On April 17, motoring enthusiasts from around Australia will gravitate to Geelong in honour of a car. Thousands of fellow aficionados will do the same in other cities around the world. The iconic American car, the Ford Mustang, is turning 50.
Can a consumer object such as a car fuel the imagination of a generation? I reckon the Mustang did just that. It succeeded so well that its name is now synonymous with an era of prosperity and upheaval, grand plans and bold spirits.
This car has always been on the fringes of my world, sometimes close enough to touch and at other times more like a mirage.
From the mid-’60s my dad had a part-time job in the car park at Sandown. From the age of eight I went along with him, watched the racing, got up close to the cars in the pits, smelt the racing fuel. I saw champions Norm Beechey, Pete Geoghegan and Allan Moffat win touring car races in their Mustangs. Once I was older I looked back with envy as young Americans, the most prosperous generation in history, had bought them by the million.
In the US, Ford’s Mustang ad campaign used the tag line ''the car designed to be designed by you''. Mustang could be a sports car, a luxury car or a family fun car, depending on the array of options ordered. The list of more than 100 options, radical in its day, made the Mustang personal. Bucket seats, floor shift and modernity were standard features. Mustang achieved the previously unimagined: it was an exotic car for the masses. Tiffany’s even gave it a design award. Beautiful from any angle. Fast when it’s standing still.
It was individualised mass production in the age of self-expression, perfectly aligned with the mood of the baby boomers . But it wasn’t here. While over two million were sold in the first five years of production in the US, less than 300 were imported and converted to right-hand drive by Ford Australia in the 1960s.
Our youth transport in the Age of Aquarius, drive-ins and beach parties was the Holden, maybe a panel van or even the Kombi. These did the job and were hotted up and painted purple or orange or yellow. Our muscle cars emulated the Mustang but while they weren’t short on horsepower we didn’t have the pony itself, the steed that started it all. The Mustang’s unattainability only made it more desirable to me. The desire persisted.
In 2013 I decided that the time had come to find a '60s Mustang of my own. More enlightened regulations now allow these historic left-hand drive cars to be imported and remain as built. Not having to convert them has also made them cheaper. Eventually I found my red 1967 coupe from southern California. No rust. There’s a United Auto Workers retired member sticker inside the rear window. Who knows, that previous owner may have helped build the car.
Driving the Mustang is a total sensory experience. Touch, sound, smell and sensuality. Wood-rim steering wheel, brushed aluminium, chrome and vinyl take me to another time and place. Turning the ignition brings a living, breathing V8 rumbling to life. My foot on the throttle connects me to its pulse. It speaks with a throaty burble. Inside, the cabin smells like a memory of youthful summers, warm bodies and suntan lotion. Did I say sensual?
When I’m out in the Mustang people often start conversations. One day I was stopped at a red light and heard a loud howling noise. I wound down the window (yes, you wind the windows) and a guy in a station wagon was in full flight. ''That was my dream car,'' he yelled. ''I always wanted one. Like Steve McQueen.''
I ponder this car’s timeless enchantment. A seductive fusion of grace and dynamism, curvaceous body and long hood flowing away in front. The imprint of the Mustang running horse emblem has been seared into my consciousness. As I sit behind the wheel it’s as if I can see those racing Mustangs at Sandown through my own windscreen of memories. And the hopes of that more optimistic era don’t seem so far away.
Tony Lupton is an innovation consultant and began his working life as a motor mechanic.
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