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From start, other muscle helped mold Mustang

| Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Of all of the notable cars and trucks that are arriving for the 2014 model year, there's one big arrival that's eagerly anticipated: the Ford Mustang, which turns 50 years old on April 17. Of course, what the 2015 Mustang will be like is Detroit's best-kept secret, just like when it first appeared.

The 1964 Mustang's birth came about as a result of the death of the two-seat Thunderbird in 1958. The resulting outcry from Ford Thunderbird fans continued for years — even as Thunderbird sales soared.

The two-seater was created to compete with Chevrolet's Corvette which, in turn, was created to compete with European sports cars, whose sales were growing in the 1950s.

By 1960, Detroit had reacted to rising foreign car sales by releasing low-priced compact cars. In this contest, Ford's thoroughly conventional Falcon trounced Chevy's unconventional, rear-engine, air-cooled Corvair.

But things changed in 1961, when Chevy added a four-speed manual gearbox to the sporty Corvair Monza. As a result, Monza sales leapt from 12,000 in 1960 to 143,000 in 1961. When the new Monza Spyder model was added for 1962, with its convertible body and 150-horsepower turbocharged engine, sales shot past 200,000.

Ford general manger Lee Iaccoca knew what had to be done, and 2 12 years later, the Ford Mustang hit the market. You know what happened next: Competitors sprang up, but only the Mustang has been built continuously since 1964.

Even so, there have been times when it seems as if Ford forgot what the Mustang was supposed to be.

First, the Mustang grew so large and heavy that by 1974, it went on a diet. Sharing its architecture with the Ford Pinto, the '74 Mustang lost its V-8 engine.

Things improved with the arrival of the modern, aerodynamic third-generation Mustang in 1979. While it did boast an unsophisticated solid rear axle and thirsty V-8, an efficient, powerful, turbocharged four-cylinder engine was offered in the 1984-86 SVO Mustang.

But at the same time, Ford executives considered slapping the Mustang name onto a front-wheel-drive Mazda. The Mustang faithful were furious; Ford renamed it the Probe.

Given Ford's nonchalance for its pony car, it should come as no surprise that when it came time to redesign the Mustang in 1994, it was done on a shoestring budget. Cleverly, Ford used styling reminiscent of the first pony car. The resulting sales boom ensured the car's survival.

Since then, Ford has beaten the Mustang's retro theme to death. No doubt designers will remain true to the Mustang's design heritage for 2015 but will dramatically modernize the look to make it more palatable to overseas markets, where the sixth-generation Mustang will be sold for the first time.

This explains why, in another first, all pony cars will have an independent rear suspension, which should noticeably improve handling. Also, don't be surprised if a turbocharged four-cylinder EcoBoost engine is offered — like the SVO Mustang — alongside six- and eight-cylinder models.

So this new car should have an international flair while remaining distinctly American.

Now you know.

Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. He can be reached at larry.printz@pilotonline.com.

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