Saturday, August 29, 2015

Jeff's Mustang

In a prior entry I mentioned I have never purchased a new car. In 2005 I nearly did; such was the effect of the S197 Mustang on me. I could have succumbed to temptation and joined the millions of Americans who live in deep financial debt, the price paid for instant gratification. I am too practical (some may suggest 'too cheap') and was able to resist the pull. This did not stop me from fantasizing about entering a dealership and ordering the exact car I wanted. For the first time I would not have had to settle for what someone else had chosen. I would have selected the color, interior upholstery, drivetrain and other options. The car would have been mine, chosen by me to be exactly what I envisioned as perfection.

In 2015 as a used car shopper I struggled to find the car that would have been 'mine', or at least my current perception of what it should be. Sonic Blue exterior, gray cloth interior, spoiler delete, five speed manual transmission...and an undecided engine choice. I shopped...and shopped...and can count on my one hand a year later how many actually ticked most (but never all) of the boxes. The ones that came closest were always too expensive or too far away. The one color I absolutely, positively did not want was black--and I found dozens of them, cheap and always close by.

After a year of looking online, on car lots and in trade papers I was fatigued. My color obsession was taking the fun out of Mustang shopping. When I came across a Tungsten Gray six cylinder with a manual transmission still owned by the original purchaser, I blinked.

Jeff's car was everything a used car buyer should wish for: full service history, fastidiously maintained (the original carpet mats were in the trunk, unused) and with a recent clutch replacement it was offered at a price too good to ignore. I saw, I drove and I bought. Jeff's Mustang became my Mustang.

Well, on paper it was mine. I'm not so sure 'owner' is the proper term; I feel as if I'm more of a caretaker. This was an unusual purchase for me in the respect that I did not buy it from some faceless car lot or from the last in a string of prior owners. My Tungsten Gray Mustang came from the guy who bought it from the lot; the guy who decided this exact example was the car for him. He drove it for ten years, paid for its care, lavished it with above-average attention and only saw fit to part with it when life circumstances suggested it was time for something more family friendly. This was a reluctant sale; Jeff appeared to take no real pleasure in exchanging his car for a check. He told me its entire history and pointed out the few flaws that it had. He gave me the owners manual, all of his receipts and even a copy of the original window sticker (he admitted he had kept the genuine one as a keepsake). I caught him watching me drive it away after we had done the title work.

The car is not perfect after traveling 86,000 plus miles. There are a few broken interior pieces, a gouge on one wheel and a couple door dings. One item in particular I notice every time I drive it: the shift knob is starting to come apart from use. Tens of thousands of shifts, almost exclusively performed by Jeff.
Jeff's Mustang.

I know this wouldn't bother most people as few are as introspective about cars as I am. That shift knob is frayed not from my efforts. The quirks of this particular car come from one individual, not several. These small things are not a blurry combination of multiple owners. The character traits are singularly a result of Jeff's use. All of this makes the car Jeff's Mustang.

I look at the tatty knob and plan on replacing it mostly because I prefer a different kind. There is a small twinge of guilt at the thought that I will be taking that piece of Jeff out of his car and making it less his and more mine. This is admittedly silly because unless he reads my blog he will not know I have altered his car. I do wonder if he might not appreciate the change--or would instead be happy that someone cares enough about his car to make it better by giving it something new and fresh. Other questions come to mind as I contemplate swapping the trunk lid spoiler I dislike so much or change the grille to a GT style. Regardless of the potential alterations I'm not sure it will ever truly be 'my' Mustang. Maybe that's not a bad thing.

A year ago I sold a 1965 Ford pickup I had owned for ten years. It was my intent to restore the thing back to respectable condition but I came to realize time, money and ambition were all lacking. I chose to send it on to another owner who would hopefully provide what I did not. One thing that I had decided I would not restore was the steering wheel. The red paint had been worn away on portions of the rim from use by the previous three owners. The wheel told a story; not one that was clear but spoke of the physical connection between the machine and the people who piloted it. None of the other worn parts on the truck affected me the same way as that steering wheel. It is the one part of the truck I miss the most.

I may remove the shift knob from Jeff's Mustang but I will keep it stashed away. It has a story to tell to the next caretaker--or maybe Jeff will want his car back when I'm done enjoying it. I think it would be a rare treat to be able to pick up where things had been left.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Acceptance or Derision?

I'm going to jump ahead in my story and address the elephant in the room: I bought a V6.

Stop and examine your personal reaction to that. If this were any type of car other than a 'pony' car the engine choice wouldn't be significant. If I had purchased say, a Mazda 6, that I had chosen the four cylinder over the V6 would only garner a slightly raised eyebrow. In contrast, the minute most of us learn that a American pony car is optioned with the base engine vs a rumbling V8 we immediately dismiss it as an also-ran...a girl's car...a sad shadow of the real thing. As I sought to fill my Mustang void the question of The Engine came up frequently. 'Settling' for the V6 as a rabid car enthusiast would just be wrong. Did I not lust for the throaty burble of the 300 horsepower V8? Was that not part of the Mustang's appeal and mystique? Why would I want to face the automotive community's disdain for the pedestrian version and be dismissed as driving a poseur to the real thing?

