This week marked 54 years since the Ford Mustang was introduced to the world, appropriately, at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. I lived about 20 minutes, or two bus rides, from the fair, and went often, whenever I could scrounge up the buck fifty it cost to get in.
One of my favorite attractions was the Ford pavilion which featured a ride in a convertible Galaxie 500 through tubes and tracks that took you through time. You often had to wait a couple of hours to get in, but it was worth it. When you got off the ride, they handed you a green plastic badge embossed with a likeness of the pavilion and a state. You never knew which state you’d get. I got New Jersey. I still have it. If you hold it up to a light for about 30 seconds then go in a dark space, it’ll glow bright green. All these years later mine still glows. What also glowed was the cool new sporty car on a turntable they called the Mustang. The badge on the grille was a horse, but the Mustang name was really derived from the World War II P-51 fighter jet, which Mustang stylist John Najjar admired.
Since I was only 12 at the time, I wasn’t ready to buy a Mustang. Besides, my feet wouldn’t reach the pedals. In fact, I never really thought about owning a Mustang even though I admired it. But things can change quickly in life. After I graduated college in 1973 and got married, I had a very limited budget since the radio station where I worked paid only minimum wage. Except for a used car, the only new ones I could afford were either an AMC Gremlin or Chevy Vega. I went for the Vega..a nice bright red one with sporty fake black leather seats.
Anyone familiar with the ill-fated Vega knows it was a complete failure. I went through 3 transmissions in three years. Many years later as an automotive reporter for The Detroit News, I visited the Lordstown, Ohio Assembly Plant where the Vega was built. One old codger who had worked on the car looked at me sadly and asked, “you owned a Vega? On behalf of the men and women here in Lordstown, I APOLOGIZE!”
Then one day a guy I worked with at radio station WMBO in Auburn, N.Y., outside Syracuse, came up to me and begged me to go down to the parking lot with him, where he showed me a shiny silver new Mustang II. “They’re having a big sale on Mustangs at the Ford dealer in Skaneateles! Dump that Vega!” he said.
It was, indeed a cool car so that night my wife and I drove the five miles east to Skaneateles and instantly fell in love with an emerald green Mustang II with white, fake leather seats. The soft-spoken salesman actually offered us money for our Vega and we picked up the Mustang the next day. It wasn’t a good start. No sooner had we pulled out of the lot it started raining and flipped the switch to turn on the wipers. Nothing happened. Made a quick u-turn back to the dealership where the embarrassed salesman said, “oh, sometimes the wiper arms on the new ones have to be tightened.” Right.
But after that we felt cool as crap riding in the green machine. Took great care of it and it never failed us. We ended up taking it across the country when we moved to Tucson, Arizona and across again when we moved to Atlanta. That’s where it was time to say “goodbye” to it. Oh, I forgot to mention the car had no air conditioning which was a big negative living in the desert in Tucson where we’d often have 10 days or more above 100 degrees. I had to drive to work in shorts and a t-shirt and then change when I arrived. Before figuring this out, I’d drive in my suit then have to ask someone to pry me out of the car because my clothes were stuck to the fake leather seats.
I was working overnights at CNN in 1986 and on my way home on I-85 I felt the car failing. I managed to get it off the freeway, about halfway up the Druid Hills Road exit, where it died. A few minutes later the traffic reporter on WSB warned morning commuters, “a green Mustang is blocking the northbound exit ramp at Druid Hills Road off I-85!” After I had the car towed to a nearby gas station, my wife came and picked me up in our other car….a two-tone blue Chevy Chevette. Yeah..we had strange taste in cars. By the time I got home a guy who worked at the Ford plant in Hapeville, Ga., near the Atlanta airport, called and said he’d give me 150 bucks for the car and pay my towing fee, then fix it up for his 16 year old daughter. Deal!
For a year or so after that I would run into the old car. I knew it was mine because I had a Newscenter 9 bumper sticker on it–the TV station I worked at in Tucson. I was glad to see the old green Mustang got a second life. It certainly served us well during its first one.
Fast-forward to last Tuesday and I had the privilege of covering the Mustang’s 54th birthday at Ford World Headquarters for Automotive News. Here’s my story which was the latest edition of my weekly feature, The Closer. Enjoy.