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Review: 2003 Ford Mustang Mach 1

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide

By Robert Bowden, The Car Place


Rip-roarin' quick Great exhaust sound Going to be rare Super looks Shaker hood is a hoot


Heavy, heavy clutch Can get squirrelly Lousy exterior door handles Some unlighted controls at night Needs premium gasoline


Style: pony car, sole survivor Engine: 4.6-liter V8 Transmission: five-speed manual Drivetrain: rear-wheel drive Horsepower: 305 hp @ 6,000 rpm Torque: 320 ft-lbs. @ 4,250 rpm EPA mileage: 17 city/23 highway Weight: 3,465 lb. Base price: $28,995 Price as tested: $28,995

Just the bottom line VIDEO: Right away, you need to see the shaker hood and hear this rascal crank 'n' shake. So click here for a short QuickTime video summary of the Mach 1.

As Robin Williams so clearly put it, it's deja vu all over again.

The clock is turning back, back to the late Sixties when Detroit competed for young car buyers with ever-more-powerful muscle cars. GTOs, Road Runners, Mustangs. One by one, Detroit companies are jumping on the retro bandwagon begun by VW with the New Beetle, and serving up bigger horsepower helpings to create lust in the hearts of the adventurous.

A peek at what's coming proves the point.

And Ford got a jump on everyone else with vehicles like the Bullitt Mustang, Mercury Marauder and, now, this retro Mustang Mach 1.

So when I heard the Mach 1 was coming back, naturally I requested one. Little did I expect what showed up in the driveway.

There were decals on the front, on the sides, on the rear, on the hood, on the windshield. "It's one of three in the United States right now," the distributor explained to me. "You have it for three days, then it goes back to Detroit. Last Sunday, it was the pace car at the Ford 400 in Homestead."


I would look like some Richard Petty-wannabe when I ventured forth into the real world.

"Yep, everyone will stare at you," my friend admitted. "Especially the police."

That was understandable the moment I fired it up. There was that rumble, that growl, that snarl found today almost exclusively on Ford pony cars. But those decals....

I pressed down on the clutch. And it pressed back. Oooo. This is one heavy-duty clutch. It's much like the one used in the Mustang Cobra, the all-out performer from Ford's Special Vehicle Team. The Cobra, to me, is too much. Too difficult to drive in traffic. Fun sometimes, work all the time.

The Mach 1, I knew, would be the same.

You probably know the Mustang story. Introduced 38 years ago. A runaway success for Ford. Inspiration for the Camaro, Firebird, Challenger, Barracuda, even a hot Rambler.

The Mach 1 model came to market as a 1969 model (the photo left is a 1970 model in an ad). The new model could be had with a 351-Windsor V8 pumping out 250 horsepower with a two-barrel, 290 horsepower with a four-barrel or as a 428-Cobra model with 335 horsepower. In 1970, a 351 Cleveland was added, with 300 horsepower. The smart money went to its stablemate, the Boss 302 Mustang. All models were of the fastback configuration. And the Mach 1 introduced the "shaker hood" in Mustangs.

With a shaker hood, the top of the air cleaner box juts up through a hole in the hood. When the V8 engine revs up, it moves side-to-side with each blip of the throttle. Result? That visible air cleaner shakes.

Now, it would be nice to say the Mach 1 has a glorious history, but the pathetic downsizing in 1974 stands as an embarrassment to all. You want a classic Mach 1? Stick to the glory years.

When Ford saw "retro" written on the wall, resurrecting the Mach 1 as a limited-production model for 2003 seemed a good idea (just as the beautiful T-Bird is). Probably is, if Internet cult groups are any indication. Lots of folks have been plunking down $1,000 to get on a list to be one of the first Mach 1 buyers (production started around Thanksgiving).

Ford plans only about 6,500 Mach 1s.

What Ford did was hand off design to an outfit it calls the "Living Legends" group. That Dearborn, Mich., group gave us the Thunderbird and also is responsible for the upcoming GT40 sports car. The group took cues from the late Sixties' Mach 1, using side air scoops, a rear deck wing and that trademark shaker hood for the 2003 incarnation.

The unadorned photos here are from Ford, since Mach 1s will not come with the gaudy decals of a pace car (it was even uglier up close, where you could see all the bad cuts and pastes. Pleeez. Taste, Ford.)

Ford likes to talk about the scoop, which is unique today, so let's talk about it. This one is functional, unlike the Boy Racer fakes adorning some cars today. This is a ram air model, channeling fresh air directly to the intake runners, increasing the breathing and optimizing intake turbulence for improved power and torque.

