After five decades, Ford's latest pony-car shakes off its old-world mechanicals. But while the new Mustang's dynamics are a departure, time with an original proves its style remains intact
Words: John Simister, Photography: Charlie Magee. December 2014.
There is a strong genetic thread here. But before we wonder at the obvious visual and ancestral relationship between these two Ford Mustangs, and maybe build it into some sort of indomitable spirit passed through the generations, ponder this thought. Fifty years separate the first Mustang and the latest one, just launched and to be available in the UK – with right-hand drive – in a year's time, but the new doesn't appear fundamentally very different from the old. The proportions, the stance, the themes are all related; the differences are of degree, the results of natural evolution. But if we head back a further 50 years from the first Mustang's 1964 launch, we find ourselves in the first half of the lengthy production run of Ford's Model T.
That tells us something about the trajectory of automotive progress. Maybe the motor car is now close to its ideal manifestation and there are no more big leaps to come, or maybe the regulators and legislators have stifled those big leaps in favour of detail refinement of what we have already. That said, it's hard to imagine that a 2064 Mustang will still be powered by a petrol-fuelled V8 engine.
Will there even be a 2064 Mustang? Ford CEO Mark Fields talks animatedly about the Mustang's heritage, pointing out that 'heritage is history with a future'. Those responsible for the new Mustang's engineering talk of how the engine is the heart of the car, which obviously means the V8. Don't forget, though, that not every Mustang has had eight cylinders under its long, flat bonnet. Entry-level early ones had a straight-six, later ones had V6s, while the energy-crisis micro-Mustangs of the early 1970s – the ones most of us try to forget – used a Ford Pinto-donated four-pot.
'Fifty years separate the first Mustang and the latest one, just launched'
The inline four returns with the new car, incongruous by normal Mustang standards but right on-message with today's downsizing mantra. It's a 2.3-litre 'Ecoboost' turbocharged unit, with a very healthy 310bhp on tap. All you have to do is ignore the sound it makes: gruff, rough, boomy and not nice. Nor is its throttle response as keen as it should be. Let's say that this one is a work in progress, and hope that the year between now and the UK launch is time enough.
I'm in the V8, the Mustang's lodestone version, pointing the 'sharkmouth' (so say the designers) snout through a fabulous sequence of twists and dips in the mountains beyond Hollywood. The shape and the soundtrack suit the surroundings, the dark grey-green metallic paint (called Guard, no-one could tell me why) lending a welcome air of stealth given the disparity between the pace of the Mustang GT With Performance Pack and the posted speed limits, which have seemingly been calibrated around a 1980 Plymouth Voyager with bald tyres and shot dampers. I'm in the V8 but, if I closed my eyes, which I had better not, I could almost be in a Jaguar F-type Coupé.
Really? Mustangs to date, even the just-superseded generation launched in 2005, have all had a solid, live rear axle with all the limitations that brings in ride comfort and adhesion on imperfect road surfaces.
The mix of this axle and the ample thrust of a good V8 ensured both an engagingly retro feel to the driving dynamics and scuppered the Mustang's chances of competing with sophisticated Europeans. But it didn't have to be like this.
So, in the single biggest design change in half a century, our new Mustang has a properly modern, independent rear suspension with multiple links whose arcs combine in a way only a computer programme could have devised. At the front, the MacPherson struts have paired lower balljoints, one each for the track control arm and the tie-rod, in effect moving the steering axis outwards. BMW did this first on the previous-generation 5-series, so there's a good precedent there.
That brief technical treatise is to illuminate why I'm having an impossibly good time in this Mustang. It feels almost sucked onto the road as its Pirelli P Zeroes – bigger at the back – bond with the surface, yet it's as playful and biddable as you could ever want. You pile into a bend, sloughing off speed with the big, six-piston Brembo front discs, then you aim for the apex and pour on the power. Sounds simple, but there are nuances of power and steering input to explore, playing one off against the other, and however much more you ask of the front wheels' grip – a tightening curve, a sudden extra dose of horsepower that could so easily push the nose wide – the front wheels always find it.
So, with the front end firmly hooked into the road, you can power through the corner, perhaps tightening the trajectory as you press the accelerator a little more and feel the tail load up against the limited-slip differential, and at no point does the fear of overcooking things tap you on the shoulder. It's one of those cars that does exactly what you want, in subtleties as well as the big picture, but which never lets its momentum overwhelm it. There's an agility here more befitting a car weighing under a tonne rather than this one's 1682kg, so well does it disguise its mass. Quick, positive steering, whose weight varies exactly as you would expect with the cornering forces acting on it, helps the sense of confidence that the Mustang instils. It's an electrically powered system, but you would never guess.
