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story.lead_photo.caption The 2020 Ford Mustang. (Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Co.)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Though I'd aced driver's ed, I was a little nervous about taking my driving test in the family Pontiac Bonneville, with the mass, dimensions, and handling characteristics of a deep-sea fishing boat.

 

She never said anything, but I think Mom, who loved her Bonnie, was concerned, too. Somehow, every time I asked about taking it, the subject would change. How did she do that?

Enter big sister Gloria, who was teaching on the opposite side of the state. Eight years my senior, by the time I entered fourth grade, she was always off doing something cool and important. Somehow, she coaxed me into writing letters every week. Her replies included sweet annotations to my missives, showing me more fluent sentence structures, how to support my arguments, opportunities to use figurative language, sharper diction choices, and when to sit back and laugh at myself.

This was a continuation of a relationship that began when I was in the crib and she was a very smart second-grader.

It was Gloria who held me, talked to me, made me laugh, taught me to tie my shoes, ride a bike, catch a ball, read the Sunday comics before I started school, and to keep my head up through the agony of a rage-filled father and a family crumbling in slow motion.

She was at peace in front of a classroom. Always modest, she never displayed all the Teacher of the Year awards in the home she shared with her partner. As it turned out, I was to be the only child she raised.

To this day, she remains the best English teacher I ever saw, and that includes some amazing colleagues and the darned fine and beautiful blonde one I married.

Winter waxed into days warm enough for morning swims and afternoon runs on the beach a block from the little apartment Mom and I shared. One day, a letter arrived announcing that Gloria had decided that spring break in Daytona, just in time for her brother's 17th birthday, was the salve she needed before the academic year-end push.

"P.S., we'll knock out that driving test, you'll see."

After so many delays, my adolescent mind was dubious.

Then she drove up in a brand-new, 1967 Sauterne Gold Ford Mustang. The cool one, with a 289-c.i. (4.7L) 200-hp engine. My sister loved new cars. She bought one every three years. When she died, she left me a little insurance policy. Half of it went to Ford Credit to pay off her Town Car.

The next morning, we sat out on the porch, drank coffee, read the morning paper, and listened to the pounding waves. As much as we both loved to read, write, and engage in wordplay, my big sister and I often found comfort in silent company.

Finally, she broke the reverie.

"Let's go for a drive."

 

The joy of driving

So we did. We crawled the beachfront's crowded streets, worked through the throngs surging into the raceway and explored miles and miles of Florida backroads.

Introduced just two years earlier, the Mustang fit Lee Iacocca's vision of a sporty, youth-market car. "Pony cars," the segment is still called. I remember seeing one in a showroom. Nothing before had so captivated my attention. The nice man said Mom could trade the Bonnie for a Mustang straight-up.

Mom said no. She was there looking for a job.

Three feet shorter and a ton lighter than the Bonnie, and with reflexes unknown in the dull sedans used for driver's ed, Gloria's Mustang was, quick, nimble, and responsive. On the morning of my 17th birthday, I discovered that driving could be fun, that a machine could somehow, magically, respond to my commands.

"Open it up a little," she said. "Feel the power. See? You're still in control."

We might have covered 50 miles. Through it all, my sister was stoic. Her corrections to my driving were like those to my writing: few, gentle, on-point.

"You're an attentive driver," she said. "You know what you're doing."

Before lunch, I had my driver's license and I had driven on the beach at Daytona in a car that bikini-clad girls admired.

Mom eventually got over it.

 

An American sports car

Icon is so overused that it has lost its power to convey that something is an object of unyielding reverence, but it is properly used in this case. With a light and well-balanced chassis and rear-wheel drive, the Mustang is the quintessential American sports coupe (which means two doors and fixed-roof body style).

No vehicle in the modern era was received so well. Conceived by Iacocca as a sporty car for young buyers, the Mustang was an immediate hit, selling more than four million units from 1964 to 1968. Competitors quickly copied the formula and Mustang  never again reached that peak but it has remained in continuous production for 56 years

The sixth-generation, which hit the streets in 2015, has been the world's best-selling sports coupe every year of its existence.

Mustangs come in many flavors and for good reason. They are easy to adapt to multiple uses: drifting, road course, drag track, and everyday driving. A dozen variations are available, more if you count aftermarket specialists.

Ford's basic lineup includes  EcoBoost and GT models each with performance pack options, Mustang BULLITT, Mustang Shelby GT350, Shelby GT350R, plus Shelby GT500 with handling pack and carbon fiber track pack options.

EcoBoost models are a perfect representation of Iacocca's vision as affordable, fun-to-drive machines. The base model, starting at $26,670, is astonishingly powerful and nimble. My sister's Mustang probably sold for $2,600 in 1967, when a loaf of bread cost 22 cents or one-tenth what one costs today.

In the '60s, the base Mustang, with a 120-hp inline-six, was painfully slow.

The modern Mustang is a hoot from the get-go. Powered by Ford Performance's high-revving 2.3-liter turbo-four, the base engine cranks out 330 horsepower and 350 lb.-ft. of torque. That's enough to go from 0-60 in 5.5 seconds. The quarter-mile is done in 12.9 seconds at 100 mph. That's only a second less than GT and Bulitt versions powered by a 460-hp, 5.0-L V8.

What makes the modern Mustang work well is the attention Ford engineers have paid to chassis design, suspension and braking. Advanced stability control is standard on all models. The car simply hooks up well and has amazing stick at speed through acute radii.

Yes, we took it for a midnight spin on the Wamba run. Never has McKinney Bayou echoed with such a pleasing exhaust note. We got to the end and had to turn around and do it again.

At the same time, the Mustang's taut handling and precise steering make it a pleasure to drive out on the interstate or in daily traffic.

If Gloria and I could have projected ourselves half a century into the future, this is the Mustang we would have dreamed of driving.

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