The men behind the latest ‘Mustang muscle car reveal how Ford translated classic appeal for a modern (and European) audience – and left its rivals standing

As everything from hot hatches to supercars goes dual-clutch, turbocharged, hi-tech and ever more capable, what’s the traditionalist buyer in the new-car market to do? The simple answer would be to call the cavalry – which means Ford’s decision to share the Mustang with the rest of the world after more than half a century as an exclusively American icon was seemingly timed to perfection.

From its 1960s’ beginnings, the Mustang has enjoyed a programme of constant upgrades and tweaks, with the cycle of model-year changes deeply embedded in American automotive culture. That culture has been exported with the global Mustang, which has just been launched with a wide-ranging series of updates to keep it fresh.

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Some of these, such as a new ten-speed automatic gearbox option and expanded driver-assistance systems, may leave the purists cold. Others, including increased power and a more vocal exhaust system for the V8-powered GT, seem more tailored to those disillusioned with the spiralling cost and complexity of cars such as the BMW M3, whose inexorable move upmarket has freed up space for the Mustang to prosper with its combination of style and old-school thrills.

Mustang – how an all-American hero went global

From Chrysler to Cadillac, plenty of attempts to sell the American dream to European buyers have been lost in translation. So how did Ford come up with a Mustang that would satisfy its passionate and informed home crowd, but still play successfully to a global audience?

‘That’s the trick,’ laughs Mustang vehicle engineering manager Tom Barnes (below), on the recent European launch for the 2018 model-year car.

Mustang – how an all-American hero went global

‘The car has such a long history, and I could give you words like fast, fun and affordable – those are things we need to keep the essence intact. Especially with the V8, it has to have that sound, that acceleration; it has to make people smile and feel good, and if we’re true to that we’re probably going to win.’

Chief engineer Carl Widmann has a similarly straightforward appraisal of the Mustang’s appeal: ‘What I like about driving my Mustang is no matter how bad a day it is, every time you turn the key there’s a smile on your face.’

For Tom Barnes, the fact he’s worked on nothing but Mustangs for the past 15 years, and is surrounded by equally passionate enthusiasts within Ford, probably helps preserve the heart and soul of the car. ‘A lot of us who work on the team have Mustangs,’ he says.

‘Mine is a 2012 Boss 302 Laguna Seca, which is cool because we took that 2005 car and we just kept learning and learning, By 2012 we had the engine for it, we tuned it the way we wanted it and it’s just fun!’

Mustang – how an all-American hero went global

Among those in the know, this revival of a classic Mustang model is considered a recent high point, even when compared with the monstrously powerful GT500 of the same era.

This sense of a bunch of car guys tinkering with muscle cars, just as they might on their own driveway, is what’s sustained the Mustang through highs and lows. What’s even more impressive is that this DIY, enthusiast spirit seems able to survive within the corporate structure of a giant organisation such as Ford. It also seemingly informs the thinking behind many of the upgrades applied to the latest version.

‘It was interesting back in 2015, because we realised we were now building a car for people who had their own idea of what a Mustang was. But they might never have actually driven one,’ says Barnes. ‘So we had to hope it was OK, but once the car was launched we were saying stuff like “boy, wouldn’t it be great if the V8 could be just a little more guttural”, so that’s what we did for the 2018 model.’

Delivering on the promise is the new Active Valve Performance Exhaust fitted as standard to the V8 GT. The newcomer fully lives up to the muscle car dream in a way the outgoing car never quite managed.

Mustang – how an all-American hero went global

There’s no need for any piped-in fakery here, just the good, old-fashioned bark of a naturally aspirated V8 through slash-cut, plain-gauge exhausts. However, it’s now augmented with modern-day configurability in the shape of four sound settings and even a time-controlled ‘Good Neighbour Mode’ for those with unsociable commuting patterns.

The V8 has been given a little more headroom, too; a direct-injection working with the existing port injection to eke out 450PS/444bhp at a slightly higher 7000rpm.

