• Image Credit: Ford Motor Company

    Without a doubt, the Ford Mustang belongs in the pantheon of iconic American cars. It has been one of the best-selling and culture-defining cars since its debut nearly 50 years ago.

    That doesn’t mean it didn’t have its share of growing pains.

    From its small, sporty debut in 1964, the car grew. It would grow more than one foot in length and gain almost 700 pounds over the next nine years to accommodate the big-block V8 engines that were becoming popular. A decade later, the car barely resembled the one from its roots.

    Click through for photos of this historic car:

    • Image Credit: Ford Motor Company

    “I don’t like what’s happening, they’re blowing them up,” one stockholder lamented at an annual meeting in May of 1968. “Why can’t you just leave a sports car small?”

    Over the next few years, Ford executives would answer that question. As the company begins preparations to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its original Mustang next year, it’s also reflecting on a lesser-celebrated 40th anniversary this year.

    • Image Credit: Ford Motor Company

    In the fall of 1973, Ford unveiled the Mustang II. It went on sale in hard-top and hatchback bodies, which, let’s be honest, look pretty worn and dated today. The Mustang II certainly wins no glamour awards, which leads to its unappreciated state.

    But it deserves some love, and here’s why. Initially, the Mustang II was only available in four- or six-cylinder options. Shedding its V8, its arrival coincided with the first big oil spike of the 1970s. As buyers searched for fuel-efficient cars, they purchased approximately 285,900 Mustang IIs in its first year of production, which halted years of declining sales.

    • Image Credit: Ford Motor Company

    “Mustang II got a black eye, but the bottom line is the car carried the flame,” said John Clor, a Mustang enthusiast and author of “The Mustang Dynasty.” “It reenergized people. … It took several years, but without this car, we wouldn’t have crossed that bridge. Camaro struggled into the 90s, and then went away.”

    Looking back, the Mustang II was pretty advanced for its time, carrying rack-and-pinion steering and front-disc brakes as standard equipment. Motor Trend named the Mustang II as its Car of the Year in 1974.

    And despite the smaller engine options, the performance was comparable to the much-larger V8 in the outgoing model because of its reduced weight.

    • Image Credit: Ford Motor Company

    It lasted five model years.

    After the 1978 model, Ford moved away from the II and onto its third generation of Mustang. But the Mustang II left a legacy. It kept the brand afloat in the face of waning demand for sports cars in the ‘70s. It also kept afloat the iconic American sports car, which has now lasted nearly 50 years.

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