A Grande hardtop, shown in January 1970, was among the Mustang models that Bunkie Knudsen approved for 1971.

Designing the 1971 Ford Mustang

There was intense debate within the corporate ranks about the design direction for the 1971 Ford Mustang. One camp favored a continuation of Mustang's sporty personality. Another argued for greater size and more luxury appointments. Design executive Gale Halderman and his Ford Studio designers tried to satisfy both sides.

They began work around May 1967, just as the '69 Mustang was wrapping up. Once more, they immediately thought big. "The first clays looked monstrous," Mustang historian Gary Witzenburg notes. "And they were ugly!" Though the long-hood/short-deck profile remained a given, most workouts through the fall of '67 were visually massive and awkward, with puffy lower-body contours, high beltlines, thick rear roof quarters, pouty Thunderbird-like noses with massive bumper/grilles, and willy-nilly sculptures and humps.

Evidently, designers still felt management wanted some T-Bird "influence" in the Mustang, but they now tried to marry that with "performance" cues like Shelby-style scoops and pop-open gas caps. For all the false starts and misdirection, several early ideas would survive to the showroom, such as a simple, straight character line high on the body sides and, for the hardtop, a "flying buttress" rear roofline with upright "tunneled" backlight, perhaps prompted by intelligence on '68 Dodge Charger styling.

By the time the 1971 Mustangs went on sale in August 1970, crisp creases had replaced flabby designs.

Fortunately, designers stripped away most of the flab by autumn, opting for crisp creases, swoopy fender shapes, and kicked-up "ducktails." More protruding fronts were tried, but also flat faces, and trapezoidal nose shapes were favored for a time. As usual, there were many experiments with dual, quad, and hidden headlamps, plus "floating" grilles and -- as a new signature for the fastback -- a set of vertical air slots just behind the door.

For a time, the fastback was also planned for a "tunnelback" roof, with and without rear-quarter windows. By mid-January 1968, the fastback had acquired a sharp beltline kickup aft of the doors and an almost flat roofline with a near-horizontal rear window. When Knudsen came to power a few weeks later, he took one look at this fiberglass model and looked no more.

As designer Gale Halderman related: "He approved that '71 right in the studio. We asked if he didn't want to take it outside…and he said, 'No, I like it right here.' We said, 'Well, there are a couple more being done, wouldn't you prefer to wait and see how they turn out?' He said, 'No, I like this one.' We had never had approvals like that before."

The SportRoof fastback was also among the 1971 Mustang models.

Even so, designers worked up several alternatives in full-size drawings during April even as Knudsen's choice was being production-engineered with an eye to cost and feasibility. The car was more or less finished by mid-June, but tinkering with grille inserts, taillamps, trim, and other minor stuff continued for another year.

When Carroll Shelby decided to leave the car business in 1969, management briefly considered a "Cobra" version of the '71 to replace the Shelby-Mustang. Based on the hardtop, not the fastback, it ended up looking aggressive but contrived. We might be glad it went no further.

Find out what did make it into the production model on the next page.

  • Saddle up for the complete story of America's best-loved sporty car. How the Ford Mustang Works chronicles the legend from its inception in the early 1960s to today's all-new Mustang.
  • Mustang had it all for 1969 -- except buyers. Sales were lower still in 1970. In 1969-1970 Ford Mustang, you'll find out how a new president infused the brand with more performance.
  • With Lee Iacocca back in the saddle, Ford's ponycar revsited its roots. 1974-1978 Ford Mustang tells the story of the Mustang II with its smaller, lighter design and return to rationality.
  • The 1971 Ford Mustang Boss 351 was Ford's final high-performance Mustang of the classic muscle car era. Here's a profile, photos, and specifications.