Curbside Classic: 1965 Mustang – Freedom; Starting At $2368

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(In commemoration of the Mustang’s 50th birthday, we’ll have some posts on that subject this week. Portions of this article have appeared before)    Freedom. Does any other word better sum up the aspirations of the sixties? Well, not everyone could drop out and move to Greenwich Village, Haight Ashbury, or hop into the hot tubs at Esalen. Somebody had to stay home and keep the lights on in the split-level houses across suburban America. But the aspiration to break free from certain societal constraints and live just a little on the wild side infected America like a virus, one that swept the land hand-in-hand with Beatlemania.

It hit Elaine Diggs in Towson, Maryland in the fall of 1965. I had watched her get into her dull and dreary hand-me-down 1962 Biscayne six four-door sedan across the street from us every morning, wearing very modest long skirts and a prim haircut, driving off to her secretarial job, looking like a younger version of her uptight mother. But then one day she drove home in a brand new Mustang six coupe, and within weeks, her skirts got shorter and her hair longer. Three months later, she moved out, into an apartment with two other young working girls. I’d see her in town from time to time, sometimes with a boyfriend, riding in her Mustang and smiling. And then I heard she went back to school, and became an art teacher. No, Elaine didn’t end up on a commune in Mendocino, but her life changed like so many others at the time, and the Mustang played a role in that.

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Does any other image convey freedom better than a wild mustang running free? The symbols of the ’58 Thunderbird and the ’65 Mustang are perfect reflections of the profound societal changes that took place in the seven years between them.

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Flying, even the T-Bird way, is intrinsically exclusive. But running free with your mane trailing in the wind? Now that was a truly democratic and affordable dream, just like the Mustang. The Thunderbird was an aspirational car, the Mustang was an attainable one.

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The Mustang was the first baby-boomer mobile. Even if they were too young to buy them, the boomers’ influence on the market and their parents was undeniable. Youth and freedom were now the predominant cultural themes, and Lee Iacocca had the brilliant solution to bank it. The Mustang was the breakthrough of style and image over function, at a bare bones price any secretary could afford. And although its time at the top of the pop hits chart was rather brief, its influence was enormous. The Mustang became an icon of American culture globally, and changed the word’s automobile market permanently. Youthful freedom and sportiness, genuine or imagined, seemed to lack borders or a sell-by date.

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Conceptually, the Mustang had two significant sources of inspiration: the first was Ford’s own  ’55-’57 two-seat T-Bird. Ford had a hard time letting go of the sports car theme, and played with various concepts ever since the ’58 Thunderbird sprouted a rear seat and a paunch.

Corvair super monza 1960

Although Ford continued to dabble with the idea of an updated two passenger sports car to revive the spirit of the original T-Bird, it was Chevrolet that created the catalyst for the Mustang, and practically by accident. The original 1960 Corvair was a stripped econo-car, devoid of any overt flair, luxury or sportiness. At the January 1960 Chicago Auto show, Chevrolet brought a last-minute addition, a customized Corvair coupe that Bill Mitchell had built for his daughter, including bucket seats and a four speed stick. The “Super Monza’ was an outsized hit with the attendees, and a production Monza coupe was rushed into production by May of 1960.

Corvair 1960 Monza 6

The Monza coupe was a truly a revolutionary car, never mind its rear engine. It re-defined the whole concept of a compact, affordable sporty car with some luxury touches and genuine flair. And sales of the Monza exploded in 1961, as it became the best selling Corvair version, and propelled the Corvair to its best-ever year in 1962, when well over 200k Monzas were sold. This was simply unprecedented in the US market, and was the key pivotal shift that begot the pony cars as well as began the long decline of full-size coupes as market leaders. (Full 1960.5 Monza CC here)

Ford Falcon Futura 1961 ad

Although Ford’s 1960 Falcon dominated the sales of bread-and-butter compacts, the Monza’s success caught Ford (and the rest of the industry) totally off guard. No one had anticipated that a well-dressed compact with bucket seats could make such in impact. The result was Ford’s 1961 Futura coupe, which followed the Monza playbook very closely, although it lacked its sporty driving character. And everyone else rushed out high-trimmed bucket-seated versions of their compacts in 1961. It’s important to note that in 1961, bucket seats were almost unheard of in American cars except for a very few high-end cars. One could not buy a 1961 Impala, for instance, with bucket seat; even the SS model. It all started with the Monza.

The internal debate at Ford was between a two-passenger sport car, or a four passenger coupe. Budd, who had supplied the body for the two-seat ‘Birds, pushed a Falcon based update, the XT-Bird, using some of the old body dies. Wisely, Ford forged ahead with the goal to create a fresh, youthful and affordable sporty car, but with four seats. The Monza had made that decision inevitable.

Mustang Allegro

The process that got them there, Project Allegro, resulted in some intriguing prototypes.

Mustang I

And of course, there was the two-seat mid-engine Mustang I (CC here). What its purpose was in incubating the final Mustang is a little vague, given how far it strayed from the definitive configuration. But it generated buzz and got the Mustang name imprinted.

Mustang II prototype

But the 1963 Mustang II (above) was the real thing, almost. It gave a clear indication what Joe Oros’ styling crew was up to, minus the chopped top (like every concept ever) and pointed front end.

