Ford didn’t have to call its new electrified Mach-E SUV a Mustang, but it did, and the world is a little sadder place because of it.
I initially sat down to write this in a blind rage, furious at the gall of the Ford Motor Company to call its new electric SUV a Mustang and inspired by the roaring V-8 of a late-model pony car spinning donuts in a nearby snow-covered parking lot. Such is the heresy of the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E. Our cultural evolution, however, is nothing if not good at twisting historical perspectives into knots.
It’s easy to feel slighted by Ford’s decision. To every gearhead with at least some respect for the Mustang’s rowdy everyday performance, the sight of a galloping pony badge on a near-silent mall shuttle is cringeworthy. As a Detroiter, the thought of seeing a Mach-E pull to a stop next to a 1969 Boss 302 on Woodward Avenue is an affront to everything pure and dear. To those who care, it just hurts. What exactly are we supposed to make of the Mach-E’s “sounds tuned for an authentic all-electric experience,” which Ford touts in the EV’s press release?
That’s not to say that the Mach-E shouldn’t exist. Electric utility vehicles are a modern market reality. The Mach-E’s stats and figures are rather impressive. And it looks halfway decent for how shamelessly its designers raided the Mustang’s styling portfolio. If we insist on clinging to history the way a child does a blankie, we also must acknowledge that Ford has been stewing on the idea of a broader Mustang lineup since the car’s inception. There were even prototypes built of the first-generation pony in both four-door and hatchback body styles.
“We do believe that the Mustang will be more things to more people than any other automobile in the world,” remarked Lee Iacocca, Ford’s then-vice president and general manager, at the original Mustang’s debut at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. He was a helluva salesman, and the pitch was that the Mustang could serve as either an economy car, a luxury grand tourer, or a performance machine, depending on how you configured it.
Still, that was just marketing. The Mustang’s soul was forged not in a Ford boardroom but over its 55-year-long smoky burnout across the automotive landscape. An electric Mustang is a tough pill to swallow even when you’re not being punched in the gut. A quiet, practical crossover powered by electrons is the very antithesis of what the Mustang has become, and calling the Mach-E a Mustang stings of corporate hubris and the pillaging of history. It’s enough to make even the new Chevy Blazer blush.
It didn’t have to come to this. Mustang-inspired would have been enough for the Mach-E, which already steals, to pretty good effect, part of its name from one of the Mustang’s most iconic variants, the Mach 1. Sure, the manner in which it wears pony-car design cues is a bit overwrought, but the connection works. At least when Porsche introduced its first SUV, the Cayenne, it had the decency not to call it a 911 derivative. That discretion surely helps the Cayenne’s sales figures, the profits of which continue to fatten Stuttgart’s engineering budget and fund the development of some of the best sports cars in the world.
Perhaps a similar future awaits the Mach-E and its Mustang stepsiblings. But the transition would have been far easier had Ford warmed the faithful up to the concept before losing the plot entirely. An electrified production version of the conventional Mustang—not just some SEMA plaything—may have been a good icebreaker, or, even better, a sleek four-door model of any propulsion type. There’s little reason to think that Ford, with its vast F-series truck fortune, cannot leverage the Mustang to build a better Tesla Model 3, one with real style that embodies the three tenets laid down by Iacocca all those years ago.
As it is, Ford cut straight to leading a mule into the stable and expects us to call it a horse. Which is rather surprising for a company that, given the retro curves of the current pony car, two generations of GT supercars, and what we’ve seen of the upcoming Bronco, has a pretty strong handle on the meaningfulness of its history.
Maybe I’m just in shock. Maybe the people who might actually think of the Mach-E as a Mustang are the very customers that this American icon needs to survive an increasingly disruptive future. Modern society is, after all, quite content with the sullying of the past for the sake of supposed technological advancement. Have you seen Disney’s live-action remake of The Lion King?
But that doesn’t make the reality of the Mach-E any less unfortunate. I’m not mad, Ford, just very disappointed.