As everyone on earth may know by now, the Mustang, the true pony car, turned 50 this year. Ford has tried hard to whip up the same enthusiasm that greeted the original, but that’s just not possible. America collectively went nuts, back in 1964, for the Mustang.
Analysts say that by then we had shaken off the last traces of WWII angst and were bored numb with the bloated, top-heavy autos of the Eisenhower era. But we didn’t know this until the Mustang appeared, seemingly everywhere all at once. It was in Ford dealers’ windows, on billboards and display platforms, in thousands of newspapers and magazines, on television and even in a Bond movie (Goldfinger).
By the standards of the day, the Mustang was sleek and sporty and very modern, not at all European or fussy, and it had proper Detroit-size engines under its long hood. In the first two years, we bought more than a million Mustangs, a sales record for a new model.
The Mustang was ahead of its time in many ways, right down to its model-year designation. Although production began in March 1964 and it was introduced in April (at the New York World’s Fair), six months before the traditional reveal of the next year’s cars, Ford numbered and sold it as a 1965 model. This year, dealers won’t get the 2015 Mustang—the 50th-anniversary car—until November.
Ford is hoping lightning will strike again. Just as the first Mustang broke the postwar mold for cars, the new one will break the mold for the Mustang itself. It’s high time, too. The 2014 models, only the fifth generation of the Mustang, feel really old. The cabin, the instruments and even the materials, not to mention the beam-axle rear suspension, take us back to the 1980s, if not the ‘70s. Rumbling around in a 2014 GT convertible in fluorescent Gotta Have It lime green, I felt like an aging Boomer trying to compensate for a comb-over and a gut. (Although there’s nothing retro about the $44,000 sticker.) The Mustang faithful, however, don’t seem to care. The car has 71/2 million likes on Facebook.
But the faithful are aging, if not dying off, and the world is moving on. Ford sold only about 78,000 Mustangs in 2013. Younger drivers today are attracted to a very different Ford, the compact, nimble and much more affordable Fiesta ST. Or the VW GTI, Hyundai Veloster, Subaru WRX and so on. (If they’re driving at all, instead of glued to their smartphones and tablets.) The big ol’ Mustang, “Dad’s car,” has slipped far behind the times.
As for me, I was lured away early on. I got my driver’s license in 1966, and by then I’d been pointing out Mustangs to my father for a couple of years. He seemed oblivious. Then, also in ’66, we visited a Volkswagen dealership so that my mother could try out the Microbus. She decided it wasn’t for her, but I had spotted another recent debut elsewhere in the showroom: a Porsche 911. My priorities became reordered.
Before the 2015 model arrives, treat yourself to a test drive of the current Mustang. The convertible is the better choice; a hardtop you’d be tempted to think of as a real car, useful for daily chores and actual travel, and you might be disappointed. There’s a lack of the things we take for granted, like comfort, convenience, a useable back seat, an absence of rattles. But with the top down on a warm July evening and the tang of cut grass and honeysuckle and vistas of the seashore or the lake flooding the cabin while the V-8 mutters and grumbles under the hood, the flaws fade into the background.
Just as it was when it showed up 50 years ago, the Mustang is still a “personal” car, an indulgence that lets us, at least for a few miles, pretend to be who we think we really are at heart. The new Mustang, due in the fall, although brought up to date and homogenized to be sold all over the world, won’t be any different in that respect.