Mustang goes global as U.S. sales fall

Kyle Stock
Bloomberg News

It took 50 years and more than 9 million Mustangs before Ford Motor Co. decided its beloved, blue-collar icon was mature enough for a grand tour of Europe and the rest of the world. The strategy’s success suggests the company should have shipped them sooner.

Near the end of 2015, the latest version of the famous car rolled into 140 countries. Decked out for its 50th anniversary with a major update in design and engineering, it was met with a rush of orders from fans who had been waiting decades to get one. By 2017, Mustang sales were swooning in the U.S. as the new model’s novelty faded, but foreign buyers proved more faithful, fueling a steady stream of orders to the plant in Flat Rock, where the Mustang is made.

Today 1 in 4 of the pony cars are bound for drivers in China, England and Germany. This four-wheeled fever dream for generations of young American men has finally gone continental.

“It’s very much a piece of the American dream that has actually been able to move,” said Ian Fletcher, a London-based auto analyst for IHS Markit. “It’s still a very, very niche vehicle, but people see it and they want to buy it. It’s a heart-and-soul thing.”

All told, Ford said demand for the Mustang outside the U.S. is double what it expected. Capitalizing on that success, this year Ford added Brazil and five other countries to its Mustang paddock.

Foreign buyers are a hugely profitable piece of business. A bareback version starts at around $26,000 in the U.S., but buyers abroad are limited to a “Performance Pack,” pushing up the starting price to almost $54,000 in England and Germany.

It turns out that Ford hit a masterstroke in product strategy, even besting such continental sports cars as the Porsche 911, which the Mustang now outsells in its German home market. The coup also revealed a missed opportunity, providing ample evidence that Ford left piles of money on the table over the decades.

“It’s always funny when you see the experts in an industry get something this wrong,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Cox Automotive.

Mileage and cornering ability — major considerations for most buyers in Asia and Europe — were afterthoughts in an American market where torque is king. The performance argument, however, started fading about 15 years ago when Mustangs suddenly began to turn relatively well, stopped chugging gas and generally developed some road manners.

By the time the newest version arrived three years ago, the tropes about Mustangs being crude Americana were as old as armchair ashtrays. Ford’s 2015 Mustang wasn’t heavy and handled itself plenty well. The power proposition hadn’t changed, but the latest iteration of the Mustang — the sixth in its history — could be had with an ultra-efficient four-cylinder engine, while the throaty V-8 posted better mileage, too.

In short, the blustering American nature of the Mustang, which Ford always treated as a liability abroad, was actually its best asset. The world, it turned out, loves the Mustang for exactly what it is.