What's Your Hurry?
I imagine that I’m similar to many people in that I don’t like it when my preconceived opinions about a topic are proven inaccurate. I like admitting that my opinion about a topic has been proven wrong even less. But sometimes that’s what happens when you judge a book by its cover, as was the case with a 1965 Mustang I had a little seat time in last year.
The car was a white coupe, with a red interior and zero options. It was sporting Ford’s 200 cubic inch “Thriftpower” straight-six mated to a three-speed manual transmission. So frugal, apparently, was the original owner of this car that they couldn’t bring themselves to spend an extra $114 and spring for the 4 speed? The only positive thing I could think at the time was “well, at least it’s not an automatic”.
While I really like early Mustangs, there were only certain flavors of these cars I believed I would enjoy. For a long time, there was no room on that list for six-cylinder versions. So when I was first contacted by a European client about inspecting this car for him, I kept my opinions to myself. Truth be told, I was slightly unenthused about going to see it.
Before working with this client, I’d driven probably a hundred different first-gen Mustangs over the past several years. Coupes, fastbacks, convertibles, everything from basic C-codes to GT K-codes to Shelby GT350s and 500s. One thing all these cars had in common was V8 power under the hood. I can admit that I’m guilty of mostly ignoring almost any six-cylinder-powered Mustang I see at car shows. Of the many I’ve seen, there are maybe a handful I can recall, cars restored to such a stunning standard that you’re compelled to appreciate the effort, even while privately believing the lump sitting in the engine bay would be more useful to the owner as a boat anchor.
I have come to learn that this uninformed opinion is not entirely fair. Aside from the inherent inefficiencies of the intake manifold design, Ford’s 200 six is not a bad little engine. The very earliest U-code Mustangs were equipped with a 170 cubic inch six, but the 200, first available in the Mustang in the fall of ‘64 and known as the T-code, is an undeniably better engine. The bottom end, with seven main bearings compared to four mains in the 170, is particularly robust. In 1965, a Mustang with a Thriftpower 200 was advertised as making an underwhelming (my word, not Ford’s) 120 horsepower, and 190 lb-ft of torque at 2,400 RPM. That’s about 90 lb-ft less than a 1965 C-code, Ford’s least powerful V8 offering that year in the Mustang. You won’t find it surprising that you can feel the power disparity between the six and eight-cylinder cars in the seat of your pants when you drive. However, what you might find surprising is this- for all the horsepower and torque the 200 lacks compared to the 289, the six can still be a pleasure to drive.
I really should have known better, because outside of the Mustang I’ve always enjoyed inline six-cylinder engines. I like their smoothness and tendency for useful torque down low in the rev band. With the right exhaust, I like their distinct sound. If you’ve ever listened to a good inline-six at full song, you know they sound nothing like any V8 you’ve ever heard. I don’t necessarily find one sound more pleasing than the other, just different.
I had the car out for a 20-mile drive before returning to the dealer with an unexpected sense of reluctance. While I had envisioned a miserable, wheezing engine struggling to keep me entertained, what I actually found was a willing little mill, capable of putting an unexpected smile on my face while managing to keep up with modern traffic. It didn’t really drive like any early V8-powered Mustang I’d ever driven. In the T-code, the engine, transmission, and rear end all weigh less than a comparable V8 car. With these weight savings, the car feels lighter and maybe a little better balanced. It was the first time I’d ever driven any Mustang where I actually uttered the words “this thing almost feels European” during the drive. Also a surprise, rowing through the light-duty three-speed gearbox didn’t bother me a bit, although I’d like to have the first gear synchro that was standard on the V8 gearboxes. If anything, the featherweight Toploader enabled me to enjoy feeling that little six torque its way through fewer gears. You have to pay attention to keep the motor in the heart of the “power” band to get the most out of it. At anything north of around 4,000 RPM the torque falls off quickly and the engine starts to feel like it’s tripping over shoelaces, so you learn to shift before the feeling of forward persuasion is lost. Both the 3 and 4-speed gearboxes in these cars have the same 1:1 final output, so I didn’t really lose anything cruising down the road at 65 or so, where the 3.20:1 rear end felt reasonably relaxed.
I won’t begin to defend the car as fast. It’s not. When Car Life magazine tested a Thriftpower 200 coupe with a Cruise-O-Matic in 1965, 0-60 was clocked in 15 seconds flat. Manual transmission variants may be a little quicker, but let's not be under any illusion here. If Lieutenant Bullitt had been chasing those fellas in the black Charger in a '68 Highland Green fastback with a straight-six, that pursuit is over before it begins.
However, Car Life’s review and my own impressions of the car are similar, as they too believed the car had several traits that would have made it popular in the European market. They wrote, “If Ford Motor Company had the foresight to build the Mustang in Europe, with its new-for-1965 200-cu. inline-six, the car would have been hailed by automotive enthusiasts everywhere as an example of exceptional engineering and, perhaps, even as A Real Sports Car.”
It makes sense that the junior Mustang reminded me of a few of my favorite six-cylinder-powered European cars. Turns out that while it may be down a bit on horsepower, the base six Mustang makes more torque and has a similar curb weight when compared to a few of my favorite small European sports cars of the era.
I finally had a chance to drive a MGC GT last year. I’ve driven plenty of MGBs and have a lifelong appreciation for their simplicity and smile factor when behind the wheel. Driving the inline-six powered version of MG’s venerable sports coupe proved just as enjoyable, with what I considered an oversized and under-stressed engine for the chassis, making all the right noises. The six-cylinder-powered MG is not fast by modern standards, but nevertheless, I was entertained. Compared to the Mustang, the inline-six in that little GT makes about 25 more horsepower, but 20 lb-ft less torque. While the base Mustang is slightly heavier, their curb weights are within 100 pounds of each other.
