Ford Mustang—American Evolution
Ford’s iconic revives an old infatuation
by Thomas Ryll

In 1987 I fell under the spell, or maybe the hooves, of the Ford Mustang.

It wasn’t some showroom walk around that convinced me I needed the Mustang GT 5.0. I had thrashed the car for a solid week and been smitten with what $15,000 would buy: 225 fuel- injected V-8 horsepower; the first car I had ever owned with air-conditioning; a seat with a little inflatable rubber bag at the small of the driver’s back.

Not to mention a tendency to swap tail for nose after a swift kick of the spurs. An urge to race to the front of the herd. A huge appetite at the feedbag.

I knew all the shortcomings: A 15-gallon fuel tank that was woefully small for long-distance cruising; a mere thimble for 10-mile-per-gallon cavalry charges; and a clutch apparently designed by Nautilus, with a pedal effort worthy of weight training.

The test-drive demo car for which I ponied up $11,400 was burgundy; the interior was a red that by no account matched the exterior. When Henry Ford famously said “any color, so long as it’s black,” it was too bad that the Mustang’s interior designers didn’t take that as their mantra. That lumbar-support bladder in the driver’s seat didn’t hold air for very long. The interior’s exposed screw heads and casting ridges in plastic parts were unattractive even by the standards of the day, and it wasn’t long before I was jamming bits of thin cardboard under various trim pieces to quiet them.

But the 5.0 was pure, cheap thrills, all for about what a top-of-the-line Honda Accord cost at the time. The rumble from that V-8, the precise steering, the nostril-flaring performance made it all worthwhile.

In the intervening years I have driven more than my share of descendants of the 5.0, but none has corralled my interest.

Until the 2005 Mustang GT.

Not since the ’87 has the Mustang been as true to the form of the earliest Mustang performers of the late ’60s. For 2005 Ford has stretched the Mustang’s wheelbase by six inches, lowered its nose, raised its rump and fed it more steroid-laced oats: in V-8 form, 300 horses are at the ready, 40 more than in 2004 and 75 more than in 1987. Today’s engine is 4.6 liters; the 5.0 was five liters, hence the name.

For 2005 there’s a five-speed automatic or a five-speed manual, and a 210-horse V-6 if you aren’t ready for the V-8’s thundering herd. With the V-8 and five-speed manual (is there really any other choice for this car?) the EPA fuel economy is 17/25, but in my week with a factory loaner, 14 mpg was the rule. Gone is the bloblike shape of the 1990s cars; Ford has sharpened some of the Mustang’s edges and dipped into 1960s design to borrow such touches as the triangular rear side windows.

Learn about another great vehicle from the Ford Motor Company:
The all new Ford Raptor.
If you are younger than 55, you were too young to legally drive the Ford Mustang on the day it debuted as a wildly successful runabout in 1964…and far too young to have rented the late ’60s Mustang GT350s—the famous rent-a-racers—that Hertz had in its rental fleet until someone thought better of it.

You might remember the Mustang getting fat and lazy a few years after that, and Ford’s embarrassing Pinto-based Mustang II of 1974-1978. If the GT350 was a thoroughbred, the II was a plastic merry-go-round pony.

By the 1980s Ford was working its way back to the track with the Mustang. But none of the designs can claim the authentic look, feel and better-than-ever overall performance of the 2005.

Ford’s test-drive filly was red, right and new, and shod with gorgeous five-spoke wheels. The seats were leather-trimmed in red to contrast the black and aluminum elsewhere in the interior. For all this, Ford wants $27,625, a price that includes four air bags, anti-lock brakes and traction control—features that were years away on my ’87. Eighteen years later, the Mustang remains a relative bargain, still priced at about the level of a high-end Honda Accord.

Judging by the head-turning count as I rumbled around town, the 2005 appeals to the young and not-so-young alike. Skateboarding MP3-ers were as likely to stare as their parents. But none of the reactions I got was bolder than that of the guy in the dented Ford Windstar who veered across three lanes at a fat intersection to pull alongside, tap his horn and motion at me to roll down the passenger window.

In shaggy silver hair, leather jacket and leathery face, he looked liked he had spent more time rounding up cattle than driving a minivan. “Is that the 2005 V-8?” he asked. “What’d you have to give for it?”

Then he was off, with a thumb-up, little-finger-extended gesture and the words “awesome car.” (Actually, I leave out the first word in that reaction, which rhymes with truckin’.)

And truck it does. The 2005 does 0-60 in less than six seconds and steers with rifle-shot accuracy. Suspension redesign makes the cabin a more comfortable place to be, but even though the late-’80s rear hatch is gone (those big openings make it hard to control body stiffness and noise) the 2005 doesn’t seem appreciably quieter than my old car.

Gear shifts are notchy and relatively high effort. In back there’s a modest 13-cubic foot trunk. In front, the huge hood bulge and narrow view out the windshield will keep even tall drivers guessing as to where curbs and parking stripes lie.

The GT has its share of fence-gnawing irritations. Some drivers will pinch their little finger between the stubby shift lever and the console when engaging 1st, 3rd or 5th gear. I did. The Mustang’s instruments are too faithful to yesteryear, copying the common ’60s and ’70s shortcoming of poor visibility. The four secondary gauges—fuel, engine temp and such—are tiny and deeply recessed, disappearing into a void between tach and speedo. And those two primary gauges, half-circles in round bezels, are also too small.

Short passengers won’t like riding shotgun in front, where the seat is low and has no height adjustment. Backseat legroom is marginal at best, almost nil at worst.

Some omissions, like the lack of lighting on either of the two sunvisor vanity mirrors, are the result of the penny-pinching that has kept the Mustang a relatively affordable high-performance car.

And many of those omissions, intentional or otherwise, are what have kept the Mustang pure in form. There’s no navigation system, automatic climate control or heated seats. Even in the fanciest version, the driver gets basic power-seat controls, but not the passenger. Call it crude if you will, but Ford engineers have steered clear of the infuriating complexity that infests too many cars today.

As for my infatuation with the 1987 GT 5.0, it didn’t last long. With a flood of new test cars arriving every week, I had little use for my own wheels—especially a car that friends were driving while I was making the payments.

When the opportunity to buy property on the Oregon Coast arose, I quickly shooed the Mustang out the gate. I apparently wasn’t alone with my brief fling; the used-car market was flooded with 5.0s and my $11,400 car brought just $7,500 a couple years and 30,000 miles from new.

Seventeen years later my piece of TsunamiLand has quadrupled in value, with no end in sight. That 5.0, if it has survived this long, is probably a $2,500 pile of tired dream machine not far from the glue factory.

My time with the latest Mustang stirred some of the late-’80s passions that convinced me I needed the 5.0. But not so much as to have me daydreaming about once again owning a car that would rather gallop than trot.

But if you were to slide into the Mustang GT’s cockpit, turn the key, feel the seismic rumble of that 300-horse V-8 and fancy yourself owning this latest and greatest iteration of an American icon, I would understand.

BrainstormNW - April 2005

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