As Ford Mustang Boss 302Rs take to New York’s Watkins Glen International for this weekend’s IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race, it marks a full-circle journey for the original Pony car that began on these hallowed grounds more than 50 years ago.
The year was 1962. John F. Kennedy was president, The Beatles recorded their first album and the Cuban Missile Crisis was narrowly averted. Yet, it was also a historic occasion for the Ford Motor Company, which helped revolutionize the automotive industry with the introduction of the Mustang.
The brainchild of Lee Iacocca’s Fairlane Committee, Ford came up with the Mustang I, a four-cylinder, mid-engined two-seater convertible concept car, in order to transform Ford’s family-car image to also appeal to what is now known as the new baby-boomer generation.
“The idea was to get it in front of young people,” said Ford Racing automotive historian John Clor. “Where do these college kids go when they want to see racing? Well, they go to The Glen (in Watkins Glen, N.Y.).
“There were pilgrimages to see road racing at The Glen. There were young guys into cars who bought the car magazines. They would spend their weekends there with their girlfriends. A weekend of road racing at The Glen was the way to go.”
In front of a capacity crowd during the U.S. Grand Prix weekend in October 1962, racing legend Dan Gurney had the honors of taking the Mustang I for its first laps around the historic New York course.
It was the event that gained international media attention and kickstarted the Mustang movement.
“It was exciting,” Gurney recalled. “I knew I was involved in a historic moment. It was like peering into the future and seeing a new and different industry shaking car from Ford Motor Company.”
Gurney, who would go on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ford GT40 MK IV, which shared lineage of the original Mustang prototype, wasn’t just parading around the circuit, though. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
“Little did we know that Gurney would go out and do a lap in this car that would equal lap times of some of the best formula races on the planet,” said Clor, the author of ‘Mustang Dynasty.’ “The car was light and nimble and you had one of the best drivers in the world behind it. When he pulled back into the pits, kids were swarmed over the car.”
While credited as one of the most successful auto marketing exercises, a legacy was also born that day. The Mustang – the car with racing in its blood – rolled into production in 1964 and exceeded 1 million sales after just 18 months. It proved to be an instant hit, and continues to be the Ford flagship muscle car to this day.
“They knew it would sell but they had no idea it would be that big,” Clor added. “None of them expected, 50 years later, to be speaking in front of the Mustang Club of America, at an event where thousands of people would come and collect all these cars for 50 years.”
As 50th anniversary celebrations continue, the Mustang legacy continues this weekend at Watkins Glen, where it all began.