An October 1970 idea for the Mustang II looked more mid-size than pony car. Covered rear wheels likely would have been rejected.

The 1974 Ford Mustang: Design Competition

In November 1969, less than two months after Henry Ford II fired Bunkie Knudsen as Ford president, new chief Lee Iacocca voiced his own concerns to a group of top-level Ford executives at the toney Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.

According to author Gary Witzenburg, this meeting quickly led to "top-priority plans to build a new sporty small car for the 1974 model year based on…the Maverick shell. A second program, codenamed 'Arizona,' was to investigate an upmarket variation on the upcoming '71 Pinto subcompact for 1975."

Both programs were turned over to Nat Adamson, manager of advanced product planning, who recalled that the Maverick-based car, code named "Ohio," was initially favored. "[The Maverick] then seemed like a very small car to us," he told Witzenburg, "especially when we compared it to that year's much bigger and longer Mustang. And the Maverick was selling very well at the time."

But the smaller Arizona got priority when three concept models "tested" well against contemporary sports cars in two Southern California consumer showings. It was the first sign the public might go for something even smaller than the original Mustang. 

The June 1969 "Apex" was one of the earliest attempts at a downsized Mustang.

But neither of these programs produced anything that satisfied Iacocca, design vice president Eugene Bordinat, or Advanced Design chief Don DeLaRossa. Ohio proposals ended up blowsy and staid, while initial Arizona designs looked like the restyled Pintos they were.

An Assist From Ghia

But then, in November 1970, Ford acquired a controlling interest in Ghia of Italy, and Iacocca wasted no time in asking the famed coachbuilder to submit concepts for his new small sporty car. With typical dispatch, Ghia sent over a running prototype in just 53 days, a sloped-nose red-and-black fastback that Iacocca himself drove to and from work.

It greatly accelerated the drive toward the eventual Mustang II. "Aside from the new slant on styling that it gave us," Iacocca said later, "the quick delivery of that real, live, drivable sample...coalesced our thinking and gave us something tangible to look at and argue about early in the game, an experience that I had never had before in my career in the company.... It was a great early boost for the whole program."

Several months later, Ghia offered a second running prototype, a trim notchback with an airy "pagoda" roof a la Mercedes SL and bodyside sculpturing like that of the first Mustang. This, too, would stimulate Dearborn design thinking.

Raising Arizona

Around July 1971, management decided to abandon the Ohio car and moved up Adamson's preferred Arizona to 1974. These were key decisions, because they effectively ruled out using Ford's long-serving inline six-cylinder engine.

Bordinat recalled that DeLaRossa "put his studio to work on a clay model showing how big the Mustang would have to be to accommodate that big I-6 engine. He got me to call Lee over for a look at it. Don became, shall we say, very forthright and told Lee that if we really wanted to make a smaller car, we had better start with a smaller engine because this one with this engine in it was getting bigger even before it was designed. Lee agreed with us and that was the end of the I-6. The next thing we heard was that the choice of engines would be a new small 2.3-liter four-cylinder and a larger-displacement version of the German Capri V-6, so we were able to get down to making the rest of the car smaller too."

Still, there was no early consensus on how much smaller the new Mustang should be, though it obviously had to shrink from 1971-73 size. There was also debate over whether to offer a notchback, a fastback, or a blend of both.

The second of two prototypes from Italian coachbuilder Ghia revived Mustang's original bodyside sculpturing.

In another echo of the original Mustang program, Iacocca staged an intramural design competition to get things rolling. "Lee thinks that pitting our guys against each other breeds our best stuff," Bordinat told Witzenburg. "I've tried to disagree with him, but every time we do it, we get an exceptionally good car."

This contest, begun in August 1971 and ultimately lasting three months, pitted the Ford and Lincoln-Mercury production studios against DeLaRossa's Advanced Design group and the Interior Studio under L. David Ash. Talk about "back to the future." Even many of the key players were the same as 10 years before.

This design competition was as heated as the first. Find out what won on the next page.

For even more on the Ford Mustang, check out the following links.
  • 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.
  • A bigger, brawnier Mustang galloped in for 1971, just as buyers were moving away from the pony car market. In 1971-1972-1973 Ford Mustang, learn how the car still offered high style.
  • Mustang began a second revolution with the handsome, sophisticated "New Breed". 1979-1980-1981 Ford Mustang tells how hit scored big in the showroom, and in fans' hearts.
  • The Ford Mustang is central to America's muscle car mania. Learn about some of the quickest Mustangs ever, along with profiles, photos, and specifications of more than 100 muscle cars.