I was in a California car park the other week, taking a ride in a 1967 Shelby Mustang. I was in the States to drive the new Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG, but $95,000-worth of Teutonic efficiency was of little interest next to a giant lump of old Americana. The Mustang, like its owner, belonged to a bygone age, but both were in a fine state of repair. We sped out of the car park, the big V8 took a breath, the rear tires gave up their fight for adhesion for surely the millionth time and we sped forth at an alarming rate. We didn't stop properly, of course, and when we tried to turn left, the Mustang wanted to head straight for Nevada. But within the space of two minutes, the Ford served a cocktail of emotions that two days in the Benz couldn't match.
For me, this was no nostalgia trip. When the Mustang was built, my father was eyeing lingerie catalogues and dreaming of pleasures to come, but it still offered an insight into a more carefree, thrilling age. The people of the late '60s might have stressed about nuclear apocalypse, civil rights, Vietnam and chlamydia, but it automotive terms, this was as good as it got. In the UK, we had the Jaguar E-Type; America had the Mustang.
It's easy to imagine seducing someone on the back seat of a Shelby Mustang. Maybe someone with a soft, Southern drawl, pigtails and a gingham shirt. The wipe-clean rear bench seemed built for it, in a way that the rear of a modern car can never be. Today, you'd be too worried about getting caught in a seatbelt, slicing a stiletto through the pleated leather or accidentally setting off an airbag. The innocence is gone. And when the pre-nuptials were over and you'd finished your cigarette, you could blast off into an idyllic sunset with the V8 guzzling juice and the exhaust pipes farting fumes. Today, you blast off only as far as it takes you to remember how expensive gas has become.
Last week in London, I filled up at a cost of almost $9 a gallon. A Range Rover Sport now costs $200 to fill. It's cheaper to fly from London to Spain than it is to drive the Rangie to Oxford and back. If you think you have it bad in the land of the free, spare a thought for us in the land of the greedy government. Then there are the speed cameras, which number over 4,500 in the UK alone. To drive here, you need three eyes. Two to study the road ahead and an third to spot the telltale yellow boxes on the sidewalk. Last night, my girlfriend was reduced to a quivering wreck by the thought that she might have been caught on the wrong kind of camera. As a passion killer, it beats body odor every time.
The cars have changed too. Compared to the wild ride of the Mustang, the SL63 is the missionary position plus cuddle. Even on my demo lap around the car park, my host nearly lost it. Back in the '60s, the Ford was the alpha male made automotive. It was desirable because it was bad and because the experience would almost certainly end in tears, the hospital, or both. The AMG can be made to misbehave, of course, but only by a lengthy ritual of button pressing. And even after dismissing the electronic killjoys, you have to drive like a jerk to make it step out of line. On any sort of road, the Mustang driver wouldn't see which way the Merc went, but that isn't always the point. For a drive-in movie, there's only one car I'd choose-and it wouldn't be made in Stuttgart.
Awful though this sounds, I'm starting to believe that the heyday of the car as an instrument of freedom may now be behind us. The carefree exuberance that made the Shelby such an icon sits uneasily in a world obsessed by regulation, litigation and environmental responsibility. Today, the owner of a fast, aggressive car is as likely to be held up as a social pariah as he is to be hailed as a folk hero. Hollywood trendsetters queue up to buy hybrids, not hemis.
I used to think that, as a child of the '70s, I'd been born at the perfect time. I've witnessed the end of the Cold War, the virtual eradication of some diseases, the birth of the personal computer and the development of the Internet. We seemed to be living through a golden age, but after a ride around a deserted car park in a 40-year-old car, I'm no longer quite so sure.