The 2013 Ford Mustang GT was designed to look like the 1968 Mustang fastback. (Ford Motor Co. )
A decade ago, as Ford engineers prepared the next-generation Mustang, they stared down an inescapable truth: The best Mustangs were built in the 1960s.
So they set out to build a brand-new 1968 Mustang fastback, wrapping modern technology in retro sheet metal. That strategy carried its own risks, like asking the Rolling Stones to rerecord "Exile on Main Street."
It's clear now that it worked brilliantly, setting off an unlikely second coming of the muscle car era. In a familiar stampede, Chevrolet and Dodge — which scrambled in the '60s to make their own "pony cars" — followed Ford's lead again with refried versions of the original Camaro and Challenger.
Photos: Mustangs through the years
The 2013 Mustang GT we tested recently, a drag-strip beast that could smoke most anything from the '60s, may be among the last of the retro breed. With the Mustang's 50th anniversary approaching next year, the engineers in Dearborn, Mich., are again feverishly designing the next-generation Mustang. They face an even tougher challenge: How do you take a car into the future after you've taken it a half-century into the past?
However wonderful the next Mustang may be, it will be a shame to see this one pass into history, whence it came. The successful remake of the 1967-68 car represents a kind of redemption for dumb decisions Ford made when it abandoned the early Mustangs in the first place, leading to a series of putrid pony cars throughout the 1970s. (Note to Ford: DO NOT bring back the Mustang II.)
A week in the old-school cockpit of the latest GT confirms that its ride, handling and shifting are an upgrade over both ancient and recent Mustangs, which have always been a bit crude — endearingly so.
Ford has also pulled off a subtle but substantial evolution of its retro design. A mid-cycle refresh in 2010 added a sharpened belt line and a rear end pinched in on both sides. For 2013, Ford added a more prominent front grille and other tweaks. The updates somehow made the car look simultaneously less dated and more like the old car.
But only one option really matters on this car: the 302-cubic-inch, 5.0-liter V-8, a direct descendant of the first 302 small-block introduced in the 1968 Mustang, now with a ludicrous 420 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. The first retro Mustang GT, a 2005 model, was impressive enough with 300 horses. Piling on 120 more is like deep-frying bacon in pork fat.
With the optional six-speed manual, it's difficult to launch the GT without roasting enough rubber to set off neighborhood smoke alarms. Shifts into second gear provoke another loud bark from the rear tires. Pushing the 7,000-rpm redline in higher gears requires acres of open highway.
The car's least-expected quality is a near-optimal trade-off between aggressive handling and a comfortable ride, both of which came in handy on the twisty, pockmarked Pasadena Freeway.
The GT has its issues. All Mustangs do. Their point has never been perfection, but rather the proper ratio of performance to price. The car can be a handful to drive in town, and feels a tad too big and heavy. Its center console is awkwardly angled up toward the back seat, making manual shifting an elbow-bumping affair.
Proper flogging of the GT also exposes a drawback to the whole '60s motif. The retro thing extends to the tall, skinny numbers on the circular analog speedometer. They're cool but hard to read, especially in the split second you have to look down, past your white knuckles, as the horizon starts to blur.
The GT dispenses with zero to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds on its way to 12.7-second quarter mile, according to Motor Trend. If you want something just a hair faster, plunk down $190,000 on an Aston Martin DB9.
Our loaded test car came to $40,255, a bit high for the quintessential affordable fast car. But GTs start at $31,545, and the V-6 base model — with a more-than-respectable 305 horsepower — brings the price down to $22,995.
All this sets a high bar for the next-generation Mustang. If Ford has learned anything from history, it will take care to avoid repeating what happened after the 1960s, a textbook case of messing with success. The first Mustang, a 1965 model unveiled on April 17, 1964, at the New York World's Fair, lasted just two model years — even though Ford sold more than a million of the cars. Feeling competitive pressure from Chevy and Dodge, the automaker rushed out two more generations before 1970. They were larger, faster cars, but respectful of the original.
Then Ford drove the Mustang into a ditch. The stretched and bloated 1971 Mustang, stripped of its trademark side-panel scoops, was a misguided attempt to turn the pony car into a luxury coupe. By 1973, as new emissions standards and an oil crisis took hold, horsepower had plummeted to a measly 150 for the strongest available V-8, according to a history of the Mustang by auto information company Edmunds.com.