What is the Greatest Classic Mustang ever made?
Who’s the Greatest of all Time (aka the GOAT)? It seems that’s all everyone wants to know these days. Whether it’s sports, entertainment, business, or pretty much anything else that includes competition of any kind, the discussion inevitably leads to identifying the GOAT of that particular topic. I’ve even fallen victim to debating the GOAT of pizza toppings with my children, that’s how common these arguments are today in our everyday lives. It’s often difficult to pick clear-cut favorites that can unimpededly wear the GOAT crown, although there are some consensus frontrunners: Tom Brady in football. Michael Jordan in basketball. Pepperoni.
The GOAT debate has raged on just as passionately in the classic car world, where many people will argue their personal selection with extreme fervor. Classic cars are a part of an incredibly subjective field, so the only real way to select a GOAT classic is to measure it by popularity, or in other words, production numbers and sales figures. Rather than trying to definitively tackle the debate of greatest classic car of all-time (a fight that would seemingly never end, with arguments to be made for just about every major car company), we’ve narrowed down the field in an effort to try and find the Greatest Classic Mustang ever made.
As Ford’s longest standing nameplate, there are obviously plenty of generations and models to choose from. The assumption being, that the more popular a classic car was back in its day and the more relevant and popular it still is today, the higher it is on the GOAT scale. With a wealth of sales data and market trends at our disposal, we specifically focused on the “glory days” (aka the muscle car era), specifically the 1964.5 – 1973 model years and their most popular submodels. Obviously, the debate is packed full of information, variables, and even contradictions. One can’t just stake a GOAT claim without several qualifiers, either. First of all, which body style are we considering – the coupe, convertible, or fastback? Secondly, which drivetrain? What options (and there’s a slew of them), color combination, wheel package? And what exact year are we talking about, and how do we separate similar cars like the 1964 ½, the 1965, or even the 1966 that are largely the same vehicle? In a more clear-cut world, we’d probably prefer to just state that the catch-all “early 1st generation” Mustang (and everything that heading encapsulates) is the GOAT, but people demand an exact year to fit into the proverbial search box of life. So, in an effort to achieve that goal, we’ve broken down the Mustang’s heyday years into smaller groups, lumping together specific years and design similarities, and from these groups we’ll pick semi-finalists. Lastly, from these semi-finalists we endeavor to pick a winner, aka the GOAT Classic Mustang. Now that we’ve explained our organized method, let us now dictate a bit of our educated madness with the following contenders:
The originals. The Pony cars that America first fell in love with and has been obsessed with ever since. From the rather unassuming 1964 ½ coupe, to the gorgeously elegant 1965 Mustang GT-A convertibles, or to the super-sporty 1966 Mustang 2+2 Fastbacks and everything in between, the first generation Mustangs are typically at the top of the hill in the classic car world by every measure. They appeal to everyone, from the budget collector just starting out in her Inline-6 Sprint coupe to the speed shop owner with his bad-ass GT fastback, the Mustang let the world know that it doesn’t discriminate anyone. And because of that, the numerous iterations run the gamut, making it difficult to pinpoint a true GOAT. The best seller are coupes, but that’s mostly because they’re the most economical. Convertibles appeal to just about everyone with their movie-star good-looks, but other than the GT/GT-A models there was never an uber-rare or hyper-exclusive convertible version. So, that leaves us the fastback, and the top dog has always been the Shelby GT350 – the result of a marketing campaign between Shelby American and Ford Motor Company. The ’65 models were only offered in Wimbledon White and Guardsman Blue and were all powered by a 289/306HP Windsor V8 mated to a 4-speed manual. 34 additional GT350R models were purpose-built for the track (where they were SCCA champions for three straight years) and are easily identified by their revised front fascia, which currently happens to be a very popular front clip used in the build of Mustang resto-mods. 1966 offered additional colors (including the very popular white-and-blue inverse), a back seat, a more comfortable and road-friendly suspension, and even an automatic transmission. Additionally, aesthetic add-ons like the rear-quarter windows (that replaced the 1965’s extractor vents) and functional brake scoops on each side make this one of the most beautiful cars ever designed. Quite frankly, all these Shelbys are worthy of GOAT status, but in our expert opinion the winner from this group is the 1966 Ford Mustang GT350H, aka the Hertz rental car models. Approximately 1K of these “Rent-a-Racer” cars were built during the Ford-Shelby-Hertz marketing campaign, with most of the car featuring black paint and gold stripes (LeMans and rocker stripes). The first 85 produced are the most valuable, as they all had 4-speeds and were rumored to dominate the SCCA track events (evidence of welded-in roll bars was found in many of the car upon their return to Hertz), although the subsequent 800+ also featured automatic transmissions and comfortable black interiors. With great pedigree, sinister good-looks, and impressive rarity, the 1966 Shelby GT350H is our first GOAT semi-finalist.
