Invited to preview Ford’s L.A. Auto Show vehicles, I enter the Lincoln Design Center in Dearborn to find the Mustang Bullitt sitting next to a handsome production version of the 2008 Lincoln MKS. Though I spent most of my time looking at the Lincoln, the Bullitt—it was all too plain to see—is a corporate example of what your average Mustang enthusiast could craft if he had access to Highland Green paint, the proper wheels, and the Ford Racing parts catalog. Though that ‘Stang enthusiast probably couldn’t mimic the interior trim and badging, a heat gun and patience would net the same naked look Ford garnered by removing the exterior badging. Much is made of the car—and its connection to the late Steve McQueen—despite the fact that Bullitt (the movie) is 40 years old, Steve McQueen has been dead for 27 of those, and the 1968 Mustang has more sweep and drama to its sheetmetal than the slab-sided 2008 model. Not long after mentioning that about 7,500 copies of the Bullitt will be made, Mark Fields, executive vice president, Ford Motor Company, and president, The Americas, tells the assembled journalists how more derivatives of the Mustang will follow in the fullness of time as it is, “the heart and soul of the Ford Motor Company.” Sadly, a good deal of that is because Ford has little else in its arsenal other than the Mustang, thanks to Fields and his predecessors.
I pull into the parking lot of a local Ford dealer to buy a copy of John M. Clor’s new book, The Mustang Dynasty autographed by the author during a book signing. (Full disclosure: John and I worked together at AutoWeek in the late 1980s, and he could bring mirth and comic insanity to a Vatican picnic.) His telling of the Mustang tale is notable for more than good writing and the Mustang “artifacts” that sit in pockets on seven main pages, as it is quickly apparent that the Mustang is different than any Ford car before or since. Clor recounts how many times the car nearly died or was emasculated, and how the people who did that later took credit for the car’s success. The Mustang started life as a Ford Falcon-based four-seater for the youth market that Henry Ford II approved—with an impossibly tight budget ($40 million) and timeline (18 months)—to keep Lee Iacocca, Don Frey, and other members of the secret Fairlane Committee that midwifed the Mustang from badgering the board of directors. Despite the fact that none of the board members really wanted it, Mustang broke all domestic first year sales records. Ironically, however, they did accept the market research Iacocca and his team fabricated in order to get the Mustang into production because it was “factual.”
Now, as in days past, the Mustang is the only bright spot in the Ford lineup, and myriad special models are necessary to keep the buying public interested in a car that sits in a very fickle—and image conscious—segment. Though its fame means it is the car on which Ford has to lavish the least marketing money to keep the assembly line rolling, the Mustang is about to see stiff competition from the new Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger, and even Hyundai’s rear-drive Tiburon replacement. It will face these newer, more sophisticated vehicles with aging sheetmetal, an old V8, and a stick rear axle. Corporate cynicism, malaise, and opportunism have made the car an oversized paean to a supposedly glorious past so that it is now more mainstream and historical than future focused. This will make it even more difficult for it to carry the hopes and dreams of a corporation, not to mention the careers of the cynical executives who made it thus and are seeking to survive in its fading glow.