TRY AND THINK of the great­est car chase in a movie. The list of real con­tenders isn’t a par­tic­u­larly long one. There’s The French Con­nec­tion, with Gene Hack­man’s Pop­eye Doyle bar­rel­ing through Brook­lyn in a 1971 Pon­tiac Le­mans. Or Robert De Niro’s crim­i­nally over­looked Ronin, with its set-piece chase scenes star­ring sev­eral tons of Euro­pean metal. But there’s only one chase that re­ally mat­ters: Steve Mc­queen, play­ing a cop named Frank Bul­litt, driv­ing a Dark High­land Green 1968 Mus­tang Fast­back GT 390 at blis­ter­ing speeds, with pre­cious lit­tle con­cern for traf­fic reg­u­la­tions, bash­ing it over San Fran­cisco’s hills and screech­ing around cor­ners in hot pur­suit of a cou­ple bad guys in a black Dodge Charger.

Hol­ly­wood can squeeze out Fast & Fu­ri­ous se­quels un­til oil falls to $20 a bar­rel, and 1968’s Bul­litt will re­main the defin­ing mo­ment for cars in cin­ema. Mc­queen is still the spirit an­i­mal for Cool Amer­i­can Guys. And the Mus­tang is the most rec­og­niz­able au­to­mo­tive sil­hou­ette that ever rolled off a De­troit assem­bly line. It’s the orig­i­nal pony car, a totem of man­hood, of mus­taches and denim jeans. It’s the metal em­bod­i­ment of every teenager cruis­ing every strip in every Amer­i­can town on every Satur­day night. It was in a Mus­tang, back in the day, that every guy fum­bled with his girl­friend’s bra clasp for the first time. It’s that kind of car. As much mythol­ogy as mode of trans­port.

Now the Mus­tang is mark­ing its 50th an­niver­sary, and the sixth-gen ver­sion has been re­born in a way that its home­town—de­troit, with its crum­bling streets, aban­doned homes, and be­lea­guered cit­i­zenry—has not. The new car isn’t just a re­fresh of the old Mus­tang. It’s a new plat­form, a new en­gine, a ma­cho new look that tries just hard enough to im­press. It’s ev­ery­thing that is right about the car in­dus­try to­day.

Boomers and Jersey boys will rec­og­nize the ba­sic shape. But where re­cent Mus­tangs have looked like shop-class doo­dles, the six­th­gen­er­a­tion model shows real de­sign chops. This fast­back ’Stang is hand­some and stream­lined. Un­der that taut skin is a mus­cled, mod­ern­ized per­former, which comes in a 435-horse­power GT ver­sion, as well as a more mod­estly priced 3.7-liter V-6. Mus­tang tra­di­tion is fur­ther up­ended

with—fi­nally—a gen­uine in­de­pen­dent rear sus­pen­sion, re­plac­ing the troglodyte solid axle. The GT ver­sion brings V-8 thun­der, start­ing at $32,925, though the op­tion-rich spec­i­men reaches $44,980. That seems a lot for a Mus­tang GT. Yet tested against the Chevy Ca­maro and Dodge Chal­lenger, in­clud­ing track laps on a Michi­gan road course, the Ford proves more nim­ble and oblig­ing than its pony-car ri­vals. With its malt-smooth 5.0-liter V-8, the GT flies to 60 mph in 4.5 sec­onds.

The Mus­tang wasn’t al­ways this solid a ride. When Ford missed the mark, it missed by such a wide mar­gin that the car has taken decades to re­cover. We don’t like to dwell on the flabby ’71 Mus­tang, with leaden per­for­mance and a lack­lus­ter 210-horse­power V-8. And for­get the ter­ri­ble Mus­tang II, a car hated by any­one who’s ever felt any af­fec­tion for cars. The II was Ford’s re­sponse to new govern­ment ef­fi­ciency stan­dards and a chang­ing demo (the baby boomers were turn­ing to tiny new im­ports from Ja­pan, like Honda, Toy­ota, and Dat­sun). Ford snipped the co­jones off the Mus­tang and in­stead dropped a new skin onto the no­to­ri­ously un­safe sub­com­pact Pinto, which had a knack for ex­plod­ing when hit from be­hind. Barely there UAW work­ers slapped it to­gether us­ing bar­gain-bin parts on a line that moved too fast. We can laugh now, but the pain is real.

