2003 Ford Mustang Mach 1 First Drive

2003 Ford Mustang Coupe

(4.6L V8 5-speed Manual)

Flashback Ford

It's been 33 years since the original Mach 1 Mustang hit the streets, but ask anyone who's ever seen one and they'll describe it as if it were sitting right in front of them. With its menacing shaker hood scoop (named so because it was mounted on the engine and therefore "shook" when the throttle was blipped), flat black body trim and optional 428 Cobra Jet V8, the original '69 Mach 1 was certainly a sight to behold and a competitor to be feared. Among the various Mustangs produced during the muscle car era of the late '60s and early '70s, the Mach 1 stood out from the rest -- and still does to this day.

For 2003, the Mach 1 is back again, this time as part of Ford's "Living Legends" lineup. The idea is simple: take some of the most memorable Ford vehicles of the past and recreate them for modern-day consumption. Maintain the style and performance that made each particular model a legend, but do it in a way that not only pays homage to the original but improves upon it as well.

Never having piloted an original Mach 1, our impressions of the new model don't have the added insight of direct comparison, but like most attempts to recreate the past, the modern version is probably dead-on in numerous ways and not even close in others. One look and it's obvious that there wasn't much stylistic license used when it came to the exterior. It's got the shaker hood scoop, the air dam and the black rear deck spoiler just like the original. The extended rocker panels are there, too, along with side scoops and all-new 17-inch wheels similar in style to the original mags used in '69. It doesn't have the awe-inspiring presence of the original but the modern demands of aerodynamics and fuel efficiency don't always allow for the proportions and size that made yesterday's street machines so visually dynamic.

The all-new engine could be accused of the same lack of character if it weren't for the fact that it generates nearly as much horsepower as the top-shelf 428 did in its day. The ultramodern dual-overhead cam V8 extracts a very respectable 305 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque from its comparatively small 281 cubic inches of displacement. Combine that with significantly better mileage and less maintenance and air conditioning and...well, you get the picture.

Credit for the extra 45 horsepower over the standard 4.6 can be attributed to high-flow four-valve heads, higher compression (10.1:1), specially calibrated camshafts and port-matched exhaust manifolds. A specially tuned stainless steel exhaust system finished off with chrome tips completes the upgrades. It sounds burly enough to wear "Mach 1" badges, but we would venture to guess that the original still holds a slight advantage in this area.

Anyone who's acclimated to the standard 4.6 in the GT will notice the Mach 1's extra juice immediately. Unlike the revisions in the Bullitt Mustang that resulted in barely discernable differences in power, the Mach's substantial improvements return results you can feel. The Mach 1 is also aided by a shorter 3.55:1 final drive ratio, so sub-14 second quarter-mile times shouldn't be much of a problem. The Mach uses the same five-speed manual transmission found in the Bullitt, although a standard four-speed automatic is offered as well.

Suspension upgrades for the live axle Mach are nearly identical to those used on the Bullitt. Higher-rate front and rear springs lower the car half an inch, while specially tuned Tokico gas-pressurized shocks provide the dampening. The front stabilizer bar is carried over from the GT (23mm) while the rear gets a solid 23mm bar in place of GT's hollow unit. The Mach 1 also uses the same brake system upgrades as the Bullitt with 13-inch Brembo rotors and calipers (painted black) up front and slightly larger rear rotors (11.6 inches) as well.

Not surprisingly, the Mach 1 performs much like the Bullitt, with a tighter, more stable feel in the corners and a slightly stiffer ride everywhere else. The beefier brakes are a welcomed improvement, but they're still not powerful enough for serious track duty as they faded considerably after repeated hot laps. Those gathered for our media preview drive recalled that the Bullitt seemed to feel more balanced on the track, but the Mach definitely has an edge when it comes to usable power.

Although we spent most of our time behind the wheel staring at the rumbling hood scoop, we did manage to take in some of the Mach 1's throwback styling cues. The black leather "comfortweave" seats look like respectable reproductions of the original trim (albeit with considerably more lateral support), while the retro gauges make for a clean-looking instrument cluster. An optional interior trim package includes gray accents for the instrument panel, center stack and shift bezel in addition to aluminum pedals and an aluminum shift ball and boot ring. The extra dose of shimmering trim brightens up the otherwise unremarkable interior, so if you're planning on buying one don't forget to mark this $300 option.

With only 6,500 Mach 1s scheduled for production, they're likely to fly off the lots as fast as they tear down the drag strip. While the modern version isn't exactly the street king that the original version was, it still has more than enough guts under the hood to rattle a few nerves and put a smile on your face. But then again, like so many other recreations of late-'60s legends, the new Mach is missing that aura of originality that can't be added like an options package. For those who experienced it firsthand, it will never be the same, but for those who only had the chance to admire the original Mach 1 from the pages of a magazine or a dealer brochure, this all-new "living legend" is a dream come true.

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