Driving an Early Ford Mustang in Europe
WE GET so used to driving those funny little furrin cars over here that we forget what U.S. iron is like. Our only contact is with enormous vehicles bearing Belgian plates and towing caravans or else transporting some Levantine gentleman with his expensive popsie, this last of a quality that we could never hope to attain. Nice looking cars (road test ones) never helped us to get any crumpet so the Marquis de Matelas must have been right when he observed that women need money, lots of it, and accordingly will do anything to get it. As any married man and/or father of a small daughter knows, rationalization of a high order is second nature to females.
At any rate, the only time that we really think of American cars is when the f.l.f.c. falls to bits inside 20,000 miles and one remembers gratefully the '54 Plymouth wagon that ran for 55,000 without much more than a change of plugs. But since that time the American cars have gotten far too large and furthermore are as alike as English machinery. The advent of the compacts raised a hope that we might bring the Truth to the heathens, but then they got too big too. We have tried a 2-speed automatic Corvair over here but it went like a stone and the brakes and shocks were poor; the only other domestic product under test was a Monte Carlo Rallye Falcon in 1964 but, the fervent avowals of the Ford Motor Co. not withstanding, it was a trifle removed from showroom stock. In fact, it was a great grumbling fiberglass mutha that one could have started the Mille Miglia with and had some hope of finishing.
In the last year or so we have seen a lot of enthusiastic comment about something called a Mustang and have even seen a few in auto shows and the Tour de France. As we are always looking for a decent GT car to cart our family around in we approached George Trainor of Ford International in Brussels and arranged to borrow his hardtop, a 289-cu-in. V-8 without the performance tweaks but with 4-speed floor shift and front disc brakes. Not only were we to borrow it, we were to take it to the Targa Florio. On receipt of this intelligence, our various colleagues either fell over laughing or promised to light candles for us, telling us all about how horrible American cars were but not about how much advertising English cars took in their newspapers.
We picked up the Mustang from James Kuhn of Ford over rather too good a lunch, and as a consequence I don't remember much what he said about it. Driving home, it did seem bigger inside than outside but evidently taxi drivers thought otherwise, as the too too solid flesh and substantial bumper caused, them to sheer off when threatened. It was just as well as, frankly, visibility seemed lousy to me with a tank slot to peer through, the fenders miles away, the hood actually rising upward toward the front, and sizable posts and trim at the corners of the windscreen. More than once an anguished peeep warned me that I was about to crush a 4-CV underfoot, but unless the peep came from the right they could go to hell. Driving in Paris is fun, isn't it? Anyway, the steering, if a trifle low-geared, wasn't as woolly as I had been warned and the engine was lovely. Used to watching the temp gauge like a hawk, I stared at this one fixedly during a prolonged traffic block and it never moved: nor did the plugs become fluffy on pickup. The gearbox was equally good, even if the clutch was rather sticky, and enabled me to shut the gate resoundingly on a cab or two, the rats, at places where they normally try to take advantage. REVENGE!
The next day I flung my stuff into the trunk (big enough but not as good as my Lancia-could do with a dent so the spare could stand upright) and rumbled away to get Geoff at Orly airport. Not being used to driving such a big wagon, I charged off up the motorway at a reasonable rate through the gears and straightaway found that I was murdering all the Citroens and Peugeots up that long hill without using more than a whiff of throttle. In 4th already and they were all massaging their gearboxes like mad. Once the road became flat, the basking sharks went whistling past in time for me to move over and force them to rake the fork for Orleans when they really wanted to go to Orly too: but until I had some flying time I wasn't going to go fast. And where was the redline? There was a small tach and matching clock, called nauseatingly a Rally Pac I believe, but no redline. And Sicily was a long way away. At any rate, Geoffers was duly collected and, while he sat there memorizing the slightly gaudy decor with his eyebrows on top of his head, we discussed the road to take and so forth. This was to be a perfectly straightforward run down the N6 to Tournus, cut 'across' country to Bourg en Bresse, Amberieu en Bugey (where the bugey men come from), through the Gorges de Fier to Belley ( oh stop), through the Tunnel de Chat to Chambery, and then over the Montcenis pass into Italy and Turin, which afforded us Varied Driving Conditions.
There was a certain amount of sidewind that day, and once we got a bit of speed on we became aware of considerable difficulty in maintaining the correct course. In fact, we were all over the road. At the first gas stop, we put two kilos in the tires (abt 32 lb), which helped some, but there was still a lack of directional stability at, say, 140 kph (abt 90 mph). The front sort of waved around like the arms of a praying mantis and it was more a matter of aiming it than steering it when passing the larger trucks. I suppose that the usual Stateside shocks were fitted and it needed a good set of Konis badly; in addition, the front seemed to be needlessly up in the air to give the Young America Dragster Image and a coil lopped out of the springs would have been appreciated. The back seemed okay aside from rubbery damping and was even a trifle stiff. A GT car loose in the front and stiff in the back doesn't sound much as if Ford was applying what it has learned with the Prototype coupes. In spite of all that, the smoother corners could be taken without slackening speed, although we weren't as brave as the Citroens on the tighter ones. Generally speaking, though, the car was giving us a lot of enjoyment and we hadn't found anything yet that couldn't be ironed out.
