The Ford Mustang has evolved through 12 distinct eras over the past 30+ years. Here are the best Mustang models from each of those 12 eras. Let the flaming begin as we look at the best Ford Mustangs of all time.
While it’s generally recognized that there are five distinct generations of Mustang, that measurement is too coarse to be able to select a single model as the best of that period. For example, take the Corvette. The C3 was in production from the 1968 model year until the 1982 model year. The early cars were pre-smog, pre-five mile per hour bumpers, pre-CAFE, so in fairness the C3 should be split into at least two eras. That’s the thinking at least, and it’s what we’ve applied to the Mustangs listed below.
What Was The Best Mustang Year From Each Era?
First Era: 1964.5- 1966
The selection from the first era is the Mustang Fastback GT, introduced as the “GT Equipment Package” in 1966 which included grille-mounted fog lamps, rocker panel stripes, and disc brakes. In the interior the GT option added a different instrument panel that included a speedometer, fuel gauge, temp. gauge, oil pressure gauge and ammeter in five round dials. Engine choice is the 289 cu in (4.7 L) Windsor Hi-Po V8 with 4-barrel carburetor and a solid lifter camshaft, producing 271 HP at a furious 6000 RPM. A nimble car with decent power, but still very much limited by its Falcon underpinnings. This is the ultimate 60s Mustang, surely?
Second Era: 1967 -1968
No Highland Green Mustang GT Fastback here. The best choice for the second era is the 1968 Mustang GT convertible, with its more aggressive styling than the first era convertibles, they look less like a Barbie car. For power, the pick is the aging 390 CID FE (Ford-Edsel) engine, which produced 325 HP at a leisurely 4800 RPM.
Third Era 1969-1970
In Mustang’s Third Era there’s no doubt the car to have is the Boss 302, with a preference toward the 1969 model with Larry Shinoda’s subtle C design versus 1970’s clumsy hockey stick decals. Both years carried the fabulous two-year-only Boss 302 motor, developed specifically to compete in the SCCA Trans-Am Championship against Camaro, Firebird, Javelin, ‘Cuda and Challenger. A Mustang designed to stop and turn as well or better than it accelerated.
Fourth Era: 1971 – 1973
In its fourth era the Mustang grew to what could most graciously referred to as Grand Tourer rather than its earlier Sport Coupe proportions. Regardless, the 70s Mustang Boss 351 carried one of Ford’s best motors ever – the 351 Cleveland R-Code. Rated at 330 HP, the R-Code was fitted with a four-barrel carburetor, an aluminum intake manifold, solid lifters, dual-point distributor, a 6 quart oil pan and cast aluminum valve covers. It had four-bolt main bearing caps and forged, shot-peened connecting rods. Virtually a race motor directly from the factory.
Fifth Era: 1974-1978
Say what you will about the Mustang II, but Ford sold a million of them. In fact, had the Mustang II not been downsized just prior to the days of fuel embargoes, climbing gas prices, emissions controls, and Corporate Average Fuel Economy, we may not have a Mustang today. Best bet of the 2s is the 1978 King Cobra, with the 302 CI V-8, four-speed manual transmission, an upgraded suspension with adjustable shocks, and a hood decal that can stand toe-to-toe with any Trans-Am.
Sixth Era: 1979 – 1986
What’s the best 80s Mustang? Probably this one. Ford took advantage of the newly-developed Fox platform of the Fairmont as the basis for the next generation of Mustang. Of this era the real standout is the 205 HP 1985.5 SVO. The engine was a turbocharged version of the 2.3L four cylinder with advanced computer control of ignition and fuel delivery. The gearbox, suspension and steering were both heavily upgraded and the interior modified to make the SVO a true driver’s car.
Seventh Era: 1987-1993
It was almost like the ’60s had returned. Ford offered 107 track-ready “R” versions of the 1993 Cobra, but only to buyers who held a current racing license. The Cobra R featured a 235 HP 5.0L engine, larger brakes, Koni shocks and struts, an engine oil and power steering coolers, and a rear seat delete. As the Cobra R was race oriented, A/C and radios were not available. And while it didn’t come with a warranty, you could get it in any color you wanted, as long as it was Vibrant Red.
Eighth Era: 1994-1998
For 1996, Ford introduced a new aluminum 4.6 liter DOHC engine that produced 305 HP, dropping 0–60 to 5.0 seconds in the Cobra. Perhaps giddy with delight over the modern engine, Ford SVT introduced the Mystic Cobra which featured color shifting paint with seven different colors viewable with green, purple and amber the most obvious. Two thousand 1996 Cobras were produced with the Mystic paint option, each accompanied by a SVT certificate of authenticity. It’s probably our favorite 90s Mustang, even if it is a little unusual.
Ninth Era: 1999-2004
Ford revived the Mach 1 name for 2003 and 2004 and created a car around it to fit between the GT and SVT Cobra in price and performance. It used the Cobra’s 13 inch Brembo front brakes, unique Tokico gas shocks and struts, and lower and stiffer springs. Power-wise the Mach 1 offered a performance gain over the base GT with a 305 HP version of the DOHC 32-valve 4.6 L V8. Retro touches are visible throughout the interior reminiscent of the original Mach 1.
Tenth Era: 2005-2009
With the return to the traditional styling of the Mustang, it seems most appropriate to select a car that reflects the First Era. In this case, the base Mustang convertible with the 4.0L Cologne V-6 engine (that can power the car from 0-60 in 7.30 seconds) with the optional Pony Package that adds suspension upgrades, 17-inch wheels and tires, a unique grille design with fog lamps, a rear deck spoiler, and unique door striping and emblems. Not a car for racing, but a car for relaxing cruises along the coast.
