"You look like Steve McQueen," the stranger said as I pulled into the parking lot and exited with a 2005 Ford Mustang GT that few had seen.
Steve McQueen was the King of Cool, the actor who played the unflappable detective Frank Bullitt in the ultimate car chase movie, Bullitt.
The movie is memorable above all else for a seat-gripping car chase scene. Up and down and through San Francisco, the super-cool McQueen pursues the bad guys riding in a black Dodge Charger R/T.
And what did he pursue them in? A 1968 Ford Mustang that looks remarkably like the retro-styled 2005 Mustang, Ford's only runaway sales success.
There's just something about the Mustang that continues to draw buyers. It's cool. And it was that way right from the start.
Back in the early 1960s, a Ford executive by the name of Lee Iacocca-the same Lee Iacocca who later saved Chrysler from bankruptcy-had an idea for a new type of affordable car. He commissioned a study of what college kids desired in transportation.
The perhaps predictable results showed they wanted a stylish car with some performance capabilities at a reasonable cost. Way down into the study, Iacocca noticed they wanted two sporty bucket seats in front but a bench seat in the rear. Why? he asked.
'Cause, you know. College kids like to...you know. And they want a flat bench seat.
And so that first 1964 Mustang became a runaway success. It even spawned a new breed of car called the Pony Car. GM soon got into the game with the Camaro and Firebird. Chrysler joined with a Barracuda and Challenger. Even American Motors produced a powerful Pony Car.
One by one, over the years, each of those competitors died in the marketplace. Ford did a number of things right over the years. It offered powerful Mustangs, including some super-powerful Cobra models, and it offered Farrah Fawcett cuties, little 'Stangs without enough grunt to spin their tires.
But everyone could find at least one model they liked and could afford. Ford did not put all its marbles into performance and handling, as some other companies did. That diversity helped the Mustang celebrate its 40th anniversary last year.
Externally, this newest Mustang-a GT Premium for testing-looks a good deal like those late-Sixties Mustangs that have appeared in more than 500 movies. Long hood, short deck, C-cuts on each side, three-element taillights, driving lights in the grille and a chrome running horse centered in that grille.
The interior is anything but retro, however. Gone is the dashboard styling that reminded me of a yoke for a team of oxen. In its place are two areas separated by a console and the shifter. The tester had a 300-horsepower V8 coupled to a five-speed manual transmission. That's retro enough to remind us of a Boss 302 Mustang. But gone is the rear bench seat Iacocca demanded for the original 'Stang. The new rear has two buckets. And even an average-size person will bump the headliner and feel cramped back there. Besides, the sun shines through a huge rear window and quickly creates shouts of "more air conditioning!" The instruments are also a problem. They're gray on black and almost impossible to read in daylight.
Crank up the 4.6-liter V8 and listen to that throaty exhaust roar. Mustangs have always had the sweetest exhaust sound around, and this time Ford gave the 2005 Mustang GT a 2.5-inch exhaust system all the way to its dual exhaust tips. Zero to 60 is a blistering 5.5 seconds.
Depress the clutch and shift into first gear. Note that this manual transmission isn't as difficult to operate as those in recent Cobra Mustangs, but it isn't easy either. A $995 automatic transmission is available as an option, and Ford expects this to be bought for a majority of the Mustangs.
After exiting first gear, the remaining shifts are easily accomplished (but not snick-snick either!). Why so tough? This is a powerful car needing heavy-duty drive train components. It's got them, and a driver will pay the price in physical exertion. But it's also got improvements like brakes that are 20 percent stronger this year and a chassis that is 31 percent stiffer for improved handling.
During a week of testing, many people noticed and commented on the Mustang. There was not one negative comment. The admirers most often expressed a fondness for the styling, and were pleasantly surprised to hear new Mustangs with a V6 start under $19,000 and the V8 like this one under $25,000. These are realistic prices today. They also approved when I told them the Mustang rides on a modified platform shared with the Jaguar S-Type, the Lincoln LS and the Thunderbird.
By the time you read this, a convertible version should be at your local Ford dealer.
To drive one is to understand why it remains sole survivor of four decades of Pony Car wars. It deserves to stand alone. It's just way cool.