Curbside Classic: 1973 Ford Mustang Mach 1

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic 1973 ford mustang mach 1

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.

More new Curbside Classics here

Join the conversation
2 of 40 comments
  • KIM1963 KIM1963 on Jul 06, 2010

    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 .

  • Ryan.mustangboss Ryan.mustangboss on Nov 08, 2015

    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.

  • SPPPP The little boosters work way better than you would expect. I am a little nervous about carrying one more lithium battery around in the car (because of fire risk). But I have used the booster more than once on trips, and it has done the job. Also, it seems to hold charge for a very long time - months at least - when you don't use it. (I guess I could start packing it for trips, but leaving it out of the car on normal days, to minimize the fire risk.)
  • Bader Hi I want the driver side lights including the bazl and signal
  • Theflyersfan One positive: doesn't appear to have a sunroof. So you won't need to keep paper towels in the car.But there's a serious question to ask this seller - he has less than 40,000 miles on some major engine work, and the transmission and clutch work and mods are less than 2 months old...why are you selling? That's some serious money in upgrades and repairs, knowing that the odds of getting it back at the time of sale is going to be close to nil. This applies to most cars and it needs to be broadcasted - these kinds of upgrades and mods are really just for the current owner. At the time of sale, a lot of buyers will hit pause or just won't pay for the work you've done. Something just doesn't sit well with me and this car. It could be a snowbelt beast and help save the manuals and all that, but a six year old VW with over 100,000 miles normally equals gremlins and electrical issues too numerous to list. Plus rust in New England. I like it, but I'd have to look for a crack pipe somewhere if the seller thinks he's selling at that price.
  • 2ACL I can't help feeling that baby is a gross misnomer for a vehicle which the owner's use necessitated a (manual!) transmission rebuild at 80,000 miles. An expensive lesson in diminishing returns I wouldn't recommend to anyone I know.
  • El scotto Rumbling through my pantry and looking for the box of sheets of aluminum foil. More alt right comments than actual comments on international trade policy. Also a great deal of ignorance about the global oil industry. I'm a geophysicist and I pay attention such things. Best of all we got to watch Tassos go FULL BOT on us.