to 412 ponies. By 2012, output increased to 444 hp. The game was on, and the beneficiary was the performance-seeking sports car buyer. For its 50th anniversary, the Mustang featured an independent rear suspension across all models, much to automotive journalists’ delight. Three powertrains were available: a 300-hp V6, a 310-hp turbocharged I-4, and a 435-hp V8.

Earlier versions of the Shelby Cobra were selling for millions in the auction circuit, and Ford recognized the correlation with its customer base. Hardcore Mustang aficionados would happily “pony” up for a modern Shelby Cobra Mustang. The impressive 2007 Shelby GT500 wowed buyers with its 500-hp 5.4L V8, a supercharged powerplant that unapologetically prioritized speed. The Shelby GT500 received 40 additional hp in 2010 and an all-aluminum engine in 2011, increasing output even more.

It wasn’t until 2013 that the Mustang lineup pushed the envelope to the extreme. The newest GT500 took hp to the stratosphere, offering the track-ready Mustang with 663 hp and a top speed of 200 mph. By 2020, that number increased to 760 hp thanks to a refined, supercharged 5.2L V8. The new 2024 Ford Mustang, completely redesigned, promises to continue the pony car tradition of offering big V8 motors paired with traditional manual transmissions, a plan that resonates with a surprisingly large number of buyers.

A person is shown pointing a key fob at the hood of a red 2024 Ford Mustang.

What’s Next for the Iconic Mustang

According to Car and Driver, the newest Mustang is worthy of its prestigious Editor’s Choice list. Buyers can opt for an available Performance Pack that adds several track-worthy features, such as Brembo brakes and a suspension with active dampening. The aggressive Mustang Dark Horse will wear special 19-inch Pirelli summer-only tires for maximum grip and draw its power from a Coyote V8 capable of 500 hp.

Commuters who could do without a boring sedan or tiny SUV will appreciate the Mustang’s entry trim, which features a fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine that gets 22 MPG in the city and 33 MPG on the highway. All Mustang cockpits favor driver-centric ergonomics in a configuration labeled “fighter-jet inspired” by Ford. Buyers can opt for an oversized 13.2-inch infotainment touchscreen with easy Apple CarPlay and Android Auto Connectivity.

Do you yearn for the original, first-generation Mustang? Ford’s betting big that this newest version will carry on the six-decade tradition, offering true pony car performance in a stylish coupe that blends the best of old-world style and panache with practical features that will make it a joy to drive.

Posted in 2024 Ford Mustang