17 April, 1964 was a momentous day for the automotive world. On that day, at the World’s Fair in New York, Ford unveiled the first-generation Mustang.
Thanks to its rear-wheel-drive layout and range of potent inline-six and V8 engines, Ford’s two-door offered true sports car performance for family car money.
It proved a hit with American consumers, with 1.3 million ’Stangs produced in the first two years alone.
Above: Ford unveiled the Mustang at the 1964 World's Fair and took orders for 22,000 cars on the first day alone
Now, 55 years and six generations later, the Mustang has evolved into an automotive icon. Its combination of rear-wheel-drive, naturally aspirated V8 power and an affordable starting price is quickly becoming a rarity in our increasingly turbocharged times.
By sticking to its proven formula, Ford has built over 10 million Mustangs, with the 10 millionth vehicle rolling off the Michigan assembly line in August 2018.
However, it almost didn’t turn out that way. The iconic pony car almost morphed into a front-wheel-drive Mazda. So how did that happen?
The year is 1985. The automotive industry is in the middle of a paradigm shift – the longitudinally-mounted engine and rear-wheel-drive layout in use for decades is being phased out in favour of front-wheel drive vehicles with transversely-mounted powerplants.
Pioneered by cars such as the original Mini, the transverse FWD layout is cheaper to design and build, and increases the amount of passenger and cargo space inside the cabin. For mainstream manufacturers, to whom every dollar saved counts, switching to this new layout is a no-brainer.
Above: The 1989 Mustang GT may have been Ford's swan song to the RWD V8 pony car
As a result of this shift, as well as increased fuel prices at the start of the decade, Mustang sales fell quickly. In 1983, Ford sold 120,873 Mustangs to US buyers – a sharp decrease from the 369,936 sold in 1979.
In an attempt to combat the pony car’s dropping sales, Ford made the decision to switch the next-generation Mustang to a front-wheel-drive platform jointly developed with Mazda.
The plan hatched by Blue Oval executives was to market the new front-drive model alongside the outgoing rear-drive car, badged as the ‘Mustang Classic’, with the eventual intention of phasing the latter out. Ford was so confident its new model would succeed, it threw the entire Mustang development budget at the FWD project.
Above: Yeah, that's the first generation Ford Probe which could so easily have been a Mustang, had Blue Oval execs had their way
The world soon caught wind of Ford’s controversial plan. US magazine Autoweek ran a cover story in April 1987, explaining what was in the works. Enthusiasts were absolutely furious – hundreds of thousands of fans wrote to Ford, strongly opposing the change.
They made it clear that if the next Mustang’s engine powered the front wheels only, the nameplate would be ruined forever.
However, there was an issue. Ford was already well into development - abandoning the project entirely would be implausible, considering the amount of money that had already been poured into it. Instead, Ford decided to continue with the project, although under a different name: Probe.
Above: Even the addition of racing stripes wouldn't have turned the Probe into a Mustang
The company’s executives planned for the front-wheel drive Probe to go head-to-head with the rear-wheel drive Mustang in showrooms, with higher-ups expecting the former to come out on top in the sales charts by a large margin.
They were completely wrong.
In 1989, its first full year on sale, 133,650 Probes found US homes, in comparison to the Mustang’s 209,769.
Ford was forced to begin work on a new Mustang project, one that included a rear-wheel drive layout firmly in the plans. Engineers briefly experimented with the idea of going front-wheel drive again using the compact Escort’s platform, however the CT120 architecture’s inability to support the 4.6-litre V8 in development at the time led the company to return to its rear-drive roots.
Above: The fourth-gen Mustang debuted in 1994 and carried on the tradition of the V8-powered, rear-wheel drive pony car to the collective sighs of relief around the world
The fourth-generation Mustang launched in 1994, with a rounded body that sat on a heavily revised version of the third-generation’s Fox platform. Thankfully, Ford never toyed with the idea of switching their iconic pony car to front-wheel drive again.
Many other iconic models have fallen into the trap Ford nearly did and were never the same again.
To all car manufacturers out there, if you’re reading: don’t ignore the wishes of your biggest enthusiasts.
by Alex Misoyannis