It’s almost a cliché at this point.
“The Mustang Mach-E is a great crossover,” they say. “It’s quick, it’s capable, it’s got great range — it’s even pretty good-looking for a crossover. But it’s not a real Mustang.”
There are a lot of “theys” saying stuff like that, too. And they’re all wrong. Yes, even you — because the Mach-E is every inch a Mustang. And, arguably, the most “Mustang” Mustang ever.
To explain why we’ll need to establish what it is that makes a Mustang a Mustang. As such, I hope you’ll indulge me in a bit of a history lesson that starts in 1962, with the original Ford Mustang concept car.
FORD MUSTANG I CONCEPT
Mustang mythology teaches us that the Mustang began in 1964, with a front-engine, rear-drive coupe introduced by Lee Iacocca in Ford’s first-ever international press conference, but that’s not what really happened. The push for a sporting Ford actually started years earlier, with the car you see above.
Meet the Ford Mustang I — a lightweight, fiberglass-bodied speedster designed by Roy Lunn and crafted by Troutman-Barnes of Culver City, California. His original Ford Mustang was powered by a rear-mounted V4 engine and four-speed transaxle tuned to a reported 89 horsepower and sourced from a European Ford Taunus (not Taurus) P3. The car was seen, internally, as a response to the fiberglass-bodied Corvette being sold by Ford’s crosstown rivals at Chevy and as a potential alternative to the incoming flood of sporty European cars like the Porsche 356.
That original Mustang I was eventually deemed too extreme — and too expensive — to reach production, but you can see the influence it had on Ford’s designers. That rear engine needed cooling, so the original Mustang I needed side vents. The Mustangs that came after? Not so much.
1963 MUSTANG CONCEPT II
In 1963, Ford released a second concept called Mustang. This looked a lot more like the long-hood, short-deck Mustang we know today. It had fake side vents and the same sort of pointy, rocket-age nose as the rear-engined original, too. The message was clear: This car isn’t the Mustang we promised. It just looks like it.
Well, as much as a car that was built using Ford Falcon bits and powered by a front-mounted, “High Performance” Ford V8 can look like a rear-engined two-seater, anyway.
As for that V8, it made a reported (there’s that word again) to produce 271 HP — 20 more than the standard 327 cubic inch V8 that was standard in the 1963 Corvette made — and serves as a direct visual link between the original Mustang concept and the 1964 production car. They even put the now-iconic pony logo in the same spot on the car — take a look.
1964½ FORD MUSTANG
Great looking car, right? A lot of people thought so, and the fun, affordable new Ford Mustang sold like hotcakes when it was first released. But wait a minute. Aren’t “real” Mustangs supposed to be real burly, macho deals with V8s and drag radials and manual transmissions? Who’s that woman dressed like Jackie O. over there?
Did you forget that this generation of Mustang was marketed primarily to women? More specifically, secretaries?
1966 FORD MUSTANG COMMERCIAL
It’s true. Ford’s base-model Mustang — the one that sold in big numbers and made up the huge majority of Mustang sales — was proudly referred to as “a secretary’s car” for years. Remember that for later (the list of keywords is now “reported”, and “women”).
Where were we? Right. The “real” Mustang. So, OK, there are a few phony styling elements like the side vents that don’t vent and the more squared-off nose makes sense as a cost-cutting change, but now we’re getting somewhere. This is real, “real Mustang” stuff, right? This is the high watermark, “pony car” touchpoint that Chevy, Pontiac, Plymouth — heck, even the Mitsubishi Starion were trying to reach. This is where Mustang magic was born, and the car was such a huge hit that Ford would never, ever dare to compromise … for about five years
That’s right, gang. In about the time it takes Toyota to visually refresh a Highlander, Ford’s Mustang sales had dipped so badly that Ford decided to pivot. The car was, mechanically, pretty much the same in 1971 as it had been in the years before, but the American public was demanding bigger, longer, more luxurious rides.
It even came with a vinyl roof.
1971 FORD MUSTANG
Despite being mostly a styling upgrade, the Ford Mustang had grown over a foot longer and gained more than 800 lbs compared to the 1965 “original”. This Mustang shifted its focus. It built on the “power and performance” legacy that the Mustang was building with cars like the GT350, sure, but not in the way you’re probably thinking … unless you’re thinking of milquetoast white guys who go to “encounter groups” looking for confidence and “inner power”, which is exactly what this Ford ad from 1971 is — they don’t even bother to merely imply it. They make it explicit. They’re literally telling you that the 1971 Mustang will make you more of a man.
Just watch the ad.
1971 FORD MUSTANG COMMERCIAL
Maybe this is the “real” Mustang? A sort of — let’s go with, “enhancer” of maleness? At least they got rid of the phony side scoops and started to go down a design direction that would pay lasting dividends by establishing the Mustang as a V8-powered personal luxury coupe for decades to come.
That might have been Ford’s plan, honestly, but then the oil crisis of 1973 hit and big, powerful luxury coupes were suddenly white elephants languishing on dealer lots.
