Thunderbirds are go, Mustang still sexy at 50
Since its launch in 1964, Ford’s Mustang has been an affordable classic
The Ford Mustang’s $2,368 price tag in 1964 made it affordable to the horde of baby boomers that were just reaching driving age or heading off to college. Photograph: Reuters/Ford Motor Company
It’s weird to be jealous of your car. But I am. Men look at my car with such naked lust, their eyes devouring the curves and chrome, that I often feel I’m intruding on an intimate moment. Women like it, too. They sometimes grin and give it a thumbs up as it growls by, and one girlfriend fondly refers to it as “the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Goddess car.”
But the icon evokes a special feeling in men. It’s the Proustian madeleine of cars, stirring old dreams and new. Guys sometimes follow in the American beauty’s dreamy wake, by car or by bike, and leave mash notes on the windshield with their numbers, pleading for me to sell it.
I won’t. Even though it’s hard on the ego to chauffeur such an object of universal desire and even though I can rarely put down the top because I’m prone to sunburn, I love my ‘65 Mustang convertible. Still sexy at 50, it is midnight blue with a white top and white bucket seats. Bob Marley, ’60s French girl groups and, of course, Wilson Pickett wail from the CD player.
The pony car was launched at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 with a $2,368 sticker price, and some collectors look for “1964 1/2s,” as the first Mustangs off the Ford assembly line are called. But the debut cars were all designated 1965, and mine was produced in that first batch.
It quickly became the fastest-selling new car in history, landing on the cover of Time and Newsweek with Lee Iacocca and showing up in the James Bond movie Goldfinger . It sold even faster after Ford executives pulled a King Kong of a stunt in October 1965 and parked a pony on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building.
Once Ford engineers determined that lowering a car by helicopter onto the world’s tallest building would be too dangerous, they spent an hour cutting a white Mustang convertible into sections that would fit into elevators and then reassembled it on high.
Bill Ford Jr, the company’s executive chairman, great- grandson of Henry Ford and No 1 Mustang fan, replicated the caper on Wednesday for the first day of the New York Auto Show - this time disassembling a bright yellow 2015 Mustang convertible into five parts and reassembling it 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue.
Later, after driving through the car show in one of Ford’s 1,964 50th anniversary, retro Mustangs that come in the car’s original Wimbledon white or Kona blue, the chairman reminisced about his first car, a 1975 electric green Mustang. “Mustang is my all-time favourite car,” he said, noting that it signified fun and freedom in an affordable package.
The car was conceived as “a working man’s Thunderbird” by the late Don Frey and muscled up by Carroll Shelby. Frey, an engineer, had been teased by his kids about how boring the Ford models were.
As USA Today recounted, Frey’s favourite story was of getting a letter from a Texas janitor who bought one of the first Mustangs. He wrote: “I’ve been courting this 5,000-acre widow for years. I finally got her in my red pony. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Bill Clinton said leaving his bright blue ’67 Mustang behind in Arkansas was the hardest part of moving to the White House. The brand almost became extinct after it devolved to a smaller version on top of the Ford Pinto chassis in the mid-‘70s – losing its cool image. I had a red one in those days and it broke down so much I started calling it the Mustake.
The lame pony, USA Today recalled, was rescued in the early ’90s by engineer John Coletti and other Mustang aficionados at Ford, a group called the Gang of Eight. They slaved away in their spare time coming up with a niftier design.
I always think of my Mustang as the Steve McQueen of cars, given the star’s stunning, sometimes airborne 10-minute chase scene in Bullitt through the vertiginous streets of San Francisco, driving a green 1968 Mustang GT 390 in pursuit of a black Dodge Charger.
With his Mustang, Jacqueline Bisset and existential angst, McQueen defined hip in the 1968 classic – despite the atrocious paisley print pj’s he wore in the film. In 2011, Marc Myers wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal retracing the chase route gingerly in a new Mustang with McQueen’s stunt double, Loren Janes. Janes, then 79, said he did about 90 per cent of the driving in the movie and McQueen, though a good driver, did only the close-ups.
Janes told Myers that at the end of filming Bullitt , McQueen offered him one of the three tricked-out Mustangs used in the movie, but he passed, afraid he would always want to drive it too fast.
“Besides, I already had this,” Janes said, showing Myers a 1964 Rolex Submariner with the inscription: “To the best damn stuntman in the world. Steve.” Now that’s cool.