- Words by Mr Nigel Case, owner of London's Classic Car Club
Cars that make men wax lyrical tend to be exotic specimens beyond the reach of the average Joe. Aston Martins, Jaguar E-Types, Ferraris - such cars receive the highest accolades but in reality have only ever been accessible to a privileged few. The Ford Mustang is something else entirely: a truly affordable mass-market car that has, since its launch in 1964, become the stuff of legend. The Mustang is an out-and-out movie star, the stuff of dreams - and this April sees the American classic hit the big Five-O.
Originally intended as a two-seater, Ford decided the Mustang should have room for passengers in the back to broaden its appeal. To keep the price low the car was based on the compact Ford Falcon: hardly a promising start. However, a great marketing opportunity lay in the fact that a box-standard straight six could be bought for a tad more than $2,300, while in 1965 you could also buy the car with a thumping 4.7L 306hp V8 engine. To put it into context that was 20hp more than an Aston Martin DB5 - and all from a car sporting the humble Ford marque.
The Mustang was an instant and phenomenal success, with 22,000 cars selling on the first day
In the 1960s, not only was there a great choice of engines, brake and suspension packages, and also auto and stick shift, but there were sporty body styles for all tastes: a standard two-door coupé (known as a notchback), a convertible and my particular favourite, the fastback. The Aston Martin V8 bears an uncanny resemblance to the last of these. With great looks and performance, a huge list of options and an affordable price tag the Mustang was an instant and phenomenal success, with 22,000 cars selling on the first day and more than a million sold in less than two years.
With a production run that now spans 50 years, it's the first generation cars from 1964, 1965 and 1966 that are widely recognised as the most desirable. The inaugural 1964 car (known as the 64½) through to the 1966 model were by far the lightest and most svelte, and arguably the purest form. As is often the case with model progression, 1967 and 1968 saw increasingly aggressive styling and an even larger choice of engines, all the way up to a monstrous 7L V8 Shelby.
Mustang assembly line, 1966. Courtesy the Ford Motor Company Archives
Mr Steve McQueen famously drove a dark green 1968 390 GT fastback when he chased down the black Dodge Charger in the celluloid epic Bullitt. If the car didn't have iconic status before the film's release, its place in motoring legend was assured thereafter. Although the 1969 and 1970 models were only marginally larger, they look much heftier because they have convex, rather than concave, side panels. While there can be no denying that they still look great, they somehow lost the edge of the earlier cars. The final run of the "classic" first generation, which ended in 1973, saw the car descend into middle age - becoming even more paunchy and less agile in the process.
By this time a dark cloud in the shape of the 1970s oil crisis was gathering over the US, and the sharp rise in fuel prices sounded the death knoll for the classic Mustang. However, Ford is a very successful company for the good reason that it has superb foresight.
Launched in 1974, the new Mustang was much smaller, lighter and more economical than the original. It came with comparatively tiny 2.3 and 2.5L engines. The new Mustang signalled a radical departure from the previous model and they sold like hot cakes in those consumption-conscious times. However, while this model was historically important, today it doesn't have anywhere near the same following as the first-generation cars.
First-generation Mustangs offer a great ownership proposition because they are really usable with great performance
For me, the Mustang has never quite managed to regain the magic of the 1960s original. This was recognised by the designers of 2005's fifth-generation car, which was heavily inspired by the first generation. In fact, first-generation Mustangs offer a great ownership proposition because they are really usable with great performance, four good seats and a large boot. The availability of parts is good and the engineering is pretty straightforward, as you would expect from a mass-market car.
Prices are creeping up but plentiful supply means you can still pick up a good V8 notchback for around £15,000, with fastbacks and convertibles starting at around £20,000. If you want the looks but can live without the power and soundtrack a six-cylinder car can be bagged for a good 20% less. And when you consider that 1960s-era Mercedes SLs are similar in terms of their size and performance (but with only two seats), and now regularly change hands for in excess of £100,000, a Mustang represents pretty remarkable value.
Mr Steve McQueen behind the wheel of a 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT
fastback in a scene from Bullitt. The Kobal Collection
However, men of means could blow a whole lot more on something truly spectacular, as there are plenty of rare and wonderful specials to choose from. In 1966 Hertz unbelievably ordered a fleet of high-performance Shelby GT 350H fastbacks. The cars were usually jet black with gold stripes and were marketed as "Rent-A-Racers". Unsurprisingly they often found their way onto the track while out on hire and many were returned missing high-performance parts. If you can find an authentic GT 350H on the market today (beware, there are lots of replicas out there) you won't get much change out of £250,000.
I have run the Classic Car Club, a private members' club in London for people who want to drive great classic cars but not look after them, since 1995 and we have rarely been without at least one Mustang in the fleet. Currently we have three first-generation cars: two convertibles and a notchback. They are perfect for our club because they are easy to drive; they look beautiful and make the radio redundant due to their inimitable V8 soundtrack. They are universally appreciated and welcomed wherever they go, unlike some of their exotic "nose in the air" counterparts. Ford's working-class hero will always have a place in my heart.