Ford’s Mustang, its fastest-selling car since the Model A, still leads the field in historic events around the world
By Richard Heseltine
The Mustang represented the high watermark of 1960s marketing brilliance. In hindsight it all seems so simple. All that Ford did was raid the corporate parts bin. That and throw in some smoke and mirrors along with a suitably suggestive equine name. With great artfulness, the Detroit giant pulled off the seemingly unthinkable: it produced a car that was genuinely hip but still attainable for those living in the real world. One that for a brief but glorious period ushered in the Pony Car wars and cleaned up in motor sport.
And we’re not talking about just one discipline here. Quite aside from trackside triumphs in SCCA production classes and Trans-Am, variations on the theme took in everything from Pikes Peak to Bonneville via regional drag strips and backwater dirt ovals. Away from home, the ’stang also enjoyed a stellar – if short-lived – career as a saloon car racer at the height of Ford’s Total Performance programme. It was just one weapon in the Blue Oval’s arsenal, but it remains the most evocative.
It likely wouldn’t have raced at international level – it likely wouldn’t have existed – without Ford product manager Don Frey’s initial concept and the iron will of Motor City legend, Lee Iacocca. It was the latter who persuaded the suits at Ford to look to the youth market rather than pushing ahead with a more utilitarian ‘American Volkswagen’ project. He pressed for an overtly sporting car, a raft of prototypes wowing punters from as early as 1961. What began as a small two-seater with a mid-mounted V4 powerplant had morphed into something entirely different by the time it was officially launched on April 17, 1964. You could argue that the definitive Mustang was essentially a humdrum Ford Falcon in a party frock, but lingerie would be closer.
It was an image builder, pure and simple. Though there was nothing remotely exotic about its make-up, you could order a Mustang in seemingly endless permutations of engine (from anaemic 2781cc straight-six to 4727cc ‘hi-po’ V8), interior trim and body style configurations. No two cars were ever truly alike, rave reviews appearing in more than 2500 media outlets within 24 hours of its unveiling. Product placement in that year’s smash hit Goldfinger was just the first of countless celluloid appearances. This wasn’t so much a car, it was an event. Hoping to shift 100,000 cars in the first year, Ford reached the one million mark in barely 18 months. Named after the WWII P51 Mustang aircraft, it became the fastest-selling model in the marque canon since the Model A.
What it needed, though, was some cajones, Carroll Shelby being tapped to produce the eponymous GT350 edition. Coupés were shipped to the Cobra creator’s facility in California where they were comprehensively reworked. Power was raised to 306bhp (from an at best optimistic 271), front and rear suspension being rejigged and reinforced to reduce axle tramp and improve handling. In addition to the regular production edition, the Texan produced a batch of ‘Competition Prepared’ cars that had even more power and less weight, which in turn led to the ‘R’ edition, essentially an off-the-peg racer. This swiftly became the scourge of Chevrolet’s Corvettes in the SCCA’s B-production class, other variations of the go-faster striped Wimbledon White muscle car doing the rounds in Europe; everywhere from the European Mountain Championship (Peter Schetty) to Le Mans (Claude Dubois/Chris Tuerlinckx) via the Tulip Rally (John Kennerley/Digby Martland).
Yet the workhorse of Ford’s European programme, if you could call it that, was the regular ‘notchback’ model. Having astounded the rallying fraternity by almost winning the 1964 Monte Carlo classic with the Falcon, Alan Mann Racing gave the unproven Mustang its debut in Europe. Operating in secret out of a workshop borrowed from Roy Pierpoint, Mann tapped North Carolina’s Holman Moody for its experience with the small-block bent eight while tending to chassis set-up. Mann himself tested a pre-production prototype – denuded of all identifying marks – and officially homologated the car in June of that year. Two months later, a brace of cars were entered in the Liège-Sofia-Liège rally. Both crashed out. A quartet was then prepared for September’s Tour de France (one of the cars was a spare), the factory-sponsored equipe claiming the Touring category outright on the 10-day event.
After which the cars were parked behind Mann’s Byfleet facility: there was no more use for them, at least as works entries. Always a canny operator, Mann astutely realised that the Mustang had no future in mainstream rallying – it was too big – but the model could prove even more effective in the British Saloon Car Championship than the lumbering Ford Galaxie. Others patently thought so too. Over the course of the 1965 season, Mustangs claimed six wins out of eight starts with Roy Pierpoint, Mike Salmon and Jack Brabham divvying up the spoils. The former claimed the drivers’ title aboard an ex-Tour de France car in an incident-filled final round, Brabham coming unstuck following an RAC investigation (see I Raced One).
