Did Ford Name its Mustang after SMU's Mascot?

It's September 28, 1963, and the mood in the visitor's locker room of Ann Arbor's Michigan Stadium is somber. SMU's undersized Mustang football players hang their heads, mourning their season-opening 27-16 defeat at the hands of the Wolverines. There are few words as the players prepare for the trip back to Dallas.

The door swings open, and in walks Ford Motor Company president and American business icon Lee Iacocca. Heads turn, and Iacocca begins to speak.

"Today, after watching the SMU Mustangs play with such flair, we reached a decision," he says. "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."

That's SMU's version, anyway, often repeated by head coach Hayden Fry, who also maintains that Iacocca sold him the first Mustang to come off the line, painted in red and blue, and most recently trotted out by the university last week when it announced that the Mustangs will return to Michigan Stadium in 2018 for a chance to avenge that 1963 loss.

If the notion that one of America's largest carmakers would make a multi-million dollar bet based on a losing performance by a rival college football team seems far-fetched, that's because it probably is. On Friday, Automotive News' Nick Bunkley fact-checked SMU's claim and found it wanting.

First, here's Iacocca's story, as delivered to Automotive News by his personal assistant.

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.

He wouldn't say whether or not he ever delivered the post-game speech, or if he'd even attended the game. But the evidence suggests that, even if he was there, Ford had already made its decision.

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.

Not that we should let the truth get away in the way of a good story.

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