So, that F-type allusion. There's that similar feeling of sitting well back in a long-bonnetted car that seemingly pivots around you, of tautness, control and precise all-of-a-pieceness. But two aspects steer you away from this comparison, and a third threatens to break the spell. Unlike the Jaguar (much more expensive than this Mustang's likely £34,000), the Ford has a six-speed manual gearbox. An auto is optional, but this Getrag, er, stickshift is such a pleasure thanks to its short, clean throw that you wouldn't want one. That pleasure is enhanced by a precisely metered throttle response, making a perfectly rev-matched downshift yours, but unlike the Jaguar's engines this Ford V8 is naturally aspirated. And that spell-breaker? Actually it's one of the first things you notice about the Mustang, long before you open it up in the mountains and start to think Jaguar thoughts. Ford, over the last two decades, has built a reputation for making some of the best handling-and-riding cars on offer, but there are some signs that Ford's chassis engineers have begun to take the process for granted, and eyes have been taken off balls. Clearly there's nothing wrong with the way the Mustang handles, but the other part of the equation is the sort of fidgety, bouncy ride at low speeds that calls to mind a budget set of aftermarket coilovers. Ford can do better than this, and there's still time to get it right.
At first, the gear ratios seem ill-matched to the engine, too. The five lower gears are all short-legged, then there's a big gap to sixth, purely a cruising ratio. Driving gently, you always seem to want one gear higher than you might expect, and progress seems needlessly busy.
But, as with the handling prowess, a spirited blaze along some bendy roads recalibrates perceptions. Despite its 5.0-litre capacity and variability in its valve timing and intake port cross-section, this is not a particularly torquey-feeling engine. That its impressive 435bhp doesn't arrive until 6500rpm gives some clue to this, as does the fact that its peak lb ft figure is numerically lower (400) and isn't reached until 4250rpm.
So you live in the higher reaches of the rev range, for which the short gearing makes sense, and fire from bend to bend in a crackling thrumble of crisp-edged V8-ness, and all feels right in your Bullitt-flavoured, gone-to-60-in-4.4-seconds, world. Even this car's colour isn't far removed from that of hero Frank Bullitt's GT 390.
That's the drive. To be honest, soundtrack apart, there isn't all that much in common here between this new Mustang and a 1960s one, be it Shelby-tuned or stock. Fifty years have seen some progress, then. Three key elements have remained in the way it looks, though. The front grille is a clever blending of today's Ford trapezoid (actually first seen on the 1962 Taunus 12M, although Ford is in no hurry to remind us of that) and the shape of that found in the first Mustang's first and second facelifts. The flanks feature horizontally bound recesses, but no fake air intake ahead of the rear wheels because that would be pastiche. And, of course, the rear lights are each formed of three vertical strips.
Even without the galloping mustang on the snout, then, this design – masterminded by Moray Callum, younger brother of Jaguar's Ian – could be only a Mustang. (There are no Ford badges, incidentally, apart from on the wheel centres and printed in the windscreen's dot-screen zone between the sun visors.) One particularly neat touch is that, when you open a door, an illuminated galloping Mustang is projected onto the pavement beneath from a little lens under the door mirror.
Inside, too, there's a Mustang theme lightly overlaying a cabin more sophisticated than that of any pony-car before, a cabin generously garnished with chrome dial rims and aluminium switches which really are made of what they appear to be. That theme is triggered by the symmetry of the dash top, with matching left and right cowlings, and continued by the view out along that long, flat bonnet, a view seldom seen in a modern car.
Now I'm driving the 1965 Fastback of Burt and Carolyn Harris, which they have owned from new, and the view forward is much like the one I have just vacated. Thinner pillars frame a more upright, er, windshield and the steering wheel has a larger-diameter, much thinner rim in wood, but the dash-top shape is the same and so is the glint of bright metal around the dials. This car has the much-prized Pony interior, which includes woodgrain décor panels, that woodrim wheel, a five-dial instrument pack, racier doortrims and a running horse motif across the front seats' backrests.
Under its bonnet is a gentle version of Ford's 289 V8, with a relaxed 200bhp. Later Mustangs had a 302ci engine, still very oversquare but slightly longer in the stroke than the 289; today's 302, by contrast, is within a millimetre of being square in the bore/stroke dimensions. How design philosophy changes. The Harrises' Mustang has a three-speed Cruise-O-Matic autobox, which fundamentally alters the car-driver interface versus a manual. It feels brisk enough through its hydraulic drive, but you'd need the 271bhp Hi-Po option and a four-on-the-floor to gain a response more like the new car's. The old one's lighter weight, by nearly 400kg, would offset the power deficit.