The bigger question was, why did I care?

There are a slew of truly practical reasons why I ultimately went with the V6, but only after careful introspection on why the less practical V8 seemed to matter so much. When I really drilled down to what it was that I liked about the Mustang, what it meant to me and why I desired it so much I realized it wasn't about the engine. I liked the S197 because it looked right and it raised a middle finger to every other car then being produced that was a slave to the wind tunnel, EPA ratings and practicality. I was in love with a car, not an engine.

In my consumption of knowledge of all things Mustang I learned that Ford tried very hard to not have the base model V6 be an embarrassing also-ran. The engineers worked hard at making the V6 perform better than 'merely acceptable' and even spent a lot of time trying to make the exhaust sound right. The 4.0 is a sturdy, decent engine that produces 210 horsepower--10 more than the base V8 in 1967. Granted the S197 weighs 746 lbs more than the original 1967 car but I wondered how bad the V6 would really be? I located one with a manual transmission and after a brief drive came away impressed. No, it was no race car but the power delivery seemed nearly perfect for everyday driving. The missing 90 horsepower didn't bother me nearly as much as I expected. I had a decision to make between what made sense and what my car guy testosterone a car that itself didn't really make sense on a practical level.

Practical: lower cost, better fuel mileage, cheaper insurance. Also for myself there were other considerations, including the V8 would certainly cause hooliganism behind the wheel and I already had an actual legitimate race car. The old BMW I took to the track was fully outfitted with a roll cage and all sorts of protective gear and I feared a faster but less safe street driven Mustang would diminish its purpose. Lastly, the pages of Mustang performance catalogs were a irresistible temptation to spend giant wads of cash on things to make my future car 'better'. I knew from experience that my resistance to such enticements was non-existent.

Impractical: the sound of a V8 engine, the masculine aura such a car carried and the worry of ridicule from others for 'cheapening out' with a V6.
I became introspective over this last issue. Why did I care what anyone else thought? I knew why: in the past I had ridiculed and dismissed six cylinder pony cars as inferior...purposeless...a 'waste'. I was now faced with the uncomfortable fact that the car I really should have was the one I viewed as inferior. It made more sense to 'settle' for the V6 than pay nearly twice the price for what frankly amounted to vanity. This is not to suggest that the V8 powered GT is frivolous; if my circumstances were different I'd have no reservations about getting the GT or even a Shelby.

Delving ever deeper I came to see that a Mustang was a choice between two considerations: Did I want it for what it could do or did I want it for what it was? For example, I have a 2008 Triumph Bonneville motorcycle. I did not purchase it for what it could do (low fuel mileage, inexpensive to operate), I bought it for what it was (a beautiful machine but impractical to ride nearly half the year where I live). In contrast, my pickup truck I own not for what it is (a masculine vehicle) but for what it can do (haul things). While the Mustang could do (provide reliable year-round transportation) so could dozens of other cars that all cost less and were more sensible. No, the Mustang was about what it was (an icon and delightful to look at and sit in). I was buying the Mustang for me--to satisfy a part of myself that is infatuated with everything about it. Why then did I care what anyone else thought of it or my choice in powertrain?

Almost since the invention of the automobile many people have used it as an extension of who they are. Wealthy people drove opulent Duesenbergs and Pierce-Arrows while practical people selected Fords and Dodges. As time progressed and choices became abundant people chose vehicles not just for transportation but as a means of enhancing their image to others. We all have stereotyped various cars with their owners--lifted trucks are about male compensation, Prius owners wear Birkenstocks and are vegans and BMW owners are arrogant idiots who don't use turn signals. Right or wrong these perceptions do exist. Mothers regularly choose ridiculous SUVs over practical minivans simply because the more judicious choice carries with it a stigma of middle class suburbia. The rough-and-ready appearance of SUVs (not to mention their increased height and bulk) lure many buyers into believing that it projects a more adventuresome image.

To some degree the same could be said for the bulk of Mustang GT buyers. People who love power and performance consider it a failure to accept the V6 even when, for 90% of general use, it is perfectly adequate. The stigma associated with 'failing' to obtain the GT probably drives sales as much as the increase in performance over the standard model.

Part of my coming to grips with getting older is blissfully caring significantly less about what other people think of me. However, the failure perception of not getting the GT troubled even me. Having driven the V6 and finding it actually better than I expected and completely suitable for the tasks I had for it I still struggled with not getting the 4.6 liter V8. So strong was automotive societal pressure that it was ingrained in my thinking that no self-respecting car guy would buy the 'lesser' car. Interesting how I could justify a foolish vehicle (Mustang) but ultimately not the foolish engine (V8).

I am pleased with my purchase and in my heart of hearts know that I need not justify it to anyone other than myself. Despite this I still worried that this contemplative blog would appear as me attempting to rationalize my choice to others. I can only emphasize that I made a choice and am happy with it. Anyone else's opinion doesn't matter to me...and it shouldn't to you, either.

August 22, 2015. The Mustang.

