Like millions of Americans, the Ford Mustang sports coupe was the first car I ever loved. The year was 1979, and the car was a black and red 1967 GTA hardtop that I restored. It had a rumbling 390 engine that could almost tear loose chunks of pavement when the accelerator was mashed into the carpet.
But also like millions of Americans, my Mustang days have long been over. The last new Mustang I bought was in 2005. That's not because of any fault of the car. By all accounts in the buff books and Mustang forums, the current-generation pony car is faster, handles better, is more fuel efficient, is better built and is far safer than any that has come before it.
But the market for cars is shrinking as more and more consumers choose SUVs, crossovers and pickups, and few segments have suffered more than sports cars. Cramped but fun-to-drive two-door cars just aren't considered practical transportation these days.
U.S. sales of the Mustang through September totaled 55,365, a decline of about 10 percent over last year. Other sporty cars that used to post big sales numbers, such as the Chevrolet Camaro, Mazda MX-5 Miata and Mini Cooper S, are all down. In fact, through October, cars accounted for an estimated 28.2 percent of U.S. light-vehicle sales, while light trucks made up the other 71.8 percent, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
That brings us back to the Mustang. Ford on Sunday introduced the Mustang Mach-E, a vehicle that could not be further away from the template that every Mustang ever made has adhered to: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-door, long hood, short trunk (or liftback) sports car.
The Mach-E is not just the first modern vehicle with the Mustang name to be built outside the United States (it will be made in Mexico), it's also the first Mustang with four doors and a nontraditional powertrain. It's a battery-powered electric vehicle with an optional all-wheel-drive system.
No doubt the Mach-E will infuriate Mustang purists and old-timers. The last time Ford tried to tinker with the Mustang's DNA was in 1987. Ford was planning to use front-wheel-drive Mazda underpinnings on a new version of the Mustang. But an uproar from Mustang fans prompted Ford to scuttle that project, and the car that would have been the fourth-generation Mustang was eventually named the Ford Probe.
More recently, Chevrolet's remake of the Corvette has elicited plenty of howls from fans who don't want to see their favorite sports car change from its traditional front-engine layout to midengine.
But for Ford, placing the galloping horse on the Mach-E and morphing some of the car's styling cues, such as the tri-bar taillights, is the right move to secure a future for the Mustang name. People who grew up with Mustangs have maybe one or two new-car purchases left in them. They might complain about the Mach-E, but it's very likely that not many are going to be customers.
If Mustang coupe sales continue to shrink, Ford eventually may not be able to continue to manufacture the car, since it does not share its architecture with other vehicles. The Mach-E ensures the Mustang name could live on if the sports car version rides off into the sunset. In fact, I would not be surprised if Ford is already thinking about such a plan.
Younger buyers who don't have the same emotional connection and personal history with the Mustang nameplate also won't have any baggage that angers them over the name being used on an electric crossover. The Mustang name conveys fun to drive, fast, sharp handling, great styling. If the new vehicle carries that DNA, Ford might be successful in changing the perception of what the Mustang can be.
"Deciding to call this a Mustang gave Ford a North Star for what it needs to be to be emotional," Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit, said after watching Ford introduce the vehicle in Los Angeles. "It worked, and this new EV is focused and compelling. Any flaws will come out in time, but this is a believable, credible start."
If car demand was not in such a downward spiral and sales were closer to, say, half of the market, chances are the Mach-E would have been named something else, perhaps Fusion Electric or Edge Electric — but those names don't pack the same horsepower as Mustang.
There's been some speculation that the Corvette could spawn a high-performance SUV. And it's very likely General Motors marketing executives will be watching to see how consumers respond to the Mach-E. If it sells well, it might make it easier for companies with hallowed nameplates to change them into vehicles buyers today want.
Each automaker "has its own history and DNA, and some moves can't be duplicated authentically," says Brinley. "For GM to simply rinse and repeat is no guarantee of success. And Ford isn't guaranteed success here, either, but [the Mustang Mach-E] demonstrates strong execution and the promise for success."