AS THE SEVENTIES dawned, America was at the very zenith of her power.
The Apollo moon landing had propelled national pride (and hubris, some might say) to unprecedented highs. Vietnam was still a spreading stain, the full horror and shame of which hadn’t yet manifested itself. Watergate was yet to unfold.
Domestic oil production was at its peak. The OPEC nightmare of only three years later wasn’t even on the radar.
And the muscle-car era was at its apogee, reflecting all the machismo of a hard, fast, brash, rich, oil-drunk nation.
Bruce Springsteen encapsulated it best with Born to Run, of course.
‘In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9
Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected and steppin’ out over the line…’
American streets were ruled by tyre-shredding, fuel-sucking machines whose names read like a roll of honour: the Plymouth Roadrunner Superbird, the Pontiac GTO Judge, the Chev Chevelle SS-454, the Chev Camaro Z28, the Dodge Charger R/T 440 Magnum, the Plymouth Barracuda, the Pontiac Firebird TransAm and, naturally, the Mustang in a bewildering array of guises.
The ’Stang story, of course, began on April 17, 1964 when the Mustang, billed as a ’65 model and created under Ford GM Lee Iacocca, rolled into showrooms across the USA, selling over 22 000 models in the first day – and more than a million in the first two years.
Along the way it entered popular consciousness as a bona-fide cultural artefact, appearing in films from Bullitt to Goldfinger, just months after its launch. Naturally, it also featured in song, from Mustang Sally (Wilson Pickett) to Mustang Ford (T-Rex) to My Ford Mustang (Chuck Berry).
Whether the name had equine roots or was spawned by the WW2 fighter plane is still debated. But in an age of oversized behemoths, the comparatively lithe Mustang was just perfect.
Decades later UK CAR writer Stephen Bayley summed up the original Mustang thus: ‘There was the air intake, a perfectly judged oblong slot with pretend lateral louvers which would irritate were they not executed with such conviction. American designers have a genius with orifices. Then there were the kicked-up haunches, the most winning interpretation of the Coke bottle look. And lastly there was the turned-up back bumper which gave the rear end a pick-up-your-skirts-and-run aspect.’
The base price of the hardtop car was just $2 368, including a straight-six 170ci (2.8-litre) motor and a three-speed manual box, but it looked far more expensive.
Over the years the ’Stang gradually got bigger, harder and faster. The even more iconic Shelby Mustang, born of the certainty that GM and Chrysler wouldn’t be taking Ford’s pony car lying down, upped the game.
And why was it called the GT350? Simple. Creator Carroll Shelby apparently asked how far a certain building was from where he sat with his chief engineer Phil Remington. They both guessed, and then Remington paced it out at 350 feet. The later GT500, meanwhile, was born for the very good reason that 500 was a bigger number than 350…
Of course, every Mustang fan has their favourite pony car – although almost all would hold only the pre-’71 cars to be worthy of acknowledgement. After that they became increasingly bloated and garish parodies of themselves, strangled by emissions and safety equipment, and then the OPEC crisis of 1973.
In his brilliant book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century, author James Howard Kunstler points out the fuel price virtually quadrupled – with devastating results.
‘The US auto industry, the crown jewel of the economy, was devastated. The “Big Three” were all tooled up to produce fleets of oversized, entropic, gas-guzzling behemoths, while the Europeans and now the Japanese offered small, nimble, fuel-efficient, and better-built models,’ writes Kunstler.
‘America’s compact cars were a long-standing joke, in particular General Motors’ Chevrolet Corvair, castigated by consumer advocate Ralph Nader as Unsafe at Any Speed. The 1973 oil crisis made American cars look ridiculous even to Americans, and plummeting sales soon reflected this starkly. The Big Three never recovered their market preeminence.’
But as for favourite Mustangs, mine is the 1970 model, offered by marketers as ‘Hot, Cool, Quick, Slick or Rich’.
To me, the shape was at its finest, although the Shelby models were dropped this year.
