It isn’t often that one car defines an entire genre. But almost four decades after its debut, the Ford Mustang is still considered the world’s premier pony car. Indeed, while other names have fallen away, this long-legged stallion has never broken its stride, and for 2003 picks up the pace, with an enticing mix of performance, style, and nostalgia.
And nostalgia is what the 2003 Ford Mustang Mach 1 is all about. This is the first time since 1978 that a Mustang has carried the Mach 1 name, a name that returns with a vengeance. Unlike other retro-rides that rely mostly on visuals to conjure up the past, the Mach 1 recaptures the true performance that made the name so respected on the streets in 1969 and ‘70.
Still using the tried and true Fox-chassis, the Mach 1 takes the Mustang to a new level and neatly fills in the gap between the volume performance Mustang GT and the exhilarating but expensive SVT Cobra. Mach 1 delivers a balance of cost and performance.
The 2003 Mach 1 certainly looks the part of a Sixties bad boy hold over. The ‘‘shaker’’ scoop, hood stripe, and integral front spoiler say retro, but blend well with the 2003’s more- contemporary shape. Classic racing stripes below the doors and 17 inch ‘‘heritage wheels’’ that are reminiscent of 60’s ‘‘Magnum 500’’ wheels, also set a nostalgic tone. It’s all topped off with subtle Mach 1 badging, low gloss black rear spoiler, and of course, chrome exhaust tips.
Interior touches are subtly retro as well. Ford-o-phile baby boomers will feel right at home in the 1960’s-style comfort weave seats. While the originals were vinyl, these are leather and provide good side bolstering for the Mach 1’s impressive grip. Grey accent trim, stainless steel pedal covers and aluminum ball shifter give the Mach more hints of Sixties style. Large analog gauges with unique faces complete the look. The Mach 1 has the functional and clean feel of a Sixties muscle car.
But the heart of the Mach 1 is a super tuned 4.6 liter V-8 rated at 305 horsepower , that’s 40 more than last year’s Bullit , and 320 pound/feet of torque. While a far cry from the pushrod iron Vee of the original, the aluminum-head 4.6 is the Cobra engine without supercharger, but with free breathing twin-cam heads and four valves per cylinder. Intake cams come from the 32- valve 5.4 liter, and that means lots of bottom and mid range torque, while port-matched exhaust manifolds match up to special mufflers. It’s all topped off with that functional ‘‘shaker’’ hood scoop that’s more than reminiscent of the ones found on 1968 and 1970 428 Cobra-Jet Mach 1’s. All this power is delivered through the Mustang’s five speed manual or optional four speed automatic.
The result is serious acceleration on the street. Zero to 60 in 5.3 seconds, or only about a half second slower than the SVT Cobra. But the standing quarter mile has always been the Mach 1’s calling card, and runs of 13.8 seconds to 103 miles per hour reinforce that heritage.
In keeping with its drag and street racing history, the Mach 1 forgoes the Cobra’s independent rear suspension and instead opts for a retuned solid rear axle setup with a performance 3.55 final drive ratio. When combined with our test car’s manual with a very low first gear, the experience was on par with any muscle Mustang of the Sixties. Despite the solid rear axle, our staff marveled at the Mach 1’s composure. With firmer spring rates than the GT, the Mach 1 felt solid and refined, due in part to an old drag racer’s trick of connecting the sub-frames with frame rail connectors. This further stiffens the unibody chassis and makes intricate suspension tuning possible.
Of course fast cars need good brakes, and the Mach 1 has them. Large 13 inch Brembo front brakes like those on last year’s Cobra and Bullet reign this horse down nicely.
And the Mach 1 package is nicely complete with a sticker of $28,370. With the addition of minor retro interior trim, our as tested price jumped less than 300 bucks to $28,665. This puts Mach 1 pricing closer to the Cobra than the GT, but that’s as it should be. While lacking the brute force of the supercharged Cobra, the Mach 1 is one heck of a lot of performance mixed with a big dose of nostalgia.
With Camaro and Firebird gone and the Pontiac GTO months away, this emotional connection to the Sixties muscle car heyday is the lone survivor. Much like the Shelbys and Cobra-Jets of old, the 2003 Mach 1 mixes existing technologies and makes it seem fresh. So until the all-new, retro-styled Mustang arrives next year, performance fans who long for the good old days can have it both ways. Indeed, the Mustang Mach 1 is more than just a one-trick pony.
Engine: 4.6 Liter V-8
Torque: 320 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 5.3 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 13.8 Seconds @ 103 MPH