It took 50 years and more than nine million Mustangs before Ford Motor Co. decided its beloved, blue-collar icon was mature enough for a grand tour of Europe and the rest of the world. The strategy’s success suggests the company should have shipped them sooner.
Near the end of 2015, the latest version of the famous car rolled into 140 countries. Decked out for its 50th anniversary with a major update in design and engineering, it was met with a rush of orders from fans who had been waiting decades to get one. By 2017, Mustang sales were swooning in the U.S. as the new model’s novelty faded, but foreign buyers proved more faithful, fueling a steady stream of orders to the plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, where the Mustang is made.
The pony car may be as American as bourbon, Steve McQueen and, well, the mustang, but today one in four of these machines is bound for drivers in China, England and Germany (Ford says it’s even sold 17 in Bulgaria). This four-wheeled fever dream for generations of young American men—the stuff of Bruce Springsteen fables—has finally gone continental.
“It’s very much a piece of the American dream that has actually been able to move,” said Ian Fletcher, a London-based auto analyst for IHS Markit. “It’s still a very, very niche vehicle, but people see it and they want to buy it. It’s a heart-and-soul thing.”
All told, Ford said demand for the Mustang outside the U.S. is double what it expected. Capitalizing on that success, this year Ford added Brazil and five other countries to its Mustang paddock.
What’s more, foreign buyers are a hugely profitable piece of business, since Mustangs headed overseas tend to be decked out in the most lavish trim. A bareback version starts at around $26,000 in the U.S., but buyers abroad are limited to a “Performance Pack,” pushing up the starting price to almost $54,000 in England and Germany.
It turns out that Ford hit a masterstroke in product strategy, even besting such continental sports cars as the Porsche 911, which the Mustang now outsells in its German home market. The coup also revealed a missed opportunity, providing ample evidence that Ford left piles of money on the table over the decades.
“It’s always funny when you see the ‘experts’ in an industry get something this wrong,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Cox Automotive.
To be fair, selling an American car abroad is trickier than stacking a boat with shipping containers. Assembly lines have to be retooled to put steering wheels on the right-hand side—which isn’t cheap. More broadly, countries have their own safety and emissions regulations, which often vary. A range of engineering specifications from how headlights are configured to the height of a hood need to be met before a vehicle can enter a market.
While Ford didn’t pull the global trigger on earlier versions of the Mustang, the company decided the 50th anniversary was time to go all-in. “It was a pretty ballsy move really,” Fletcher, at IHS, said. “There was no guarantee it was going to sell.”
The big hurdle, according to Brauer, was cultural. The Mustang has always been the quintessential American car, a red-white-and-blue bit of financial engineering that married high straight-line speeds with shockingly low sticker prices. It represents the same magical intersection of value and volume that Ford hit a century ago with its Models A and T.
Mileage and cornering ability—major considerations for most buyers in Asia and Europe—were afterthoughts in an American market where torque is king. “It is so genuinely and intrinsically American, there was always an assumption, it wouldn’t work as well elsewhere,” Brauer explained.
The performance argument, however, started fading about 15 years ago when Mustangs suddenly began to turn relatively well, stopped chugging gas and generally developed some road manners.
By the time the newest version arrived three years ago, the tropes about Mustangs being crude Americana were as old as armchair ashtrays. Ford’s 2015 Mustang wasn’t heavy and handled itself plenty well. The power proposition hadn’t changed, but the latest iteration of the Mustang—the sixth in its history—could be had with an ultra-efficient four-cylinder engine, while the throaty V-8 posted better mileage, too.
“I wouldn’t say the previous generations were agricultural, but the current generation is more sophisticated,” Fletcher said.
Ford was decidedly diplomatic in explaining its newest ambassador to the global sports car arena: “By implementing an independent rear suspension to the car and enhancing the overall vehicle suspension, brakes, drive experience, it is now a true competitor within the EU sports car market.”
Here’s the thing: Europeans never really cared about all that, nor did drivers in Asia and the Middle East for that matter. They wanted the same glorious car you saw roaring out of the high school parking lot. Hilmar Jacobsen bought his first Mustang in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1978, five months before he could legally drive. “It was February and there was snow, so I had to wait until April anyway,” he explained. “I still own the car, so it has been with me for 40 years.”
Now Jacobsen has two other Mustangs, one of which he races. “They have some kind of dream about them,” he said.
The Schwabengarage-Vaihingen Ford dealership just 10 miles from Porsche’s Stuttgart headquarters has been selling Mustangs for four decades—though it could only move a few of them until recently. “It’s an absolutely unique design,” said salesman Christian Sandner. It’s “the spirit of the U.S—free feeling—the cheap price and the V8 in a time when everyone is down-sizing.”
Third-party companies have done a brisk trade shipping American horsepower overseas. Brauer, for example, sold his treasured 1970 Plymouth GT to a buyer in Australia, who snatched it up along with five other steel beasts from the states. “It’s a business model,” he explained. “He shipped them all back and three months later was still able to sell them for a profit.”
In short, the blustering American nature of the Mustang, which Ford always treated as a liability abroad, was actually its best asset. It helped that Hollywood has been giving autobahn bombers and Tokyo drifters a steady dose for decades, casting the Mustang again and again in films such as Bullitt, where it starred in arguably the most famous car chase ever , to more recent flicks like Need for Speed and the Fast & Furious franchise.
The world, it turned out, loves the Mustang for exactly what it is. “It’s not like the clues weren’t there,” Brauer said. Not surprisingly, most Mustang buyers in Europe are ignoring the small, fuel-sipping engine entirely, according to Fletcher. They want the V-8 in spite of the bigger gas bill that goes with it.
There’s no risk that herds of Mustangs will take over Europe’s highways—Porsche is still doing just fine—but any automaker still in the business of building a sports car should be on warning. The Mustang’s global momentum hasn’t been lost on General Motors and the folks steering Fiat-Chrysler Dodge. Chevrolet’s Camaro is due for a major reworking in 2021 and an overhaul is already overdue on the Dodge Challenger. If Ford’s results are any measure, both of those machines have plenty of room to run.