While largely based on the ’69 car, a single pair of headlights (as opposed to the ’69’s dual setup) flanked by a set of simulated air scoops give it a predatory appearance.
Tail lights for 1970 were recessed, and vivid period colours – including Grabber Green, Blue and Orange – helped make the ’Stang more extroverted than ever.
It was a big car, of course. Far bigger than the original, with a length of over 4.75 metres and a weight of nearly 1 400kg in convertible guise.
And it came with three body styles – hardtop, convertible and SportsRoof hardtop or fastback – a vast array of options, and a choice of nine different motors, from the entry-level six-cylinder 200ci (3.2-litre) to a 429ci (seven-litre) Boss Mustang making 280kW.
Now that might seem quite conservative today, but matched to comparatively anorexic tyres, a dearth of electronic driver aids and a dislike for corners, it made for entertaining performance with 100kph coming up in a lurid six or so seconds as overwhelmed rear tyres scrabbled for purchase.
The particular ’70 Mustang I’ve fallen for is a Grande model that I first came across at a Durban motor show four or so years ago.
The Grande was essentially a slightly gentrified ’Stang with the likes of wood appliqué on the dashboard, houndstooth cloth and the rather glitzy option of wire wheel covers.
Also standard was a half vinyl roof, which is perhaps the only piece of original equipment that this Grande – thankfully – does without. Another part of the allure is the original colour: Calypso Coral.
When owner Owen Steyn bought it, however, it was a rather tatty red. No problem for Steyn, a one-time Toyota DP and a petrolhead to be conjured with. He had it beautifully resprayed in its original livery and generally brought up to near-concours condition, made all the easier given that it’s possible to order just about any Mustang part ever made.
Since I first encountered the car, Steyn has moved to the bucolic seaside town of Port Shepstone, a couple of hours south of Durban, where he now runs Comet Cars, an excellent used-car outfit. Steyn says that the Grande effectively serves as a billboard for his dealership. Understandable as it swings heads like Huey rotors.
It sounds seismic too, and there’s something wonderfully primeval about the rumble of a hunk of Michigan metal – particularly the Grande’s 351ci (5.75-litre).
After cranking it into life, Steyn takes the passenger seat, and I slide behind the three-spoke wheel, close the massive door, and slick it into Drive. Output is listed at around 186kW and torque at 355Nm at a grumbling, rumbling 2 600rpm, and the Grande smoothly slurs into third and stays there, disdaining anything so frenzied as kicking down a gear.
Indeed, gurgling along a freeway, keeping the ’Stang on track with feather-light, over-assisted power-steering, I have the strangest feeling that I could be in New Jersey, circa the early seventies, en route to a Springsteen concert.
This car, born in the same year as me, is as American as apple pie and Enron, and I can’t help wanting it very badly.
‘It’s a bit like an arrow,’ smiles Steyn from the passenger seat. ‘Great in a straight line, but it doesn’t like corners.’
He adds that it’s happy up to about 145kph. Past that handling starts falling to pieces and the big Grande starts taking up an awful lot of the road.
The 0-100kph run, meanwhile, comes up in around nine seconds, which is leisurely in an age of three-second supercars, but ample to smoke the Yokohama 205/70R/14s it wears, and fairly mighty for the era.
Power brakes and aircon add to what by 1970 was becoming an increasingly refined package, while above all the styling and sound of the Grande literally freezes other road users.
In 1970 only 13 581 Grandes of a total Mustang production run of 190 727 cars were produced, carrying a sticker price of $2 926.
Today, Steyn’s ’Stang is perhaps worth around R250 000, comparatively little for an original piece of Americana like this, and certainly far less than you’d pay for an earlier ‘Stang deemed more collectable and covetable by some.
But I do know that I have an atavistic desire to add this particular Grande to my dream garage – and to while away hours in it listening to that timeless V8 burble while Springsteen hammers Born to Run over the sound system…
‘…Beyond the palace hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard
The girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors
And the boys try to look so hard…’