The Strange Journey That Led To The Original Ford Mustang

The Ford Mustang is one of those cars that's so iconic and familiar that seeing it going through its larval forms is a strange mix of disturbing and compelling. No one cares about the odd, unchosen directions the Daewoo Nubira had, but for the Mustang, each developmental stage is like seeing an alternate history of America.

The early development of the Mustang was, in some ways, not what you'd expect at all. The car itself helped define a whole category of car, some powerfully appealing mix of personal car and muscle car and sports car that we'd come to call a pony car. Something that defines an arguably new class (or at least sub-class) of car is bound to have an interesting genesis, and the Mustang certainly does.

The Strange Journey That Led To The Original Ford Mustang

Maybe the weirdest (I know the word "weird" has been sort of appropriated by the anti-belly fat lobby on the internet, but bear with me) part of the Mustang origin story has to do with its absolute beginning, in the form of a car that is radically unlike what the Mustang would become, but nevertheless defined the name and gave the eventual actual Mustang one of its most enduring design features.

The Strange Journey That Led To The Original Ford Mustang

That Ur-Mustang was the Mustang I concept car, a small two-seater sports car with, get this, a mid-mounted V4. The car was proposed by, among others, Lee Iacocca, who wanted a new sports car with a novel layout to compete with, of all cars, the Corvair Monza.

The Strange Journey That Led To The Original Ford Mustang

The resulting car was a striking and purposeful-looking small sports car with wedgy profile and an interesting roll hoop behind the driver. The 1500cc 109 HP V4 was cooled via twin radiators, one on each side of the car, which scooped in cooling air via a pair of vents on the sides of the car. The design of these vents carried over, in non-functional, purely decorative form, to the final Mustang design, and became one of the classic Mustang's most defining traits. Even if they make no sense at all on most Mustangs.

The Mustang name, of course, was born with this car, allegedly because aviation enthusiast and Ford Executive Stylist John Najjar Ferzely felt the car resembled a P-51 Mustang airplane. An alternate name-origin story suggests that designer Philip Clark came up with it in reference to the wild horses he saw on a cross-country trip.

The horse angle, as opposed to the plane angle, is the one that stuck in the end, but more on that later. First, it's worth exploring how a car that more closely resembled a Porsche 914 or Toyota MR2 ended up as the far more conventionally-engineered front engine/rear drive/live axle Mustang we all know and love. The answer is, like all good answers, found in the back seat.

Specifically, the Mustang I concept had no back seat options, because the engine was taking up that seat. Ford found that their two-seat Thunderbird just wasn't selling well, and didn't want to put the new Mustang in the same position, so they mandated the car must be able to seat four. For the era, the resulting design was probably closer to a 2+2, as early 60s American back seats were usually vast expanses of padded vinyl, but the seat was really quite usable.

Also informing the conventional layout was cost. The car was sometimes thought of as a "poor man's Thunderbird" and to be able to be that, poor men needed to be able to buy it. To keep costs down, the new Mustang would be built with chassis and drivetrain parts of Ford's compact Falcon and Fairlane.

Once the platform was decided, there was an open competition held among all the Ford design divisions to find the right look for the car, starting in 1961. There were lots of great and radically different design ideas, each given their own distinct names, including weird names like Avventura and names they couldn't use for obvious reasons like Avanti.

The Strange Journey That Led To The Original Ford Mustang

I really like this Avventura concept (though badged as an Allegro here). This one was pretty forward-looking in its use of a fastback/hatchback design, and maintained a really strong connection with Ford design of the era with its round jet-exhaust taillights. But what makes it really amazing is the proposed rear-facing rear seat concept, which I firmly believe should be revisited in more cars today than just the Tesla Model S.

The Strange Journey That Led To The Original Ford Mustang

By September of 1962, they still hadn't really settled on a design, so a new design competition was held. In this round, Gale Halderman, part of Joe Oros' design studio at Ford, created this sketch, which is remarkably close to how the final product turned out.

The Strange Journey That Led To The Original Ford Mustang

Halderman's concept was named Cougar, and this name came close to becoming the final car's name. In fact, it did become the name of the Mustang's Mercury-badged brother, so those of you who really love cats over horses should feel at least a little vindicated.

The models and prototypes built from Halderman's designs are especially fascinating because of just how close to the final Mustang they really are, making all the differences even more pronounced.

The Strange Journey That Led To The Original Ford Mustang

Not the least of these differences has to do with the animal set in the grille. The Cougar-badged ones are pretty fascinating, and it's hard to argue that that cougar doesn't look pretty good there. Eventually, the sheer American-ness of a nice hot-dog-eating, cowboy-loving wild Mustang won the day, and it was decided. As one of the name researchers said, "Mustang" won

"because it had the excitement of the wide open spaces and was American as all hell."

Even then, though, how that horse should look remained a big question.

The Strange Journey That Led To The Original Ford Mustang

There were experiments with a very chess-piece looking horse-head badge, which looks really, really odd to me, but the final winner was from a mahogany sculpture made by sculptor Charles Keresztes. And even after the look of the running horse was decided, the direction it should be facing proved a tricky decision as well. Some felt the horse should face right, the way people were used to seeing horses run on tracks, but, as MustangsDaily reports:

Ultimately, Lee Iacocca said "the Mustang is a wild horse, not a domesticated racer" and designer Gene Halderman felt the pony should always face left, the way Phil Clark had almost exclusively drawn it.

The Strange Journey That Led To The Original Ford Mustang

There was also the idea that the left-running horse implied the horse was running West, which we all know is the most American direction to run. Seeing the opposite-facing horse is strangely unsettling, I have to admit.\

The Strange Journey That Led To The Original Ford Mustang

The Mustang look was basically decided, and contained all the elements we still expect from Mustangs today: long hood/short deck proportions, some manner of side vent or intaglio detailing, segmented taillights, and a big horse in the grille. Even so, there were many interesting minor variants on these early prototypes, including some great-looking oval European headlights. Too bad the US was stuck with only one approved kind of basic round light at the time.

The Strange Journey That Led To The Original Ford Mustang

Before the Mustang design was shown to the public, the car was teased by turning one of the prototypes into the Mustang II concept car, shown in October 1963. This strikes me as odd for two reasons:

First, I normally think of concept cars as coming before the eventual production cars they inspire. The idea of a pre-production car being made more exotic and becoming a concept seems like the exact opposite of how the process usually appears to happen — a concept gets made more mundane and turns into a production car.

The Strange Journey That Led To The Original Ford Mustang

Also, the fact that the name "Mustang II" is used for both a more radical concept car based on the original Mustang and also the sad, underpowered, re-bodied Pinto that was the Mustang II of the gas-crunch 70s is a nice bit of irony. Or something like irony.

The Mustang is a fascinating study of automotive design, and a great lesson in just how successful a relatively simple design can be when it comes at just the right time. I'm really curious to see what the 2015 Mustang proves to be — my money's on a right-facing horse.