The Story Behind How the Ford Mustang was Named

Competing Stories Gallop Neck-and-Neck

close-up of grill on 2015 Mustang
© 2014 The Ford Motor Company

Auto enthusiasts occasionally debate the origin of the "Mustang" name for Ford's iconic muscle car, and even Ford's own marketing team has addressed some of the speculation.

The Official Story

According to Ford, specific documentation about the car's naming no longer exist. The most plausible explanation, as related by the people at the heart of the decision in late 1963, was that John Najjar, the designer on the project, drew inspiration from the P-51 Mustang, a World War II-era fighter.

As related in Robert A. Fria's book, Mustang Genesis: Creation of the Pony Car, Najjar's initial suggestion fell flat because Ford leaders didn't want to name the car after an airplane, but when the horse connotation of "Mustang" was proposed, the leadership team endorsed it.

The Southern Methodist University Mustangs

A widely shared but poorly sourced story suggests that Lee Iacocca, then a Ford executive working on the Mustang project, had suggested Mustang in honor of the SMU Mustangs. In September 1963, SMU lost to the University of Michigan Wolverines in a football game at Ann Arbor. Iacocca was reportedly so respectful of SMU's pluckiness that he entered the locker room and promised to name the car after their team; his alleged inspirational speech still circulates on the Internet:

"After watching the SMU Mustangs play with such flair, we reached a decision. We will call our new car the Mustang. Because it will be light, like your team. It will be quick, like your team. And it will be sporty, like your team."

Although the locker-room story offers a feel-good explanation, Ford neutrally notes that its own ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, had prepared Mustang-branded materials before the fated football clash. In addition, Iacocca told Fria that the incident never happened.

Pick from the Top

Iacocca did, however, suggest in a 2014 interview with Automotive News that JWT's branding reps provided him with a series of animal-heavy names and that he and Gene Bordinat, Ford's vice president of styling, picked mustang from the list and registered it before General Motors could use it.

Other Explanations

Poke around muscle-car websites and you'll come across other theories, including the idea that Ford specifically wanted to name the car after an animal. Although the only evidence remaining is human memory, given the lack of corporate documentation around the naming decisions, the generally accepted story -- and the one implicitly supported by Ford itself -- received its fullest telling in Fria's book.

So, yes, the Ford Mustang was named after the horse. Probably.