Culturally speaking, the Ford Mustang is a lot like a classic rock band. It found super-stardom in the mid-’60s, had a bit of a lost period in the ’70s, and has launched enough successful comebacks to make any aging singer green with envy. The Mustang is a pop culture hero, and like any great hero, its history is filled with tales of greatness, failures, and redemption, which is a huge reason why it is such a huge automotive icon. The only other car that could possibly match its cultural resonance is the Corvette, but even “America’s Sports Car” lacks the egalitarian appeal that Ford’s pony car has on deck.
The brainchild of Lee Iacocca and Donald Frey, the two pitched the idea of a “youth car” to Henry Ford II several times before he reluctantly gave the green light. They could have their Mustang, Ford said, but if it was a failure, they would both be fired. By the end of the ’60s, Iacocca had been named executive vice president of the company, Ford had sold more than 2 million Mustangs, and everyone at its Dearborn, Mich., headquarters was very, very happy.
Part of what makes the Mustang so successful is its low entry price and its ease of personalization. From the beginning, you could option a Mustang as anything from a sensible sporty car to a fire-breathing track day monster — and if you couldn’t afford a track-ready model, you could buy a cheaper model and build it yourself thanks to a healthy aftermarket performance community. The Mustang can be almost anything to everyone, and after 50 years, Ford hasn’t deviated from this successful formula one bit.
Like the automotive equivalent of The Rolling Stones, the Mustang has more iterations and high points than most, but its history can be roughly distilled to a greatest hits package. While there have been plenty of track day specials and incredible performance variants, we’ve decided to stick with the basics and highlight the factory models that kept the car a vital part of the automotive landscape for the past five decades. Condensed to 13 noteworthy models, here’s a brief history of the Ford Mustang.