By on November 10, 2009

'73 Mustang

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.

CC 52 003 800Its 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?

CC 52 001 800On 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.

CC 52 018 800The 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.

CC 52 020 800Our 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.

CC 52 015 800

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40 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1973 Ford Mustang Mach 1...”

  • avatar

    I resisted the temptation to name the car in the hint post after RF tipped off the world (accidentally I assume?) via Twitter yesterday.
    Every time I see a Mach 1 the angel on my shoulder says “What were they thinking?” while the devil says “Who cares!?” Sums up the 70s in their entirety I guess.

  • avatar

    I certainly agree that Ford lost its way for quite a few years there, especially after riding in a 1971 Mach I and seeing how high the beltline was; it reminded me of my first car, a 1947 Chevy Fleetline Aerosedan. But then I liked the 1963 Falcon Sprints…almost bought a new one…and for a long time saw Mustangs as glorified and overpriced Falcons.

  • avatar

    So you tried to steer a Mustang that was powered by the ’71 Boss 351 engine with its steering wheel?

    That’s what the throttle is for.

  • avatar

    Knudsen pres of Ford???! That’s damned interesting. Is that why that thing looks like GM from the left front? (For those who don’t know Knudsen, he had a long association with Chevrolet, the details of which PN can fill in.

  • avatar

    I would credit management, not the workers, with the poor quality. Management sets up the system within which the workers work. If Ford had set up the same sort of system Toyota, and probably Honda had back then, where the workers could stop the line any time something was wrong, quality would have been much improved.

  • avatar

    An old Mustang was my dream car in high school.  A ’69 ideally, but one of these would have done.  I learned quickly that all Mustangs in Wisconsin were very rusty, very expensive, or both.

  • avatar

    I see shot rear springs.

  • avatar

    I had a 73. It was my first new to me car. Paid for it with my own money and everything with my first job. Then I paid again when I had to replace the entire exhaust. Then more paying when the engine threw a rod with just 72k miles on the odo. Then I paid again when the rear springs needed redone. Then the brake lines. Then the power steering pump. I finally let my dad sell it at a loss. What a great lesson to teach a 16 year old kid. And what a perfect first car. One that hardly ever starts. I put 1821 miles on it in 3 years. At least it was a handful to see out of or park.

  • avatar

    When I see one of these, all I can think of is rust and cracked vinyl inside.  A friend had one of these in the late 70s.  Being in northern Indiana, all Fords of that early 70s era were just awful for rust, and the Mustang was no exception. 
    I guess that time heals all wounds, because I like the look of the car today a lot more than I liked it then, when EVERYONE agreed that “they have ruined the Mustang.”  The car has that bloated early 70s vibe going, which is interesting today if only because we see so few of them around anymore. 
    But still, I cannot conceive why anyone would have bought one of these over a Cuda/Challenger or a Camaro/Firebird.  The fact that the car was three years and gone tells us that a lot of people must have had the same sentiment in those days.

  • avatar

    Interesting to learn about Bunkie Knudsen’s influence on the porker Mustang…This generation of Stang was always “one of these things is not like the others” in realtionship to all other generations of the Mustang…waay to big, and yes, kind of GMish in it’s over-the-top flashiness. The Dash is very GM-looking as well, clearly inspired by the coke-bottle ’68 Vette.

    That said, I still think this big bruiser is kind of cool looking, but it was always an oddball in the lineage…maybe Ford should have introduced it as a new model, as large sporting GT Cruiser to replace the Thunderbird in the lineup, as the ’72 Thunderbird also porked out, became a cheaper Lincoln Mark IV clone, and lost ALL of it’s former touring cred.

  • avatar

    “…sticking up through the hood with the holes facing forward (what are they called?)”
    Do you mean a “shaker top”?

  • avatar

    I idolized this car as a youngster, as an uncle had a Mach I with a Super Cobra Jet 429. He drag raced it a bit, then parked it his parents’ garage. I always asked him why, and got various answers “I can’t get gas for it”. “I want to keep it original”. “It’s an investment”. I’d sit in it and play with the Hurst shifter. I could not see out of it.

    I wonder if he still has it? :)

  • avatar

    I liked the new Mustang offered currently till I saw one up close and saw what an absolute whale it is. Same thing with this. I wonder how close in size and weight the current Mustang is in comparison to this bloated caricature.