Despite the rabid popularity of the ’65/’66 Mustangs, Ford decided the model needed to be larger and the design more dynamic. Much to his chagrin, Lee Iacocca set off to update the design that he, Gale Halderman, and Donald Frey had just perfected a couple years prior. This team was not very keen on changing something that was so close to perfect, but nevertheless a relatively major redesign was completed to directly compete with the all-new Chevrolet Camaro. And it too was a resounding success, as the 1967 Mustang was instantly popular and sold like crazy. It was longer, wider, heavier, and bulkier-looking from front to rear, and because of the increased dimensions the Mustang was finally able to accommodate a big block – the venerable 390CI/320HP V8. Improved suspension/steering/brake systems were offered across the model line, and aesthetic upgrades to the coupe, fastback, and convertibles included larger headlights, side scoops, an open grille with a galloping horse badge, a squared-off rear end that looked downright mean, and a roomier, more comfortable interior just to name a few. 1968 offered only minor changes after the big changes that were ushered in the year prior, but experts will note the streamlined side scoops, FORD block letters on the hood, and a wider array of colors. In addition to the 390, two other special engines were noteworthy in these years, as one retired and one began its legendary journey: the 289 HiPo’s swan song was in the ‘67 model (only 472 rare cars came equipped with the powerful small block) as it then made room for the 302 in ‘68, while the 428 Cobra Jet was introduced as a drag-race ready monster in 1968. But alas, the Shelby Cobra wins here again. And I don’t mean another GT350, but rather the 1967 Shelby Cobra GT500 and its monster 428 Police Interceptor V8. Featuring all of the aesthetic bulky goodness mentioned above, the GT500s also received side-scoops galore, an aggressive hood with dual scoops and pins, oversized fog lights, an integrated ducktail spoiler, and the subsequent LeMans and rocker panel stripe set. The ’67 GT500 is simply stunning, it’s a legendary icon that’s as American as apple pie and Tomahawk missiles. The subsequent 1968 GT500 with it’s even more aggressive front end was also very noteworthy, especially since it gave us a convertible version of the supercar AND the GT500KR. But because Carroll Shelby was no longer as intimately involved in the build and design process, it just doesn’t have quite the same impact as the ’67 GT500. (Ford had begun the process of dropping the Cobra name and bringing production back to the factory). We could easily fill up another page espousing the virtues of this amazing classis car, but for all the reasons mentioned above and more, the 1967 Shelby Cobra GT500 is the next GOAT semi-finalist.
