"It's still a very important car for us after 50 years," said Moray Callum, Ford executive design director, in an interview. "It still epitomizes what Ford does well, high performance as a sports car, available to the man in the street." The first Mustang was introduced April 17, 1964.
The design team in Dearborn, Mich., began its work in 2009 in the usual manner, surveying potential customers about what a vehicle means to them. Some, of course, recalled Steve McQueen, who drove a Mustang in the enduring 1968 movie Bullitt. Others envisioned a puma ready to pounce and an image of a fist breaking through a sheet of glass.
"There is nothing subtle about Mustang," Callum said. "It needs to be a fist, something bold and raw about being American. It's about giving the customer some freedom, and the open road."
The new Mustang will offer at least 300 horsepower and will be available in fall 2014. It will feature a lower, wider stance with a reduction in roof height, and wider rear fenders and track. The Mustang fastback has returned, with a sleeker profile, a steeply sloped windshield and rear glass. "The things we tried to do with design were to be sleeker, wider, a little bit less heavy with an element of agility," Callum said.
Larry Printz, automotive editor for The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, called Mustang "a halo car," despite its low sales.
"It's the heart of the brand," he said. "It doesn't have the biggest impact on the bottom line, but it does give buyers a reason to come to the Ford showroom. It burnishes Ford's image and helps sell other models."
Over 50 years, Mustang has sold more than 9 million cars. Ford's most direct competitor, GM's (GM) Chevrolet Camaro, has led in sales recently. In 2012, Chevrolet sold 84,391 Camaros, while Ford sold 82,995 Mustangs. In 2011, Camaro sales totaled 88,249, while Mustang totaled 70,438.
Year-to-date, Camaro has sold 75,552 units, while Mustang has sold 71,459. "Camaro had a slight freshening this year, and Mustang tailed off because everyone knows a new one is coming," Printz said.
The Mustang's core customer, of course, is the aging baby boomer seeking to recapture a lost youth. "It is a generational thing, a boomer car," Printz said. "The current Mustang has seen declining buy rates with the under-35 crowd. But Ford will try to make sure that trend goes down somewhat. They're trying to get away from being a straight retro play."
Callum said Ford hopes for a wider audience, not only in the U.S. but also around the world. Thursday's rollout included events in six cities: Barcelona, Shanghai and Sydney as well as Dearborn, Los Angeles and New York.
Ford contends Mustang it is "the world's most-liked vehicle on Facebook." Produced in Flat Rock, Mich., it will be sold in key parts of Europe and Asia for the first time.
"There are over 300 Mustang clubs around the world, and more than half are outside the U.S.," Callum said. "People all over the world are waiting for this."