Today ends 10 years of pining...of longing...of inexplicable coveting. Today is Mustang day. Allow me to explain.

In September of 2004, Ford Motor Company introduced a new version of the iconic Mustang. Referred to as the S197 platform, it replaced the prior 'Fox' chassis Mustang that had roots back to 1979. The S197 was a totally new car which was way overdue, but Ford chose to go in a direction with the styling that some derided as a step backward. The rest of us were mesmerized.

I was born in 1965 and immediately had an obsession with all things automotive. Growing up in the 'malaise' period of the 1970s I saw the erratic and desperate American car industry fight to remain relevant as imports took over after the Arab oil embargo. My focus growing up was sports cars like the MGB, Triumph Spitfire and ultimately the Fiat 124, a car I owned several of during my early years of driving. Though they suffered from cheap construction and peculiar quirks these cars provided a wonderful driving experience at a low cost. Equally important, they were pleasant to look at; you knew at a glance what they were.

I held a certain level of disdain for American cars which in retrospect was forgivable. The 1970s were a terrible time for domestic cars both mechanically and stylistically. Some of you may remember such horrors as landau tops, opera lights and Ricardo Montalban shilling "Fine Corinthian Leather". Ugh.

Things had not always been this way, however. Shortly after the second World War, American manufacturers discovered that attractive styling sold cars as much as mechanical prowess. The 1950s ushered in a period of chrome, pastel colors and excess but I've always felt that these cars were a defining point in car design. Though a bit dated now, the cars of the 1950s are still very attractive and distinctively different.

The 1960s continued the trend somewhat and it was still easy to tell a Chevy from a Ford even at a distance. The designs became less flamboyant but still offered uniquely creased metal stampings that kept the various brands and models distinctive. Instead of offering one basic car such as a "1960 Ford" they began offering multiple models in a given year, such as the Falcon, Fairlane and Galaxy. Buyers had more choices, and nothing is more American than having choices.

With this in mind, Lee Iacocca created a niche car that completely altered the trajectory of American cars (he later did the same thing with the minivan) when he took a lowly Falcon and attached a racy European style coupe body to its chassis. Stories abound of dealers being swamped with eager buyers to the point of having to close the doors of their showrooms. 22,000 were sold the first day; within two years a million were rolling on America's highways. There simply had never been anything like it.

This all happened while I was still in diapers. By the time I really began to notice Mustangs they were old cars, supplanted by the much maligned but monetarily successful Mustang II. Perhaps I was swayed by the Mustang's European cousin the Capri. Another car built as a sporty car on a pedestrian chassis, the Capri was wildly successful on both sides of the Atlantic. The long hood/short deck silhouette stuck in my psyche as what a car should look like. Ultimately, I felt that the 67-68 Mustang fastback was the pinnacle of the pony car era.

By the time I reached driving age, however, vintage Mustangs were in a resurgence of popularity--thanks to the hideous, wheezing cars of the 1980s. Nice examples were far from my meager ability financially while those needing restoration were so bad due to rust that I knew I could never finish one. At one point I did buy a 1981 Mustang that was nothing like those I really desired and ultimately was horribly disappointing. I continued with my European sports cars and eventually bought an eerily similar shape in the form of a 1986 Audi GT. Long hood/short deck...but at the time I didn't make the connection. Though immensely popular, the Fox Mustangs tugged at me with only half the urge of the original. The later SN95 updated versions I found somewhere between disappointing and hideous. Original 1960s versions were attainable with my adult income but now were unsuitable for daily use for fear of rust damage and a driving experience that was more Old Pickup than Sports Car. I knew they were rattly, creaky, ill-handling cars with poor brakes and yet I still felt a pull every time I saw one. Then S197 happened.

I can't remember where I first saw one but I do know my instant reaction: They finally built one for me! The styling of the old mixed with the mechanics of the modern era; it was too good to be true! Surely they would be horrible in some way--but they weren't. Never in my life had I considered buying a new car but I began calculating what the payments would be and deciding on a color. The reality, however, was that it would be expensive and I'd be paying it off for an eternity...not to mention the insurance premiums.
So I watched from afar, much like a teenager pining for a girl who was dating someone else. New Mustangs appeared everywhere in 2005 and my head snapped around to gawk at each one. I'd had this reaction to other new cars over the years and I knew eventually the novelty would fade and I'd soon dismiss them as just another car

Nope; didn't happen. My head still swiveled every single time I saw one in the next five years at which point Ford chose to 'update' the design. I wasn't a fan of the restyle at first but it did eventually grow on me, though I find the rear too bulbous. The purity of the original 05-09 I continued to feel was superior and remained the object of my Mustang desire. The continued popularity and durability of the S197 kept prices high; coupled with my use of a company car through these years a 'toy' of this expense simply didn't fit the cards. Silently, I vowed that by the time I was 50 I'd treat myself to the car I simply couldn't shake from my craving. Life circumstances ultimately pushed me in the proper direction and midway through my 50th year I found myself in a position where I a) needed a car and b) could afford to indulge my unsatisfied Mustang passion.