    The 71-73 was a joke. Every time Ford made the Mustang larger and more pointless, it’s sales dropped.

    For all the grousing about the Mustang II it was a sales smash. [And lest we forget: Motor Trend’s Car Of The Year]. At the very least they went back and attempted to rectify the excesses of the previous generation Mustang.

    Nice write up of a silly vehicle. Enjoyable as usual.

    Now I have to go savor your story of that $75.00 Corvair. Thanks, Paul.

    • 0 avatar
      Lug Nuts

      I agree about the Mustang II.  As much as people deride it, it was very popular in its day, very affordable, reliable, and good looking with the right trim and wheels.  The V8 models were a blast to hoon around in.
      I hated the 71-73 when they were new.  I still dislike them.  My personal favorite has always been the original coupe, 64.5 to 66, especially with a 4-spd and pony interior.

  • avatar

    I like the looks of that style, especially the fast-back.

    My opinion is assuredly of extreme importance to all hereabouts.

    That Boss 351 engine was also a decent motorvator.

    I believe the “boss” nomenclature was taken from current slang language from that era vice the udder way around.

    “That’s boss, man.”

    Never heard the term “Rad, 3.8, dude.”

    Local 72 Mustang with a built but not radical 351 with slicks and general nothing extreme modifications that I was aware of ran mid “11’s” at the area 1/4-mile strip of drag.

    The critter seemed to put the “power to the ground” quite efficiently and was fun to watch.

  • avatar

    Just about every time I see a car from the seventies, it gives me douche chills  — double douche bottles for this Mustang.

    BTW, the original Mustang was built on the Falcon platform, where it stayed until 1967.   The Falcon remained a small compact until its demise in 1969.   Being so small, the Falcon platform would not have easily accommodated a big-block, so the Mustang was moved to the larger Fairlane platform to meet demand for big-blocks.   In the late 1960’s, the Fairlane succumbed to auto bloat-itis –a common car malady that has taken place in cycles since the beginning of the industry.   The new bulked up Fairlane was renamed Torino, and the Mustang, being a mechanical twin, had no choice but to follow along.   Both cars stank on ice.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Had a ’73 Mustang, with the underpowered 302 in it.

    I believe this particular Mustang was the vehicle that earned Ford it’s (for the time appropriate) tag lines Found On the Road Dead and/or Fix Or Repair Daily.

    That car ate a SERIOUS hole in my wallet…..

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Circa 1983, I had a ’73  Gran Torino Squire wagon . It had  a 351 Cleaveland . A  buddy   at  work had a Mach 1 351 Mustang  work  beater. The wayback  of  Ken’s Mustang  was level  wit Narragansett beer cans. IIRC , both  cars  were  500 $  beaters  by  83

  • avatar

    Small trivia of national importance…note Bunkie’s GM influence with the hidden windshield wipers on this generation of Mustang.

    These Mustangs were BIG cars. Back in my youth, I was amazed that my buddy’s ’71 fastback Mustang was longer than my other buddy’s ’69 Chevelle.

  • avatar

    I love these cars, and currently own a 73 Mach 1 Q code 351c 4barrel CJ.
    Its going to get headers and an exhaust next spring. (maybe floorpans too to replace the hack job in there now).
    The car is tons of fun to drive. Something about looking down that long ass hood at the road and hitting the gas.  I wish it had the 4 speed, but the auto doesn’t seem out of place here.
    Remember- the Boss 351 was the fastest of the Boss Mustangs stock.
    The Mustang was widened to fit the 429 engine between the shock towers. It was wider than the old 428 due to the canted valves in the head. Same with the 351C (but that fit in previous mustangs)
    I have a 67 also, and can just imagine how much cheaper the 71-73 was to produce. the car ends at the fenders, no headlight buckets, no panel between the grille and the bumper,  just the plastic grille with simulated buckets. No cowl panel, it was under the hood, with hidden wipers.  No matter, less for me to take apart when its time to strip it for the full resto.
    I also had a 78 Mustang II at one point.  It was a 4cylinder car with no options but T-Tops, meaning it had the same manual rack that made the pinto such fun. I kept that, but ditched the 4 for a mild 302 with a 4 speed, and that car was one of the most fun cars I’ve owned.  I don’t know why they get such a bad rap, styling wasn’t horrible, and the stock 302 was a dog, but easy to get performance parts for.

