The Chicago Auto Show opens to the public this weekend. It is the oldest and still the largest auto show in the United States. With strong local dealer participation, and consistently high public attendance, it enjoys an excellent reputation, even if only a few concept cars see their debut there.
In its current location at McCormick Place, the show is over a million square feet, so large that a number of manufacturers have constructed their own interior test tracks as part of their extensive displays.
But there was a time when the Chicago Show was the place to debut a concept car, and many of the domestic manufacturers planned their debuts around the shows schedule.
In 1970, Ford celebrated its tenth appearance at the Chicago Auto Show with two contrasting concepts. The first was the Kilimanjaro, a four-wheel drive “Safari Van” with front mounted fuel tanks, gullwing side windows, bespoke Firestone off-road tyres, and foot holes on the sides to access the roof.
It even came equipped with high-backed, leather-wrapped captain’s chairs and a bespoke set of rifles (and ammunition!) for that all-important big game hunt. The exterior was wrapped in a faux leopard-skin print. It was like a Land Rover crossed with a Volkswagen Kombi, or, culturally, Ernest Hemingway crossed with the Grateful Dead.
But it was Ford’s other concept that really drew the crowds. In an experiment to pivot the Mustang’s image towards a European GT (and, incidentally, not for the first time), Ford introduced the Mustang Milano, a two-seat variation of its then five-year old pony car.
The car was named after Milan, Italy in honour of the numerous marques that called the city home and where so many iconic GT cars were born (Ford already produced a car named Torino, so the Italian motor cities were well represented).
Presented in striking “Ultra-Violet”, the car was quite a departure from the standard Mustang SportsRoof, from which it was supposedly derived. Lower – seven inches (180mm) lower – the Milano was only 43 inches high (1100mm), longer, and sleeker, more angular than the standard pony. The windscreen was raked at 67 degrees, and the fastback was even more dramatically angled.
The strong character line along the flank leapt over the rear wheels, instead of transitioning into the side scoop as in a traditional Mustang. To many observers, then and now, this line made the Milano look more like a fastback Dodge Challenger, which had been introduced to the market just six months before.
The front of the Milano had a large overhang which extended the form and character line to make the car look like it was lunging forward. Conspicuous by its absence was the classic ‘running horse’ and Mustang grille. A small Mustang logo was placed on the left side. Headlights were hidden and the grille was divided into two parts, somewhat like the Dodge Coronet of that year. The bonnet was marked by NACA ducts, rather than a more traditional scoop or power bulge.
At the rear fascia, vertical tail light strips along each side shone green with acceleration, amber when coasting, and red with braking. The long fastback was actually a liftgate, which terminated in a recessed spoiler. This spoiler would rise with the increase in speed.
The wheels were an early version of cast aluminium in an interlaced pattern that predicted a new generation of performance wheels. Complementing the wheels were a bespoke set of F60x15 tyres made by Firestone, which had also made the tyres for the Kilimanjaro mentioned above.
Inside, there was plenty of light purple leather stretched across the two seats and door panels, along with blue trim, with a deeper-coloured mohair carpet. Plus, in true Grand Touring style, a bespoke set of luggage nestled into the huge rear storage area.
Any hopes that the Milano might preview an upcoming production Mustang were quickly dashed with the reveal of the 1971 Mustang. The 1971-1973 models were the largest Mustangs ever, 800lbs (~360kg) heavier than the original and with reduced power under the bonnet.
There had been some conflict within Ford as to what the Mustang should be as the 1970s unfolded. The pony car era seemed to be passing, personal luxury cars seemed to be the emerging trend. Bunkie Knudsen, who had been lured away from GM, pushed for this direction, which of course crossed over into the marketing placement of the Thunderbird, the original personal luxury car (which had also grown in size over the years).
The oil shock of 1973 put an end to the plus-sized Mustang. Lee Iacocca, no friend of Knudsen’s, advocated for a back-to-basics approach for the Mustang, so for the 1974 model year, the original pony car was moved to a pony car frame – this time the Pinto, Ford’s tragically flawed subcompact.
Smaller than the original Mustang, the new generation was underpowered and heavy, thanks to new emissions equipment regulations, but it still impressed the journalists over at Motor Trend, who awarded it Car of the Year for 1974.
It was in Australia that the Mustang Milano found its greatest influence, in the design of the Falcon XB. The Falcon model was a full-size car in multiple body styles and had a long and very successful lifespan, with sales of over 3,000,000 cars across seven generations. But it was the XB coupé that showed the influence of the Milano, with its aggressive stance and fastback shape.
Those not immediately familiar with the Falcon might remember the car, in Interceptor form, in the first two Mad Max movies.
It is interesting to see, almost fifty years later, that the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger are still with us and in basically the same form now as they were then. Some critics feel these two cars are trapped in their own narrative, that there is no room to ever go forward in design. But both cars are still strong sellers, so Ford and FCA are only too happy provide the market with some old school badassery – with some powerful new technology, of course.
Still, the designs of both the Mustang and Challenger are not so perfect that we are immune to looking back at concepts like the Milano and asking, “What if…?”
What if indeed…
If you would like to read about another radical concept from the 1970 Chicago Show, see our previous CCotW article about the Chrysler Cordoba Del Oro.