Over­seas fans boost the 50-year-old icon to No. 1 sports car de­spite lower U.S. sales

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Dee-ann Durbin

DETROIT» On any given day this sum­mer, you might find 97-year-old Len­nart Rib­ring driv­ing his 2016 Ford Mustang GT on a wind­ing road near his home in Swe­den. Or you might see Chris Fitz­patrick pol­ish­ing his 1967 Mustang con­vert­ible in Auck­land, New Zealand. Guo Xin might be work­ing on a Mustang in his car re­pair shop in Bei­jing, while in Eng­land, a happy bride and groom drive off in a Mustang GT Cal­i­for­nia Spe­cial.

More than 50 years af­ter it was in­tro­duced, the world re­mains cap­ti­vated by the Mustang. Ford will ship the quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can car to 140 coun­tries in 2017.

“It has a mass ap­peal,” says John Heit­mann, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Day­ton and the au­thor of “The Au­to­mo­bile and Amer­i­can Life.” ”Cars, his­tor­i­cally, have been so closely tied to sta­tus and class, but the Mustang tran­scends so many dif­fer­ent class dis­tinc­tions.”

Ford’s growl­ing pony car be­came the best-sell­ing sports car in the world last year, with more than 150,000 sold, ac­cord­ing to IHS Markit. Mustang sales are slip­ping in the U.S., where over­all sales are soft- en­ing. U.S. Mustang sales fell 13 per­cent last year, and they’re down 29 per­cent so far this year.

But ris­ing sales else­where could help the Mustang re­tain the global crown.

Mustang sales were up 40 per­cent in the first half of this year in China, where Guo owns three of them, in­clud­ing a 2005 GT con­vert­ible.

The for­mer race car driver finds Mus­tangs tougher and more fun to drive than Euro­pean or Ja­panese sports cars. The Mustang beat out two sleeker Euro­pean ri­vals, the BMW 4 Se­ries and the Porsche 911, to be­come No. 1.

“I like what is sim­ple and rough in a Mustang,” says Guo, who leads the Mustang Club of China, with more than 3,000 mem­bers.

The car’s largest fan club, the Mustang Club of Amer­ica, has around 12,000 mem­bers. But there are hun­dreds of smaller ones. The Ice­landic Mustang Club boasts 200 mem­bers.

Fans have been im­port­ing in­di­vid­ual Detroit-built Mus­tangs for decades, but Ford re­cently put in the en­gi­neer­ing mus­cle to en­sure that the cars could be sold in deal­er­ships around in the world.

The sixth-gen­er­a­tion Mustang, re­leased in 2015, is the first that comes in right­hand and left-hand drive Its air con­di­tion­ing sys­tem was built to with­stand blow­ing sand in the Mid­dle East, while its front end con­forms to Euro­pean pedes­trian-safety reg­u­la­tions.

New mar­kets for the Mustang this year in­clude Brazil, Ivory Coast and Palau.

Ford’s global push makes the Mustang more ac­ces­si­ble to long­time fans like Fitz­patrick. When he was a teenager in New Zealand, Amer­i­can-made cars were ex­pen­sive sta­tus sym­bols. To him, Amer­i­can cars meant mus­cle. Euro­pean sports cars were smaller and less ag­gres­sive.

“I al­ways think of tour­ing and power when I think of Mustang,” says Fitz­patrick, who now owns two clas­sic Mus­tangs.

Heit­mann, the his­tory pro­fes­sor, says the Mustang is one of the few cars that is ap­peal­ing — and af­ford­able — to nearly ev­ery­one. A base model with a V6 en­gine starts at $25,000. Afi­ciona­dos will pay more than dou­ble that for a Shelby GT350 ver­sion with a V8. Heit­mann, 69, has owned two Mus­tangs in his life­time, and has his eye on the 2018 model.

“It’s demo­cratic. A work­ing-class per­son can drive this car to the plant, and a banker can drive it to the of­fice. You can’t do that with a Mercedes,” he says.

and movies — like the 1968 thriller “Bul­litt” — also ce­mented the Mustang as a global icon.

“If you ask prac­ti­cally any­one to name an Amer­i­can car, 90 per­cent of the time they will say ‘a Mustang,'” says Frazer Rhodes of Hal­i­fax, Eng­land.

Rhodes bought a 2005 GT Con­vert­ible for his 30th birth­day in 2008. Af­ter so many friends asked to use it for wed­dings, he founded a com­pany that rents Mus­tangs for nearly 250 wed­ver­sions. dings per year. Cou­ples — many of whom are head­ing to Las Vegas or Hawaii for their hon­ey­moons — want a car that’s cool, not the stuffy Rolls Royces their par­ents used, he says.

In the U.S., Mustang sales most re­cently spiked in 2015 when the new­est gen­er­a­tion was re­leased. They to­taled 122,349 that year, but have fallen ever since as that model ages, says Michelle Krebs, an ex­ec­u­tive an­a­lyst with Au­to­trader. Younger buy­ers are stretched fi­nan­tele­vi­sion cially and are less likely to splurge on a sports car, she said. And car buy­ing is in de­cline among Baby Boomers, who have long fu­eled sales of Detroit’s mus­cle cars.

But the Mustang will al­ways have its fans. Rib­ring, the 97-year-old Swede, has been smit­ten with the car’s de­sign and per­for­mance since 1964.

“Given that there was no speed limit in Swe­den dur­ing that time, there was only one op­tion: Buy!” he says.

Andy Wong, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Guo Xin sits on a toy Mustang as he poses with his 1966 MT GT Fast­back, left, and 2005 GT con­vert­ible at his garage in Bei­jing. Guo op­er­ates a garage in Bei­jing that re­pairs and re­fits Mus­tangs. He founded a club in 2011 for Mustang ad­mir­ers that has more than 3,000 mem­bers across China.

Jo­hannes Eisele, Afp/getty Im­ages

The new Ford Mustang is dis­played dur­ing the first day of the 17th Shang­hai In­ter­na­tional Au­to­mo­bile In­dus­try Ex­hi­bi­tion in April. The mus­cle car be­came the best­selling sports car in the world last year.

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