The white-and-red-striped 2014 Shelby GT500 had just 29 miles on it when Tina and Jeff left Green Bay, Wisc. "Now, we've got 2,500," said Tina. They left on April 9, one of three in a convoy of couples celebrating the Ford Mustang: Donna and John in a 2009 candy-apple red GT, Missy and Dave in a 2008 California Special. "Fun, a lot of fun," said Donna. "We wanted to get that Americana thing, you know?"
They followed Route 66 as closely as they could. They stopped in Joplin, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Albuquerque, Flagstaff. In St. Louis, the city officials opened up the Chain of Rocks Bridge for them to drive across. In Adrian, Texas -- population 159, the exact center of Route 66 -- they met Jenifer Lewis, who voiced Flo in Cars and owns a flower shop in town. She posed for pictures, signed some autographs. In Winslow, Ariz., they found a corner to stand on, just like the Eagles song.
"Snowed in Amarillo," said Missy. "Who'da thunk it?"
"Our buddy missed an exit and went off the curb at 50 mph," said John.
"Every night," said Tina, "these guys would put their mitts on and buff their cars."
"And every night it'd snow or rain," piped Dave.
"They'd be out there," Tina affirmed, "just buffing."
They rolled into Las Vegas at 2 in the afternoon, seven days and 2,500 miles later. The group made the trip without incident, their bonds cemented, their enthusiasm reinforced. Once Dave got to Las Vegas, he went straight to Count's and got a tattoo of his Mustang on his lower back.
The six were among the estimated 400 Mustang aficionados who drove or flew into either Las Vegas or Charlotte, N.C., to celebrate, for four days, the success of their beloved icon. Overall: 16 countries across four continents, club members proudly wearing matching shirts. Geoff and his friend Dave flew from the North Island of New Zealand, where the Kiwis are allowed to bring in 500 cars per year -- but the cars must be low enough production to merit significance, which is granted at under 20,000 examples. There are no age requirements. There is no need to convert to RHD. That's how Dave picked up his 2012 Boss 302 Laguna Seca Edition, because he happened to be in California when it was introduced. "I said, 'I have to have one of these.'"
Richard and Ronald brought their families from the Netherlands, sporting orange shirts and Dutch pride; the two friends split among themselves two late-'60s Mach Is, a 1970 Boss 302, a 1979 pace car and a Parnelli Jones Edition.
Jorgen and Anneli Morrmam flew in from Sweden, where Jorgen's Shelby GT500KR would have belonged if it wasn't 5,000 miles away and a hop over the Arctic. "It's nice," Jorgen chuckled. "If you drive around Stockholm in a Ferrari, people get angry and smash the car. But in a Mustang, people cheer. They give a thumbs up." Jane Rätsep and Håkan Hedberg, their travel companions, own a 1967 Mustang coupe with a 351, as well as a 2007 GT convertible.
"People like Mustangs," said Jane. "In Sweden, we have raggare. They have ugly cars. And when I'm in a Mustang, my colleagues at my job call me 'raggare!'"
In the evening, the crowd wound its way down the Las Vegas Strip to New York, New York -- where under a faux Brooklyn Bridge, Ford unveiled the 50th Anniversary Edition Mustang. Limited to just 1,964 examples (for obvious reasons), each one will be either Wimbledon white or Kona blue, feature three-pane glass louvers and display upon a plaque the signature of Bill Ford -- who had just been in New York watching engineers install a Mustang atop the Empire State Building and was currently welcoming the Mustang convoy into Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In Las Vegas, Ford brought its friends: Mark Fields, Henry Ford III, Craig Jackson, recent NHRA champion Robert Hight, former Mustang chief engineer Hau Thai-Tang and Hal Sperlich -- the other "father of the Mustang," along with Lee Iacocca. (The legendary executive was not present, but his 1965 convertible was.)
As the sun set over the fake Manhattan skyline, the crowd packed tight on the bridge facing the Las Vegas Strip. They caroused, drank beer, ate fried food and listened to The Eagles over loudspeakers. They took photos of the car and crowded excitedly around Craig Jackson. One man in the audience wore a Chevrolet Performance shirt with a big Camaro image on the back, which seemed brave. The crowd let him pass through without incident. Another man had a shirt proudly commemorating the Mustang II King Cobra and a long, wavy mullet proudly commemorating … well, the same thing, really.
