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Did inspiration strike Lee Iacocca during a football game at the University of Michigan 50 years ago?
At the time, Iacocca was a vice president with Ford Motor Co., which was preparing to roll out a new sports car the following spring. On Sept. 28, 1963, after Michigan defeated Southern Methodist University, 27-16, SMU says Iacocca entered the visitor's locker room to address the dejected team.
"Today," Iacocca said, according to an SMU press release this week, "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."
Just think: If then-Michigan Athletic Director Fritz Crisler had instead scheduled that day's game against a different Dallas-area college, Texas Christian, Ford could be celebrating a half century of its venerable Horned Frog.
On the other hand, what if SMU, whose logo is a near-exact mirror image of the Ford Mustang's galloping-horse emblem, made up the whole story?
[Related slideshow: Ford Mustang concepts that never were]
I asked Iacocca's assistant whether the story is true. She provided this response from him:
"We had a fellow at J. Walter Thompson Advertising suggest a list of names. Cars were being named with animal names, which seemed to be popular at the time. Our list had animal names, one of which was Mustang. Gene Bourdinat, VP of Styling and I sat down and chose the name Mustang from the list, because the running horse connotation suggested 'moving fast through the countryside.' Our team heard GM was considering using the name Mustang, but we registered it first."
So did Iacocca go into SMU's locker room or even attend the game at all? "I have read what you sent before and Mr. Iacocca doesn't affirm or deny when asked," she e-mailed back. "I think perhaps he gets pleasure from the various accounts on how Mustang was named."
A Mustang historian, John Clor, wrote in a June column for Ford Racing that the origin of the car's name is often debated, with no definitive answer. He brought up the SMU story but said that explanation is "widely disputed and lacks eyewitnesses other than Iacocca, who has never commented on the matter."
Clor, author of The Mustang Dynasty, said a more popular myth is that John Najjar, a Ford executive stylist, named the car for a World War II fighter plane, the P-51 Mustang.
"Although Najjar had always said the name originally had been inspired by the fighter plane and Ford press releases since have repeated that assertion, neither I nor any other Mustang historian I know over the years have seen any internal evidence to back that up," Clor wrote. "In fact, no one can really question that the car's single association with Mustang name refers only to the hardy, wild horses of the American Plains."
Ford dug up three photos of a Mustang prototype for me. They're dated Sept. 27, 1963 -- the day before Michigan played SMU. The car pictured has the word "Mustang" on the back and the horse logo on the grille, indicating that the name was chosen before the Mustangs arrived in Ann Arbor.
Regardless, SMU's head coach in 1963, Hayden Fry, insists Iacocca really did barge into the locker room, climb onto a training table and tell the Mustangs that he and his engineers had "made a big decision in the stands today." Fry, who later coached at Iowa for 20 seasons, told the Iowa City Press Citizen newspaper in February that Iacocca even sold him the first Ford Mustang -- painted in SMU's colors, red and blue -- for just $1.
"Here I lost the ballgame and [Michigan coach] Bump Elliott won it," Fry, now 84, told the paper, "and he didn't get anything and I got the first Mustang."