Photography: Vishnu G Haarinath
This story begins where the last one ended. If you remember, Ford disabled line lock during the press drives of the Mustang. We had to strike back. So I built a healthy lead on the support car Ford had sent for our drive from Chennai to Hyderabad and when I was sure there was no one from the Blue Oval in sight of this beaming red Mustang, I quickly went through the steering controls to engage line lock, burn some rubber, do the right thing. But guess what, the same party poopers had kept it disengaged. That’s when we found a newly built and abandoned octroi post, wide enough for six lanes of trucks and certainly wide enough for a few donuts. You can see what happened next. The child in me is at peace now.
Back on the highway
The engine is burbling at a steady pace, a long and straight dual carriageway takes me into the sunset, and the exhaust note is breaking into a hymn that’s rare in this part of the world. It’s rarer still that I’m not driving something turbocharged, and it’s rarest that the American muscle at my helm feels completely at home in southern India. I’ve never felt so exotic, so far away from our headquarters in Pune where fast and expensive cars make weekly visits. The beauty of it is that the Mustang isn’t exotic by price, luxury or technology, yet every minute with it seems to feel special. “Is that a Ferrari, or a Nissan GTS (yeah the guy meant GT-R), or maybe Jaguar?” No, it’s a god damn Mustang! The Indian education system needs to add a chapter on the Mustang in the syllabus. How can they not know it is a Mustang, and why aren’t petrolheads being bred in schools? Alright square roots do take time to learn and the focus is on getting a job, but what’s the harm in teaching kids to dream? Show them the love for cars, the joy of the open road, and take them on a road trip! Because if a road trip ever needed a symbol, it would be the silhouette of a Mustang. It’s the car that has made enthusiasts out of travellers, and built a temple around the good ol’ American V8.
As the crowds of Chennai vanish from the rear view mirrors on the Mustang, I come to grips with how hot the Mustang really is in this part of the world, and am welcomed by the cool easy-going attitude of the muscle car. Every time we drive a car with such a big engine and 400 horsepower, we feel that we’d be doing a disservice to it by going easy on the gas. With every stretch of open road, going pedal to the metal is the only logical reaction. But not with the Mustang. It embraces the whole cruising attitude with as much comfort as a tacho needle hovering at 6000rpm. This duality tugs at a petrolhead’s heartstrings. There’s a light burble at 2000rpm and you can cruise all day as the ambient noise of its V8 feeds the senses with the Mustang’s latent enthusiasm. At highway speeds, driving in sixth, I decide I need to hurry to the next toll booth, so I step on the accelerator. It takes a couple of seconds to drop a few cogs (yes the gearbox is not the quickest), the muscle on the bonnet rises as the rear squats, and a wave of torque is followed by 396 horses. The Mustang takes me past Nellore.
We’ve got the pony for two days with a flight scheduled out of Hyderabad the next evening, so we decide to stop over for the night at Guntur. Guntur is about 415km from Chennai and should take not more than seven hours, but numerous stops for photography and filming slow our progress. The highways are otherwise smooth and traffic sparse. It has a fairly decent ground clearance of 137mm so compared to other sportscars, it’s not as difficult to drive on our roads. The nose clears easily, but its long wheelbase makes the underbelly kiss the higher speed humps if you don’t side-scramble over them. The suspension is on the softer side, which is good for a grand tourer, but you’ve got to brake before a pothole or a speed breaker and not on it otherwise the compressed dampers will reduce clearance even more. It’s not as cumbersome as I am making it out to be though. You drive a Mustang as you would any other regular car, and sometimes the mind gets carried away. It’s not as expensive, even as a CBU, so that fear of driving something delicate goes out of the window. Plus it’s a muscle car. It’s a little crude in the head like all blokes walking out of a gym, and you’ve got to treat it like one. I like that.
Oh lord, it’s pungent!
The drive is shaping up to be a proper road trip with a few snack halts, a few tank ups, plenty of tolls and a fair bit of night driving. We reach Guntur past midnight but are looking forward to the coming morning. If there’s one thing the city is famous for, it’s the production and sale of chillies. Vishnu couldn’t wait to shoot the Mustang here. In his heavy Tamilian accent, he would keep looking at the Mustang and say “It’s so hot, anna.” Maybe a trip to the chilli market would shut him up for good. So at 7 am, we drive the red Mustang over a weighbridge in to the market and we are astonished by the sheer size of the place. I wouldn’t be able to give a football field count for it but we were told that 40,000 gunny sacks of chillies leave the market every day. That’s 10 lakh kilos of chillies a day. Can you imagine the amount of spice around us?
In one of the yards, we decide it would be a nice place to take some photographs so Vishnu gets the bright idea of flinging a fistful of chillies in the foreground. It doesn’t work but kicks up quite a bit of the spice in the air and it’s unbearable. You begin to sneeze like you’ve caught an allergy and if you make the mistake of rubbing your eyes, that’s the end of the drive. Thankfully it doesn’t last long and we are out of the place before the morning trade commences.
Dash to the airport
It’s no more than a six hour drive to Hyderabad from Guntur so we take it easy. After a visit to the chilli market, we freshen up at our hotel, have a lazy breakfast and drive out of town around noon. The narrow state highway getting out of Guntur gives an idea of the Mustang’s comfort because it doesn’t feel too huge for these roads, the seats are large and comfortable, and if you want your friend to sit in the back seats, considering it’s a two-door car, the space isn’t too bad to sour your friendship. We’ve got all our bags and photography equipment in the boot, yet there is space for more. It is a very practical car. Ford hasn’t made it difficult to live with in any way, none of the hard sporting seats, low seating position or low profile tyres that would make a car impossible to live with on Indian roads. Even the suspension is soft enough to cushion the bumps without feeling too loose. If there is one thing, the interior feels a little cheap, but I can look past that as we redline through the next gear and the dials glow to a bright red as I upshift.
By the time we have built up a steady pace, we spot a large plot of land with more chillies left to dry in the sun. Another photo op then. It takes a while to cross into Telangana from Andhra Pradesh, the third state we would be driving through with the Mustang. The airport is just an hour and a half away as the sun sets on us but the traffic thickens. I switch the steering to its Comfort mode and the drive to Sport. The weight of the steering wheel in Sport is a bit too heavy for driving in traffic and the throttle is a bit too lazy in normal. This combination works well as we make our way to the outer ring road that leads to the airport. If you have been on this road, you’ll know that it is a perfect finish for a drive in a fastback like the Mustang. It’s wide, has very little traffic and it turns in so marginally, it feels straight at the wheel. In the pitch dark of the night, there aren’t any street lights, but the moon lights up the muscular lines on the bonnet and one last time I step on the gas. The front lifts as the rear squats and the long bonnet eats up my view of the road ahead. Long bonnets really need to be mandatory on every car. The joy of the long nose of a rear-wheel drive car lifting up under full throttle is best experienced than explained.
The romance of driving the Mustang comes from the love it has received since the Sixties. It’s a pop culture hero in the USA, but its global appeal is hard to fathom. Especially in countries where cars are driven on the correct side of the road since it has always been a left hand drive car. For those out of the USA, its huge following probably comes from the king of cool, Steve McQueen piloting it in Bullitt. The chase sequence wrote the Mustang in to the history books and in the bucket list of every petrolhead. It sure did in my list, and as we handed over the keys of the ’Stang at Hyderabad airport, I ticked one off my list. The Mustang felt right as we cruised, as it did with my right foot mashed in the firewall. It’s cool and hot in equal measure, something you can’t quantify on a Scoville scale.