For 50 years, Ford Mustang answers call of open road, youth and freedom
This is a story about love at first sight.
She was so sleek, all smooth lines and secret shine. Even at rest she was potential energy and Josh Bowen, newly 15, fell with the innocence and unflagging devotion of a pilgrim newly arrived at the shrine.
She could purr and she could roar, and Josh spent hours with her.
His dad, C.J., had brought her home because Josh had shown an interest. He remembered, even as a little kid, seeing ones like her and feeling excited — nothing he could articulate, exactly, just an intangible longing and joy. So that day in 1994, when C.J. Bowen paid $3,000 and brought her home, Josh didn’t so much fall as tumble and leap and cartwheel into love.
She was red, because of course. She was a red 1965 fastback, parked in the Bowen family garage in Preston, Idaho. A Mustang.
“I’d go out and clean it and look at it, work on it, start it and just sit there listening to the engine,” Josh recalled. “Nothing else in the world sounds like a Mustang.”
The very day he was eligible for his driver’s license at 15 and a half, he walked to school to finish his driving test with the driver’s ed teacher, then walked two blocks to the DMV to pass the test for his license.
Then, he ran the mile and a half to his house.
His mom was in the kitchen when he dashed in to snatch the keys.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I gotta go for a drive,” he replied.
She tried telling him that just because he had his license didn’t mean he had to go driving immediately, but she was talking to air. He was out the door and backing that Mustang out of the garage.
And that first drive?
That first drive ...
There might be words in the vicinity, or that come fairly near — freedom, euphoria, bliss — but really, it was a boy and a Mustang and the open road. And that’s enough.
‘AMERICAN AS HELL’
This isn’t, surprisingly, paid for by the Ford Motor Co. It isn’t an ad for the Mustang, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, even though it’s about the Mustang.
It’s about the Mustang, yes, but also something more ephemeral: how a thing becomes an emblem becomes an idea. Fifty years after the morning of April 17, 1964, when the Mustang went on sale in Ford showrooms across America, and the Mustang is cool. Still.
Sure, there were some off years, some ugly years, some “Why would anybody drive that?” years, but overall? Well, consider that one particular kid in the senior class.
He may not have been at the apex of the high school pecking order, he may not have been captain of anything, but he didn’t need to be. He didn’t particularly care. He’d pull into the gravel parking lot in an early-year Mustang, one in need of work but still, ineffably, cool.
The windows stayed down longer into the autumn than they probably should have, but man, that rush of air. Life itself. And there was always music wafting from them, never too loud, but almost always good. It was rarely a matter of trying too hard with this Mustang and its driver.
And if the he happened to be a she, then forget it. Nothing hotter.
The calculation involved in designing and unveiling the Mustang could not have predicted this, that an affordable sports car would come to embody, 50 years down the road, not lost youth, but eternal youth. Because somehow, it seems that summer always shines on a Mustang.
It’s the confluence of a lot of parts: the rise of the Baby Boomers, American prosperity, a growing passion for cars.
(This passion, notes Peter Norton in his book “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City” was pushed along mightily by the auto industry, which coined the term “jaywalking,” saw to it that AAA sponsored safety programs in schools and oversaw the cultural saturation of the phrase “America’s love affair with the automobile”: it was used in 1961 in the TV show “Merrily We Roll Along,” a show sponsored by DuPont, which at that time owned a lot of General Motors stock. Groucho Marx, the show’s narrator, used the phrase until it began appearing in other media.)
Plus, census data told auto makers that by the end of 1965, 40 percent of the American population would be 20 or younger. And they would be interested in cars.
“Each year, according to Ford Motor’s market research, one third of Americans aged eighteen to twenty-four bought a new car: more young people meant more car sales,” wrote Douglas Brinkley in “Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress.” “Not only was the population actually getting younger, but the individuals within it had begun adopting more youthful attitudes and tastes. As Americans grew simultaneously richer and better educated, the zeitgeist shifted from a work ethic toward a more avid pursuit of fun.”
So, Ford set out to capture that. Led by Lee Iacocca, who was jealously eyeing Chevrolet’s Corvair, the mandate was sporty but affordable, appealing to guys with a passion for cars and moms with groceries to get. It took several years of design and debate before the Mustang prototype was ready, and thousands of potential names before “Mustang” became the choice.
In his book “Mustang,” author Joe McCarthy quotes an ad executive involved in the naming as saying, “The name Mustang won because it had the excitement of the wide open spaces and was American as hell.” In fact, the now-iconic galloping Mustang logo was adapted from Frederic Remington’s “Great Pictures of the Old West,” McCarthy wrote.
