The Mustang has been one of America’s most iconic vehicles for nearly 60 years. For much of the 2000s, it was the last of a dying breed, a final holdout resisting a drawn-out extinction event. But instead of fading away as a pale shadow of the bulky, aggressive hot rod that it used to be, the Mustang was reinvented in 2005. America’s signature pony car received a makeover that went back to its roots, and 16 years later, the 2021 Ford Mustang maintains its position in a rejuvenated field by incorporating modern updates and technological advancements without forsaking its DNA.
I was young when the 2005 remodel happened. The outgoing generation was the only Mustang that I had ever known, so I didn’t see what everybody else saw – that this completely new Mustang was a throwback to the 1960s, a transformation so convincing I remember correcting a family member for remarking on a sharp “old” ‘Stang that was actually less than two years old. It was a few years later, during an interstate trip, that I saw a similar vehicle, a 2006-or-so Mustang in Windveil Blue, parked nearby at a rest stop.
I said to my dad, “now that’s how you get somewhere fast.” He replied that anything can do 120 mph, which I immediately realized was true (although the image of our Pontiac Montana screaming down I-90 at 100+ is hardly an inspiring one), and that my comment was something I should think about every week or two for the rest of my life. But it made me rethink how I looked at cars like the Mustang and many other things in my life since then, and it makes me wonder – what is it about the Mustang that’s always resonated with me?
What Really Matters?
It starts with associations. The wild horses of the untamed west. The P-51 fighter plane, a weapon of war that’s symbolic of the victory that the free world won in 1945. Personally, “Mustang” is a word that inevitably recalls these things to my mind, and so for me, the Ford Mustang became synonymous with unbridled American liberty itself. But that’s also something that’s never going to change, no matter how Ford designs it, as long as it bears the name.
The next thing gets more to the root of what I love so much about the Mustang and have always loved about cars in general. There’s an innate beauty to automobiles. I’ve always been transfixed by their seamless forward motion, unencumbered by churning legs or flapping wings. Whether they’re calmly at idle, cruising along, or furiously accelerating, the purr of the engine or roar of exhaust matches the emotion of the moment like warmth pairs with sunlight. Gleaming metal sparkles like gemstones and pareidolia-inducing styling invokes thoughts of smiling faces, determined grimaces, and crouching predators waiting to pounce.
My heart is less concerned with what makes cars tick and more concerned with the fact that they tick at all and that they can look and sound so beautiful while they do it. My love is for the simple experience of automobiles and all their nuances. Eye-catching paint and body lines. Stylish interiors. An aural experience to send shivers down the spine and the thrill of adrenaline from seat-crushing acceleration and tire-shredding maneuvering.
Iconic From Front to Back
Enter the Ford Mustang. When I was growing up, the Mustang was a large two-door making the shift from a tame-looking roadster to a modern blend of sport and muscle car. The angular early-2000s designs, with aggressive hood and body scoops plus signature tri-bar taillights, were personal favorites. I loved the chiseled look, the long, low snout, and the thumping roar of the engine. While interiors didn’t mean much to me then, those Mustangs caught my eye, filled my ears, and were simply mesmerizing to watch. But 2005 delivered something completely different.
The grille was large – wide, tall, and upright. Round headlights like glowing eyes flanked it. The hood was smooth and flat, and the body lines were less dramatic than before. A slicked-back roofline, tall trunk, and small spoiler completed the ready-to-launch look of the modern American muscle car, which looked so much like its 30 to 40-year-old predecessors that it could fool a non-enthusiast. It was brawny without being bulky, stylish without being over-stylized, and could still thunder like those funny-smelling old cars I’d see in parades.
It never had to go fast. It was automotive strength projected into a vision, the kind of vehicle that would make me smile every time I approached it and look back every time I walked away. That’s all that the Mustang had to do. When I said, “now that’s how you get somewhere fast,” the statement was a manifestation of how the Mustang made me feel – like the driver was unlimited, unrestrained, and unignorable.
Fifteen years later, that same design philosophy continues to evolve. The headlamps are no longer circular spotlights, and the body lines have softened, from the front where the grille is shorter and the hood rounds slightly to the back where the tri-bar taillights look more like a sketched drawing than oversized Lego bricks. The 2021 Mustang almost looks like a Hot Wheels adaptation of the 2005 edition, and if you couldn’t guess that I love that, then I don’t think we can be friends. It’s not you; it’s me.
Diversity as a Strength
But now I’m older than I was then. Some things – namely practicality, interior comfort, tech features, and price – matter more than they used to. It’s become clear over time that the Mustang does not have answers for some of these needs; for example, it would take an act of Hogwarts magic to fit a family of four and their carry-on bags in any Mustang, except perhaps the new electric Mustang Mach-E crossover. Besides that, however, I’ve found that a Mustang can be whatever you want it to be.
Something I find so amazing about the Mustang is that Ford offers it with such a broad range of features and capabilities that it can fit any driver. The 2021 Mustang Shelby GT500 is a 760-hp monster with huge sound, insane styling, and track manners that can hang with any European sports car in the same nearly six-figure price range, despite weighing 1,000 lbs more than most of the competition. At the other end of the spectrum, the entry-level Mustang EcoBoost comes in under $30,000, making it genuinely accessible to first-time car buyers. Ford does this by fitting them with turbocharged V6 engines that are exciting without being dangerous and by limiting the interior features. Then in between those two extremes, there are the GT models, the Mach 1, the Bullitt, the Shelby GT350, and more, allowing you to find the perfect blend of power, style, features, and price for your budget and personality.
But no matter what you put inside the Mustang, the fundamentals of what’s so iconic about it stay the same. Every vehicle with a galloping chrome stallion or coiled cobra still features a long snout, an aggressive front fascia, a cool slicked-back roofline, and a tall rear end with iconic tri-bar taillights. Its exciting appearance still captures the imagination like the classic muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s. While the 2005 version was a straight-up throwback, by 2021, that design has merely been tweaked with modern features and influences of the late-1990s models that I grew up with.
Mustang, the Wild and Free
Though I originally found the 2005 redesign to be boring, its simplicity has grown on me, and I can now appreciate its heritage in a way that I could not back then. Despite the changes, it was still a Mustang, a striking, exciting car that always got noticed and for all the right reasons. Today the 2021 Mustang still lives up to that image, perhaps even more so with the re-introduction of Mach 1 trim, the improved competitiveness of the GT500, and the all-new electric Mach-E.
I didn’t realize back then that, generally speaking, the Mustang has never been a fast car – but driving isn’t about getting there more quickly. The Mustang also isn’t really at the cutting edge of technology or luxury, but it still epitomizes the automotive experience because that’s not about tech or plush comfort either. It’s about having a smile on your face and a spring in your step because the car looks so good as you open the door. It’s about having butterflies in your stomach and adrenaline pumping in your veins after a raucous acceleration and a thrilling corner because anything can do 120 mph in a straight line, but it takes something special to sprint from 0 to 60. It’s about taking one last look before you walk away because it feels like an extension of yourself and thinking, “Man, I love my car.”