A thundering good rainstorm hit while we were negotiating the Montcenisio and, although it didn't leak, we straightaway found out a couple more areas for improvement. The Goodyear Tires fitted were diabolical in the wet and I can't think how George drove it around Belgium on the ‘pave’ without getting shunted. The least slick patch would give wheelspin or a sidewise attitude and Geoff thought I was just being a clot until I handed it over to him. Additionally, the front wheels would lock under braking with the least encouragement and/or wash out from under on corners so that we had to slow right down while Renaults and things beetled past. Our carefully developed mountain technique of point-it-and-squirt came to naught as the squirting was liable to lead to the Dreaded Sideslip. The front discs were efficient enough in that they didn't fade or rumble, but a bit more work needs to be done on the servo balance as the car had that feeling of not really stopping even in the dry and if much pressure was used, one front wheel, or perhaps both, was apt to lock and stay locked. I would recommend widerbased wheels with Cinturato braced-tread tires for a start and then perhaps harder pads.
On the long autostrada run to Naples, mercifully in the dry, we had a chance to check over the livability and found it pretty good. In spite of the pedals being offset toward the center, the driving position was just right for me, as my arms didn't get paralyzed nor did my legs go to sleep. Coming back alone, I flogged on for long distances and the seats suited me better than the Lancia's. On the dark side, the door handles are poorly situated and I kept hitting my knee while changing gear, the fat lip over the glove box intimidated Goeffrey's face, the central flat bit on the gearbox tunnel could have higher edges (and perhaps partitions) to keep glasses and things from sliding off, the glove box was only fair, and there were no pockets or shelves to keep maps plus the usual impedimenta of travelers. We didn't much like the lap straps, especially since the seat backs fold forward with out hindrance to cut you in half, and the control positions are good, but a column-mounted light flasher is badly needed.
Mechanical noise of all sorts was very low up to about 4000 rpm when it started to zizz a bit, but we couldn't find any combination of windows to cut down wind roar. The fresh air feeds under the dash were much appreciated, as was the formidable heater, but most of all we liked the instant horsepower or "chevaux minute" as a Swiss friend called it. As we were not sure of the correct cruising speed, redline, or the tires, come to that, we ran mostly 140 kph (86.8 mph) on the autostrada, with an occasional sortie to 160 (99.2 mph). At this the Mustang was doing a lousy 3500 to 4000 rpm which didn't seem to have any effect on the engine. Just as a passing note, over about 3000 miles it used less than a quart of oil and no water. Anyway, at these speeds we would gradually be overhauled by the quicker sort of 2300 Fiat saloon or an occasional Alfa TI. Sooner or later there would be a traffic block and we would accelerate out with them in top while they rowed about inside and simply kill them dead. After one or two bouts of this they quit trying. Such nice effortless poop, especially in the 70-90 mph passing range, where the Mustang would inflexibly barge ahead.
Driving it in Sicily was a bit of a problem and the guy who wrote, in Car Life I think, that the Mustang was the American car for European roads has never been there. The acceleration was doubly valuable as there is lots of traffic, mostly 500 Fiats, mixed up with even more heavy trucks. This leads to long creeping strings and, as the straights are short, one must get a wiggle on or meet a shinqueshento or monstrous Lancia transporter face to face. The clutch took some getting used to as it tended to hang up at high revs and thus impede the natural progress from one gear to another. This was at its worst from low to second, but we developed a technique of shifting at about 2500 rpm and then floorboarding it. The next problem was steering while accelerating furiously, as steering wheel control was approximate on these bumpy and heavily cambered roads. A trip or two around the Targa course showed that the Mustang would never win in stock form, as the front end tended to lift like a speedboat on the sharper corners, cutting the already limited vision and making the load on the front wheels even less. As if that wasn't enough, the shocks were getting weaker total mileage at that time about 5000 miles and the slightest irregularity would cause the car to pogo toward the edge of the road. We were reasonably brave but we had the utmost difficulty in shaking off 850 Fiats and the like; even on the faster parts of the course, admittedly rather bumpy, we felt as if we were going like the wind at 60 mph. And it is too big.
In spite of the above criticisms, I enjoyed the car very much indeed and hated to give it back. Most of all I liked the effortless horsepower and torque-there aren't many cars that can do a lap of the Madonie circuit in high without slipping the clutch. The faults in braking and roadholding are soluble without resorting to Mr. Shelby's full race treatment, the looks are good and attracted much favorable attention, the mechanical components seem reliable and should be so for some time, and it offers performance beyond most Europeans' wildest dreams. At least over here, you have to buy a very expensive sports car to get that sort of dig, and expensive sports cars are neither reliable nor cheap to fix.
You may see me in one yet.