Ford Mustang - A Brits Review
By Jeremy Clarkson
Bite the Bullitt, buy the fantasy
The new Pontiac Solstice is Americaís first attempt at making a sports car in more than 50 years. And not since David Beckhamís wayward penalty kick against Portugal have we seen anything go so wide of the mark. It is comically awful.
And that sets a question. How come Americaís massive car industry canít make what is basically beans on toast? A light, zesty, pine-fresh car with an engine at the front, a simple foldaway roof in the middle and rear-wheel drive at the back? Lotus can make a sports car using nothing but a melted-down bathtub and the engine from a Rover. Alfa Romeo can make a sports car using steel so thin you can read through it, and an engine that wonít start. Then there was Triumph, which made a sports car even though its entire workforce was outside the factory warming its hands around a brazier and chanting.
So whatís Americaís problem? Well, here in Europe early cars were expensive coach-built luxury goods for the tweedy and well-off. It wasnít until the 1940s that cars for the common man came to France, Germany and Britain, and it wasnít until the 1950s that they came to Italy. They havenít arrived in Spain even today.
As a result we still have an innate sense that a car is something you save up for, something a bit decadent and exciting. Whereas in America the everyman Model T Ford came quickly after the introduction of internal combustion so there was never a chance for cars to earn that upmarket cachet. As a result, theyíve always seen the car as a tool: nothing more than an alternative to the horse.
In Europe we talk about style and how fast a car accelerates. In America they talk about how many horse boxes their trucks can pull and how much torque the engine produces.
If you do encounter someone over there whoís fond of performance cars theyíre only really interested in how much g can be generated in the bends, whereas here those of a petrolhead disposition donít care at all about grip, only what happens when itís lost and the car is sliding. Then you are into the world of handling. A world where nothing but skill keeps you out of the hedge.
Thereís more, too. From day one American motor sport was all about sponsorship, which is why the oval raceway was developed. It meant the whole crowd could see all the sponsorsí names all the time. The cars never zoomed off into a wood.
Here, they did. Motor racing was a rich manís game, held far from hoi polloi on airfield perimeter roads. And on twisty tracks like this, grip was nowhere near as important as decent handling.
Add all this together and you start to understand why we have Lotus, Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin. And they have the Ford F-150 Lightning pick-up truck: 0-60mph in a millionth of a second. Enough space in the back for a dead bear. And on a challenging road about as much fun as a wasabi enema.
They also have the Ford Mustang and last week thatís what I was using to cruise up the 101 from Monterey to San Francisco. The sun was shining, 104.3 the Hippo was massaging my ear bones with soothing West Coast sounds and, like everyone else, I was doing a steady 65mph, my heart beating in slow monotonous harmony with the big V8.
This new version has been styled to resemble the original from 1965, and thatís a good thing. Less satisfactory is the news that itís also been engineered to resemble the original with all sorts of technology that in Europe would have been considered old fashioned by Edward Longshanks.
Thereís no complex double-stage turbocharging here; no elegantly machined swirl chamber to extract the best possible power and economy from the smallest possible engine. Itís a 4.6 litre V8 with just one camshaft, three valves per cylinder and the sort of power output the average European would expect from a juicer.
The platform for the new Mustang comes from a Jaguar S-type. But then the Americans take it back in time by fitting a solid rear axle such as youíd find on a Silver Cross pram, and a Panhard rod, dismissed by Newcomen as being ďa bit too last yearĒ.
So whatís it like to drive? Well, the previous day Iíd taken it on a hard lap of the extraordinarily beautiful Laguna Seca raceway, which, because itís the curliest track in North America, is regarded by racing drivers all over the world as one of the greats. Mansell. Villeneuve. Even Top Gearís Stig go all misty eyed at the mention of it.
And frankly it was more than a match for Fordís big daft horse. Its brakes were cooked by turn six; the final slow corner completely overwhelmed the live rear axle; and through the fearsome Corkscrew, which twists down a gradient so steep you canít even walk up it, Iím afraid Mr Ed was about as pin sharp as a punt gun. I damn nearly soiled myself. Is it fast? Well, you get 300bhp, which is about 200bhp less than BMW gets from a similarly sized engine. But nevertheless it will get from 0-60mph in 5sec and reach a top speed of 150. Thatís not bad for an ox cart.
But by European standards this car is rubbish. Its engine has wasteful, unused capacity that turns fuel into nothing, it couldnít get from one end of a country lane to the other without running out of brakes and it handles like a newborn donkey.
Thereís more, too. Itís got a gruff engine note, its interior has the panache of an Afghanís cave and . . . and . . . and I canít go on. You see, Iím running through all this carís bad points but Iím afraid my mind is consumed by the bit where I was doing 65mph on the 101, listening to some Eagles on 104.3.
And then by the subsequent memory of grumbling along the waterfront in San Francisco itself, the city setting for Bullitt, the film that etched the Mustang for all time on the petrolheadís radar.
You see, I kept thinking Iím in a Mustang in San Francisco on a glorious September afternoon. And I liked that a lot. I liked it so much that I became consumed with the notion of maybe taking a small part of the experience home with me.
The numbers look good. Because the Mustang is made from pig iron and lava it is extraordinarily cheap: $25,000. And £13,800 for 300bhp is tempting. Even if you factor in the cost of shipping, changing the lights and paying Mr Blair some tax, itíll still only be £22,000.
For that you could have a Golf GTI, which, alongside Fordís canoe looks like the Starship Enterprise. Itís more practical, easier to run, and around Laguna Seca undoubtedly itíd be a whole lot more competent. Whenever I drive a GTI Iím always full of admiration for its abilities, but when I was driving that Mustang I liked it. And thatís sort of more important.
Of course, the American way means theyíll never be able to build a sports car. It explains why the Pontiac Solstice is so dire. But the simplistic, covered wagon approach doesnít really matter on a car like the Mustang, not when youíre doing 65mph in the sunshine and the Doobies are serenading you with Long Train Running. Not when it means you get a car this handsome for 13 grand.
The only worry is that if I did buy a Mustang, Iíd get the car over here and on a wet November night realise that, actually, what I wanted to bring home was San Francisco.