THE COMEBACK KING

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By Stuart Grant

Mach 1: 761mph – the speed of sound and one of the most highly regarded special-edition Ford Mustangs ever made. With rumours of the name returning to the blue oval’s brand in 2021 doing the rounds at the moment, we thought it worthwhile to track down a ’71 model to tell the powerful story.

Mind you, this isn’t the first mention of the Mach 1 rebirth being bandied about in recent times: in 2012 Ford thought of launching an electric crossover vehicle under the banner, but thankfully market research and an outcry from the fans quickly saw this idea dumped and the Mach E badge was used instead. Travesty avoided, let’s move back to the real deal Mach 1. 

Following the disappointment of the 1950s Edsel, Ford needed a boost in sales and image, and it came in bucket loads with the launch of the Mustang at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. It blew the doors off any competition by offering the ultimate combination of affordability and performance, and the sales streamed in. In 1965 a whopping 559 000 units were sold and ʼ65 was even better, with sales passing the 600k mark. Although a dip to 472 000 was seen in 1967, the numbers were still mind-blowing for any motoring sector.

Of course the competition, spearheaded by Chevrolet, Pontiac and Dodge, responded and the fight for the best American performance car took flight. From ’67 Chevy’s Camaro led the pony car tussle ahead of the Mustang but as the battle evolved, more was needed. And more meant more power, of course. The late ʼ60s answer came in the form of the big-block engines, with the Camaro, Pontiac Firebird and Dodge Charger sidelining the smaller Mustang somewhat.

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In order to regain some of the lost excitement, Ford released a series of limited-edition performance package ʼStangs late in ’68. Enter the first-generation Mach 1. With the focus on performance, only the fastback body was used and came standard with black bonnet stripe, chrome exhaust tips, Shaker air-intake and 351 CID (5.8-litre Windsor V8) under the hood. Going against all other Mustang trends, the Mach 1 was seriously customisable with sixteen exterior paint colours, three interiors, five transmissions and ten axle options. Oh yes, and six engine options, including two versions of the 7-litre 428 CID V8 lumps.

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The Mach 1 worked as Ford regained ground lost to the other big-hitting brands. But there was no time to rest on laurels and in 1971, just two years after its release, the Mach 1 underwent a redesign. It was bigger, and heavier, and immediately identifiable as the new version thanks to a flattened rear roof line – which made for poor visibility and numerous blind spots. Loads of options were offered to buyers, especially in the power plant department with the widest Mustang range yet, running from the 302 CID Windsor V8 to a monster 429 CID (7-litre) Super Cobra Jet motor that churned out 375 horses and 610Nm of torque at 3400rpm.

Although now more muscle car than pony car, sales figures continued to keep the suits happy and the Mach 1 soldiered on basically unchanged in ’72, with the most notable differences being a different boot lid font and the dropping of the 429 Cobra Jet big-block from the options list, the latter an indication that big thirsty lumps were moving out of favour with stricter emission laws being passed and the Middle East oil embargo and fuel crisis looming.

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An all-new Mustang launched in 1973 and by early ’74, fastback Mustangs were relegated to the history books. The Mach 1 became a hatchback and two cylinders were lost as the V8 made way for a 2.6-litre V6 that could only muster 105hp; decent handling became the only real performance attribute. Despite this down-tune, sales still held up reasonably well until the 302 Windsor V8 reappeared in 1975 and put the Mach 1 image into the sporting realm.

However, with just over 21 000 Mach 1 units sold this year (the lowest in seven years for the special edition), Ford relaunched the King Cobra nameplate in 1976 in an attempt to improve cashflow. This breathed some life into Mustang but being the top-dog special Mustang strangled the Mach 1 figures. With just 1 200 units moved in 1978 and a new Mustang on the horizon, the Mach 1 was shelved.

Until the early 2000s that is, when Ford and other manufacturers got all nostalgic. For the Mustang, Ford started with a 2001 Bullit edition (doffing its cap to the Fastback used by Steve McQueen in the 1968 film with the same name) and then launched a Mach 1 in 2003 as a one-year edition of just 6 500 units. True to the original, it was more than just the addition of a matt black wing and stripe though, with dark grey leather seats, aluminium gear knob, ʼ70s-inspired instrument cluster and half a dozen paint colours added to the mix.   

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Brembo brakes were fitted, and the oomph came from a 4.6-litre V8 engine that drove the rear wheels via either a four-speed auto or a five-speed manual. 305 ponies and 434Nm were on tap, and like the original it sold well with both those looking back at the past and a new, younger enthusiast group. Following the swap to a new Mustang platform, the Mach 1 name was once again parked. Roll on 2021… let’s see if an iconic badge, nostalgia and the excitement of another performance ʼStang gets buy-in from old and new fans.

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Pictured vehicle supplied by www.sportsandgtclassics.com


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