  • avatar

    I think it was Gene Bordinat who referred to this incarnation of the Mustang as ‘the airdraft carrier’ for it’s exceedingly long and flat hood.  Hard to imagine that Bunkie’s intent was to copy the styling of the ’69-’70 Shelby Mustang.  Along the way came the 351 instead of the 302 because it was cheaper to build and so the design both bloated and diminished simultaneously.

  • avatar

    affordable stripper

  • avatar

    Yeah, it might have looked like an aircraft carrier on wheels, but I like the ’71-’73 Mustang for the simple reason that it was good-looking and different enough from the Camaro/Firebird and Barracuda/Challenger (plus the Javelin and Cougar). It’s true that they were all pieces o’ crap but, damn, it was the last hurrah of those halcyon days of the musclecar era.

    By 1975, the Barracuda/Challenger/Javelin would be gone, the Cougar was a bloated copy of the Thunderbird, and the Mustang was nothing more than an erzatz Pinto. The Z28 would not return until 1977 (but in an emasculated form), leaving only the Trans Am as the keeper of the flame (and it likely would have been gone, too, if not for the success of Smokey and the Bandit).

    As an aside, Semon E. ‘Bunkie’ Knudson’s short tenure as Ford president (ahead of Iacocca) was an interesting one. Besides what he did to the Mustang, he is most remembered for tacking the ‘beak’ onto the Thunderbird (ostensively thought to make it look like a Pontiac) and the way he was fired by Henry Ford II (‘Hank the Deuce’), supposedly for the egregious transgression of coming into his office without knocking. The punchline was a transposition of Henry Ford’s famous line, ‘History is bunk’, i.e., ‘Bunkie is history’…

  • avatar

    So we’re panning the ’71-’73 Mustang for its poor visibility and the sitting-in-the-bottom-of-a-bucket effect.  Umm, that would make it just like 90 percent of the cars designed in the last few years.

    The convertible version of this generation was a much better looking car (and was the last ragtop Mustang for a while).

    Getting to know these makes you realize that the Mustang II, for all its faults, was an improvement. 

    It could have been much worse; this was when the Dodge Charger was moved up to a bloated sedan platform and eventually became a de-trimmed Cordoba.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      MadHungarian: So we’re panning the ‘71-’73 Mustang for its poor visibility and the sitting-in-the-bottom-of-a-bucket effect.  Umm, that would make it just like 90 percent of the cars designed in the last few years

      I’m constantly panning new cars for just that, especially the Camaro.

    • 0 avatar

      MadHungarian: “The convertible version of this generation was a much better looking car (and was the last ragtop Mustang for a while).”
      And Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) had one, too…

  • avatar

    One of my favorite Mustang styles.  Fastback only, the notch sucks.
    But I’d paint it yellow and use some Ansen Sprint wheels (similar to those in Starky&Hutch Torino).

  • avatar


    Great story about the ’71 Mustang. There was another Ford dealer in the Baltimore area back in ’70-’71 called Tower Ford and I went to high school with the owner’s son. In the spring of ’71 the son received a brand new ’71 Mach I, white with black trim. It had a 351 Cleveland engine but it was not the Boss version with 330 horsepower but a more sedate version that was either 285 or 310 horsepower (mid-year change due to compression ratio reduction?).

    Anyway, this kid thought he was King Feruk until another classmate of mine challenged him to a drag race on I-83, coming off of the Shawan Road exit in Hunt Valley, heading south. So it was the four speed, 351 powered Mach I verses a ’70 Plymouth Duster 340 with an automatic and 3.91 gears. I was in the Duster and I can tell you it was never a contest, that Duster shut the Mustang down, hard!

    The ’71-’73 Mustangs were imposing in appareance, I believe because of their girth, and that was the root of their performance woes. Too much weight and too little umphhh.  Poor old Billy Boy, the owner of the Mustang, never lived that one down.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Getting dusted by the Duster doesn’t surprise me the least. And I know that stretch of road you describe very well. That’s where we always got off to head out into the back roads of N. Balto. County for fun drives. Stay tuned.

    • 0 avatar

      An auto, 3.91, 340 Duster is nothing to sneeze at. They were cheap and fast, one of the best musclecar deals, ever, better even than its logical predecessor, the ’68 Roadrunner. There’s a reason they sold so many 340/360 Dusters (and Darts/Demons) over the seven year period they were built.

