This is a tale of two Mustangs. One black, one white. One driven in California, one in Suffolk. One from 2015 and one from 1965, a half-century earlier. Despite the age difference, you won’t need to be a car enthusiast to see the lineage.
I borrowed the 1965 model from London’s Classic Car Club this spring. It’s job was to take us on a weekend ride out to rural Suffolk to see family and friends. My wife and I rented it’s 2015 grandson to drive from LA to San Francisco along fabled Highway 1, to both see daughter Kat and then head out to Yosemite to do some light trekking. You can guess that the Mustang felt more at home on the wide, straight roads of California than Suffolk’s winding country lanes.
While the 2015 car’s styling is good, it is clearly a homage to the first of the breed. The profile, the grille, the ‘frenched’ rear lights, the pony badging and even the dashboard all draw clear inspiration from the first car. Ford’s first attempt at a ‘personal’ 2+2, it was based on the Falcon chassis and looked a lot more radical than it’s engineering would reveal. They never really dared to call it a sports car, unlike Chevrolet’s Corvette.
There are three really pleasant things about collecting a classic car from the Club HQ in Pitfield Street, Shoreditch. Firstly, it’s full of ‘carcoons’ containing all manner of classics and modern sports cars. A new matt black Honda NSX was magnificently menacing. I wonder how often these mobile financial assets get driven by their owners – or should I call them investors.
Secondly, the staff are more than happy to chat cars and are very honest about the idiosyncrasies of the fleet. There’s never a wait and Jared is happy to explain the Mustang’s foot-operated high beam switch, hydraulically powered hood and a strip speedo that had obviously been hauled out of the Falcon saloon. Ford didn’t waste any money on that which couldn’t be seen from the kerb. The lovely steering wheel is original and the wood rim clearly made of plastic and cracked.
The third and greatest pleasure is starting the engine. The 289 cu in V8 is what transforms the Mustang from show pony to racehorse. 4.7 litres thunders into life in the echoing garage and settles down to the classic V8 offbeat rumble which gently rocks this old horse. The sound is worth the entry fee all on its own.
The car itself is black and chrome and shiny under the basement garage strip lights. I let the hydraulics lower the convertible top ready for the ride back to The Colonnade in Deptford. It might rain, but as I arrived in Pitfield Street on my trusty Brompton, I am happy being exposed to a little drizzle.
Pulling away in the Mustang is surprisingly urgent. So I am soon grateful that the front drum brakes have been replaced with discs on this car. They are urgent too. Unlike the 1967 sedan version I borrowed some years ago, the brakes really work, and I can put the whip to the horses without panicking about how to steady them back down again.
The gearbox is a 3-speed ‘cruise-o-matic’ that suits the boulevard nature of the car but robs it of a lot of power. A manual gearbox would not seem right – and would be very hard work for the clutch foot.
Cut to LA X airport in 2015 and the miseries of queuing to collect a hire car. This is before the app age and there’s pages of paperwork to get through.
We’d decided that doing a classic drive required a classic car but felt it safer to have a new ‘classic’ rather than risk a long run in an old-timer.
But the 2015 Mustang looks great. Much bulkier than the original, yet it has no more room inside. For reasons of economy we chose a 6 cylinder rather than the 5 litre V8. So, the 1965 soundtrack was missing. But it’s very fast and has modern suspension – at last the leaf springs and solid rear axle have gone.
The gearbox is again automatic but with a lot more gears and the option to add a bit of sportiness.
While the old Mustang made do with shiny black vinyl inside, the newer car is upholstered in leather and has fleets of dials, a proper rev counter, warning lights and plenty of electronic gimmicks. The latter includes remote locking of course. This is a far cry from trying to choose which of three keys opened which door or trunk on the 1965 model.
We didn’t watch fuel economy carefully in either car, but there’s no doubt that the oldie had a serious drink problem. But if your tastes are American, excess is part of the deal.
It’s said that the British buy more convertibles than the anyone else in Europe. But even in California it was seldom just right to have the hood down. Burned by the sun or beaten by the wind, the joys of a convertible, like the car itself, are more of a dream than a reality.
Back in 1965, the Mustang caught the spirit of the age – of Aquarius. America could not have been more confident or rich. A Mustang was a realistic second car – or even a first car for the children of the american middle classes. Concerns for pollution, fossil fuel supply, congestion, health or safety were either non-existent or at the back of the queue behind fun, status and style.
Fifty years on, the world has changed. America is being challenged by China for world economic supremacy and Detroit is a manufacturing ghost town. Almost everyone is coming to the realisation that while cars might have been right then, they are on the wrong planet today.
To drive the modern Mustang is like going to see your favourite old 60’s band play. From a distance they look the same. The old songs are great but what have they done since that is genuinely new or relevant? They’ve turned the amplifier up to 11, but can’t hide that the have got fat and need to hide the lack of chutzpah behind the darkest of glasses.
Driving in the USA, the modern Mustang caught the attention of absolutely no-one. The Mustang is ubiquitous. But in the UK, the 1965 model attracted people’s eyes and ears wherever we went. It’s not too arrogant a machine to provoke a negative reaction. Over here too, we are nostalgic for Steve McQueen driving his in Bullitt. But as I return the car to the club, the London streets make it feel very much like a relic. A sweet nostalgic relic.
To ask which car is best is pointless. From the rational perspectives of reliability, economy, safety, build quality… the new car is much the better machine. But if you start to ponder indefinables like originality, cultural relevance and character it’s a very different story. Nothing is ever simply black or white.
And in the end, neither of these lovely cars makes any real sense in today’s world.