FLAT ROCK, UNITED STATES - The Ford Mustang — an iconic American symbol of cool — reached a major milestone Wednesday as the 10 millionth vehicle rolled off an assembly line at a Detroit-area plant.
Ford marked the occasion for the car, celebrated in American song and film and recognized the world over as a quintessentially American cultural export, with a big party and parade at the Michigan headquarters — complete with a flyover from World War II-era P-51 Mustang fighter jets that are the car's namesake.
It is a key moment for Ford, which is banking on the Mustang's wide appeal to help it grow global market share. US sales of the model are declining, but they are accelerating overseas.
"The Mustang is the best-selling sports coupe in Germany, as well as in the United States," Ford CEO Jim Hackett boasted in remarks to revelers assembled at Ford headquarters.
As it celebrates the milestone, Ford is appealing to the sense of nostalgia for the vehicle that exemplified the love of the open road and shares its a name with the horse that still roams free in the American West.
The 10 millionth Mustang was painted the same "Wimbledon White" as the first one to roll off the assembly line in 1964.
"I can think of no other American car that captures the love affair with the automobile that Americans have had," automotive historian John Heitmann of the University of Dayton told AFP.
The Mustang germinated an entire subgenre of cars.
From a technical standpoint, the original 1965 model was not meant as a muscle car intended to attract those who gravitate to fast wheels.
It was in fact one of the original so-called "pony cars" — a smaller, affordable, practical sibling of flashy sports cars intended to appeal to young professionals, including women.
But the Mustang became an icon almost from the start, in no small part thanks to marketing that would rival a modern-day iPhone launch.
It debuted in the spring, at the 1964 New York World's Fair, far before other companies that announced their latest offerings in the fall. It was hyped up in advance and automotive industry journalists were on hand.
Automotive historian Bob Merlis, at the time a teenager, witnessed the World's Fair launch.
"It was almost like pandemonium. People were so excited about this car," Merlis said.
"It was sort of a counterpoint to the very square, staid station wagon ethos that Americans grew up with in suburbia," he recalled. "It represented some kind of a freedom vehicle. It embodied that."
The car captured the public imagination, reflected in its popularity on the big screen.
The Mustang made its first appearance in 1964 in a chase scene with Sean Connery's James Bond in "Goldfinger," and American film star Steve McQueen drove a Mustang in the 1968 thriller "Bullitt" — cementing the car's cool factor.
It even appealed overseas, appearing in the 1966 Oscar-winning French film "A Man and a Woman" by Claude Lelouch.
And Wilson Pickett immortalized the car in "Mustang Sally," a rhythm and blues classic from 1966.
Ford has been playing up that nostalgic past. At this year's Detroit auto show, the company unveiled a new limited-edition Bullitt Mustang, along with McQueen's original.
For its celebration, Ford highlighted the loyalty of Mustang owners who are known to form clubs and restore older models.
Owners were called upon to bring one Mustang for every model year to Ford headquarters, and they responded enthusiastically. The company held a 20-mile (32 km) parade Wednesday morning from its headquarters in one Detroit suburb to its Mustang assembly plant in another.
"It's been part of my life for a long time," Mike Magri, owner of five different Mustangs since 1988, told AFP.
But Mustangs soon will be one of only two passenger cars from Ford -- along with a crossover Focus — sold in North America. All other Ford offerings will be trucks and SUVs.
Ford sold only about 81,000 of the sporty model in North America last year, a mere 0.5 percent of the market, according to Autodata. But Mustang sales are growing overseas.
Since Ford began exporting Mustangs in 2015, it has become the world's best-selling sports coupe, according to the company's figures — including in China, which by 2025 is projected to have twice the share of the global car market compared to the US.
Ford's head of global markets, Jim Farley, said the vehicle's largest dealer in the world is in Stockholm, Sweden.
"Now, you see Mustangs on the streets in London and you see Mustangs in Beijing," Farley told employees at the plant.