Resaddling the 1st Mustang
Revived museum piece runs like it's still 1964
BY MARK PHELAN
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
History is cool.
Well, driving the first Mustang ever built around the grounds of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn certainly is cool, anyway.
The Wimbledon White 1965 Mustang convertible purred like a kitten on a recent sunny day, nearly 37 years since it had been mothballed upon entering the museum's collection.
The car is virtually in the same condition as the day it arrived at the museum, bearing the nicks it acquired during the two years it accidentally slipped out of Ford Motor Co.'s hands and into the ownership of Capt. Stanley Tucker, a Canadian airline pilot.
When I slipped behind Mustang 001's wheel, the engine rumbled happily and the three-speed Cruise-O-Matic transmission dropped smoothly into drive for a spin around the museum grounds.
Despite -- or maybe because of -- its technical simplicity, the Mustang is amazingly easy and pleasant to drive. The same day the 39-year-old convertible started at the first twist of its key, a $54,850 2004 German sedan I was testing had a meltdown, leaving me stranded in a parking lot calling tech support on my cell phone.
The first Mustang turns out to be a surprisingly manageable and user-friendly car.
It doesn't have cup holders, and the fit and finish -- notably the uneven space between body panels and the quality of the paint job -- would never make it through quality control today, but a few minutes behind the wheel reveal the reasons the Mustang became the rage of the age, selling more than one million units in just over two years on the market.
The power steering -- an option back then -- guided the Mustang smoothly around the construction equipment lining the museum grounds. The power brakes -- another option, proudly identified with the words Power Brake stamped into the rubber cover on the pedal -- were smooth and firm, halting the convertible confidently at intersections, where oncoming traffic slowed to admire the convertible and teenagers stopped in their tracks to goggle and wave.
The interior clearly comes from another age, with AM-only radio -- which worked -- and non-retracting seat belts laid across its black vinyl seats. The doors and the large center console lack the storage space we take for granted today, although there's a large and useful compartment in the console at the base of the dashboard.
By the standards of 1964, however, this was a tight, well-made and well-equipped car. The vinyl-covered dashboard was a significant step up from the metal dashes common at the time, and the deep-dish concave steering wheel provided some of the safety benefits that would later come from collapsible steering columns, said Robert H. Casey, John and Horace Dodge curator of historical resources at the Henry Ford.
Even if it weren't a museum piece, this is a convertible I'd be happy to drive any day of the week.
Mustang 001 rolled off the Rouge assembly line March 9, 1964. Because the car came out early in 1964, many people refer to the original Mustang as a 1964 or 1964 1/2 model, but Ford officially considers it an early 1965, or simply a 1965 model, according to Casey.
Ford dispatched the car on a dealership tour to build showroom traffic. Then, as now, it drew crowds wherever it went.
The convertible eventually found its way to a Ford dealer in Newfoundland, Canada, where some salesperson apparently didn't get the memo that this future museum piece was wanted back in Dearborn.
Capt. Stanley Tucker bought it -- Ford doesn't know for how much, but the sticker price was $3,307.15 U.S. -- and fell in love with the little white convertible.
Ford tried to buy the car back, but Tucker's response was essentially "I like my car, why would I sell it?"
As Mustang sales approached a million in barely two years, Ford made Tucker another offer: We'll take your Mustang in trade.
The company would build Mustang No. 1,000,001 to Tucker's exact specifications, and fit it with whatever options he wanted, in exchange for 001.
He relented, swapping his car for a new '67 with special features that included a built-in television set.
The Mustang went into storage at the museum the day it returned to Dearborn, Casey said. It was museum policy not to display any vehicle less than 20 years old, so Mustang 001 disappeared from public view until 1984.
"It was a lot of work getting the Mustang ready for the road," Malcom Collum, conservator of historical resources at the Henry Ford said at the end of my test drive.
"My job now is to make sure it's easier for them when they roll it out for Ford's second centennial."
1965 Ford Mustang 001
Vehicle Type: Rear-wheel-drive, four-seat convertible
Options: Back-up lights, spinner hub caps, power convertible top, two-speed windshield wipers, padded visors, AM radio, deluxe retractable seat belts, console, power brakes and power steering
SPECIFICATIONS Engine: 260-cubic-inch V8, two-barrel carburetor
Power: 164 horsepower at 4,400 r.p.m.
Transmission: 3-speed Cruise-O-Matic
Wheelbase: 108 inches
Length: 181.6 inches
Where assembled: Dearborn
The Mustang is usually on display at the Henry Ford in Dearborn, but it's making a special appearance at the Greenfield Village Motor Muster on June 14-15, where it will be the centerpiece of a Father's Day display of more than 600 cars, motorcycles and bicycles dating from 1933 to 1973.
(Photo)J. KYLE KEENER/DFP
Mark Phelan drives Ford's first Mustang with Malcom Collum, conservator of historical resources at the Henry Ford in Dearborn. Collum directed the restoration of the 40-year-old museum piece.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....