Detroit once ruled the automotive universe. This was the city that created the assembly line and the mechanisms of automotive desire: the model-year change, inspirational styling, and marketing tricks drawn straight from the Mad Men playbook.
The Big Three were masters at stoking the flames of consumer desire: By the time Detroit was done, self-respecting consumers wanted a new car every year. And Detroit's greatest win of all time was the Ford Mustang. It hit the market on April 17, 1964, two months after the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and was an instant, runaway smash.
Like the Fab Four, the Mustang would leave an enduring mark. In my case, the mark was a literal one that took more than a dozen sutures to close. When I was 12 years old, my dad's cousin took me for a ride in her new Mustang and crashed into an oncoming car. The Mustang had no shoulder belts. When I was thrown forward, the sharp edge of the distinctive dash ripped open my scalp like a giant tomahawk. A doctor saved my life, but to this day, I carry a long scar beneath my hairline.
Even so, I loved the original Mustang. It was a summer day on wheels. It was the spirit of America, captured in sheet steel, rubber and chrome. Then I drove one again. In the mid-60s, the Mustang was performance defined. But a recent ride in a 1966 model reminded me of what an agricultural product the Mustang actually was: The brakes were weak, the steering was vague, and the acceleration was worse than a modern Toyota Corolla. In the sepia-toned halls of my youthful memory, the 1966 Mustang was a taut, high-performance machine, thrumming with power. But in the cold, hard light of the present day, the old Mustang is something else again.
Nevermind. To compare a vintage Mustang to a modern car misses the point. Like the Beatles' first songs, the original Mustang captured the zeitgeist. As America reached for the moon, this was its car. In the first six months after its release, Ford sold more than 126,000 Mustangs. In 1965, it sold more than 559,000.
A couple of years ago, I spotted a mid-'60s Mustang parked on the street in a California surf town. It had a few dents, but it still looked great, and a flood of memories came back. Most cars are forgettable, but the Mustang is an iconic reminder of a spectacular era.
The Mustang has the timeless, classic appeal of a Rolex watch, a Chanel jacket, or Audrey Hepburn. Which makes it even more amazing when you learn how it was created. The Mustang was not an exotic machine. Instead, it was a rough-and-tumble consumer product, with style that had to meet a strict price point (the marketing department decreed an advertised list price of $2,368). Meeting this target meant that high-end components and advanced design were out. Almost every part of the Mustang came from other Ford models, primarily the humble Falcon economy car.
Under Ford division chief Lee Iacocca (who would later move to Chrysler, and bring us Corinthian leather, opera windows and Ricardo Montalban commercials), the Mustang's engineers and stylists created industrial alchemy, making automotive gold from leaden ingredients. By stretching the Falcon's hood and shortening its rear deck, they made an automotive profile that would go down in history: The Mustang whispered speed and sex; it looked like a wheeled quarter horse.
The 1964 Mustang rolls through our collective imagination. We all know it. In our mind's eye it races endlessly through an American landscape in a contrail of sunlit dust. It is much more than a car; it is a cultural icon, and a symbol of American ingenuity and style. No car in history sold faster, or addressed more mid-life crises. It launched the pony-car movement.
When a friend quit school so he could make the payments on a 1969 Mustang Boss 302, the rest of us quit school too, and enslaved ourselves to Mustang payments. Such was power of the Mustang dream. But time waits for no one, not even the Mustang. After test driving a long series of them, including a restored 1966 model, I realized that the world had moved on, and that the original pony car was now a cultural artifact that belonged to a bygone era, along with the Gemini space capsule, Playboy magazine, and Elvis Presley.
And yet its appeal was undiminished. The '66 still looked great. It turned heads. But the world had moved on. America made it to the moon long ago, and the dream car of today may not even have a gas engine. I enjoyed driving the 1966 Mustang, but was happy to give it back when the ride was over. Thomas Wolfe was right: you can't go home again.
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