The next morning I headed to Las Vegas Speedway, under the shrieks of F-15s from nearby Nellis Air Force Base. In the distance, NASCAR drivers were practicing around the oval. The cacophony of V8 exhausts, Pratt & Whitney turbofans and Steve Miller Band over the loudspeakers provided a jingoistic comfort not unlike fresh apple pie and the smell of fireworks. Outside,3,000 Mustangs had taken over the parking lot. (In Charlotte, a Chevrolet Camaro had to get towed after a sneaky attempt to infiltrate the masses.) Inside the track, however, Ford had set up a full-line showcase not unlike that at an auto show. Parnelli Jones said hi and signed T-shirts. Vaughn Gittin Jr. provided hot-lap rides in Shelby Mustangs. One could listen to Sperlich discuss Mustang history and minutiae, or enter to win a chance to ride in the very first Mustang prototype around the grounds of The Henry Ford. Fried-food stands corralled the infield. There were even electric scooters for rent.
Overheard, from a small boy (who they'd call a "tween" these days, I suppose): "Daaaaad, no more looking at stuff."
Volunteers from the Mustang Club of America began organizing the event three years ago, making sure their members would have plenty of time to schedule weeklong vacations. Ford was involved from the beginning -- but it was down to the volunteers to select the venue, wrangle sponsors like Roush, Saleen and Shelby (of course), and accommodate the 25,000 people who would make the journey to Vegas.
"We tried to leverage both organizations' strengths," said Steve Ling, Ford's marketing manager for the Mustang, Shelby GT500, Taurus SHO, "all the fun stuff." Like the Mustang, he too turns 50 this year. In the 27 years he has been at Ford, he's seen the Mustang evolve along with the folks who drive it.
"It wasn't long ago when I'd go to a show and shine, and they'd be content sitting around, talking about the good ol' days, then go square dancing. Today, they're organizing road racing, they're organizing tours to wine country. It's part of doing what you want to do in life. That's what's changed in the past 15 years. The car is an enabler."
In 1964, Dad won on a Keno ticket and, feeling charitable, brought 16-year old Patrick down to Charles Prince Ford in Colfax, Calif. Patrick didn't know what a Mustang was. "I had no clue. 16 years old, are you kidding me?"
"How much money do you have?" Dad asked Patrick. He had $400 he had made from a summer of washing dishes.
"I got 800 bucks your mom doesn't know about."
So they made a $1,200 down payment, co-signed, drove home and unleashed mom's full fury.
Patrick, never a joiner, never thought he'd end up at a car show -- but here he was, at Las Vegas Speedway, surrounded by Mustangs and corralled in the Original Owner Section, where there were few neighbors. His 1964½ Mustang in prairie bronze sat under a tarp for 33 years in Grass Valley, Calif., before Patrick finally got tired of explaining to his kids what its significance really was. In 2009, he performed a full restoration. Whenever he could, he rebuilt the original parts instead of replacing them, but he was thwarted by the seats. "I had to get seat covers because the squirrels got in the seats," he said, "and packed it with a thousand acorns. I had to loosen 'em with a screwdriver."
Dad passed away before Patrick could restore the Mustang. "Whatever you do in life," Dad would tell him years later, "don't sell it. Keep it." Patrick tries to drive it every day. When he does, the memories come flooding back: first dates, football games, homecoming, lots of partying. Youth in America, tied and intertwined with a singular car -- it could have been any car, but it was one worth keeping around for 50 years, even under a tarp in Grass Valley.
"There were a lot of firsts in this car, and none of them were pretty." Patrick didn't want to go into detail. He didn't have to. A sign by the car summed it up: "I remember this car," said a mysterious woman quoted only as "Donna, Class of 1967." "It was the one my momma told me to stay out of."
The Mustang has always held a certain level of adaptability -- a survival instinct that has allowed it the luxury of continuous production, a blindingly rare feat among any consumer good. The Mustang grew and shrank with the times, its dimensions fluid like wave motion: when the bloat of the '70s gave way to the Mustang II -- which turned out in force, a car both ironically and legitimately appreciated -- it staved off death and OPEC to live to see another generation. When the Fox platform debuted, the Mustang became a welcome addition to popular culture. After Patrick Schiavone saved the Mustang in the 1990s, after Jack Telnack left "New Edge" in good hands, the retro Mustang was just what we needed to remind ourselves how integral the original template really was to our culture.
The original Mustang, in Sperlich's words, was the right combination of prosperity, optimism and perfect timing. "The guys got it right from the original," said Ling. "That's the other piece that I figured out. The company has done a good job keeping it updated with the times. Nothing more complicated than that."
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