Got that? It means the scoop actually makes it go faster.

Ah, but you knew I'd find a problem, didn't you? There's a reason cars don't have flat hoods and that reason is directly overhead at mid-day. The sun can reflect back into a driver's eyes from a flat or rear-slanting surface (trunk of the car ahead!). In the case of the shaker hood, the area from which the scoop emerges is flat, raised above the front-sloping hood. And, yes indeed, the sun struck that area and kicked back blindingly into the passenger compartment.

Fiddle, you say. Live with it. I did.

Stripped of decals, the Mach 1 is clean and attractive. The scoop and wing are functional and the car doesn't scream Race Me as loudly as it could have if designers hadn't exercised some restraint. But those same designers ignored some details other Ford products got correct. Like door handles. These are the inferior flip-lid variety. And the steering wheel controls are not lighted at night.

Still, the Mach 1 has a very attractive interior. Space for the driver and passenger is good, but don't even think of long trips for anyone trapped in the rear seat of this two-door model. It can be tight back there, unless driver and passenger are willing to scoot their seats way forward (dangerous because of mandated air bags).

The clutch, as mentioned, is very heavy duty. You'll find yourself shifting into neutral at stoplights. It's just too tiring to keep that clutch depressed for any length of time. The manual transmission has a close-throw pattern that resulted in me twice missing shifts. I hit second from third while trying to upshift! (Rev limiters on today's engines usually prevent leaving engine parts all over the road from such stupidity.)

The pedals are metal and grip was decent. But Ford says it has placed the brake and accelerator pedals in close proximity as an aid for heel-and-toe shifting. Whose foot did Ford use as a mold -- the late Wilt Chamberlain? No way is this setup suited for heel-and-toe. Look at a Mazda Miata, Ford. Take measurements and copy.

The driver's seat provides excellent support, both lateral and lumbar. The instruments are easily read, and the 150 mph speedometer means interstate-legal speed points straight up. Nice. The other instruments also point straight up when conditions are normal. Again, nice for quick reads.

Thankfully, the steering wheel is of the four-spoke variety, so it's easy to rest the right hand at the base of the wheel and prop the left elbow cooly on the window sill.

Changed for the better is the way this Mach 1 hooks up under full-bore acceleration. Yes, you can spin the tires off if that's your desire. But in the past, it has been difficult to get a super Mustang off the line. Too much tire spin is simply a waste of time and rubber. A driver should be able to launch without undue delay as tires grip surface.

The Mach 1 was a pleasant surprise. Bring the rpm up past 1,700 and dump the clutch. The Mustang spins briefly, then finds its grip. Hang on. The first upshift comes just under 40, and 40 comes in an eyeblink. You're past 60 in 5.2 seconds and you're still in second gear.

The acceleration doesn't turn the rear-driver left or right. It was easy to keep the Mach 1 under control with pedal to the metal. It's a different story, however, if you punch it while turning. I did, in first gear. And promptly went sideways until I backed off and caught the slide. No clutch dump. Just punch the accelerator and you can go up in smoke in a heartbeat.

I didn't try that nonsense a second time.

The Mach 1 has superb brakes, to match the awesome acceleration, and the suspension setup is performance-tuned, but with only a small sacrifice in ride comfort. On decent roads, the Mach 1 is as good as all-out comfort cars.

Regrettably, I didn't get to do real-world performance testing in the short time I had the Mach 1. The following is from computer-testing the car using the Cartest program.

Ford Mustang Mach 1 Computer Test Data --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Acceleration 0-30 0-40 0-50 0-60 0-70 0-80 0-90 0-100

Elapsed time (seconds) 1.8 3.1 4.2 5.2 7.3 8.8 10.6 13.4


Top speed 163 mph potential


Quarter mile 13.9 seconds @ 102.2 mph


Power-to-weight ratio 11.3


You really don't need to know a lot about cars to know that these numbers are check-your-pants quick. And anything under 12 in the power-to-weight category is a supercar. That 5.2 seconds to 60 is also quicker than the all-out Cobra of a few years ago. The Mach 1 easily outdoes the Bullitt Mustang, as well. This is one powerful pony car.

The Mach 1 is a welcome addition to the Ford lineup (my favorite remains the Bullitt Mustang) and at under $30,000 is almost a bargain. Ford doesn't expect dealers to jack-up the price as was done for early T-Birds and many other desirable cars, so this one might be almost a bargain as a future collectible.

Course, you can use it as a daily driver if you just want to blow the doors off that noisy imported four-cylinder with the booming bass in the lane next to you. This engine will shut him up -- in every way.

'nuff said.