In response, Ford needed a new kind of car. They needed something compact and fuel-efficient and they found it in the Ford Pinto hatch … but the Mustang name was popular. “Premium” even, if you could apply the same kind of meaning to the word half a century ago. Would buyers be willing to pay more for a Pinto if it wore a Mustang nameplate?
THE ANSWER IS YES – KINDA
As the ad says, this new Mustang — sorry, Mustang II– was very different from the bigger, longer, manlier Mustang of 1971. For starters, it was 19inches shorter than that Mustang. Instead of a big V8, the ads touted a fuel-efficient, four-cylinder base or an optional 2.8-liter V6. Instead of a loping cam, the Mustang II offered “a unique new suspension designed to ride more like a luxury car…” and “jewel-like decor and finish everywhere.”
One more thing to notice about the Mustang II: the side vents were back. They didn’t look like vents anymore, though. They were just “scallops” in the bodywork, but they’re there. And, as if it wasn’t obvious enough, there’s another element from the “original”, first-generation Ford Mustang that was back as well: A woman in the drivers’ seat.
THE FOX BODY
The Mustang history lesson is starting to run long, I know — but there’s one last stop on this Mustang history train that needs to be made, and it’s right here. Affectionately known as the “Fox Body” Mustang, this version of the car was built from 1979-1993 and, like the Pinto-based Mustang II, was based on another mainstream Ford. In this case, the Fairmont.
What’s really wild about that fact isn’t that this Mustang was based on the Fairmont “platform” (used in quotes because “vehicle platforms” weren’t part of the automotive zeitgeist when this car was launched — the Mustang “just” shared a floorpan, suspension and driveline components, interior bits, and several chassis hardpoints with the Fairmont), it’s that the Mustang was still using that platform when the SN-95 cars debuted in 1994, before running their course a full 10 years later in 2004.
That is a staggering twenty-five-year production run for a platform that was chosen not for its superior performance pedigree but for its low cost. This Mustang was still relatively affordable, and a 5.0 GT Mustang like the 1987 I owned stickered at $11,385.
That 5.0 was really something else, too. It gave the Ford Mustang a reported 225 HP and a stout 300 lb-ft of torque at 3,200 rpm — but not really.
It was a bit of a well-known secret back in the days before YouTube made dyno video fun and famous that car companies may have just ever so slightly fudged the horsepower and torque figures of their cars. Once the game was up, Ford suggested that it had developed a set of new “hypereutectic” pistons for the 5.0 and “re-rated” the Mustang for 205 HP in 1993 — just in time for a new Ford Mustang Cobra model to demand a much higher price tag for its beefed-up V8, which was good for a reported (sorry) 245 HP.
Sharp-eyed observers will notice that this version of the Mustang GT also has side vents that don’t cool anything.
So, where are we now? The 2004 Mustang that’s been more or less the basis of every Mustang since has arguably swung the needle back to 1971. Nearly 10 chest-pounding inches longer in 2020 than it was in 1990, this generation of Mustang makes you feel like a badass. Talk of horsepower and torque and smoky, noisy burnouts out of the Cars and Coffee parking lot are on order. It’s the kind of car that would tell you support groups are for pussies, if it could, and that seems to be what passes for a “real” Mustang in 2021.
Where does that leave the Mach-E? The first all-electric Mustang, the Mustang Mach-E GT, will reportedly accelerate from 0-60 mph in under four seconds, which would place it very near the top of the performance pecking order as far as Mustangs go, but it does the job quietly. Capably. Responsibly, even.
The Mustang Mach-E has some performance chops, then — but what about its styling? At 186”, it’s actually a few inches shorter than the V8 Mustang coupe. And, with a base price of $42,895, this Mustang it’s just as affordable as ever, costing thousands less than the average new car transaction price after EV rebates and incentives.
So, the new Mach-E is fast, middle-of-the-road affordable, and even has some fake cooling features on it (really, Ford, it didn’t need a black plastic “grille”, did it?).
More importantly, the Mustang Mach-E is a car that has been reimagined and repackaged for its time. When the original, hardcore Mustang I sportscar concept wasn’t right, it changed and became a softer, more practical, but still sporty-looking car that women could enjoy driving to work in every day. When the company decided it wanted to go after male dollars, the hood became longer and the engine got louder, and a few Mach-I and Boss sticker kits were even tossed on a small percentage of those cars to help make that true. As the oil crisis loomed large in the car-buying public’s memory, the Mustang changed again.
That’s what the Mustang is and does. It changes with the times, and it always has. This new Mach-E is absolutely no exception to the rules that Ford has played by with Mustang for over 50years. Far from a revolutionary product, it is exactly the Ford Mustang you should have seen coming if you’ve been paying attention at all. Just, you know, watch out for those “reported” range figures when you hit the road.
And, the icing on the cake? My wife wants one.
This is a real Mustang, boys. The realest. A true continuation of nearly 60years of Ford tradition — and if you don’t like it, just wait for the next one. Without a doubt, Ford will swing the Mustang back your way again in just a few years.