May 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

Mustang chronicle traces enduring icon's roots to the 1920s

A 2015 Mustang convertible sits on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in honor of the ponycar's 50th anniversary. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Michael W.R. Davis said his knowledge of the Ford Mustang’s origins is “unique among the living.”

Davis was working in Ford’s corporate news department in 1962 when the Ford Division PR chief stopped by to tell him that Lee Iacocca was canceling the planned U.S. introduction of the Cardinal, a German Ford that had been intended to compete with sporty, low-priced models like Chevy’s then-new Corvair.

The Cardinal was succeeded in 1964 by an icon that has lingered long enough on the public consciousness to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year: the Mustang. In his book, “Mustang and the Pony Car Revolution,” Davis charts the lead-up to that process and the ensuing evolution of the sporty, compact and affordable vehicles known as pony cars.

The book is Davis’ eighth for Arcadia Publishing, which markets an expansive line of black-and-white, photo-based guides to a variety of historical subjects. Having served as executive director of the Detroit Historical Society after 25 years at Ford, Davis said his historian’s curiosity and insider’s expertise made the Mustang a natural topic.

“I’d been itching to tell the story for many years,” Davis said.

You might think Davis would begin the story in the early ’60s, but his book actually digs another four decades back to chart the market factors that brought about the Mustang and its pony car brethren.

“I thought about the concept of a car that isn’t functional,” Davis said. “It’s just fun and it’s relatively inexpensive, and I thought, well, where did that start and how?”

He settled on 1924, the year that Ford produced its 10 millionth car and offered the Ford Runabout for $260 — the lowest price ever for a production vehicle. Davis describes the Runabout as the Mustang’s “root ancestor” for its affordable stylishness, noting that the vehicle would sell for just $3,552 in today’s dollars.

From there, he traces the road to Mustang through the post-World War II availability of imported European sports cars like Jaguar’s XK120 and the MG TC. American automakers caught on, with Chevrolet introducing the Corvette in 1953 and Ford debuting its own Thunderbird in 1955. But when Iacocca debuted the Mustang in 1964, Davis said the moment couldn’t have been more ideal for a new kind of sports car.

“It was the so-called baby boomers, the children of the World War II marriages, who had just about reached driving age at that time,” Davis said. “That was a big factor. Also, the general prosperity of the nation, which gave us the luxury of some of the good and bad things that happened in the ’60s.”

Davis devoted about half of his book to the rise of the pony car and the Mustang’s rollout in the mid-’60s, when he was working for the Lincoln-Mercury division. He recalls a strong sense of interdepartmental envy over the attention the Mustang received in 1964 and 1965.

But he found some surprises as he researched the book’s second half, particularly in some developments that occurred after he retired from Ford in 1985.

Davis said he was most shocked to learn that the Mazda-engineered Ford Probe, introduced in 1988, had been intended to replace the Mustang. Although Mustang sales had declined significantly at the time, the vehicle still found enough favor to hang on, while the Probe was discontinued in 1997.

“It was in reaction to public demand,” Davis said. “They put the Probe out there, and as the saying in the industry goes, the dogs didn’t eat the dog food.”

Davis’ approach to the Mustang story is unusual enough to raise a fellow historian’s eyebrow. John Clor is an enthusiast communications manager at Ford Racing and the author of “The Mustang Dynasty,” as well as “Ford Mustang 2015: The New Generation,” due out this fall.

Clor said the Runabout and similar cars do not have “Mustang lineage” simply because they were sporty and inexpensive.

He also noted that Iacocca was already working on Ford’s “Total Performance” campaign, phasing out stodgier vehicles in favor of racetrack-inspired designs, when the Cardinal was killed. Clor argued the Cardinal was a symptom of Ford’s new direction, rather than the direct catalyst for the Mustang’s introduction.

Despite his history with the company, Davis encountered another surprise when he reached out to Ford to request historical images for the book. Ford declined to assist with Davis’ research, and he ended up drawing his images from the collections of the Detroit Public Library, fellow Ford retirees and automotive historians, and his own private collection.

“I got no help at all from Ford Motor Co.,” Davis said.

Davis theorized that Ford’s decision was due to a pre-existing commitment to a different coffee table book, “Mustang: 50 Years,” from Motorbooks. Nonetheless, “Mustang and the Pony Car Revolution” has been well-received since it arrived in April. Arcadia publishing editor Jacel Egan said the book was reprinted twice in the three weeks following its release.

“I think the release date couldn’t have been better to coincide with the 50th anniversary,” Egan said.

The book’s success — and the big 50th birthday itself — are a testament to the enduring mystique of the Mustang. Davis said the car continues to fascinate him, and the public in general, because it introduced an unforgettable design and then stuck to the formula.

“The fact is you don’t have many cars that have lasted a long time without much change,” he said. “The Mustang is the exception to that. It stands out.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor freelance writer.