Like McQueen's Speeding "Bullitt," Ford's Mustang GT Recalls a Classic Era

Richard O'Brien

Like Steve McQueen
All I need is a fast machine
I'm gonna make it all right

Sheryl Crow

Kids today. You can go along thinking that you're raising them right, instilling a sense of values and a respect for the timeless virtues; handing down to them an appreciation for the best things in life. And then, out of nowhere, you're blindsided, gobsmacked with evidence that somehow, somewhere you've failed and that they are adrift in the emptiness of modern popular culture.

"Who," my 19-year-old daughter, Daisy, asked me one day last year, "was Steve McQueen?"

Had she asked me to identify George Washington I could not have been more shocked. I started sputtering about The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape and Ali MacGraw and LeMans and how Steve McQueen was Thomas Crown before Pierce Brosnan was out of short pants, and then there was Bullitt, hadn't she ever seen Bullitt, for gosh sakes?!

"Okay, okay, I get it," said Daisy, with an only half-restrained roll of the eyes. "He was cool."

"Yes," I said, "he was cool."

What I realized from that exchange is that we can't take for granted that today's generation appreciates the heros -- the giants -- of the past. You tell your son about Mickey Mantle and he yawns because he thinks Yankee baseball started with Derek Jeter. If only, I thought, there were some way to transport Steve McQueen to the 21st century. And that's when I saw the Mustang commercial.

A remarkable bit of filmmaking (created by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency) that pushes the same emotional buttons as the baseball weeper Field of Dreams, the ad debuted last fall to herald the release of the all-new 2005 Mustang -- a completely reengineered verion of the car, intended to return it to its position as the most popular blend of high-performance and affordability on the U.S. market. In the commercial, a farmer carves a sinuous race course into a field of corn and then a digitally-created McQueen, in his Bullitt personna, emerges from the stalks. With a nod, "McQueen" takes the keys from the farmer and roars off in the new Mustang, evoking, of course, Bullitt's spectacular chase scene, in which the real McQueen piloted a 1968 Mustang Fastback GT over the streets of San Francisco at insane speeds.

Even Daisy thought it was a cool ad. Which means, of course, that it did just what it was intended to do: Stir up interest in an iconic figure from an earlier era among a new brand of consumers. No, not McQueen, but the Mustang. The new model has been a resounding success for Ford since its introduction last fall. The product of a 300-person design team, the new Mustang is a glorious reinvention -- after too many years of econo-class blandness -- of a great American car, and sales have reflected that achievement. Ford has started out making about 150,000 Mustangs a year and they have been galloping off dealers' lots.

About two-thirds of the sales have been of the V6 model, which features a 4.0-litre V6 that produces 210 horsepower. The other version is the more-McQueenian GT, which, with its 4.6-litre V8, delivers an impressive 300 horses and 320 lb.-ft. of torque. Both versions come in hardtop or convertible models and both are exceptional values: the V6 starts at about $19,000, while a fully-equipped hardtop GT will cost you about $30,000. If you can find one, that is. Even in the Volvo-Mercedes-BMW Belt that is the Princeton area, this is a hot car. When I called the folks at Nassau Conover recently to inquire about driving a 2006 model, I was told that they still had a couple of the V6 models, but that for the moment no GTs were available. They will be getting more, but for now I would have to head a little ways out of town.

And so I found my way to Clinton Car & Truck Company, a few miles up Route 31. "It's been amazing," manager Dennis O'Brien (no relation) told me. "We've been able to sell every one we've got our hands on. We just got three in and I don't expect them to be here long." Sales associate Jason Kopsaftis walked me out to the lot, keys in his hand. "People want this car because either they owned a 1968 Mustang or they always wanted a 1968 Mustang," said Jason. "A lot of folks figure it's going to be a collector's item."

There were three GTs parked on the lot, crouched side-by-side between the SUVs and sedans, like three NFL wide receivers standing in the checkout line at a suburban Home Depot. Because of construction work being done on the lot, the cars were caked with dust, but I didn't mind; it enhanced the Bullitt effect, as if the GT had already taken a few off-road excursions to avoid the bad guys. I chose a Tungsten Gray Metallic hardtop with red interior, 17-inch aluminum wheels and the five-speed manual transmission. (For 2006, Ford offers 10 exterior paint choices on the new Mustang, ranging from the gunmetal subtlety of the Tungsten to the retro flair of Legend Lime Metallic, to the look-at-me intensity of Screaming Yellow.) I was ready to roll.

The interior of the Mustang is well configured and comfortable, with a snugness that befits a performance car, without feeling confining. Well, unless you're in the back seat -- which, if you're a normal-sized adult is not only unlikely but probably impossible. But then, back seats are not what this car is about. The dashboard is nicely laid out, with gauges and details that echo the 1960s Mustang. The shift lever is thick and short, encouraging quick, active driving. The pedals are well placed, allowing, I would discover, easy heel and toeing, and the clutch engages easily.

I adjusted the mirrors, pulled the belts snug and started the car. "Wow!" is what is written in my notebook from that moment. And "Wow!" is what I actually said, as the 4.6-litre V8 roared to life with a throaty rumble. It was the sound of my childhood dreams of fast cars, the sound of American muscle. Out on Route 31, it was even better. The car rumbles along quite happily at relatively slow speeds and transitions smoothly into passing mode. But I knew that Steve McQueen would not have had much patience for suburban New Jersey traffic and so I went looking for more promising roads. I found them a few miles north, in the Spruce Run Recreation Area. There, a two-lane blacktop road wound its way around the Spruce Run Reservoir, and I was able to put the Mustang to work. The car feels very balanced and it handled some high-speed sweeping curves with confidence, transitioning smoothly from right to left with little roll. On tighter corners, even with those 300 horses, it never felt twitchy. This is a car that should make any driver feel confident and in control, while allowing the expert to have some serious fun. And the power -- the power was thrilling. On a straight flat section of road free of any other traffic, I was able to perform a couple of standing starts that recaptured the roaring, tire-smoking essence of Bullitt. Mustang cites a 0-60 time for the GT of 4.9 seconds, and while I had no clock on my runs, I am perfectly ready to believe the figure. This car has some serious giddyup. McQueen, I thought with a pounding heart, would have at least smiled.

A few minutes later, as I turned off Route 31 back into the dusty lot of Clinton Car & Truck, one of McQueen's most famous quotes came back to me: "Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting." I parked the GT and took the keys back in to Jason.

Now, I guess I'm just waiting.

Return to Top | Go to Cinema Review