A move to less restrictive Group 5 regs (from Group 2) for the following year ensured that competition became ever more intense, Alan Mann concentrating instead on his ex-Monte Falcons. A smart move as they generally finished ahead of their sexier siblings. It was left to Jackie Oliver and DR Racing to evolve the most effective Mustang under the new rules. Equipped with a GT40-spec engine fed by four twin-choke Webers, a Shelby quick rack and four-wheel Girling disc brake set-up, it took the fight to the Mann squad and claimed two wins at the end of 1966. However, it struggled to keep pace a year on, with Oliver tying with Bernard Unett for fourth place in the ’67 points race. The Mustang’s time was up, if only momentarily.
BSCC rules reverted back to Group 2 for 1970 following some applied pressure from manufacturers. Among the Mustang clique was Martin Thomas. “I purchased the ex-Oliver car from John Ewer,” recalls the touring car regular. “It was still of the original rear leaf spring type so it was easy to convert the car to Group 2-spec. The Mustang was still homologated whereas the Falcon’s homologation expired in 1969 under the rule where a car could race for up to four years after the cessation of manufacture. The Mustang was very good but not as light as the Falcon. Mine had GT40 wheels and some very clever modifications – crossover exhaust, rear diff cooler from air ducts fed from the vents behind the doors, shorter steering arms and so on. Years after I sold the car I bought it back from a scrap dealer minus engine and ’box and still have it to this day. The Chevrolet Camaro was a quicker car, though, and better homologated for the period. Remember you had Roger Penske running them [in Trans-Am] so we knew of all the developments.”
Against the more youthful Camaro, the Mustang was always on to a loser in the long run. Former Alan Mann alumni Frank Gardner fended off the inevitable during the 1970 season in his beautifully-prepared ex-George Follmer 1969 model. He dominated the season, steering the Kar Kraft-built beast to eight wins from 11 races although he lost the overall title by four points to Sunbeam Imp man Bill McGovern. Dennis Leech fielded his own privateer Boss Mustang that same year. It ran at the front several times without ever actually winning, while future Lola saviour Martin Birrane’s 7-litre car produced an alleged 520bhp but was hobbled by a woeful lack of reliability. In future seasons, the premier class would become a Camaro benefit.
Which is appropriate considering the comprehensively bungled way Ford ‘advanced’ the brand over the course of the 1970s, the risible post-73 Mustang II being less of a car and more a cry for help. But then the original never went away, least of all in Blighty where a cabal of horse whisperers has ensured it’s been a front-runner in historic tin-tops since the birth of the movement. Eligible for everything from the BTCC-supporting Heritage Historic Touring Car series to the HSCC’s ByBox Historic Racing Saloon Car Championship, via all manner of stand-alone events, the Mustang’s popularity shows little sign of waning in the near future.
One newcomer to the cause is former one-make king and BTCC folk hero Patrick Watts. After years spent flying the friendly skies aboard his rallying Sunbeam Tigers, the bespectacled ace is returning trackside in 2009 and will line up on the Masters Top Hat grid in his ex-Rupert Clevely car. Watts’ last Mustang drive was back in 1997 aboard an altogether more contemporaneous Saleen FIA GT weapon. He’s a Ford man at heart. “Having rallied the Tigers, I therefore knew the engine so it was either going to be a Mustang or a Falcon,” admits the veteran charger. “The Mustang is iconic and looks better so… It’s also comparatively cheaper to run as all bits are available off the shelf.
“The pre-66 series is less expensive to do as in that era they raced modified road cars that were essentially 90 per cent standard. It was only later that touring cars got more sophisticated and expensive to build. My car was built by Steve Warrier and John Freeman and was a class winner in the 2008 Spa 6 Hours. I won’t have a lot of time to race this year, and will likely do only six events, but I’ve done a lot of sorting. I enjoy developing cars myself.”
Building a competitive car from scratch could cost six figures. Taking the Watts approach and buying a race-prepared car and doing all your own fettling would likely work out a lot cheaper. And remember this isn’t the most sophisticated car ever to venture trackside. It is, however, one of the most compelling, a staple of British motor sport swaddled in Americana. But then true charisma never fades.