Mustang – how an all-American hero went global

‘It’s not at 8300rpm like the GT350, but we can go to 7500rpm now, and we’re trying to get up there,’ says Barnes, offering apologies that for homologation reasons the track-focused, flat-plane V8 flagship remains a US-only proposition.

MagneRide dampers from that car, tuned to the GT’s more all-round billing, are now an option, though. Barnes again: ‘There were people, especially in Britain, who said the ride is not where we want it to be. We thought, we can take MagneRide from the GT350 and adapt it, and anyone who’s as interested in the handling as the looks can order it and have a better car.’

Mustang – how an all-American hero went global

He’s right. Unapologetic rawness is an appealing Mustang trait but, even with the fangled independent rear suspension deemed essential for a global car, the outgoing version can get a bit rowdy on a bumpy European back road. This new version is very different; the MagneRide dampers bring a new level of sophistication to the Mustang’s ride and handling that makes it more exploitable and fun to be around.

Which isn’t to say the car’s lost that all-important character. Sure, there’s a four-cylinder EcoBoost option, while the new ten-ratio automatic is something of an upgrade from the previous six-speeder, let alone the three-speed Cruise-O-Matic of the ’60s. These broaden the potential customer base, while lane-keeping assist, SYNC 3 infotainment and other gadgets tick the boxes today’s buyers expect.

Mustang – how an all-American hero went global
Mustang – how an all-American hero went global
Mustang – how an all-American hero went global

But the real Mustang experience is to be found in the V8 – preferably with your hand on the stubby six-speed manual shifter and living the Steve McQueen dream, sports jacket and roll neck in place.

Little wonder that, 50 years after Bullitt was first screened, Ford has taken this updated Mustang and created a Highland Green Bullitt Mustang tribute that will, unlike its predecessors, also be available to European buyers.

Mustang – how an all-American hero went global

With a little more power, the GT350’s induction system and bigger throttle body, and a specially tuned exhaust, it’s guaranteed to make the streets of Stevenage feel a little more like San Francisco, should you so wish.

‘What’s nice about the Bullitt, and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the movie release, is it really touches on the key points of Mustang such as the styling, the McQueen connection and everything,’ says Carl Widmann.

Mustang – how an all-American hero went global

‘This is the coolest version we do, and when you put those things together it really is the bulls eye. The capability to get more out of the motor came from us getting the induction losses down and then taking out the back pressure on the exhaust. We wanted more power and higher rpm, because when you see the scene or imagine yourself in it the sound is important – and we wanted to bring that to life.’

We’ll have to wait until next year before the Bullitt Mustang goes on sale in Europe. But the new 2018 car has more than enough of the more confident Mustang character to get you in the mood. True, the updated styling, with its lower grille and substitution of a power dome for more sloping nose, takes some of the classic appeal out of the looks. But for those left cold by the ever-increasing speeds and isolating technology found in European performance cars, the Mustang is a real breath of fresh air.

On this side of the Atlantic it feels like a big car, the 1743kg kerbweight of the V8 Fastback rather underlining its muscle car heft. And certain attributes such as the relatively low-geared and light steering won’t have BMW fans quaking in their boots.

But where an M3 is all about chasing Nürburgring lap times and blazing a technological trail, the Mustang offers a more laid-back and, whisper it, relevant approach to putting a smile on your face.

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It’s something of a blunt tool, and a car you can appreciate at 7/10ths rather than on the ragged edge. But this range of performance, and the crowd-pleasing image, are something you can enjoy more often than the ability to set purple-sector times on a track. Exactly the reasons you might choose to buy a classic car over a modern one, in other words – and a spirit Ford has successfully preserved and exported from its homeland and to a new global audience.

‘Is it a perfect car?’ asks Tom Barnes, rhetorically. ‘Probably not. Is it the best-handling car? Probably not. But is it darn good at everything and is it a Mustang? Yes!’ Still true to the formula that made this icon such a hit over half a century ago, Ford’s blue-collar hero may yet be the modern car classic fans have been dreaming of.

Gallery: Mustang – how an all-American hero went global