How the Ford Mustang Got its Name

One would assume that the iconic Ford Mustang was always called, well…Mustang. After all, isn’t this the vehicle that started the “Pony Car” revolution? In fact, according to the new Motorbooks publication Ford Mustang: America’s Original Pony Car, the new model went through a plethora of names and nearly ended up being something completely different. The story, like many origin accounts, is actually quite interesting and is presented here from the book.ford mustang, history of the ford mustang, evolution of the ford mustang, the birth of the ford mustang, muscle cars, boss mustang, shelby mustang, saleen mustang, pony cars, Mustang GT, Shelby GT350, Shelby GT500, Super Cobra Jet, Boss 302, Boss 429, Donald Farr, Ford Pavilion visitors ride the moving sidewalk past a Mustang hardtop as they make their way to the entrance to the Magic Skyway at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. (Ford Motor Company)

COUGAR, TORINO OR MUSTANG?

As the styling and engineering departments ironed out the complicated details to roll completed cars off the assembly lines, there was much debate over the all-important process of naming the new car. “The name is often the toughest part of the car to get right,” Lee Iacocca said. “It’s easier to design doors and roofs.”

After approval, the new car took on the Cougar name of the Dave Ash and Joe Oros winning design. At a May product strategy meeting, Cougar was among the four names chosen, along with Monte Carlo, Monaco, and Torino. It was quickly determined that the first two had already been registered by other auto manufacturers, so the list was narrowed to Torino and Cougar. Henry Ford II suggested Thunderbird II, but as Iacocca recalls, “Nobody else liked that one.”

ford mustang, history of the ford mustang, evolution of the ford mustang, the birth of the ford mustang, muscle cars, boss mustang, shelby mustang, saleen mustang, pony cars, Mustang GT, Shelby GT350, Shelby GT500, Super Cobra Jet, Boss 302, Boss 429, Donald Farr,By September 1963, stylists were working with real sheetmetal stampings. Just six months before Job One, it still had the Cougar grille emblem. (Ford Motor Company)

Torino, the Italian spelling for the city of Turin, was initially selected because it made a connection to European sports cars. However, Charlie Moore in public relations soon pointed out that Henry Ford II was having an affair with a jet-setting Italian divorcee. Coming out with a new car with an Italian name could lead to negative publicity.

That left Cougar, the name preferred by design winners Ash and Oros. They even sent Iacocca a die-cast Cougar emblem with a note: “Don’t name it anything but Cougar.” Iacocca wasn’t convinced.

J. Walter Thompson’s name specialist, John Conley, who had researched previous Ford nameplates, including Thunderbird and Falcon, was dispatched to the Detroit Public Library to compile a list of possible animal names. From his list, the choices were narrowed to Bronco, Puma, Cheetah, Colt, Cougar, and Mustang.

ford mustang, history of the ford mustang, evolution of the ford mustang, the birth of the ford mustang, muscle cars, boss mustang, shelby mustang, saleen mustang, pony cars, Mustang GT, Shelby GT350, Shelby GT500, Super Cobra Jet, Boss 302, Boss 429, Donald Farr,Walter Murphy in Ford public relations scored the coup of the launch campaign when both Time and Newsweek magazines featured Iacocca and the Mustang on their covers, a first for an auto executive. “This was outstanding publicity for a new commercial product,” Iacocca said. “I’m convinced that Time and Newsweek alone led to the sale of an extra 100,000 cars.” (Ford Motor Company)

Around the same time, a two-seater styling concept, created to test the waters for a possible Ford sports car, was making the show car rounds. It debuted as the Ford Mustang Experimental Sports Car on October 7, 1962, at the U.S. Grand Prix race at Watkins Glen, New York, with designer John Najjar taking credit for the name, admitting that he borrowed it from the P-51 World War II fighter plane. However, when the aviation connection was rejected, he grabbed a dictionary and learned that the Mustang horse was defined as a “hardy, wild horse of the American plains.” At that point, the Mustang concept car took on an equestrian identity. Designer Phil Clark was asked to pen a running horse logo. Later, a red, white, and blue tri-bar was added behind the horse to confirm the all-American heritage.

ford mustang, history of the ford mustang, evolution of the ford mustang, the birth of the ford mustang, muscle cars, boss mustang, shelby mustang, saleen mustang, pony cars, Mustang GT, Shelby GT350, Shelby GT500, Super Cobra Jet, Boss 302, Boss 429, Donald Farr,With its selection as the pace car for the 1964 Indianapolis 500, a specially prepared Mustang convertible led the Indy race cars to the starting line for the greatest spectacle in racing. (Source Interlink Media)

As late as midyear 1963, the name Torino was still the leading candidate. J. Walter Thompson even produced a film, Torino, to introduce the new car to the press, and sample newspaper and magazine advertisements touted “Torino by Ford.” Personally, Iacocca felt the name sounded too European. Ford’s J. Walter Thompson ad agency preferred Mustang because “it had the excitement of the wide-open spaces and was American as all hell.” It also scored at the top of marketing surveys.

ford mustang, history of the ford mustang, evolution of the ford mustang, the birth of the ford mustang, muscle cars, boss mustang, shelby mustang, saleen mustang, pony cars, Mustang GT, Shelby GT350, Shelby GT500, Super Cobra Jet, Boss 302, Boss 429, Donald Farr,In late 1963, the name was chosen— Mustang—and the running horse forever replaced the Cougar in the grille emblem.

In a fall 1963 column for the Des Moines Register newspaper, sports writer Maury White recalled Iacocca visiting the Southern Methodist University football team’s locker room after the SMU Mustangs had played an inspired, albeit losing, effort against the Michigan Wolverines. Iacocca had attended the game in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and afterwards asked to speak to the SMU players. White recounted Iacocca’s speech in the locker room: “Gentleman, Ford is coming out with a new sports car and we have been considering names. It will be light, like your team. It will be quick, like your team. It will be sporty, like your team. Today, watching Southern Methodist’s Mustangs play with such flair, we reached a decision. We will call our new car the Mustang.”

Likely, the decision had already been reached and Iacocca used the occasion as opportunistic publicity. Regardless, his description of light, quick, and sporty was right on target.

 

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In the early 1960s, Lee Iacocca–then director of the Ford division at Ford Motor Company–convinced Henry Ford II to produce a sporty four-seat car aimed at the emerging youth market. That car, essentially a reconfigured and re-skinned Falcon economy car, became the Ford Mustang, and it changed the automotive world like no other car before or since.

In Ford Mustang: America’s Original Pony Car, acclaimed Mustang writer Donald Farr celebrates this unbroken lineage of muscle. He chronicles the car’s phenomenal first-year sales, the new pony car category it pioneered, and subsequent models that include the Mustang GT, Shelby GT350, Shelby GT500, Super Cobra Jet, Boss 302, and Boss 429 – all part of a line of American performance cars that continues to this day.

Created in cooperation with Ford Motor Company and featuring some 400 photos from its historic and media archives, Ford Mustang is a must on the bookshelf of any muscle car or Ford aficionado.