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‘Methuselah’ and Me: Still in Love After 25 Zingy Years

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Wow!” said the blond, blue-eyed boy dashing out of the gas station along Interstate 5 deep in the San Joaquin Valley, “a ’65!”

Most people call it a ’65. Some call it a ’64 and others opt for ’64 1/2.

I call mine Methuselah the Mustang. That’s my Original Mustang, which turns 25 today.

To say the Original Mustang was popular is like saying Frank Sinatra could hum a little.

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With Frank crooning his new hit “Strangers in the Night,” my Mustang and I first drove off to live in Washington. Every other car in the urban renewal development area of D.C.'s “new Southwest” back in 1965 was a Mustang. The other one was a Volkswagen “bug.”

My generation took to the Mustang like a kid to a new pet. Born a hair ahead of the baby boomers, we were even referred to for a time as “the Mustang Generation.”

The car still attracts young people, like the San Joaquin gas jockey, who weren’t even born when it was created. Those of us who have matured driving it still like it, too.

Lee Iacocca, now of Chrysler and history but then of Ford, created what he knew would sell--a compact, four-passenger car so zingy it could pass as a sports car, yet practical enough for daily use. At a base price of less than $2,500, it was fantasy made real.

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The Mustang set a sales record for any new model in its first year by topping half a million.

Boldly introduced in the spring rather than fall of 1964 (accounting for the three nicknames), the 1965 original model sold more than 680,000 cars before it was superseded by the 1966 model.

Engines ranged from a 101 horsepower six up to a 289 V-8. I got the big one. The colors were as bright as jelly beans--green, yellow, two reds. I got Poppy Red, the bright one.

“This car is so zingy it makes you feel like you have to put on lipstick every time you go out,” observed a Capitol Hill colleague.

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It still does.

I didn’t order the car by option or color. I just took the last one left on the floor before the Bloomington, Ind., Ford dealer rolled in the ‘66s.

The Mustang first sprang into my consciousness as a crisis in journalistic ethics.

Iacocca, the marketing genius, lent Mustangs for spring semester of 1964, cost-free, to each student body president and editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper at major universities around the country.

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I raved and ranted about the gross impropriety of a student editor accepting such a “bribe” to go soft on Detroit or Ford. But my friends at Indiana University pointed out that it was easy to be idealistic when, as a past editor, I hadn’t been offered a Mustang.

They envied my successor, who did accept the Mustang and drove it happily around campus all semester. We were hooked.

A year and a half later, I got in line and bought Methuselah. With no air conditioning and a simple AM radio that doesn’t tempt the most persistent auto stereo thieves, Methuselah cost $2,400 new, plus about $300 in interest--or $78 a month for three years.

We drove out of Bloomington, and settled in Washington, then Indianapolis, and finally Los Angeles, venturing for fun east to Manhattan, south to Key West, north to Montreal, and west to San Francisco.

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New, my Mustang got 20 miles to the gallon. Now that it’s broken in, it gets 21.

Vulnerable in the water pump, Methuselah has demanded replacements at inconvenient times and places--Tucumcari, N.M., on the road west in 1968, or near Big Sur in 1969 on my one and only drive to San Francisco.

Other parts may have set endurance records.

*When the simple AM radio stopped working, a car sound-system expert extracted the speaker cone, which disintegrated with a single tap.

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“These things only last about three years,” he commented. Methuselah’s had worked flawlessly for 21.

*When I replaced the tires a few years ago, I was upset to hear colleagues say they got 50,000 miles out of a certain brand when my sidewall-collapsing old set had traveled only 30,000. Then I figured out that my 30,000 miles were driven over a period of 12 years.

*I’m the only person I’ve ever known who actually got a muffler replaced free under Midas Muffler’s “life-time” (of the car ) guarantee.

Methuselah has been walloped twice--from the back, at slow speed on surface streets, when I stopped at crosswalks and tailgating drivers didn’t. Both injuries required touch-ups to the otherwise original paint. One cost me the original gasoline cap.

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Methuselah has run out of gas twice--once on a lonely two-lane highway in Indiana returning from interviewing a Gen-u-wine California Hippie in artsy Nashville, and the other time parked beside Los Angeles’ Hall of Justice on the day a jury decided that Sirhan Sirhan had murdered Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Indiana being Indiana, an Eagle Scout happened along with extra gas the first time. A fellow reporter rescued us the second.

Methuselah has even survived kidnaping.

The “grand theft auto” was logged the morning after the 1968 general election when Richard M. Nixon won the presidency. I had worked overnight on election coverage at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and emerged bleary eyed at dawn to find no little red car.

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Confused by my unusual night duty, the parking lot operator had left the car unlocked and the keys in the ignition.

Fortunately for Methuselah and me, the incomparable Los Angeles Police Department found my Mustang within 24 hours--parked along a curb near USC, without a scratch. Some opportunistic students, the cops speculated, had simply driven themselves home.

Perhaps the theft and recovery of the just paid-for car forged a stronger bond between us.

At any rate, I didn’t plan to own the same car, not even an Original Mustang, for 25 years. It just happened.

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At first, I simply kept the car because I couldn’t afford a new one. Then in 1972, I got hired by The Times, moved downtown and began walking to work, so that we only drive 2,000 to 3,000 miles a year. Spending a jillion dollars on a new car seemed silly.

Over the years, we moved from collecting compliments and special treatment to slurs about “that old car.” The subsequent ascent from clunk to classic was almost imperceptible, evolving perhaps after Methuselah’s 15th birthday (celebrated with new floor mats).

We gradually started attracting admiring glances again, and when we went to the grocery store, notes got stuck under the windshield wiper from drivers asking to buy if I ever wanted to sell. My friends started speculating about the value, fantasizing as high as $14,000.

At some point, I finally gave the car a name--Methuselah--reasoning that a car of so many years must be as unusual as the biblical man who lived to be 969.

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Methuselah turned 100,000 miles on the Harbor Freeway on May 9, 1989, when we were on our way to Compton for an interview.

The car sometimes ominously puffs out blue smoke; it rattles a little, and, from sheer wear, the driver’s inside door handle falls off occasionally.

The Original Mustang may need to have its engine rebuilt soon; but whatever comes, we’ll probably stick together awhile longer. We’re comfortable.

And the car still makes me feel like I have to put on lipstick every time we go out.

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