It’s been a long climb back for the car, but the Mus­tang ideal—that ’68, seared on our brains—never re­ally faded. The car re­mained a movie star, with lead­ing roles in Goldfin­ger, Di­a­monds Are For­ever, Gone in 60 Sec­onds (the 1974 ver­sion), Bull Durham, and Clint’s True Crime. The im­pact of the orig­i­nal car was so pow­er­ful that noth­ing could dent it.

DE­TROIT, ON THE OTHER HAND, is a city that knew great­ness and pissed it away. In post­war Mo­tor City, life was sim­ple. The rules, forged in steel, never changed. Work hard, pay your (union) dues, and you were set for life. A thriv­ing me­trop­o­lis of nearly 2 mil­lion bluecol­lar guys in pom­padours toiled around the clock, backed by a sky’s-the-limit ’60s Mo­town sound­track. Amer­i­can cars and their cre­ators were just as up­beat. Un­veiled at New York’s World’s Fair in 1964, the Mus­tang sparked a Bea­tles-size sen­sa­tion, sell­ing 22,000 on its

open­ing day, and nearly 560,000 in its first full year on the mar­ket.

Around the same time Bul­litt hit the­aters, De­troit be­gan to run off the road. Af­ter the deadly ri­ots of ’67, the city went into a tail­spin. The oil cri­sis made Ja­panese cars more at­trac­tive. A boom-and-bust au­tomak­ing cy­cle con­tin­ues to this day, with even the cur­rent post-re­ces­sion up­turn mask­ing a dis­tress­ing re­al­ity: Af­ter the in­dus­try’s mass ex­o­dus to for­eign out­posts and nonunion South­ern states, it will never cre­ate enough home­grown fac­tory jobs to res­cue De­troit on its own.

De­troit to­day is a soul-crush­ing waste­land. Nearly 80,000 houses, 30 per­cent of the city’s to­tal, are be­yond re­pair. More than 114,000 parcels are empty. A city task force fig­ures it would take ap­prox­i­mately $420 mil­lion just to tear down every crum­bling home and busi­ness—this in a post-bank­ruptcy town that con­sid­ered hock­ing the trea­sures of the De­troit In­sti­tute of Arts to cover $18 bil­lion in debts.

The me­dia is fas­ci­nated with this ruin porn. As an ex-de­troi­ter and assem­bly line worker, I can never de­cide which an­gle feels the most hurt­ful and phony: the barely con­cealed schaden­freude, the Fox News–fu­eled in­sin­u­a­tion that this Rust Belt city some­how de­serves its fate, or the breath­less search for a new cof­fee­house or hy­dro­ponic ar­ti­choke farm to prove the city will be­come the next Brook­lyn—hip, safe, and gen­tri­fied. Nei­ther image is true, but hav­ing shrunk in pop­u­la­tion from 1.85 mil­lion in the ’50s to less than 700,000 to­day, De­troit has fi­nally be­gun raz­ing woe­be­gone houses in earnest, with a plan that looks ahead to green spa­ces and safe, liv­able neigh­bor­hoods.

When Bul­litt was filmed in 1968, San Fran­cisco didn’t re­al­ize it was about to em­bark upon a 10-year night­mare of its own—street ri­ots, the as­sas­si­na­tions of Mayor Ge­orge Moscone and pi­o­neer­ing city su­per­vi­sor Har­vey Milk—or a seem­ingly never-end­ing pe­riod of blight. To­day, San Fran­cisco is the tech epi­cen­ter and home to some of the most prized real es­tate in the world. De­troit has a tougher climb back. A new car won’t do much to change that, ex­cept to re­mind us that the city’s best days may still lie ahead, if miles down the road. ■

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