When the current Ford Mustang turned up in the UK in 2015, it arrived with a bit of a fanfare. For this was the first time the pony car had been officially offered for sale over here and the first time it had been available in right-hand drive. But - for the keenest driving enthusiasts at least - more importantly than any of that, it was fitted with fully independent rear suspension, rather than a great big girder running between the two rear wheels.
It meant, we were told, that the Mustang would finally ride and handle with the sophistication of a European sports coupe. But when I drove a V8-powered GT model for the first time on scrappy Northamptonshire back roads, even this more sophisticated Mustang appeared to drive more like a boat than anything BMW M or Mercedes-AMG might produce. It was woolly, heavy, enormous and sloppy, and it steered with the response and precision of a canal barge.
Still, you couldn't fault its character or the sheer joy of that pounding naturally aspirated V8. The car had charm. It would be another four years before I actually had a properly good time driving a Mustang. My expectations on the floor, I fired up the Mustang Bullitt's 460hp eight-pot lump, selected first with the pleasingly mechanical manual gearlever, pulled away and immediately knew it was different.
Yes, I'd read about the GT Performance Package and its completely retuned springs, dampers and anti-roll bars. I knew about the revised steering and the Brembo brakes, but I was still expecting an unmistakable muscle car driving experience - power, noise, body roll, imprecise steering and all.
But instead, the Bullitt steered with precision. It scarcely rolled in corners. Despite its 1,800kg mass it felt keenly controlled when the road began to kick up and down, and it even dealt with bumpy surfaces with real composure. Most of all, I could feel what was going on beneath me. Rather than being entirely disconnected from the four corners of the car, I could intuit how much grip there was to lean on and sense how the car's balance was shifting.
In no time at all, I was driving that Mustang the way I would a sports car two-thirds its size and weight, threading it along a road with confidence, feeling fully wrapped up in the process of driving. Of course, the thumping V8 that I'd so enjoyed in that earlier Mustang was still doing its irresistible Detroit thing, hammering away beneath the bonnet like two iron mongers working at a glowing shard of steel on an anvil. Except here it was more powerful still: the character and the sense of fun you only get with a muscle car, but some real poise to go with it.
The Mustang Bullitt was one of the most surprising cars I drove that year. Perhaps ever, in fact. As I say in the video, I don't think it ever got the credit it deserved. I suspect it got overlooked as a pure marketing ploy, all those Bullitt badges and the retro wheels and the dark green paint and the white cue ball gearknob just like Frank Bullitt's making it seem like little more than a gaudy cashing-in exercise.
I was relieved to drive another earlier this month and find that I hadn't been far too generous three years ago. If the usual German and British coupes just don't do it for you any longer, try a Bullitt. It's got a manual 'box, a whacking great unassisted V8 and it handles and steers brilliantly.
So there is a properly good driver's car lurking within the Mustang. But what happens when you take that principle and turn it right the way up? And then supercharge it? I suppose you would end up with something like the Mustang Shelby GT500, the fastest and most powerful road-going Mustang the Blue Oval has ever produced. With a 2.65-litre Roots-type supercharger sitting atop the 5.2-litre V8, it has 760hp with which to attack its rear tyres. There's a seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox, too. You can't have a manual.
Curiously the GT500 has the pre-facelift Mustang headlights, though you're not likely to spot that right away given how far out the front splitter juts, how hungrily that grille spreads across the car's face and how prominent the rear spoiler is. And then there's the paint job with those stripes... Fire the thing up and even if you choose the exhaust's quiet mode, you'll cause windows to rattle for miles around. This isn't the sort of car you slip unseen through town in.
I have driven plenty of US and Aussie big-power muscle cars over the years, wondering where all the claimed power had gone. Things like VXR8s never quite felt as urgent in a straight line I'd expected, perhaps because they were geared so long. This GT500 is the first to really deliver on the promise of its eye-widening horsepower figure. The throttle pedal has a very long travel, which is just as well. Dig into its arc just a little and the car launches forwards, the prow rising as it reels in the horizon.
And it just keeps on pulling, well beyond 7,000rpm and well beyond the point at which all good sense and any self preservation instinct you might have tell you to lift off. Perhaps it's the noise that makes backing out such an onerous thing to do. You just want to keep your foot in so that the cacophonous roar from those vast exhaust pipes, that percussive boom that causes the earth around you to shudder, doesn't ever stop.
Goodness me, it's addictive. The gearbox works pretty faultlessly too, while through the steering and at all four corners you detect the same deft response and pin-sharp control that made the Bullitt so unexpectedly rewarding to drive. Amazingly enough, this 760hp muscle car is so much more than a one-dimensional point and squirt device. It really is engaging to drive along a flowing road, too.
But you can't have one in the UK. At least, not officially. There are several in the PH classifieds, all with six-figure price tags. But I wouldn't suggest you sink you hard earned into a GT500. You'd be better off with a Bullitt at half the price, because it's so much subtler, its performance is more usable on the road, you'll be sitting on the correct side of the car and, perhaps best of all, you'll get to change gear yourself.
Image credit | Harry Rudd
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