Automotive history

Mustang Memories: Tom Cotter Recalls 17 April 1964 – and What Came Next

by Tom Cotter
17 April 2024 6 min read
Mustang Memories: Tom Cotter Recalls 17 April 1964 – and What Came Next
Henry Ford II gives the world its first look at the all-new Mustang on April 17, 1964. Ford

17 April marks sixty years since the Ford Mustang’s public debut at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The original pony car immediately became a pop-culture and automotive phenom, and it remains one of the most impactful cars in history. Over the next two weeks on our US site, we’re celebrating with stories of the events surrounding the Mustang’s launch, the history of the early cars, and tales from owners. Here we present the recollections of the Hagerty Barn Find Hunter, Tom Cotter. If you’re interested in following our Mustang coverage, you can find more stories here. Ed.

As a car-crazy fifth-grade kid, I drew pictures of hot rods in my notebook. I could identify the year, make, and model of every car on the road, and I spent more time looking into the parking lot from my classroom than at the blackboard. So, when Ford introduced the Mustang to the public on 17 April 1964, I was swept up in the new car’s hype.

I wasn’t alone, of course. It was easily the greatest new-car launch in the history of the auto industry. People flocked to showrooms during the days leading up to the car’s official launch, only to be turned away at dealership doors. Paper covered showroom windows, preventing prying eyes from seeing the automotive delights inside. Months of PR hype had men, women, and 10-year-old boys salivating like so many of Pavlov’s dogs. Telling potential customers to go away only made them more anxious to see Ford’s new product.

Henry Ford II poses with the all-new Mustang
Henry Ford II with the all-new Mustang at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York, on 17 April 1964. (Photo: Ford)

A few days before the launch, my friend Walt Pierce, now 73 and a former Mustang restorer, and his friend, Paul Neggia, skipped their last three ninth-grade classes at Manchester Regional High School in Haledon, New Jersey, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the new Mustang. And because they were not yet old enough to drive, they paid an upper-classman to drive them to Berry Ford in nearby Paramus.

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“The transporters showed up, but all the Mustangs had covers on them,” Walt says. “There were no convertibles or fastbacks, just white coupes. I later heard that they were all sold on the first day.”

A couple of days after 17 April, I had my first Mustang sighting: A pair of new Mustangs showed up in the parking lot of Nokomis Elementary School in Holbrook on Long Island, where I was a student.

A sixth-grade teacher took delivery of her black convertible on the same day that our school’s custodian received his Vineyard Green coupe, complete with a 289 V8, dual exhaust, and four-speed transmission.

The arrival of those two cars caused such excitement that Nokomis principal Mr. Fenner authorised a “private launch” for students. Teachers were allowed to escort their classes into the parking lot to see the new Mustangs up close.

22k Mustang orders world's fair ad
22,000 customers placed Mustang orders on the first day, with 419,000 cars sold the first year. (Photo: Ford)

I still remember peering into the cars’ windows and seeing the bucket seats divided by a stylish console – the first I had ever seen. The green coupe had a manual shifter similar to the one in my family’s Volkswagen Beetle, but the convertible had a chrome T-handle shifter. We had never owned an automatic transmission in our family, so I wasn’t quite sure how that device operated. When I saw the long horizontal brake pedal, I surmised that pushing the left side of the pedal must engage the clutch, and pushing the right side must engage the brake….

There was something magical about the car’s grille – that chrome horse! – that made the Mustang unique. And the simple three-bar taillight was a huge and welcomed departure from Ford’s standard round taillight, which, except for 1958 and 1960, had been in use since 1952.

The Mustang was so different from my parents’ Beetle. It was low and sporty, but in a different way than my neighbor’s MGTD. As a kid, I was at a loss for words to describe my passion for the Mustang. As it turns out, folks many years older than I had the same difficulty.

With wind in its sails, Ford thought big prior to the launch and decided to introduce the Mustang at the New York World’s Fair. Division president Lee Iacocca, considered the father of the Mustang, had begun planning for it as early as 1961, when the car’s concept was first conceived.

Lee Iacocca Ford World's Fair
Lee Iacocca speaks to the press. (Photo: Ford)

On 13 April, four days prior to the Mustang’s public unveiling, Iacocca addressed 124 invited media, then invited them to drive new Mustangs from New York to Detroit, a 750-mile trip.