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What really made the Mustang feasible, and madly profitable, was the Falcon, both seen here with Lee Iacocca and Donald Frey, who headed the Mustang development team. The Falcon’s dubious underpinnings were lent to a raft of compact and mid-sized Ford products (Falcon platform history here), thanks to its many virtues like low cost and…low cost. But the resulting Mustang’s rock-bottom price was revolutionary, and had an explosive effect. A six cylinder coupe like this one was priced at $2368 ($17,500 adjusted), all of $47 more than a Falcon six coupe. In dollars per inches of hood length, it was a steal.

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In the Corvair Monza’s best year, 1962, Chevy sold some 140k of the pioneering bucket-seat coupes. Although Ford hoped to do a bit better than that, actual demand exceeded supply by a 15-to-1 ratio. Almost 700k Mustangs were sold in its extended first model year. Nothing like it has ever happened before; the automotive equivalent of the Beatles. If you were alive then, you’ll never forget the Mustang mania that swept the land. If you weren’t, I can’t do it justice with words. You either experienced the sixties, or didn’t.

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If not, you might be tempted to think of first generation Mustang dynamic qualities in terms of its current iteration, or the mythical Shelby GT. Don’t, because it really wasn’t very sporty at all, unless you were among the few to check all the right (expensive) options, or shelled out for the Shelby. Think Falcon, with a long nose and a lower seating position. Maybe a touch better. In Gene Bordinat’s own words: “the Mustang was a secretary’s car”. And every secretary had one or was waiting in line for one.

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I can’t find the production breakouts, but I’m going to guess that close to half of ’65 Mustangs came with the six. Reality check: 101 (gross, about 88 net) hp from the 170 CI (2.8 liter) wheezer, if your Mustang six was built before 9/24/64. Those that held out, or were forced to wait ‘till after that date were rewarded with its 120 hp 200 CI (3.3 liter) successor. Teamed with the automatic, it was a cruel abuse of the term “sporty”. The sole exception to six malaise was the 200 with the optional four speed stick and manual steering. That combination, ideally with a set of aftermarket Michelin or Pirelli radials and a quartet of Koni shocks, yielded a distinctly continental flavor and actually handled, unlike the the more under-steering front-heavy V8.

This car is obviously a six from the tell-tale four-bolt wheels. There are actually some very redeeming features about these six-banger Mustangs, the biggest one being that they’re still out on the streets and in decent shape. Most V8s are either restored or retro-rods tucked in their garages, or the abused victims of various ill-advised and under-funded hot rodding attempts and now rotting away in a side yard. Except for the V8 coupe in some of the shots here, the only gen1 Mustangs still at work on the streets of Eugene are several of these sixes, and all in a similar state to this one: essentially original and reasonably well cared for, if not exactly pampered. And not insignificantly, they’re all sticks.

 Ford Falcon six-engine

Mustang sixes had a cult tuning following, from the get-go. I remember as a kid reading a contemporary account of the legendary Ak Miller modifying one to ever hotter stages; the final version had four SU or Keihin side-draft carbs and pulled some 200 horsepower on the dyno. I’ve always had a fascination with inline sixes and the tuners that purposely set themselves the challenges of its limitations. Today, on the pages of, all manner of collective knowledge on uncorking power out of these fairly rugged mills is on tap. There’s even a new custom made aluminum cylinder head that has the potential to generate 350 ponies from a normally aspirated small-block six.

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Of course, it was the ready availability of V8 power that really cemented the Mustang’s image, even if not all bought in on it. Just like the early production Mustang sixes still came with the 170 engine, so did the V8s come with the 164 hp 260 CID version of the “Windsor” engine.

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These are getting hard to find anymore, but here’s one I spotted in the Bay Area.

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Let’s just say the popular base 200 hp 289 CI (4.7 liter) mill made the Mustang reasonably peppy, even with the all-too typical Cruise-O-Matic. But the heavier V8 and automatic combo most likely meant power steering; well, by then you might as well have been driving a Fairlane. Never mind the crappy little drum brakes. Sure, the hi-po 289, heavy duty suspension and brakes were all available, but were none too common with the primary target Mustang clientele. The freedom to go fast wasn’t free, or even cheap.

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The 289 coupe has the more desirable stick, presumably the four-speed. With a four barrel, and maybe with some aftermarket speed parts, now one had a pretty quick car in hand, even if stopping it wasn’t going to be all that reassuring. But who cared about that back then? Freedom was all about forward motion.

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Mustang mania lasted about as long as Beatlemania; by 1969, sales had crumpled by 50%; and by 1973, barely 130k of the swollen draft horses were sold. Until it found new purpose and rejuvenation in its Fox-body reincarnation, the Mustang muddled along under the weight of the seventies like so much of  sixties’ exuberance.

So was the Mustang’s brief and glorious revolution anymore lasting than the SDS or Tim Leary? It single-handedly created a lasting genre that is still around today, even if in smaller numbers. More importantly, sedans never again had the same prominence post Mustang fever, at least not until the modern Camcordia era. Credit the overwhelming success of the “stylish” Olds Cutlass coupe during the late seventies and early eighties to ex-Mustang buyers. By then they just needed a bit more room for their growing waistline, and that padded vinyl landau roof was just the latest suburban mania. Anyway, relating to the image of a galloping wild horse was just harder to do after a long day at work and the longer commute home; the Cutlass coupe was comfort food to the Mustang’s lean horse-meat chops.

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There will never be another ’65 Mustang for the same reason there will never be another Beatles. We’ve fragmented into way too many niches: your galloping wild mustang is now my political cause. Freedom has become a loaded word. And it’s neither quite as democratic nor as affordable as it once used to be. Or at least appeared to be.