Eleventh Era: 2010-2014
An absolute insane car from a major manufacturer. Ford built a special production run of 50 drag-race only Cobra Jet Mustangs in 2012. In a near throw-back to the early 1960s and the Mustang A/FX race cars, Ford produced the Cobra Jet exclusively to compete in Stock and Stock Eliminator classes in NHRA. AHRA, and NMRA competition. With the upgraded supercharger Ford claimed the engine produced 500 HP, which made it a $10,000 upgrade to gain 70 HP. Right. Either someone at Ford spilled coffee on their calculator or they were playing fast & loose with the NHRA, et al.
Based upon the low E.T.s achieved by the car in competition, calculations place the engine’s power in the 800 to 900 HP range. The best runs so far: 0 – 60 is a reported 1.52 seconds, and quarters in the high eights.
Twelfth Era: 2015 – 2???
The winner here, not just for this era, but across Mustang history, is the Shelby GT350, which fits nicely between the GT and the overly racy for daily use GT350R. Based on the S550 Mustang chassis, which features fully independent suspension all the way around. Ford engineers added MagneRide shocks, unique aerodynamics bodywork, and a naturally aspirated 5.2L V-8 with a flat-plane crankshaft, chosen for better breathing, higher revs, and a great sound. It produces 526 HP and 429 lb-ft. of torque.
Under the car Ford selected two-piece iron rotors with aluminum hats for the GT350, 15.5 inches with six-piston Brembo calipers up front and 15.0 inches with four piston calipers at the rear. The Shelby GT350 runs 19-inch aluminum wheels all around, 10.5-inches wide up front and 11.0-inches wide out back. Is this the best looking Mustang ever? While it will never have the style and flair of the early Pony cars, this one certainly is a looker, and it’s definitely the best Mustang year of the decade so far.
Bonus: 7 Secrets of the Original Ford Mustang
While we’re on the subject of Ford Mustangs, did you know that the original Ford Mustang boasts some interesting secrets?
The term Pony Car was literally invented for the Mustang. Its impact on American culture in the 60s can’t be overrated. Let’s check out a few of its secrets.
Ford staged an introduction for the Mustang like no other car ever had. It was featured on a TV special, was a centerpiece at the 1964 Worlds Fair in NY and played a supporting role in the hot new James Bond movie.
Ford didn’t always have a better idea
In the late 1960s Ford used the slogan “Ford has a better idea” in its advertising. While it may have actually been true, it certainly couldn’t be applied to several concepts of the Mustang created prior to the public introduction. One was a mini station wagon or “shooting break” if you prefer, which was produced by Intermeccanica, then an Italian coachbuilder and now a Canadian purveyor of fiberglass Porsche 356 replicas. Another was the sedan you see above, which not only sucks the life out of the Mustang design, it might have been enough of a drag on the image of the line that it might have killed the entire line. Making taking a pass on the four door was their better idea.
The disappearance of Mustang 100001
Mustang serial # 100001 has been on display at The Henry Ford museum since 1966. The car was built for display only, but was inadvertently invoiced to a dealer in Newfoundland. The dealer sold the car to an airline pilot on April 17, 1964. Ford learned of the sale and tried to buy back the car, but the pilot refused.
Two years later, Ford approached the pilot, this time offering to trade him the 1 millionth Mustang off the line for his car. He accepted. Ford historians consider Mustang 100001 as the closest to the first Mustang that has been discovered. Even though it may not have been the first car off the line when production started on March 9, 1964, it likely was not far behind.
The very first Mustang sold to a human being
Gail Wise, then a 22 year old recent college graduate became the owner of the first ever Ford Mustang. She bought it in 1964, two days before 1964 Mustangs were supposed to on sale, and when she was driving it she stopped traffic as drivers and pedestrians strained to get a better look at her new car. After being parked in the garage for 27 years, her husband Tom finally got around to restoring it.
What a deal!
The list price for a 1965 Mustang was $2,320.96 – or about $16,800 when adjusted for inflation. Of course today’s cars are much safer with crumple zones, anti-lock brakes, and airbags in every nook and cranny, and today’s most powerful engines emit fewer hydrocarbons into the atmosphere than even the base straight six-cylinder engine.
Four motors, lots of horses
Right from the start, Ford offered buyers a choice of four different engines in the 1964.5 model year. Base was the 170 CID 101 hp straight-6 cylinder engine, a 260 V8 producing 164 horsepower with a two-barrel, a 210 horsepower 289 V-8, and beginning in June, the powerful K-Code 4 barrel carb, solid lifter, 289 CID 271 hp V-8 engine.
First Generation Mustangs in the movies, Part One
The Mustang made its cinematic debut in the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger. In exchange for the publicity, the Ford Motor Company donated a Lincoln Continental to be destroyed in the film’s famous car compactor scene. (Trivia tip: even though the Lincoln weighs over two tons the Ranchero remains level when the crushed car is loaded into the bed).
First Generation Mustangs in the movies, Part Two
Director Peter Yates emphasis on realism drove the chase scene in the motion picture Bullitt to movie greatness – right down to the soundtrack. Rather than relying on music to support the action, during the 9+ minute car chase, Yates elected to showcase the throaty roar of the Ford 390 V8 engine, rapid-fire up and down shifts, and squealing bias-ply tires. The natural sound captured during the filming of this iconic action scene helped earn the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound, perhaps the first and last generated by the sounds of the best Mustang ever made?