Sometime after the launch, probably during our summer vacation, my father loaded my 8-year-old brother, Rob, and I into the VW and drove us about 50 miles to the World’s Fair. Though we enjoyed seeing the Hell Drivers Thrill Show – “risking life and limb” – as they jumped their 1964 Dodges over ramps and drove on two wheels, the real thrill was visiting the Ford Pavilion.

There, we could choose any Ford convertible to “drive” through the pavilion – Galaxies, Falcons, Montereys, and Comets – but of course we climbed into a Mustang convertible. The car was mounted on a rail system called the Magic Skyway, which had been designed by Walt Disney, and took us on a virtual tour of world history. I wasn’t too interested in the history and instead pretended I was old enough to drive as I “steered” the Mustang through the turns.

Family riding Ford Mustang at the Ford Motor World's Fair Exhibit
“Driving” merrily along the Magic Skyway in a Mustang convertible. (Photo: The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

As with the VW Beetle, it seems almost everyone has a Mustang story. “I had one in high school,” “I never should have sold mine,” or “My uncle had one,” are regularly heard even today, especially among baby boomers.

Soon after introduction, my Uncle Bob actually did purchase one, a red 1965 coupe. Every time he and my Aunt Beth drove it from Boston to visit my family on Long Island, I couldn’t wait to wax it! I remember one Sunday during a visit, my uncle and aunt borrowed my parents’ VW to go to church so that I could wash, compound, and wax the dulling Mustang. I got that car so clean that when he returned from church, Uncle Bob said, “Tommy, it shines like a million bucks!” He didn’t give me a million bucks, but I seem to remember three dollars coming my way.

These were heady times at Ford Motor Company. The saying “A rising tide lifts all boats” applied to the Mustang as well. Folks visiting Ford dealerships to see the Mustang often bought the Galaxies, Falcons, or pickup trucks sharing the showroom; sales of all Ford products were boosted with the increased traffic.

Carroll Shelby’s GT350 dislay
Carroll Shelby’s GT350 was quick to prove itself on track. (Photo: Ford)

With memories of the ill-conceived Edsel launch a half-dozen years before fading into history, Ford chairman Henry Ford II had his foot firmly on the company’s throttle. Ford had recently engaged Carroll Shelby to build the mighty Cobra to compete with and beat Chevy’s Corvette on race tracks across the country and around the world. By 1965, Shelby had his hands on the Mustang, too, with GT350 fastbacks swiftly dominating their own race classes. And Ford’s racing operation based in Charlotte, North Carolina – Holman-Moody – was winning on the NASCAR circuit and grabbing headlines with legendary drivers like Fred Lorenzen and Fireball Roberts.

Wasting no time after the Mustang launch, Holman-Moody built the world’s first Mustang funny car, which quickly became a hit at drag strips across the country in the hands of drivers like Gaspar “Gas” Rhonda.

On the local front, one of my boyhood heroes was a Suffolk County police officer and ex-Marine named Mike Mooney. Mooney both drag raced and road raced his souped-up Mustang notchback, and with its 271-horsepower High-Performance 289 engine, it was tough to beat. Once in a while, he would invite me to accompany him to either New York National Speedway or Bridgehampton Race Circuit to help him crew. It was Mooney’s early influence that briefly had me consider law enforcement as a career choice, although it was more for being able to speed legally than to fight crime.

Tom Cotter Mustang 1966 GT350H
In 2008, Tom finally got his Mustang, a ’66 GT350H in white and gold. (Photo: Courtesy Tom Cotter)

As I sit here considering the Mustang’s 60th anniversary, it occurs to me that the car has been part of my life those full 60 years. But as much as Ioved the Mustang, for too long I had never owned one. I resolved that issue in 2008, when I purchased a Hertz Edition 1966 Shelby GT350. Most Hertz rental Mustangs cars were black with gold stripes, but this Mustang was one of the few painted white with gold stripes.

I love it. Just had the engine rebuilt and of all my cars, the Hertz is the one I enjoy driving most. That fastback design still increases my heart rate. And I get so stoked when the automatic transmission shifts from low to second gear and the rear tyres give a little chirp. In the years since I saw that first automatic Mustang at Nokomis Elementary School, I’ve learned a lot about cars in general and Mustangs specifically. Most importantly, I now know that the long horizontal brake pedal serves only one purpose.

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