On that foundation, Mustang production began March 9, 1964, at Ford’s River Rouge plant and the car was introduced to America the night of April 16, 1964, via an advertising blitz on ABC, NBC and CBS.
Response for the four-seat sports car, base priced in 1964 at $2,368, was immediate and overwhelming. The first weekend it was for sale, Brinkley wrote, Ford accepted 22,542 orders for Mustangs.
‘YOU FEEL FREE’
But this says nothing about the echoes in an empty nest.
Sometimes, Dorothea Oldaker would turn on all four TVs in her rambling Grand Junction house, just for a semblance of fullness. Her daughter, the youngest of her three children, had recently moved out and Oldaker was at loose ends. Decades of dinners and chauffeuring and friends over and bickering and music and messes had come to an end, and now the white carpet miraculously, unfortunately stayed clean. Her husband told her she needed a hobby.
But what? Cars, maybe? She’d never been particularly into them, but her husband had test driven a Mustang Shelby GT and encouraged her to try it, which she did.
Eh. It was OK.
A while later, and on a whim, she drove a 2010 Roush Mustang.
It hugged the road like an oil slick, sinuous and smooth and fast. So, so fast. Once again, that feeling beyond words, except to say it was love. She bought it, this mom in her mid-40s who’d never given much thought to cars in general, Mustangs in particular.
That was four Mustangs ago, dozens of open road and track races later, far down the road into active membership in the Roush Road Crew. To say she’s an evangelist for all things Mustang is to simplify and understate the fervor: She’s been counting down to the 50th anniversary for more than two years.
“I’m so excited,” she said. “I don’t even have words.”
She’ll join the Mustang 50th Pony Drive, a cross-country rally and moveable party, that stops in Grand Junction on Tuesday. She’ll drive with it to Norman, Okla., and then circle back to Las Vegas, Nev., for one of the biggest Mustang parties in history.
Along the way, she’ll deliver gifts to children’s hospitals because her sleek black Roush is decorated to commemorate children’s cancer research — her son is a survivor — and revel in the myriad joys of driving that Mustang.
Because she loves driving it. So much.
“It’s hard to put into words how you feel,” she explained.
A week later, at his desk in Columbine Ford in Rifle, where he’s a salesman, Bowen tried: “You feel free,” he said. “When I’m having a bad day, I get in a Mustang and just drive, and I always feel better.”
‘IT IS LOVE’
Maybe that’s it, or part of it, at least.
Americans have always surged into the immense open, rushing for the horizon with wide eyes and great gulps of air.
“For a transitory enchanted moment,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Great Gatsby,” “man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
That silver, galloping Mustang logo is the quintessential embodiment of heading out. Just out, there, anywhere, and the blessed freedom to do so. With its shark nose and inimitable RRRrrrRrrrRR engine, more than 9 million sold in 50 years, Mustangs are the tangible spirit of going. Just going.
They’re easy to work on, Bowen said, easy to learn on. He has four of them in his Rifle garage. The black GT in which he took his wife, Barbie, on their first date is on blocks, but someday soon it will shine. Their son and two daughters help.
“I’ve had like 15 (Mustangs),” he admitted, noting that since the first ‘65, he has bought and sold Mustangs, fixing them up, racing them, loving them.
“It is love,” Oldaker said. “How they look, how they sound, how they feel to drive, how you feel when you’re driving them.”
Even on a grocery run or a typical school/soccer practice/home for dinner day, there’s the sense that the open road is not entirely lost, that it’s out there, beckoning.
Per Walt Whitman, in “Song of the Open Road”:
“From this hour, freedom!
“From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
“Going where I list, my own master, total and absolute.”
Perhaps this all could be said of many cars, American muscle, affordable to more than just the one percent, embodying the ingenuity and speed and derring-do of life — not just modern life, in fact, but all life — in this country. The Corvettes, the Fairlanes, the Camaros, the Thunderbirds — they all have their aficionados, they’re all a part of this.
And the Mustang, a good seller overseas, where it is emblematic of its birthplace, of the horse galloping across the plains, mane blown back, all speed and abandon.
The Mustang, which the cool kids drive, the old dudes who aren’t trying too hard, the ladies who know a good thing when they see it. Somehow, maybe through some miracle of marketing and product placement, but more likely because Americans love driving and freedom and cars, the Mustang kept that something.
As for the people who drive them, it’s love.
Always, with the Mustang, a love story.