This being election season in the United States, my thoughts have turned to Bill Clinton, the presidency, pony cars and the future of the Ford Mustang.
Yes, there’s a car story here and it starts with a fund-raising dinner I attended nearly a decade ago. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton was the guest speaker and, at the time, he was a couple of years removed from the White House. His was a sobering talk, reflective of the fearful, angry, uncertain climate surrounding this post-9/11 dinner.
The meat of this talk, before he took questions from the smallish audience, was about how presidents are always wrong, no matter what they decide. Some people, he said, will think you’re wrong, some will agree that you’re right. Some will think you’re crazy, he said, while others will consider you a savant.
“But whatever you decide to do, you will be dead wrong for about half of the people, and dead right for about half the other,” he said. What wears on a president is that every decision has huge consequences – good and bad. There are no small choices and no easy ones, he said.
“And that’s also what I loved about being president and that’s what I miss about being president,” he added.
Yes, he was charming and reflective, his answers to audience questions laced with self-disclosure, intelligence, pathos and a mischievous humour. Every man and woman in that room would have loved to share a beer or a round of golf with him. Before the dinner, in fact, I had a chance to meet him at a small cocktail reception and what struck me most is that he looked me right in the eye, shook my hand and engaged in general banter for a few seconds, as if I was his neighbour from over the fence.
So what did Clinton say he likes most about NOT being president?
“I got my life back,” he said, telling a story from earlier in the day when, after a round of golf, he told his driver to stop at a Starbuck’s for a coffee. “I couldn’t just do that as president. The Secret Service wouldn’t allow it. I miss being president, but I like having my life back.”
Clinton, of course, is a pony car man from way back. The Ford Mustang is iconic for baby boomers, especially mid-60-year-old boomers like Clinton. For them, it’s a coming-of-age car, both personally and because it represented a break from the bloated land yachts that dominated the 1950s, with their fat fenders and overwrought tail-fins.
Ford’s Mustang formula was simple enough: start with the mechanical bits and pieces of a Falcon, the most basic of steel-dashboard economy cars of the day, and bolt on a sexy 2+2 body. Make sure there’s a convertible version, plan for a small-block V-8 and promote the car with tie-ins to movies like the James Bond smash hit of the day, Goldfinger, then follow up with a 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback in Steve McQueen’s Bullitt. The 1968 crime drama’s signature sequence is one of the great car chases of all time. That race through the streets of San Francisco helped cement the Mustang into the consciousness of the likes of Clinton, my dad and me.
Remember, the other car in that chase was a Dodge Charger, another pony car. But what drew in gearheads and movie buffs alike was the point-of-view camerawork. We are behind the wheel of both cars. The engines grumble, the saxophone solo at the beginning sets up the menace and then after the tense build-up, the pony car duel explodes from the screen, all howling V-8s, squealing tires, and crashing sheet metal. The end comes in a fiery crash.
“The car chase in Bullitt worked so well because there was little in the film to draw attention away from it. There was only one profane word and no nudity,” noted a Motor Trend magazine piece entitled After 30 Years, The Real Truth Behind The ‘Bullitt’ Chase. That, and the assassin driving the Charger looked a little like my dad, a middle-aged businessman with glasses and a benign visage that belied a tough, war-veteran core.
Pony cars in general and Mustangs in particular resonate with boomers for these reasons and others. Late boomers like me (I was six-and-a-half when the Mustang was launched) remember the Mustang as a used car we fixed up in our dad’s garage. In the 1970s, those ’60s ’Stangs were cheap to buy, easy to overhaul and, because Ford sold millions of them, parts were plentiful and inexpensive.
All of this explains why Ford is now facing a presidential-like decision. The company is mulling over what to do about the next-generation ’Stang and, like Clinton said about the choices a president makes, whatever Ford does, wherever Ford takes the Mustang, it will be wrong for a great multitude.
Here’s what we know: The Wall Street Journal has reported that, for 2014, the Mustang will get a major makeover, one with a design that retains the Mustang’s shark-nosed grille and round headlights. But the resemblance to all things 1964-ish will end there. The Journal has reported that Ford wants the next ’Stang to appeal to Generation Y buyers – those born between 1980 and 1999.
As Automotive News has reported, by 2020 Gen Y will represent as much as 40 per cent of the car-buying market. This comes from a 2009 Deloitte consulting firm that, according to the News, says it is tough to reach 18- to 24-year-olds and it cannot be done with a trip down Mustang nostalgia lane.
This would not be such a big deal if boomers were still buying Mustangs in big numbers. We’re not. Last year, Automotive News notes that Mustang sales in the United States decreased 4 per cent to 70,438 units. Just six years ago, Ford sold 166,000 Mustangs in the wake of a total retro restyle. Chevrolet is not faring much better with the Camaro and it’s the same story for the Dodge Charger. Boomers just aren’t saddling up pony cars like they used to and they never will, ever again.
Ford is keeping mum about the Mustang’s future, but the Journal has said the next Mustang will look very much like the Evos concept car that Ford showed in September, 2011, at the Frankfurt auto show. As well, just-auto.com reports that Ford is planning to engineer the next Mustang for right-hand-drive.
This would be consistent with the One Ford product plan Ford has been pushing for more than half a decade. That is, just-auto says Ford wants to market a global Mustang to right-hand markets in the United Kingdom, as well as Asian markets such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand, Australia and New Zealand.
The Mustang has always been a North American pony car, not a world sports car. Ford will anger many if and when it abandons the Mustang’s true roots. There is no guarantee that a thoroughly re-imagined Mustang will appeal to millennials and a world audience alike, either. So Ford is facing a truly presidential decision. No matter what the choice, Ford will be wrong.
Correction: Steve McQueen drove a 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback in Bullitt. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story and in Globe Drive's print edition.