(first posted 2/5/2015) Look at this car and what do you see: Eleanor, star of the original 1974 “Gone in 60 Seconds” movie? All the worst excess and ugliness of the early seventies folded up into one bloated pile? A long stripe of black rubber burned into a country road? The destruction of an American icon? Nostalgia for a simpler and more innocent time? Nothing at all, if you’re trying to look out the back window? Put me down for all of the above, as well as a couple of lasting lessons this Mustang taught me.
In the fall of 1970, I was a seventeen year old car jockey at a Ford dealer when the all-new ’71 Mustang plopped its oversized butt on the scene. Admittedly, it did have a hell of an act to follow, appearing six months after the remarkably handsome 1971 Camaro. In absolute terms and relative comparisons though, the new ‘Stang failed miserably.
Its awkward and heavy-handed styling completely abandoned the classic Mustang cues that were so deeply ingrained then, and still are today. The stylists had simply lost the thread, and were grasping at all kinds of new directions. When former GM exec Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen saw a fiberglass mock-up of the fastback proposal days after joining Ford as its new president, he instantly green-lighted it without further ado. The designers were stunned; they weren’t used that. Knudsen loved it; maybe precisely because it looked so un-Mustang-like.
The “flatback” SportsRoof may have been inspired by Ford’s GT racers, but it utterly destroyed rear visibility. They should have just advertised it as the first standard moonroof. These ’71-’73 Mustangs were a half-foot wider, almost a foot longer, and some 700 pounds heavier than the original pony car. Eugene Bordinat, Ford’s head of design admitted: “we started with a secretary’s car and ended up with a behemoth”. True that. Ironically, in today’s bloated world it’s really not that big at all.
I got to drive the very first ’71 Mach 1 that rolled off the transporter at Towson Ford that fall, courtesy of the owner’s spoiled kid who annually got a new Mach 1 to destroy. It was red, just like the ’70 that it replaced. As was common in that era of miserable build quality, it had to go to the body shop to correct some pre-“Quality is Job 1” flaws. Strangely, the body shop was a half-hour drive away, but what a drive it was, especially if you knew all the narrow winding back roads through Ruxton and Falls Road to turn it into a highly entertaining forty-five minutes. I knew them very well by then, thanks to the UAW.
I felt like I had been strapped in a bathysphere, peering out into the world through narrow slits and that rear non-window. The tall, deep dash, whose design was ripped off from the 1968 Corvette, only accentuated the effect. But the Cleveland 351 HO coughed to life with a healthy burble, and I was stoked: a seventeen-year old about to have his first drive in a genuine muscle car. What’s not to like?
On the straights, not much at all. Each of the 330 horsepower had only ten pounds to accelerate. Might as well let the clutch get used to the abuse its new owner was going to inflict. And those Firestone Wide-Ovals definitely needed a little burnishing. Keeping it in the right half of the narrow road was already challenging, even though it was still straight.
When it came to the twisties, it got a bit ugly. But I’ll let you be the judge: either I wasn’t man enough to wrestle this beast into submission like James Bond was in Diamonds Are Forever, or it wasn’t my fault for failing to induce ballet from Hulk Hogan. Crash, bang, screech; this vaguely assembled concoction of parts called Mach 1 was fragmenting, each with its own trajectory, none of which corresponded to the two squiggly lines defining the right lane. And it wasn’t happening anywhere near the sound barrier; more like forty-five.
Meanwhile, the little shit box Pinto with the 2 liter German OHC four and four-speed that I often drove for shuttling paperwork and small parts between the store and the body shop thrived in this section. Its manual rack and pinion steering was accurate and transmitted every nuance; the Mach 1’s was overboosted and vague, like an obsolete arcade game. The baby Mustang took a set and held it; the big Clydesdale tried to buck me the whole way. Lesson learned (and never forgotten): a little shit box at the limit is way more fun than a fast shit box out of its element.
Admittedly, some more time with the Mach 1 might have smoothed out my path through the esses. This was a bit more car than I was used to at seventeen, although I had been driving for several years by then. But the experience and contrast has forever shaped my taste in cars. I prefer them a bit lighter and more delicate on their feet in the corners than this draft horse. Now if this experience had happened in Nevada, it might have been a different story. The feel and sound of a healthy V8 pulling hard down an endless straight is intoxicating.
All I have to do is watch this car chase from “Gone In 60 Seconds” and realize I was no H.B. Halicki, who produced, directed, acted and drove in his movie. Over 93 cars were destroyed in the making of the 34 minute chase scene, all bought on the cheap at auctions and such. It’s a bit painful, nevertheless, from today’s perspective.
Three Mustangs were used up in the film, which cost $150,000 to make and grossed $40 million.
This generation Mustang doesn’t need any videos by Ford to put any spin on it. Its outsized personality has become legendary, for better or for worse. It may have lost the way a bit from what the original Mustang started out to be, but then so did everyone else at the time, with a few notable exceptions. It was the final blow-out of the late 60s, and the more outlandish, the better. This Mustang was at the head of that pack.
You might not like it, but it couldn’t care less. It’s not the least bit insecure, like its successor. It needs no explaining or apologies. You ether get it or don’t. Or in my case, both at the same time.