Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Muscle Cars: the GTO and the Mustang

My cousin Fred Schroth bought a 1964 new from Great Lakes Motors in Buffalo, New York. It had a white interior and was Midnight Blue. It had different whiles from that of the car pictured, and Red line tires.

During a transitional period between 1962 and 1973, the muscle car emerged as a dominant icon in car culture America. Yet in reality, for every Chevy 409 or Camaro of the period, there were ten cheaply-constructed Chevy IIs or four-door Biscaynes driven by blue-collar workers who were more prosperous than ever, yet still at the lower end of the multidivisional marketing spectrum.
            As a series of high horsepower, high fuel consumption vehicles competed for the young man’s segment of the market – the Chevy 409; Pontiac GTO; Olds 4-4-2, Plymouth Barracuda, Roadrunner, and Challenger; Shelby Mustang – were all high profile automobiles of that era.
            Of all the makes and models from the 1960s, two models stand out – the Pontiac GTO and the Ford Mustang. It took Detroit market analysts and auto executives nearly a decade after Chuck Berry and Elvis to figure out that the same youth market responsible for 45 RPM records and rock and roll could also stimulate automobile sales if the product was made properly and also attractive. At Pontiac, the key figures were “Bunkie” Knudsen, Pete Estes, and especially John Z. De Lorean.34 In 1956, Knudsen inherited a product line that was languishing, and through his leadership and vision it was revitalized by 1959 as an automobile that exhibited the “wide track look.” Knudsen moved up the organizational ladder at GM in 1961, leaving Estes and De Lorean at the reins of the Pontiac division. It was market savvy and engineering prowess that contributed to the upgrading of the lowly Tempest in 1963 to a larger vehicle named the Le Mans. With a 326 cubic inch V-8 engine, the juiced-up and redesigned Tempest was only one big step away from the remarkable high-performance GTO of 1964. With a standard 325 horsepower engine, optional tri-power performance, and a Hurst 4-speed, this light, fast, and inexpensive car resulted in a thrill with every ride.35 Although GM executives with offices on the 14th floor were taken by surprise, the success of the GTO was hardly surprising given the large number of young people with money in their pockets who were looking for excitement. Thus, the relatively inexpensive ($3,200) GTO was a hit from the beginning, with sales of 31, 000 in 1964, 64,000 in 1965, and 84,000 in 1966. And advertising contributed to the GTO’s success:  the car was depicted as a tiger, with “tiger paws” for tires. According to one advertisement, by driving a GTO could you distinguish the “tiger” from a “pussycat?”
Even today the GTO remains synonymous with American muscle, even when it was  remade between 2004 and 2006 in Australia.  The Mustang, however, is purely American, and its long run as the iconic sporty, sometimes muscle car continues to this day, despite the inevitable ups and downs since its introduction in the fall of 1964.  It is truly an egalitarian, classless vehicle, as well, appropriate to the American scene; both a corporation CEO and a blue collar stiff can drive a Mustang GT, and respect each other for doing so.  There is no snob appeal among Mustang owners, at least not GT and performance grade (Shelby) followers. While the  iconic Mustang remains the 1965 with a 289 cubic inch V-8,  with each and every year to 1973 the Mustang became heavier, more ornamental, and bulkier-looking, although big block engines compensated for the weight.  Essentially, within less than a decade, it became a “fat pig.”
Lee Iacocca is often given credit for the marketing insights that led to the Ford Mustang, yet, as Iacocca recounts in his autobiography, the Mustang story was far more complex than simply tracing it to the genius of one executive.[endnote] The idea behind the car was conceived by Gene Bordinat, Ford’s Vice President of design, and Don De La Rossa Ford’s chief of advanced design. Yet, Iaccocca will always be known as the father of the Mustang.
On April 13, 1964, the Mustang was born, unveiled by Lee Iacocca to the international press at the New York World’s Fair.  It was an event described by one journalist as “the most sensational introduction of modern times.” Car and Driver proclaimed that the Mustang was “the best thing to come out of Dearborn since the 1932 V-8 Model B Roadster.”  Named after the P-51 fighter, and not the wild horse, it became an instant success with an American public increasingly obsessed with things associated with youth.  Within two weeks of its debut 22,000 units were sold, and by 1966 sales totaled over 1 million. 
One key to the Mustang’s popularity was its possibilities by adding otpions to supposedly reflect an owner’s personality.  The culmination of the strategies first formulated by Ford’s Lewis Crusoe in the 1950s, an array of accessories enabled Lee Iacocca and Ford marketing to take a car that was based on the stogy Ford Falcon and dress it up in a way unprecedented in the automobile industry. A customer could purchase one of seven 1965 Mustang models, including a coupe, convertible, fastback and GT-350 fastback.  The first three came with either an inline 6 or a V-8 engine. The Mustang’s price range started at $2,368 for a “sweet six cylinder,” and peaked at $4,547 for the GT-350.  Iacocca “took a basic car and added bells and whistles … quick and easy options that not only added to the car’s appeal but put profit in both the dealer’s and the manufacturer’s pockets.”
The success of the Mustang was the result of more than just a product that was precisely what consumers wanted.  It was advertised heavily after launch, as it was featured in over 2600 newspapers and 24 magazines, as well as the chief sponsor of three television shows.  Before long, every American household was aware of the new car.  And by Christmas of 1964 the Mustang was a popular toy.  Such was the Mustang Pedal Car, made by American Machine and Foundry (AMF).  AMF paid for “full paged ads in at least a half a dozen major magazines…also enticing mom and dad to put themselves behind the wheel of a somewhat larger, fossil-fuel-fired ponycar convertible.” There were also metal and plastic models, some battery-powered with working headlights, taillights and instrument panels.
Since 1965 the Mustang has been in over 200 spy, action and comedy films.  Its’ first film debut was less than six months after its public unveiling, as it appeared in the James Bond film Goldfinger.  While James, played by Sean Connery, is driving his DB-5, he playfully obstructs a white Mustang convertible, driven by an extremely attractive young woman.  Yet the Mustang’s appearance was brief.  In Thunderball, a 1966 Mustang was used, and in similar fashion, the 1971 thriller Diamonds are Forever featured a fastback Mach I.  Other films that featured Mustangs include Bullitt, Gone in Sixty Seconds (both the 1974 and1998 versions), The Thomas Crown Affair, The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Charlie’s Angels, Cape Fear, Bull Durham, Hollywood Homicide, and Death Match.
Mustangs had influence on music as well as film. And the most popular of all Mustang songs was Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally.” Produced by Jerry Wexler, Pickett recorded the song at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1966.  It became an instant classic, rising to 23 on the Billboard Pop Chart.  The song was about Sally, who only wanted to drive her 1965 Mustang all around town, which was bought for her by the singer.  As the chorus reminded the listener,, “all she wants to do is ride around Sally, ride, Sally, Ride.”  Originally composed by Mack Rice with the title “Mustang Momma,” it was changed to Mustang Sally on the suggestion of Aretha Franklin. Interestingly, the chorus came from a children’s song chorus “rise, Sally rise,” that Rice enjoyed as a child while growing up in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

What is so important about the Mustang, however, was that despite its phenomenal initial sales, Ford’s overall market share remained nearly the same. Thus, what the Mustang did was take buyers away from other Ford product lines, rather than from GM, Chrysler, or the imports.[endnote]

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