Many car names and monikers have slipped into relative obscurity since the dawning of the Age of the Automobile. A good name can mean the difference between an icon and a dud. The Ford Mustang has managed to endure the test of time - staying with us for forty-five years, while still remaining relevant even today. In fact, it may be more important now, as Ford fights for the top spot among American car manufacturers, than when it was originally introduced back in 1964.

But forty-five years is a long time, twice as long as I’ve even been alive. As we have all learned from the Great Recession, a lot can change in very short order. So, how much has the Mustang changed since its debut, and how does the original Mustang stack up to the refreshed 2010 model?

Mustang: A (Very) Brief History

The history of the Ford Mustang has been the subject of books, made-for-TV movies, and full-length documentaries, so I’ll not bore you with anything but the most basic details. The Mustang began life as a mid-engine two-seater, but during its eighteen month development period, transformed into the front engine/rear drive layout we all know and love. Slow Thunderbird sales convinced the design team that people wanted to share their sporty cars with more than just one person.

The Mustang debuted as a 1965 model five months ahead of the usual release schedule, which is why the earliest Mustangs are referred to as “1964 ½.” It is also one of the contributing factors to the immediate success of the Mustang; there was no fresh competition, and an advertisement blitz left the public wanting.

Let's Talk Horsepower

So how does the 1965 Mustang compare to a 2010 Mustang? We will use two models: the base six-banger, and the top-of-the-line GT, to compare how far (or not) the Mustang has come.

A 1966 K-code "Hi-Po" 289 motor. Photo credit:

The Six-Banger

In 1964, Ford used two different inline six-cylinder engines in the Mustang during different parts of the year. The first Mustangs came with a 170 cubic inch motor and just 101 horsepower, while later in the year a more modern 200 cubic inch motor was offered. This engine made 120 horsepower, and was updated over the years to increase strength and reliability. Surprisingly, the current 4.0 liter SOHC V6 used in the 2010 Mustang can trace its roots back almost as far as the 200 I6, first coming into production as a 1.8 liter model back in 1968 (albeit as a pushrod engine). Produced in Cologne, Germany, it now makes 210 horsepower and 240 ft lbs of torque. It is slated to be replaced next year by a 3.7 liter V6 which makes 315 horsepower (as much as the current Mustang GT).

The DOHC 32-valve 4.6 liter modular motor now found in the Mustang GT.

The Mustang GT

The very first performance Mustangs had a 260 inch V8 with 164 horsepower, but by the end of the year this engine was replaced by a new 200 horsepower 289 motor. There was also a 225 horsepower, four-barrel version of the 289 and the “Hi-Po” 289 with 271 gross horsepower. “Gross” horsepower refers to how much power an engine makes at the flywheel with headers, sans any accessories such as power steering or a water pump. Suffice it to say, it was an easy way of pumping up the numbers, but for the sake of argument, we’ll take the numbers at face value. That 271 horsepower didn’t come on until 6000 RPM, though it made respectable low-end torque of 312 ft lbs at just 3400 RPM's. The “K-code” 289 engines were also used on the Shelby GT350 for three years, but made 306 horsepower through headers and an aluminum intake.

Today’s Mustang GT doesn’t seem all that impressive when compared with its grandfather, producing just 315 horsepower and 325 ft lbs of torque, out of the small 4.6 liter (281 cubic inch) DOHC engine. These are more “real world” numbers, taking into account accessories and such, but it is still neat to see just how close the new Mustang is to the original. However, the new Mustang slated to be introduced next year brings with it the rebirth of the 5.0 “Coyote” engine, with an estimated 400 horsepower, in order to keep up with the competition. Considering that the horsepower numbers are divided by forty years, though, they are awfully close.

The Price Of Performance

Almost as important as performance is pricing - the original Mustang represented a great bargain. Back in 1965, you could drive a base model Mustang off the lot for just $2,372, compared to $20,995 for today’s base model V6 - a price increase of almost 1000%. A V8-equipped Mustang cost $2,480 without the optional Hi-Po 289, while today’s base model GT starts at around $27,995. A 2010 V6 convertible costs $25,995, while in 1964 the drop-top was just $2,614. Today, a mint condition 1965 Mustang can bring almost as much as a well-equipped GT at auction, depending on the rarity of the options.

The first Mustang sold to the public, a 1965 Convertible.

In terms of overall size, though, the Mustang hasn’t gotten any bigger. It is, in fact, the exact same length from bumper to bumper at 188 inches. The wheelbase is also almost the same; 108 inches in 1964, 107 inches in 2010. However, the 2010 Mustang is 73 inches wide, an increase of about five inches, compared to the 1969 Mustang's 68 inches. Even though the size is the same, weight is an entirely different matter. A 2010 Mustang GT weighs in at nearly 3,600 pounds, while a ’65 V8 Mustang could weigh as little as 2,600 pounds, depending on the options. A lot of this weight can be attributed to safety improvements such as bumpers, air bags, traction control, etc.. The only standard safety feature in the 1964 Mustang was seatbelts, and there was an optional delete for even that!

So what about performance? Seeing as how I don't have access to either car, or a track, this is going to be bench racing at its finest. But a Hi-Po 289-equipped 1965 (only about 1% of 1965 Mustangs were K-codes) with a 3.89:1 rear axle ratio should be capable of high 14’s in the quarter mile with a GOOD driver. Today’s Mustang GT will easily dip into the high 13’s, and with a good driver can hit 13.5. This is while carrying more weight with just a wee bit more power. Technology is amazing, isn’t it?

In closing, the less retro but still nostalgic look of the 2010 Mustang is appropriate, considering how similar it is to its great-grandfather. The numbers don’t lie; forty years of progress has resulted in maybe a 1.5 second increase in speed for 1000% more money. Of course that takes into account all of the government emissions and safety mandates, as well as inflation. But the Mustang’s formula for continued success has not changed much, and we definitely seem to be on an upswing in muscle car performance. I can’t wait to see what 2011 brings.

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