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 1970 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. It shouldn’t be too surprising, since its size and design was heavily influenced by an outsider, former GM exec Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen, during his brief career as President of Ford from 1968 to 1969.
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.
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. 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 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 ugly, fast. But I’ll let you be the judge: either I wasn’t man enough to wrestle this beast into submission, 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 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.
The second lesson was humbling, not bumbling. A couple of years later, I briefly worked on a construction crew. Two of the young guys had just hocked themselves and bought their first new cars: one, a plain-Jane base ’73 Mustang coupe; the other, a cute little Celica. They were perpetually debating the superiority of their respective choices. I, a fledgling Ford Death Watcher, was convinced that Dearborn had shot itself in the hoof with the ’71-’73 Mustang, and that the Celica was the harbinger of pony cars to come. My prophesy looked good for a while, especially during the gruesome Mustang II era. But eventually, Ford rediscovered the winning Mustang formula, and the Celica lost its way. Lesson two: there is redemption in the car biz, and Toyota is far from infallible.
I grappled with the idea of following my co-worker’s new-car-loan footsteps, although it sure wouldn’t have been with a dorky ’73 Mustang with whitewalls and full wheel covers. But, as it always did back then, the open road called, and I was happy enough to be able to heed it in my $75 Corvair. The other two spent the next three years digging footings to make car payments while arguing about who bought the better car. Another lesson ingrained.
Our featured Curbside Classic belongs to the father of a young woman who works at a nearby car parts shop. She was driving it to work that day, but it was parked between two cars. She offered to move it fifty feet across the lot for me, but the cold 351 grumbled, farted, complained and stalled about a half–dozen times. I offered to push it, but apparently accepting that would have dinged her pride.
She owns and occasionally drives to work a real beast of a ’69 Mustang fastback with one of those early-sixties vintage style gasser intake scoops sticking up through the hood with the holes facing forward (what are they called?). We’ll have to pay her another visit. But not before we decide which of the two Mustang II’s I’ve shot to write up: a plain-Jane coupe or a be-spoilered Cobra. Ford (like me) still had a few more lessons to learn.