Birthday Bash for a Noble Steed

updated 05/21/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

From the moment the very first one rolled off the assembly line in April 1964, it was clear there was something different about the Ford Mustang. In contrast to the stodgy behemoths of the era, the "ponycar," as it was quickly dubbed, had pure, racy lines. It sported a big, well-balanced engine and floor-mounted stick shift. The Mustang was fun to drive, fun to be seen in. People fell in love with the car.

And the love affair continues two decades later. Of the 121,538 Mustangs produced between April and October 1964 and base-priced at $2,368, Ford guesses several thousand are still galloping along the highways. In car-crazed California, there are more Mustangs of all years (647,000) than in any other state. Not even the poohbahs of Beverly Hills are immune to the Mustang mystique. In a town where Porsches, Rollses and BMWs elicit yawns, a vintage ponycar can still cause gawker's whiplash.

In fact, there's a sort of reverse snobbery about driving a beat-up old 'Stang in Hollywood. (Models from 1964 to '68 are the most desired.) Rent-A-Wreck founder Dave Schwartz has 126 Mustang convertibles, which are the rental cars of choice of Richard Gere, Alan Alda, Ringo Starr, Anthony Perkins and, aptly, "just about every member of the cast of The Big Chill." Schwartz himself prefers a '68 Buick Electra convertible. "I can't drive a Mustang these days," he complains. "They're much too chic."

Part of that soigné aura is certainly due to the 1968 detective movie Bullitt, starring the late Steve McQueen. In perhaps the most hair-raising car chase ever filmed, McQueen—doing all his own driving—ran a 1967 Mustang flat-out down the hills of San Francisco. After the shooting ended, two Mustangs were totaled and two had to be extensively rebuilt.

Jackie Cooper, the former child actor who's now a successful TV director, bought his '69 model for $6,000. The standard Mustang came with a 120-horsepower six-cylinder engine. Cooper's Mustang, specially modified by engineer and race car driver Carroll Shelby, has 500 horses under its hood. It can travel at 130 mph and gets an OPEC-be-damned 3 to 7 mpg. "When I first got it in October 1968, it had fake air ducts, racing stripes and was painted Ferrari red," remembers Cooper. "It practically shouted, 'Give me a ticket!' " So Cooper had a duct-ectomy performed. He removed the stripes and had the car repainted a sedate chocolate brown. He thinks the car now is worth more than $25,000.

It's a sellers' market and singer Debby Boone, proud owner of a '65 convertible, finds that "people follow me until I park and ask if they can buy my car." The answer is always no. Boone bought her car from J. Orion Brunk, owner of Beverly Hills Mustang. Since he started the company seven years ago, Brunk has restored and sold some 2,000 vehicles. To him, the appeal of the Mustang is, frankly, auto-erotic. "It's a fun, beautiful, sexy car," he says. "It makes the passengers feel happy and sexy."

Indeed, Brunk once put an ad in the Los Angeles Times titled "California Dreaming" that read: "The sun is setting. The top is down. Palm trees flowing by. You're heading toward Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway. Vivaldi is on the radio and your favorite girl is by your side.... Beverly Hills Mustang." The response to this bit of mercantile love poetry? "The phone rang off the hook for a week," recalls Brunk. "And everyone said, 'That's it, you've captured what the Mustang is all about.' "

The ponycar may be 20, but it isn't about to be put out to pasture.

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