I wanted a Ford Mustang almost more than anything when it was introduced in late spring of 1964.
It was coolness personified. The little “pony car” had dual exhausts, a small but powerful V-8, and looked like nothing else on the road.
I drooled as I read a magazine’s test drive of the Mustang, with its 225-hp V-8 and four-speed floor shift. But I could only dream about driving it when it was my turn at the wheel of my roommate’s 36-horsepower 1959 VW. We were heading south out of New Jersey on old U.S. Highway 1. Summer had ended and our destination was The University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.
Accompanying us on the 1,500-mile adventure was our Siamese kitten, “Mac,” who had his own box. The roof rack was loaded with suitcases. My barbell plates and dumbbells filled every inch of floor space and added 200 pounds to the car’s weight. Every nook and cranny in the trunk was stuffed to capacity.
The antique VW was the “little car that could” as it struggled to maintain 55 miles-per-hour on flats and dropped to 35 on long grades. Headwinds slowed the car as they buffeted roof-top suitcases. Frequent stops were mandatory to tighten ropes and reposition the load. Mac wasn’t always happy with his confinement and pooped at inappropriate moments, his odors mixing with aromas of gasoline and oil from our non-air conditioned time capsule.
Motorists gawked as they passed in 300-horsepower, 18-foot behemoths. Children pointed and laughed. But Art and I held heads high and looked straight ahead as we chugged through the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Carolinas and down Georgia’s coastline. I wasn’t driving a VW. I was still in my Mustang.
The VW preferred two-lane blacktops
This wasn’t the first time I drove from New Jersey to Florida. The year before, I hitched a ride with friends returning to Miami.
“Why not have fun at college and study where there’s sun and water?” one asked. Made sense, especially as I had spent the previous year at a college in Lake Erie’s snow-belt…a location where I frequently experienced 20-below-zero temperatures and two-foot snowfalls.
It was still the old South in the early 1960s. In the Carolinas, service stations and restaurants had “white” and “colored” bathrooms and water fountains. But some of the ugly vestiges of racism had disappeared when Art and I made the journey in 1964. U.S. 1 was changing, too, as the nation rapidly built its interstate highway grid. One minute you’d drive on a two-lane blacktop and the next you were diverted to a 10-mile-long, 60-mile-per-hour stretch of six-lane nirvana.
The old VW preferred the two-lane blacktops. I liked the old highways, too. Burma Shave, Rock City, and Stuckey’s signs took you into little hamlets and villages lined with old trees, Spanish moss hanging from branches like cobwebs. There were town squares with bandstands, hotels that bragged about famous guests, and residents who waved, smiled, and trusted you. Cash was still king and credit cards were scarce. Gasoline was leaded and cost 20-cents a gallon, and Esso was years away from becoming the “double-cross” company.
Motels built in the 1930s and 40s were clean and cheap. Six dollars a night bought you a non-air conditioned room with two beds, desk, chair and Gideon Bible. If you were extravagant, you’d slip a quarter into the slot next to the bed for a “Magic Fingers” vibrating massage. As the bed rattled and rolled, I got the feeling the massage was for purposes other than putting you to sleep.
After 1,500 miles of noisy, bone-rattling highway in the VW, the striking green and blue hues of the Atlantic Ocean were a welcome sight. We waved at girls on Miami Beach and continued into Coral Gables and South Miami. Mac adapted quickly to the tiny two-bedroom apartment Art and I rented near the campus.
I didn’t see much of Art after that as he started romancing a pretty college girl he later married. A 1960 Vespa scooter took me to classes and on windy journeys along Miami’s Collins Avenue and to Key Biscayne’s beaches and lighthouse.
‘Mustang Sally’ enters the scene
As 1964 rolled into ’65, a new rhythm-and-blues song, “Mustang Sally,” was recorded by Mack Rice. Capturing the spirit of the car, it was number 15 on the R&B charts within months. It became even more popular, rising to sixth place, when Wilson Pickett brought out his version.
According to music historians, the song started as a joke when recording artist Della Reese bought a Mustang. Rice called the song “Mustang Mama.” But he changed the title after singer Aretha Franklin suggested “Mustang Sally.” The song’s lyrics may have inspired Art: “I bought you a brand new Mustang…a nineteen sixty-five.”
The next thing I knew, the old VW was gone. Art traded it for a gold Mustang that sparkled in the Florida sun. It had all the right stuff, too. Air conditioning, floor shift, V-8 engine…and best of all, there weren’t many like it. Other motorists—especially young women—waved and beeped horns when they saw it. Aggressive drivers wanted to race and coeds gave coy looks.
A few months later, the college year ended and it was time to return to New Jersey. I don’t think I ever looked so forward to a long drive. I could see myself in the Mustang speeding along the same roads Art and I traveled in the VW. If we wanted, we could pass anyone. No more bratty kids pointing and laughing. Now our only problem was avoiding speed traps.
Our problems multiplied
I was wrong…our problems multiplied. As pretty as the car was, its trunk could hold only two small suitcases. And its back seat was hardly larger than the VW’s. Mac was now a 16-pound tiger and his cage dominated the tight space. Art and I decided to leave most belongings in the apartment for the summer. One suitcase apiece was all we could carry (plus Mac).
But we traveled in style. The Mustang’s air conditioner blew cold air in our faces. The powerful engine roared as we passed slower vehicles. And we ate up miles as only a Mustang could.
It quickly became apparent, however, that Mustangs now were everywhere. The Mustang fad had grown so quickly our gold stallion was no longer unique. Folks no longer waved, beeped horns or gave the thumbs up.
The nation had changed, too. Many new interstates were nearing completion and bypassed the old two-lane blacktops. We seldom could stop and enjoy little villages and towns. Instead, we were greeted by a growing number of fast-food restaurants. Where were the $6-night motels? All we could find were fancy chains that charged $25/night and more…and didn’t offer “Magic Finger” massages.
The South’s scenery was still pretty but monotonous as we catapulted along wide highways at 70 miles-per-hour. Where were the trees covered with Spanish moss? I missed the Burma Shave and Stuckey signs. And why didn’t more restaurants sell pralines?
The long drive back to New Jersey was over before it started. We shaved off half a day’s drive compared to the VW journey the previous summer. It was a relaxing trip. But it was boring.
Perhaps the song’s lyrics were right: “Mustang Sally…guess you better slow that Mustang down.”