Members of the Long Island Mustang and Shelby Club gather...

Members of the Long Island Mustang and Shelby Club gather around their cars at the Port Jefferson Village Center, April 5, 2014. Rick Wertz. left, with his 1968 Mustang Shelby GT500, Kevin Appel with his 1969 Mach 1, and Susan Drewes with her 1971 Mach 1. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Ford's Mustang line, one of the longest running car models to date. Credit: Johnny Milano

Ford Motor Co.'s celebration of the Mustang's 50th anniversary comes Thursday to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, with some 40 members of the Mustang and Shelby Club of Long Island expected to be at the invitation-only event.

The park is where the first generation of the sporty car was unveiled on April 17, 1964, at the World's Fair.

Conceived originally as a car for baby boomers just beginning to reach driving age, the Mustang has been in continuous production since '64, with more than 9.2 million sold so far. Sources disagree over whether the car was named after the World War II fighter plane or the feral horse breed.

"It really is a classic design, and it really gives the customer a lot for their money," said auto industry analyst George Magliano, based in Manhattan for the economic forecasting firm IHS Inc.

Prices started at $2,368 in 1964. The 2014 model begins at $22,510.

John Olesuk, president of the Long Island Mustang club and a 59-year-old construction project manager from Farmingville, owns a 1965 Fastback, a 2006 model customized by Roush Performance of Livonia, Mich., a 1989 GT being restored and a 1964 convertible awaiting restoration.

He attributes the car's longevity to Ford's skill in retaining its original character over the decades, while steadily modernizing it. "There have always been changes," he said, "but there's always been a lineage you can follow between the first Mustang to the current one." A new Mustang due at dealerships in the fall as a 2015 model will be the sixth generation.

Mustang no longer is the high-volume seller it was in the 1960s, however. Last year, Ford sold 77,186 of them, or just 3 percent of the 2.5 million new cars and trucks the company sold in the United States, including Lincolns. In 1966, the car's best year, Ford sold 549,436 Mustangs.

The decline stems partly from the rise of competitors like the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger, and from the growing popularity of the sport sedan, a body style inherently more practical than a two-door model.

But the Mustang is important for Ford beyond its numbers, said Todd Lassa, executive editor of Automobile, the car buff magazine. "It's an icon the way the Corvette is for Chevrolet," he said. "It's a 'halo car' that draws people into the showrooms, even if they have a family and leave with a Fusion or Focus or even an F-150 pickup."

Fred Leich, a 54-year-old hospital administrator from Merrick, has a '66 coupe, purchased from an aunt in 1978 when he was in college and later restored. "I love the car," he said. "It's fun, it's simple and it's easy to take care of." He's planning to be at Flushing Meadows Thursday.

The weeklong 50th birthday celebration focuses on events at the Charlotte and Las Vegas motor speedways. Hundreds of Mustangs from around the country converged at Norman, Okla., last weekend to drive either to Las Vegas or to the Charlotte track in Concord, N.C.

The celebration Thursday beneath the World's Fair's centerpiece Unisphere is one of two in this region. Ford also is reprising a 1965 publicity stunt, displaying a 2015 convertible on the Empire State Building's 86th floor observation deck Wednesday and Thursday. The car is being partly disassembled to fit into the building's elevators.

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