The Summer of Love brought on some gorgeously restyled Mustangs as they continued to get longer, beefier, and even heavier to accommodate for a wide range of big motors. In the opinion of many, these two years represent the true representation of the Mustang as a muscle car, and that claim alone can be backed up by the prodigious line of desirable motors: the 302, 351, and 390 for the “regular” cars, along with highly desirable Boss and Cobra Jet motors that knocked everyone’s socks off. The fastback 2+2 was replaced by the SportsRoof (although most of us still call them fastbacks), and yet another redesign included quad headlights, redesigned profiles (the only side-scoops available were now high up on the rear quarter of the SportsRoof), and redesigned front and rear fascia. The real treat in these years was the long representation of specialty models, including the Mustang GT, the Mach 1, the Boss 302 and Boss 429, and the Mustang Shelby GT350 and GT500 models (no longer called the Cobra). That’s a long list to choose from, and everyone one of those cars has a strong case to wear the GOAT crown. But there can only be one, and we have chosen the extra-nasty 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 429. It’s called the Boss for crying out loud, could we really pick anything else? The eponymous engine under the hood is the biggest Ford ever offered, and if you ever wondered why a motor that gigantic was approved by a car manufacturer, it’s because of Ford’s racing commitments. It’s a process called homologation, when a manufacturer’s racing division is forced by a racing authority (in this case the SCCA for the Boss 302 and NASCAR for the Boss 429 to build a car) to produce a specific amount of cars (1K Boss 302s and 500 Boss 429s) to ensure that they’re racing stuff they can actually sell. Otherwise, racing teams would create impossibly expensive race cars that could never be duplicated or challenged on the track. So now you know the story of why the car was created, and that very rarity, the Mach-1 style good looks, and the insanely powerful 429 “semi-hemi” V8 is exactly why the 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 429 is another semi-finalist for the GOAT.
All good things must come to an end, and just as the muscle car era was starting to wind down in the early 1970s, as was the popularity of the Mustang. Bunkie Knudsen made his away over to Ford from Chevrolet (where he had made his bones overseeing productions like the Chevelle) and championed the philosophical move away from “speed and power” to heavier, luxury-type designs. The results were basically disastrous, resulting in what many consider to be the “lazy” Mustangs. And even though Bunkie was ultimately run out of the job by Lee Iacocca before these cars ever left the factory, the “bigger and heavier is better” maxim was ingrained in the company and the Mustang ultimately suffered. With that being said, we did still get a couple good examples (a Mach 1 offering in every year), and a really great one: the 1971 Ford Mustang Boss 351. Only 1,806 models were ever made for this 1-year only Mustang, and the powerful Boss 351 Cleveland V8 motor under the hood offered 330Hp and plenty of style. It makes the Boss 351 one of the most underrated Mustangs of all time, and our last semi-finalist for the GOAT.
Honorable Mention: The FoxBody Mustang
Although the year range technically ran from ’79-‘93, the horsepower numbers didn’t start stepping up until 1985 when they hit the 210 range, and ultimately stayed in the respectable lower 200s until 1993. That’s when these cars started really gaining traction and they’ve had an incredibly strong following since that seems to multiply each year. Foxbody Mustang are really surging in the market right now, especially the later GTs, Vanilla Ice convertibles, and coveted notchbacks. And lest we forget all the incredibly cool specialty Foxbodies that this 15-year run brought us, including the Saleen, SVO, Cobra R, 7-Up and Summer Special models, and the GT350 Turbo. We’ll agree for now that a Foxbody doesn’t belong in the GOAT conversation quite yet, but if we were to rewrite this blog in five years, an example or two could easily be in serious contention.
For now, let’s get back to the GOAT question at hand. Of all these semi-finalists, who is the winner? It may not be so clear cut, but after great debate and research, we’ve reached a professional consensus and selected the GOAT Mustang: the 1967 Shelby Cobra GT500. As we mentioned in that previous section, the ’67 Shelby is such an incredibly special car, with an insane value projection that’s already in the seven figures (a 1967 GT500 Super Snake sold for 2.2 million dollars in 2019), with no ceiling in sight. Special-built Eleanor GT500s are box-office movie stars that chew up the scenery, and if they ever find Jim Morrison’s missing GT500, aptly named “The Blue Lady” by The Doors lead singer himself, it will likely be the most valuable vehicle on the planet. A household name loved by car fans from all walks of life, the GT500 will continue to blast into the stratosphere. Sounds like a GOAT to me.