'Soundtrack apart, there isn’t all that much in common here between this new Mustang and a 1960s one'
The half-century gap shows up the most when you turn the steering wheel. Today's chassis engineers are hell-bent on minimising body roll, but a little lean never did anyone any harm provided the build-up to it is nice and progressive. Back in 1965, the Mustang conformed to a dynamic template typical on both sides of the Atlantic, the springiness in its steering-box-based guidance system giving the impression of straight-ahead looseness but actually corresponding to the build-up of body roll.
So the first part of the steering movement takes up that springiness and settles the body at the resulting roll angle. Only then, with the sinews now tautened and ready for action, does the Mustang actually change direction, which it does with a pleasing verve as it loads up the outer rear wheel. So you take a series of bends in a series of broad arm-sweeps and throttle-squeezes, very old-school, very broad-brushed and quite unlike the tied-down demeanour of the new car. You drive the way the '65 wants you to drive it; you adapt to it, whereas the new one does it the way you want, waiting for your instruction.
Both involve you greatly in the driving process, but very differently. The new Mustang is objectively lightyears better, of course, but the old one's charm gives just as much pleasure of a different kind. And then there's all the joy of the history, the loyalty that old Mustangs generate and that Ford threw away when the breed turned lardy in the early 1970s, then emaciated immediately afterwards. Lee Iacocca, the Ford marketing genius whose idea the Mustang originally was, famously said of these unloved later cars: 'The Mustang market never left us. We left it.'
Burt and Carolyn's car illustrates that loyalty perfectly. It departed the Flat Rock, Michigan factory on 1 April 1965, was shipped to the Ford dealership in Long Beach and was in the then-newly-weds' hands by 17 April. 'We had no money, we were only going to have a look,' Carolyn says, 'but Burt fell in love. I had a monthly budget which I was going to stick to, and after three hours and five or six attempts to agree a deal, the salesmen just wanted to go home. We got it at our budget.'
Burt and Carolyn used to transport their baby daughter in a carry-cot on the rear seat deck. Later she learned to drive in the Mustang, later again she drove it in a Doors tribute video, pretending to be Jim Morrison, who had a similar (albeit 1967) Caspian Blue Mustang Fastback. Originally the Harrises' Ford was silver but Burt had always liked the blue. The transformation came during a 1984 restoration that also incorporated grille-mounted extra lights, a twin-pipe exhaust, disc front brakes and a very period-authentic air-con system. 'We could have made it into a GT 350 replica,' says Burt, 'but we wanted to keep it in standard spec apart from that air-conditioning. We'd moved inland, where it's a lot hotter than Long Beach.'
Ford has high hopes for the new Mustang in Europe. Past Mustangs sold mainly on their novelty value as pieces of accessible Americana, but this time Ford wants it to compete on equal terms with European sports coupés – and convertibles – such as BMW's 4-series and Audi's A5. That is the main reason why it shows such sophistication, in the cabin and under the skin, relative to past examples. But, as Moray Callum says, it would be wrong to eradicate the redneck element completely. It must be a US Mustang, not a European Mustang; the difference is that this time Ford also wanted to make it a proper sports car.
So we can forgive the fact that the centre console is formed of hard, not padded, plastic and relish the fact that no German or British rival can offer as much entertaining car for so little money. If that choppy ride could be fixed, I'd much rather have a Mustang V8 over an obvious, soulless German and I'd somehow find the extra money to feed its greater thirst. With the new Mustang's arrival, and all that history behind it, the coupe-scape has just become a heap more interesting.
2015 FORD MUSTANG V8 GT
Engine 4951cc V8, DOHC per bank, 32-valve, fuel injection
Power 435bhp @6500rpm
Torque 400lb ft @ 4250rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted
Suspension Front: MacPherson struts, double lower balljoints, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: multiple links, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Performance Top speed 155mph (TBC). 0-60mph 4.4sec
1965 FORD MUSTANG 289 FASTBACK
Engine 4727cc V8, OHV, Autolite twin-choke carburettor
Power 200bhp @4400rpm Torque 282lb ft @ 2400rpm
Transmission Three-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Steering Recirculating ball
Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, leaf springs, telescopic dampers
Brakes Discs front, drums rear
Performance Top speed 116mph. 0-60mph 9.1 sec