In another noteworthy comparison of one of my favorite British roadsters of the era, the Austin Healey 3000 MkII, its engine makes 16 more horsepower but 23 fewer lb-ft of torque than the ‘65 I drove. Again, their curb weights are within 100 pounds of each other, with the nod going to slightly lighter Healey.
I’m on a roll here, so hear me out. Out of the box, the engine in my old Triumph TR6 only made 104 horsepower and 143 lb-ft of torque, although the TR does weigh in around 175 pounds less.
It's no wonder the Mustang felt European. By the numbers, it keeps pretty good company as far as I’m concerned. I don’t hear most enthusiasts jeering at these lovely Brits, and I never turn down opportunities to drive any of them myself.
No one would consider a ‘65 Mustang as a suitable alternative for a big Healey, and I’m certain that people shopping for the 3000 MkII of their dreams aren’t shopping for a six-cylinder ‘65 Mustang as an alternative. However, the Mustang has a few things to offer that the Healey does not. Better weather protection, a usable trunk, and real seating for four people, as opposed to the pretend jump seats in the 2+2 BT7 Healeys to name a few. They’re two very different cars, sure, but the same people who romanticize how wonderful a big Healey is (and they’re right) may well regard an early six-cylinder Mustang as a distant black sheep, cast aside with disdain at Ford family reunions, trying to find their place in an otherwise respectable family.
While I concede that I was pleasantly surprised with the Ford, not everything about that six-cylinder Pony car was pure bliss. If I had to complain, the suspension is only adequate. Ford cheaped out on the suspension for the six-cylinder cars, with lighter duty springs, dinky 4 lug spindles, smaller 13” wheels, and a lighter 7 ¼” rear end. The unremarkable suspension didn’t really detract from my driving experience though, and I suppose the lighter springs and slightly reduced unsprung weight may help give the chassis that slight European feel I experienced. Also, as long as I’m grousing, the six had tiny unassisted four-wheel drums that felt a little wooden, but probably not any worse than other cars rolling around on drums from the era. The car stopped sufficiently when I needed it to, so maybe the brakes aren’t remarkable, but they’re at least adequate.
My client asked what opinions I’d formed about the engine during the drive, and I shrugged the shoulder not holding the phone to my ear, and said “Well, what’s your hurry?” I explained that the car ran well, and cruised down the road nicely, but cautioned “if your ego is linked to how fast your car is, this may not be the engine you want in a Mustang, but if you just want to cruise and enjoy the scenery, it’s a nice car". I also reminded him that a six-cylinder Mustang and a Porsche 356C share nearly identical quarter-mile times, right around 19 seconds. While I consider that slow, every time I see a 356 driver they seem to have big smiles on their faces, despite their cars being no faster down a drag strip than a simple base Mustang.
Now if I were looking for a fast Mustang, something with a big 4 barrel carburetor, a pair of exhaust headers, and a four-speed gearbox to bang through, then a stock six-cylinder with a three-speed will never do. That said, I really saw the six-cylinder in a new light. What if I was just looking for a nice family cruiser or parade car. Something I could drive to a weekly cruise-in or just meander aimlessly around Michigan's two-lane country roads? Are the colors in the trees in late October a little more radiant for the driver of a Mustang with a Hi-Po K-Code rather than a T code? If my family climbs into our Mustang to drive into Plainwell for some ice cream, we might get there a little faster with a 289 and a 4 speed, but I imagine our ice cream will probably taste the same if we are propelled into town by two fewer cylinders while rowing through a 3 speed instead. There’s a real place for these six-cylinder Mustangs, and now that I’ve driven one, I know what those T-Code owners at car shows are smiling about. They have a secret. They paid a fraction of what others paid for comparable V8-powered Mustangs, yet they love and enjoy their cars just as much as the V8 crowd loves theirs, just maybe for different reasons. These cars are a reminder that no matter the flavor you prefer, Iacocca’s formula worked. While fun and fast can be synonymous, the same can sometimes be true of cars that are fun and slow, it just depends on what you want.
If I were in the market for an early Mustang, driving this six-cylinder would present something of a quandary. I love V8 Mustangs, but the question I posed to my client, “what’s your hurry?” resonated with me in ways that a 20-year-old version of myself driving flat out nearly everywhere I went would have been oblivious to. What was my hurry? We already own a V8-powered sports car, so would it be such a crime to forgo a 289 and just get a nice smooth six with a manual gearbox to cruise around in instead? Before driving one, it would have felt heretical to suggest that I could be content- happy even- with a six-cylinder Mustang, making a conscious choice to deny myself the thrust and noise that their powerful V8 siblings have to offer.
At the end of the day, I like this car. It was a surprise I didn’t see coming. It forced me to reflect a little, slow down, take more in, and enjoy the act of driving as its own reward. Not for the promise of raw noise and power under my right foot, or the mellow rumble of a V8 for others to admire as I go by, but for the simple sake of just driving. Maybe a slow car that’s still fun by design encourages us to ponder an important question we should occasionally ask ourselves. What’s your hurry?
John Hansen is an automotive writer and owner of Michigan Automotive Inspection Services, which provides professional pre-purchase inspection, consultation, and appraisal services for classic automobiles located throughout the United States. You can learn more at michiganais.com