10 February 2014

Mustang Memories

As a car-crazy fifth-grade kid, I drew pictures of hot rods in my notebook, could identify the year, make and model of every car on the road and spent more time looking into the parking lot from my classroom than at the blackboard. So when Ford introduced the Mustang in 1964, I was easily swept up in the new car’s hype.

MUSTANG MADNESS

The Mustang was unveiled on April 17, 1964, in what is likely the greatest new car launch in the history of the auto industry. People flocked to showrooms during the days leading up to the car’s official launch, only to be turned away at dealership doors. Paper covered showroom windows, preventing prying eyes from seeing the automotive delights inside. Months of PR hype had men, women and 10-year-old boys salivating like so many of Pavlov’s dogs. Telling potential customers to go away only made them more anxious to see Ford’s new product.

A few days before the April 17 launch, my friend Walt Pierce, now 63 and a Mustang restorer, and his friend Paul Neggia skipped their last three ninth-grade classes at Manchester Regional High School in Haledon, New Jersey, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the new Mustang. And because they were not yet old enough to drive, they paid an upper-classman to drive them to Berry Ford in Paramus.

“The transporters showed up, but all the Mustangs had covers on them,” Walt says. “There were no convertibles or fastbacks, just white coupes. I later heard that they were all sold on the first day.”

A few days after April 17, I had my first Mustang sighting: A couple of new Mustangs showed up in the parking lot of Nokomis Elementary School in Holbrook on Long Island, where I was a student.

A sixth-grade teacher took delivery of her black convertible on the same day our school’s custodian received his Vineyard Green coupe, complete with a 289 V-8, dual exhaust and four-speed transmission.

The arrival of those two cars caused such excitement that Nokomis principal Mr. Fenner authorized a “private launch” for students. Teachers were allowed to escort their classes into the parking lot to see the new Mustangs up close.

I still remember peering into the cars’ windows and seeing the bucket seats divided by a stylish console — the first I had ever seen. The green coupe had a manual shifter similar to my family’s Volkswagen Beetle, but the convertible had a chrome T-handle shifter. We had never owned an automatic transmission in our family, so I wasn’t quite sure how that device operated. When I saw the long horizontal brake pedal, I surmised that pushing the left side of the pedal must engage the clutch, and pushing the right side must engage the brake.

There was something magical about the car’s front grille — that chrome horse! — that made the car unique. And the simple three-bar taillight was a huge and welcomed departure from Ford’s standard round taillight, which, except for 1958 and 1960, had been in use since 1952.

The Mustang was so different from my parents’ Beetle. It was low and sporty, but in a different way than my neighbor’s MGTD. As a kid, I was at a loss for words to describe my passion for the Mustang. As it turns out, folks many years older than I had the same difficulty.

With wind in its sails, Ford thought big prior to the launch and decided to introduce the Mustang at the New York World’s Fair. Ford Division President Lee Iacocca, considered the father of the Mustang, had begun planning for it as early as 1961, when the car’s concept was first conceived.

On April 13, four days prior to the Mustang’s public unveiling, Iacocca addressed 124 invited media members, then invited them to drive new Mustangs from New York to Detroit, a 750-mile trip.

Sometime after the launch, probably during our summer vacation, my father loaded my 8-year-old brother Rob and me into the VW and drove us about 50 miles to the World’s Fair. Though we enjoyed seeing the Hell Drivers Thrill Show — “risking life and limb” — as they jumped their 1964 Dodges over ramps and drove on two wheels, the real thrill was visiting the Ford Pavilion. There, we could choose any Ford convertible to “drive” through the pavilion — Galaxies, Falcons, Montereys and Comets — but of course we climbed into a Mustang convertible. The car was mounted on a rail system called the Magic Skyway, which had been designed by Walt Disney, and took us on a virtual tour of world history. I wasn’t too interested in the history and instead pretended I was old enough to drive as I “steered” the Mustang through the turns.

A RISING TIDE

Like the VW Beetle, it seems almost everyone has a Mustang story. “I had one in high school,” “I never should have sold mine,” or “My uncle had one,” are regularly heard even today, especially among Baby Boomers.

Soon after introduction, my Uncle Bob actually did purchase a red 1965 coupe. Every time he and my Aunt Beth drove it from Boston to visit my family on Long Island, I couldn’t wait to wax it! I remember one Sunday during a visit, my uncle and aunt borrowed my parents’ VW to go to church so that I could wash, compound and wax the dulling Mustang. I got that car so clean that when he returned from church, Uncle Bob said, “Tommy, it shines like a million bucks!” He didn’t give me a million bucks, but I seem to remember three dollars coming my way.

These were heady times at Ford. The saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” applied to the Mustang as well. Folks visiting Ford dealerships to see the Mustang often bought the Galaxies, Falcons or pickup trucks in the showroom; sales of all Ford products were boosted with the increased traffic.

With lingering memories of the ill-conceived Edsel launch a half-dozen years before, Ford Chairman and CEO Henry Ford II had his foot firmly on the throttle. Ford had recently engaged Carroll Shelby to build the Cobra to compete with and beat Chevy’s Corvette on race tracks across the country and around the world. By 1965, Shelby had his hands on the Mustang, too, with GT350 fastbacks swiftly dominating their own race classes. And Ford’s Charlotte-based racing operation, Holman-Moody, was winning on the NASCAR circuit and grabbing headlines with legendary drivers like Fred Lorenzen and Fireball Roberts.

Wasting no time after the Mustang launch, Holman-Moody built the world’s first Mustang funny car, which quickly became a hit at drag strips across the country in the hands of drivers like Gaspar “Gas” Ronda.

On the local front, one of my boyhood heroes was Suffolk County police officer and ex-Marine Mike Mooney. Mooney drag raced and road raced his souped-up Mustang notchback, and with its 271-horsepower High-Performance 289 engine, it was tough to beat. Once in a while, I would accompany him to either New York National Speedway or Bridgehampton Race Circuit to help crew. It was Mike’s early influence that briefly had me consider law enforcement as a career, although it was more for being able to speed legally than to fight crime.

As I sit and write this piece to celebrate the Mustang’s 50th anniversary, it occurs to me that Ford's pony car has been part of my life for 50 years. But as much as I loved the Mustang, I had never owned one — until 2008, when I purchased a Hertz Edition 1966 Shelby GT350. Most Hertz cars were black with gold stripes, but this was one of the few painted white with gold stripes.

I love it.

The fastback design still raises my heart rate. And I get so stoked when the automatic transmission shifts from low to second gear and the rear tires “chirp.” In the years since I saw that first automatic Mustang at Nokomis Elementary School, I now know that the horizontal brake pedal serves only one purpose. But what I don’t know is whether teachers will escort their classes to the school parking lot to see the new 50th Anniversary Mustang. I certainly hope so.

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