The Mustang GT Hits Fifty at Full Throttle

Half of a century after the Mustang came roaring off Detroit’s assembly lines, the car that unhooked a million bra clasps is once again gunning it. Can Motown pull off the same trick?

Try and think of the greatest car chase in a movie. The list of real contenders isn’t a particularly long one. There’s “The French Connection,” with Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle barreling through Brooklyn in a 1971 Pontiac LeMans. Or Robert De Niro’s criminally overlooked “Ronin,” with its set-piece chase scenes starring several tons of European metal. But there’s only one chase that really matters: Steve McQueen, playing a cop named Frank Bullitt, driving a Dark Highland Green 1968 Mustang Fastback GT 390 at blistering speeds, with precious little concern for traffic regulations, bashing it over San Francisco’s hills and screeching around corners in hot pursuit of a couple bad guys in a black Dodge Charger.

Hollywood can squeeze out Fast & Furious sequels until oil falls to $20 a barrel, and 1968’s “Bullitt” will remain the defining moment for cars in cinema. McQueen is still the spirit animal for Cool American Guys. And the Mustang is the most recognizable automotive silhouette that ever rolled off a Detroit assembly line. It’s the original pony car, a totem of manhood, of mustaches and denim jeans. It’s the metal embodiment of every teenager cruising every strip in every American town on every Saturday night. It was in a Mustang, back in the day, that every guy fumbled with his girlfriend’s bra clasp for the first time. It’s that kind of car. As much mythology as mode of transport.

Now the Mustang is marking its 50th anniversary, and the sixth-gen version has been reborn in a way that its hometown – Detroit, with its crumbling streets, abandoned homes, and beleaguered citizenry – has not. The new car isn’t just a refresh of the old Mustang. It’s a new platform, a new engine, a macho new look that tries just hard enough to impress. It’s everything that is right about the car industry today.

Boomers and Jersey boys will recognize the basic shape. But where recent Mustangs have looked like shop-class doodles, the sixth-generation model shows real design chops. This fastback ’Stang is handsome and streamlined. Under that taut skin is a muscled, modernized performer, which comes in a 435-horsepower GT version, as well as a more modestly priced 3.7-liter V-6. Mustang tradition is further upended with—finally—a genuine independent rear suspension, replacing the troglodyte solid axle. The GT version brings V-8 thunder, starting at $32,925, though the option-rich specimen reaches $44,980. That seems a lot for a Mustang GT. Yet tested against the Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger, including track laps on a Michigan road course, the Ford proves more nimble and obliging than its pony-car rivals. With its malt-smooth 5.0-liter V-8, the GT flies to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds.

The Mustang wasn’t always this solid a ride. When Ford missed the mark, it missed by such a wide margin that the car has taken decades to recover. We don’t like to dwell on the flabby ’71 Mustang, with leaden performance and a lackluster 210-horsepower V-8. And forget the terrible Mustang II, a car hated by anyone who’s ever felt any affection for cars. The II was Ford’s response to new government efficiency standards and a changing demo (the baby boomers were turning to tiny new imports from Japan, like Honda, Toyota, and Datsun). Ford snipped the cojones off the Mustang and instead dropped a new skin onto the notoriously unsafe subcompact Pinto, which had a knack for exploding when hit from behind. Barely there UAW workers slapped it together using bargain-bin parts on a line that moved too fast. We can laugh now, but the pain is real.

It’s been a long climb back for the car, but the Mustang ideal – that ’68, seared on our brains – never really faded. The car remained a movie star, with leading roles in “Goldfinger,” “Diamonds Are Forever,” “Gone in 60 Seconds” (the 1974 version), “Bull Durham,” and Clint’s “True Crime.” The impact of the original car was so powerful that nothing could dent it.

Detriot, on the other hand, is a city that knew greatness and pissed it away. In postwar Motor City, life was simple. The rules, forged in steel, never changed. Work hard, pay your (union) dues, and you were set for life. A thriving metropolis of nearly two million blue-collar guys in pompadours toiled around the clock, backed by a sky’s-the-limit ’60s Motown soundtrack. American cars and their creators were just as upbeat. Unveiled at New York’s World’s Fair in 1964, the Mustang sparked a Beatles-size sensation, selling 22,000 on its opening day, and nearly 560,000 in its first full year on the market.

Around the same time “Bullitt” hit theaters, Detroit began to run off the road. After the deadly riots of ’67, the city went into a tailspin. The oil crisis made Japanese cars more attractive. A boom-and-bust automaking cycle continues to this day, with even the current post-recession upturn masking a distressing reality: After the industry’s mass exodus to foreign outposts and nonunion Southern states, it will never create enough homegrown factory jobs to rescue Detroit on its own.

Detroit today is a soul-crushing wasteland. Nearly 80,000 houses, 30 percent of the city’s total, are beyond repair. More than 114,000 parcels are empty. A city task force figures it would take approximately $420 million just to tear down every crumbling home and business – this in a post-bankruptcy town that considered hocking the treasures of the Detroit Institute of Arts to cover $18 billion in debts.

The media is fascinated with this ruin porn. As an ex-Detroiter and assembly line worker, I can never decide which angle feels the most hurtful and phony: the barely concealed schadenfreude, the Fox News–fueled insinuation that this Rust Belt city somehow deserves its fate, or the breathless search for a new coffeehouse or hydroponic artichoke farm to prove the city will become the next Brooklyn – hip, safe, and gentrified. Neither image is true, but having shrunk in population from 1.85 million in the ’50s to less than 700,000 today, Detroit has finally begun razing woebegone houses in earnest, with a plan that looks ahead to green spaces and safe, livable neighborhoods.

When “Bullitt” was filmed in 1968, San Francisco didn’t realize it was about to embark upon a 10-year nightmare of its own – street riots, the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and pioneering city supervisor Harvey Milk – or a seemingly never-ending period of blight. Today, San Francisco is the tech epicenter and home to some of the most prized real estate in the world. Detroit has a tougher climb back. A new car won’t do much to change that, except to remind us that the city’s best days may still lie ahead, if miles down the road. 

Photos by David Harry Stewart for Maxim