Curbside Classic: 1969 Mustang Mach 1 – Sliding Down The Slippery Fastback Slope

(first posted 2/22/2014)      Ford was hot on new trends during the sixties. The Falcon, T-Bird, Continental, Mustang and LTD all plowed new ground in their respective categories. And although Ford didn’t exactly instigate the Great Fastback Epoch, it sure embraced it with a vengeance.  No other company adopted the swoopy back so quickly and so comprehensively; every size Ford sprouted a fastback, from the little Pinto and Maverick to the great big Galaxie 500 XL. It’s almost surprising there wasn’t a fastback Lincoln. Of course, Ford was trying to make the most of its Le Mans racing successes with its very fastback GTs, more blatantly with the 1969 Mustang than the rest. But looks can be deceiving.

Before we get to that, let’s take in the source of the Mach 1’s styling inspiration. The 1966 Ford GT40 was as spectacularly successful on the track as it was in its ability to convey the essence of GT racing of the time: just the bare minimum to still be nominally usable on the street; the last of its kind that could say that. Raw, lean and exuding pure power and speed, a classic that Ford eventually couldn’t resist recreating.

The 1969 Mustang had a new body for 1969, although it rode on the same platform as its 19667-1968 predecessor.

Mustang 1967 Bullit

That car, as defined by the Bullitt-mobile, has become an icon itself, although in 1969 that was hardly yet foreseeable. Times were changing quickly then, and Ford wanted to keep the Mustang fresh and hot.

What arrived was clearly more extravagant than the relatively restrained ’67-’68. The Mustang was now obviously edging towards the excess that made its 1971 successor a Deadly Sin. Let’s just say you’re not quite as likely to find a Mach 1 on the streets of Paris as you are a ’67 fastback. The ’69’s bulges, scoops and other cues were about showing off the muscles as much as putting them to good use, and that’s where the Mach 1 really stumbles, or plows.

This is a car I have some personal experience with. Let’s just say I actually got paid to drive Mach 1s as a seventeen year old, both the 1970 and 1971 versions. Ever since I wrote about that some years ago, I wondered if my memories of the Mach 1’s excessive under steer was colored by time and my sporadic bouts of Ford negativity. But I just happen to have some validation: a Car and Driver test of the brand new 1969 Mach1, with a 428 Cobra Jet, no less.

The very first paragraph ends with a pretty dismal preview: “The pieces are there-most of them anyway-but the sum is far short of the parts”.  The one part that wasn’t far short was that new more expressive Mustang front end. By extending it four inches further ahead of the front wheels, the Mustang’s intrinsic lousy weight distribution went even further the wrong direction: 59.3% on the front wheels. That’s typical nowadays; but for front wheel drive cars.

With a very torquey 428 CID (7 L) V8 underrated at 335 (gross) hp, the Mach I was hindered both in straight line acceleration as well as in the curves. On the drag strip, holding back a bit in first gear to avoid totally melting the F70 -14 Polyglas tires yielded a modest 14.3 seconds and 100 mph. The Cobra Jet was Ford’s hottest street engine at the time, and a fairly remarkable working over of the FE-engine, which was losing ground to the competition. The fact that it developed its peak power at 5200 rpm still maked its general preferences known.

But trying to make the Mustang go any direction but straight was where the real problems arose; “the front tires howl and smoke and absolutely refuse to go in the direction they’re pointed“.  And this is with the optional “competition handling package”.  The rear axle’s sudden unwanted movements in the wrong directions didn’t help to round out a dismal picture. The Mustang, like all the pony cars, were really meant to have small blocks, but the 351 I drove was hardly much better in regard to understeer. These were essentially cheap and crude cars with more power than they knew what to do with. The money was being lavished on their styling more than their chassis. What else was new, back then?

The Mustang’s decline starting in 1969 included the interior. Granted, this one is not exactly a fair representative, but the general direction towards bulkier, deeper, darker and murkier interiors just increased the bad vibes from feeling lost in its cheap black bowels. Outward visibility was well on its way to wretched, which the 1971 model fully attained.

The 1971 was the the Mustang’s nadir; the ’69-’70 was the clear slide in that direction. I tried hard to be impressed by the 1969 Mach 1’s very showy looks and persona, but the harder the Mustang seemed to try, the less I liked it. It amazed me how much it had changed from its original fresh and tight package, especially the 2+2. You know something’s wrong when a seventeen year-old has shifted his affection to the four year-old version; that was a lifetime then. And forty years later, nothing’s changed to warm me up to the Mach 1.