By Eric Barton
The old Mustang sat at a gas station at the end of my street for months, with a “for sale” sign tucked between the windshield and dash. It was maybe a ’68, blue by birth but mostly rust. At toll booths, you could just about pass change through the holes in the side.
But every time I passed it, I would suggest to my dad that it would be a fine first car.
“That is not going to happen,” he’d say. Because he was smart. Because he knew old Mustangs were money pits. And he knew no soon-to-be-16-year-old ought to ride atop a monster.
That Mustang, though, it was a symbol. It was a sexy hunk of American steel with an engine twice what it needed. It was birthed from the souls of the kind of men and women who built WW II destroyers.
It was everything a 15-year-old uses to define a car.
It’s a safe bet that you are like me, and even when we could’ve bought a Mustang for ourselves, far more practical cars won out.
Our first cars are usually something affordable, something that won’t break down like an old Ford, the car company that once stood for “Fix Often Repair Daily.” We went for Toyotas or Hondas, cars that gave repairmen days off but lacked the soul of a muscle car.
As life changes, those econo-boxes morph into sedans, with enough room to take your coworkers to lunch. Then maybe there’s a need to stow a stroller and a pack-and-play, so our vehicles become defined by the initials S, U and V. Soon, the dependent line on your tax return increases, and the priority in car purchases is third-row seating. Forget short-throw shifters – the decision on buying a vehicle comes down to whether fruit roll-ups will easily come out of the carpet.
The Mustang also changed, from that beast from the 1960s to an oddly bulky and entirely unreliable creation of the ’70s. Then came the boxy ’Stangs of the era of Reaganomics, famous for 5.0 engines but with little modern conveniences or style. In the ’90s, the Mustang was more about its affordability, a sports car with a near-family sedan shape and an interior that seemed ancient.
By then, many of us had moved on to luxury rides that might impress the neighbor, with French-stitched leather seats and backup cameras. The in-laws knew you were doing well by your serenely quiet highway cruiser. Wrapped in comfort, lacking passion.
There will be a time again when practicality doesn’t rule the car purchase. Baby seats no longer needed. Teenagers not asking for the keys. Whether your vehicle can fit a sheet of plywood will be irrelevant.
If that day, for you, is today, it’s convenient that the Mustang has become something worthy of desire again. Ford launched a new one for its 50th anniversary last year. You can option it with all the appointments of a car from Bavaria – backup camera, air conditioned seats, stitched leather everywhere – and also an engine with eight glorious cylinders.
It has also become a marvel. You can get a high-tech four-cylinder engine that somehow gets about 30 mpg on the highway and explosive 310 horsepower. The technical bits that used to make the Mustang a relic – like a solid rear axle, obsolete in most cars for a generation – have now been replaced by modernity.
The Mustang, that car we all craved way back when, is now actually a terrific car. Don’t call it a midlife crisis if you buy one. It’s because you are remembering that cars are supposed to be an object of desire. Cars are supposed to be fun. Cars are supposed to be just like a Mustang. λ