The Ford Mustang Celebrates Its 56th Birthday — Here’s A Look Through Its Complete History

We've definitely seen some interesting twists and turns in the iconic pony car's bloodline

[Photos: Ford]

The Ford Mustang is one of the great all-American icons. The first example rolled off the assembly line on April 17, 1964. From the moment the first model hit the streets, the six generations that followed have drawn much love, and some disdain as well. But seeing as today is the car’s 56th birthday, let’s take a look at the history of what was in 2019 the best-selling sports car in the world. According to IHS Markit, Ford sold 102,090 Mustangs worldwide in 146 countries.

The original Mustang at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.

First generation: 1964 – 1973

From the beginning, the Mustang was a runaway hit for Ford. While the automaker originally forecast fewer than 100,000 sales in the first year, it blew past that estimate within the first three months. In the 1965 model year, Ford sold more than half a million examples in that first year alone. Within the first eighteen months, Ford built over a million Mustangs.

The original Mustang Boss 302.

The first generation continued into the early 1970s, with 1969 being a watershed year for new styling and performance upgrades. That year brought us names like Mach 1, Boss 302 (shown above) and Boss 429, all with large V-8 engines to flesh out the lineup beyond the base straight-six versions.

Ford again redesigned the Mustang in 1971, going for a bigger and heavier “luxury” type design. That was the last version of the first-generation model, and it was a far cry from the 1964 original, and slumping performance and sales demanded the company make a radical change.

The 1978 Ford Mustang II King Cobra looked cooler than most of its siblings.

Second generation: 1974 – 1978

This is definitely the era of Mustang that has fans and detractors alike divided. Many will exhale a long, exasperated sigh at the sight of the Mustang II (“Ugh, do we really have to talk about this one?”), while others credit the car as a symbol of the times and the generation responsible for keeping the Mustang alive long enough to see another generation, let alone four afterward.

Plus the marketing was simply, and there’s no sugar-coating this: brilliant. Check out this ad that Tommy pointed out to me only a couple weeks ago.

Put yourself in the shoes of a 1970s car shopper for a moment. If that didn’t sell you, I don’t know what will.

The 1973 oil crisis demanded smaller, more efficient cars, and Lee Iacocca — one of the driving hands behind the original Mustang and also the mastermind behind Chrysler’s K-cars — ordered a less thirsty Mustang in an attempt to get with the times. Results were mixed, to put it as diplomatically as possible, but Ford did sell 386,000 of them in 1974. Again, a sign of the times.

The third-generation Fox-body Mustangs were extremely popular, especially in their earlier years.

Third generation: 1979 – 1993

If you’re a Mustang enthusiast looking to get into the world and you’re on a budget, odds are you’re buying into the “Fox-body” generation. This car put the trials and tribulations of the Mustang II, although it did share its platform with more ordinary four-door sedans.

Still, the 5.0-liter V-8 engine (that’s the one you want if you’re looking into buying a classic one now) did manage to churn out more than the 1975 Mustang II’s breathtaking 83 horsepower by the end of its life in 1993. This generation also saw the turbocharged 2.3-liter Mustang SVO emerge in 1984, which you could reasonably argue was a spiritual predecessor to the EcoBoost Mustang we know today.

As we moved into the curvaceous era of automotive design, so too did the Mustang become larger and more rounded (and then didn’t, later in the decade).

Fourth generation: 1994 – 2004

Once more, the Mustang reversed the trend of the past by going bigger from the diminutive second-generation model. This generation was the first redesign in 15 years, and it rode on an updated Fox platform. The fourth generation completely dropped four-cylinder engines (not to return until the current generation in 2015), and brought in a 351 cubic inch V-8 in the 1995 Cobra R.

Later V-8 GT models used Ford’s 4.6-liter Modular engine, which served as the basis for the 5.0-liter Coyote we know today, as well as the 5.2-liter Voodoo V-8 in the Shelby GT350 and the Predator V-8 in the current GT500. For its mid-cycle refresh, the Mustang also adopted Ford’s “New Edge” design, which gave the coupe a more squared-off look than the earlier model shown above.

The fifth-generation Mustang took a more back to basics approach in the styling department, looking back to the 1960s.

Fifth generation: 2005-2014

This car was developed during the time when Ford was going retro with a host of its cars. The first-generation Ford GT harkened back to the 1960s, and so did this Mustang. Then-senior vice president of design J Mays referred to it as “retro-futurism”, and the car ditched the Fox platform for a new “D2C” platform instead.

Still, the Ford Mustang of this era was still an old-school pony car. Rear-wheel drive with a live rear axle, butch styling, and more power, it continued to push the mustang forward into the 2010s. At the end of its run, the Shelby GT500 pushed out a whopping 662 horsepower from its supercharged 5.4-liter Modular V-8.

The modern Ford Mustang is a major departure from its predecessor, but it’s the best-driving and most powerful generation yet.

Sixth generation: 2015 – present

Which brings us neatly to the present generation. Another platform — this time dubbed S550 — and drastically different styling. Many people, myself included, praised Ford for bringing a bit of the old-school styling with the fifth generation. Then Ford threw that out the window in 2015, going for something thoroughly modern and drastically different than what we’d seen before. They also ditched the old live axle rear suspension for an independent setup. In doing so, Ford transformed the Mustang from an old-school muscle car to more of a sports car.

You know what? Ford was onto something with this new design, and sales spiked upward immediately following its launch. The company gave the car a facelift in 2018, and along the way introduced the fantastically-named Voodoo flat-plane crank V-8 in the Shelby GT350. Beyond that, we now have the 760 horsepower Shelby GT500 with its supercharged Predator V-8, not to mention modern tires, suspension and a Tremec dual-clutch transmission that can actually handle that sort of power.

The Mustang’s had its ups and downs throughout its life, but the current generation is a great successor to the original, and its thunderous V-8 engine is a soundtrack that (hopefully) won’t fade away anytime soon. We may be at another “get with the times” crossroads with the Mustang Mach-E’s all-electric arrival. That said, we’ll see where the next fifty years takes us.

Happy 56th birthday, Ford Mustang — here’s to many long years ahead.