      The 351C was a good engine, too (one of Ford’s best) but I can see a lightweight Duster 340 stomping one without too much trouble.

  • avatar

    I don’t think the Mach 1 is so bad, but that base coupe in the link is stunningly awful!

  • avatar

    Semon E. (“Bunkie”) Knudsen was hired as president of Ford in January 1968. He hadn’t been planning to leave GM, but he recently been passed over as president of GM in favor of Ed Cole, so he was more open to the idea than he might otherwise have been. The reason then-chairman Henry Ford II hired him is that Ford was bucking for Lyndon Johnson to give him an ambassadorial post, and he was shopping for someone he could entrust with the future of the company. Henry wasn’t convinced that Iacocca was ready for that kind of responsibility, and he was rather wary of Iacocca’s obvious ambitions.
    More than anything, Henry wanted to make Ford more like GM, which he’d been trying to do since 1946. In that sense, Knudsen was a big fish. His father, “Big Bill” Knudsen, had been a Ford exec in the early twenties before quitting to join GM. Bill Knudsen eventually became president of GM from 1937-1940, and then the Roosevelt administration hired him to run the conversion of industry to war production. Bunkie joined GM in 1939 and went on to make a big splash reviving Pontiac in the late fifties. He went on to run Chevrolet, and then became group VP in 1965.
    Henry’s plans changed after Johnson announced he would not run for reelection that fall, putting paid to his dreamed-of ambassadorship. Once he realized he was sticking around, his conflicts with Knudsen became acute. The biggest danger for any Ford executive was forgetting whose name was on the door. Knudsen tended to assume more control over the decision-making process than Henry was prepared to give him. Moreover, Lee Iacocca was deeply resentful at being passed over, and he would undermine Knudsen’s authority at every turn. Ford execs like Gene Bordinat were caught in the middle, because while Knudsen was the president, everyone was taking bets on how long he would last, and they knew that Iacocca could hold a grudge. It was easy to get caught in no-win situations: do you obey the president and risk making an enemy of Iacocca (or even of alienating the chairman), or do you drag your feet and risk the president canning you?
    Henry Ford fired Knudsen in September 1969, only about 19 months after he was hired. The people Knudsen had brought with him, like Larry Shinoda (who styled the Boss Mustangs), were not long for the world, inevitably.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Argentla – great history – thanks!

  • avatar

    rudiger:    And Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) had one, too…

    And in my junior-high years I had the worst crush on MTM as Mary Richards.  Until I found out she was 2 years older than my mom, that killed the crush somehow . . .

    • 0 avatar

      btw, if memory serves, Mary Richard’s powder blue Mustang coupe in the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is a 1970.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, it was a white 1970 coupe, and she’s only seen driving it in the opening credits through the first two seasons of the show.

      From season 3 on, the opening was substantially changed (it starts with her in the back of a crowded elevator) and that’s where there’s a brief shot of her washing the newer, blue convertible.

      As a point of reference, the likely closest modern equivalent of Mary Richards, Pam Beesly of The Office, drives a Toyota Yaris 3-door…

  • avatar
    Andrew F.

    Paul– Having followed the blog for a while I about fell off my perch when I saw Ruxton mentioned in this article. Growing up there in the 70’s I did some spectacularly stupid stunts on those roads, and somehow survived and learned better. No Tail of the Dragon, maybe, but more than a match for an adolescent on a gas pedal and a Michelob or two. In fact some of the most egregious involved a Mustang, a rusty, sagging ’67 with an inline-six my buddy’s parents had paid less than $500 for that we routinely pushed well beyond its limits, as befell what we already recognized as a classic.

  • avatar

    I cannot even believe this car is described as ” ugliness ” ! In my eyes its ” coolness” . I love the looks of MachI’s of this time . I had a friend in highschool that had one .He had it jacked up in the back with wide tires and OMG was that car loud ! We had some great times in that Mach .

  • avatar

    You sad sad fool. I can see that you like posting superflues comments about great cclssics on your little blog. I can also see that you dont like mustangs at all so why bother? I have my 74 mark II and im building a saleen s7 351 windsor for her with the 4 t4 turbos. All the mustangs from 1964 till 1980 are awesome. The fox bodys are the kak ones. Looks like a seiera not a mustang. And the new mustangs. Well they try to revive the classics. Im sure you just a lonly sad sac who couldnt afford a mustang.

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