Mustangs then and now: This is 50

Grabber Blue Mustang GT grabs both visually and viscerally.

2013 Mustang GT ‘grabs’ both visually and viscerally.

Looking at today’s Mustang GT, refreshed for 2013 and draped in Grabber Blue blue, it’s hard to imagine a Ford Motor Company without it, given how ubiquitous Ford’s sporty 4-seater has become. Obviously, prior to the ‘Stang’s 1964 introduction FoMoCo was doing just fine, maintaining a motorsports tradition – which is how Ford first established name recognition for the brand – long after Henry had ceased being part of the decision-making process. But pondering a Ford Motor Company without the Mustang is more than a little bit like an Indy winner without milk; you can understand it happening, but can’t fathom why it would.

The Grabber Blue GT, whether sitting still or sitting with the needle firmly in three digits, is arguably as visceral as $40K will get you on today’s showroom. Despite five liters of sophisticated V8 under the hood, and Brembos ($1,695) bringing it to a stop, the Mustang continues to adhere to the design dictum established by Lee Iacocca and Don Frey some fifty years ago: Give it a simple, low-spec chassis propelled by a straightforward six or V8, and wrap it in sheetmetal designed to satisfy both a CEO and/or his/her secretary. Make it demonstrative, but keep it democratic.

Despite its $40,870 MSRP, the ’13 Mustang absolutely oozes old school DNA, its V8/6-speed manual combo providing an almost direct link to automotive rituals dating back to when baby boomers – and boomettes – were first getting licensed. But as I considered all that the new Mustang was, a ’65 Mustang GT popped up on Bring-a-Trailer’s website, promising via both spec and appearance all the visual nostalgia you could want within a contemporary performance envelope. Suddenly, today’s ‘Grabber Blue’ didn’t grab quite so much.

For Ford enthusiasts of the '60s, the Mustang GT their watershed moment.

For Ford enthusiasts of the ’60s, the Mustang GT (GT350-R clone shown) is their watershed moment.

For enthusiasts paying attention in the early ‘60s, the Mustang GT 2+2 was well beyond sizzle; it was the shizzle. The notchback and convertible ‘Stangs certainly had their fans, but nothing sat back on its haunches, looking as if it could take off from an aircraft carrier, more convincingly than the 2+2 fastback. (Of course, it didn’t hurt that ‘fast’ was part of its descriptive…) This was the model, with 271 horsepower out of 289 cubic inches, that Shelby massaged into his GT350, and the spec chosen for Jim Garner’s character to pilot in Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix.

So, I have the aggressively refreshed ’13 in my drive, while the ’65 absolutely throbs in my memory bank. The Bring-a-Trailer Mustang is a purpose-built GT350-R clone, and is similar to what Shelby pilot Ken Miles would have campaigned in 1965. Like most things enjoyed almost fifty years ago, its proportions are more svelte and athletic than those gracing the Mustang today. And while we know the hard points of the newest Mustang – presumably due in the spring of ’14 – are already fixed, how we wish the design and engineering team could craft a new Mustang with the visual athleticism of the first.

A comparison of specs, in and of itself, doesn’t suggest the dramatic difference in the cars’ respective stances. While a ‘65/’66 sits on 108 inches of wheelbase within an almost 182 inches of overall length, the new Mustang – whose platform dates back to the 2005 model year – enjoys a 107-inch wheelbase and 188 inches of overall length. Tellingly, the new car outweighs the old by some 800 pounds, while today’s 5.0 liter V8 outproduces the 4.7 by over 100 horsepower; it was 271 in ’65 and 377 (on regular gas) 48 years later.

Of course, Ford isn’t alone in facilitating a particular model’s weight gain. Porche’s 911, Chevy’s Camaro and Nissan’s ‘Z’ have all gained inches and pounds in the forty or fifty years of their production cycle. Only Mazda, whose Miata remains almost identical dimensionally to its early ‘90s origins, has eschewed inches and/or pounds in its development model.

The upcoming Mustang redesign promises to be the most dynamic Mustang to date. However, that dynamism will be in the comparative absence of traditional styling cues and – reportedly – in the absence of a live rear axle. And while tightening government regs continually encourage manufacturers to remove both size and weight, smart money suggests the 2015 Mustang will be closer to its ’05 predecessor than its ’65 origins. More’s the pity…