A capable muscle car that feels a little too familiar.
When Ford realized what a sales juggernaut the Mustang was in the mid-1960s, it quickly set to work developing performance-oriented variants of the pony car to shore up its reputation among enthusiasts. Carroll Shelby and his team of engineers soon put the Mustang on the map with the GT350R and the road-going GT350 homologation car, and before the close of decade, Ford’s own Boss 302 and Boss 429 had joined the fray as well.
By then the Shelby had become a fast, feature-laden grand tourer, while the new Boss models represented the pinnacle of Ford’s own track-focused designs – both commanded serious coin in turn. To face the onslaught of stylish, ground-pounding machines coming from GM, Chrysler, and other automakers at the time, the Blue Oval needed a more accessible Mustang model that could melt rubber and turn heads in equal measure.
Introduced for the 1969 model year, the Mach 1 was precisely that. With muscular bodywork and plenty of horsepower even in base spec, it effectively blended style and substance without breaking the bank, and it went on to outsell the Mustang GT by more than 14 to 1 in its first year on sale. The company brought back the Mach 1 in 2003, borrowing components from the Bullitt and SVT Cobra.
Now, seventeen years after Ford put the last Mach 1 out to pasture, the company has called upon its pony car heritage once again. The playbook is strikingly similar, with the Mach 1 sourcing the majority of its go-fast hardware from both the latest Bullitt as well as the Shelby GT350, both of which recently went out of production. But this time around the world of high performance is a very different place, and standing out amongst the array of fast machines on the road today is a significantly taller order than it was nearly two decades ago.
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What’s In A Name
Since the S550 generation Mustang’s introduction in 2015, Ford Performance has amassed an arsenal of go-fast goodies for its modern-day pony car. With the deep well of Performance Pack, Bullitt, GT350, and GT500 components at its disposal, the Mach 1 seeks to strike a balance between on-road manners of the GT and the track prowess of the naturally aspirated Shelby while giving an aesthetic nod to its heritage.
To that end, Ford looked to the Bullitt’s 480-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 for adequate motivation, upgraded with the Shelby GT350’s intake manifold, oil filter adapter, and engine oil cooler for enhanced on-track capability. The Mach 1 is available with two different transmissions. The six-speed manual gearbox is the proven Tremec unit from the GT350, but here it gains the automatic rev matching and no-lift shifting of the Bullitt.
Ford looked to the Bullitt’s 480-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 for adequate motivation.
Ford lavished some attention on the 10-speed auto as well, giving it an upgraded torque converter and a revised performance calibration. Whether you opt for two or three pedals, the transmission is equipped with its own cooler, as is the Torsen limited-slip differential.
On the chassis front, the Mach 1 boasts revised MagneRide adaptive dampers, stiffer sway bars and front springs, and a reworked electric power steering system. Ford also plucked the upgraded brake booster from the discontinued GT Performance Pack 2, along with the rear subframe, stiffer bushings and rear toe-link from the Shelby GT500. A new underbelly pan, which Ford cites as the Mach 1’s most important aerodynamic upgrade, extends 20 inches further rearward versus the Mustang GT Performance Pack in order to smooth airflow under the front of the car and reduce lift.
Standard Mach 1 models roll on Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summer tires and a unique staggered set of 19-inch Magnum 500–style wheels, while Mach 1s with the Handling Package score ultra-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires and a different set of wheels that are wider, moving from 9.5 inches to 10.5 inches up front and from 10 inches to 11 inches at the rear.
Beyond the wheels and tires, the Handling Package is a fairly comprehensive upgrade in its own right, bringing its own revised chassis tuning and recalibrated MagneRide dampers into the mix, along with adjustable top strut mounts, a high-downforce front splitter, and the rear wing from the GT500.
Of course it wouldn’t really be a Mach 1 without an homage to the past, too. But aside from the optional satin black side and hood stripes that come as part of the Appearance Package, the visual changes are actually pretty subtle – a unique grille with faux fog light elements, revised front fascia with larger side intakes, and black accents are the most obvious external revisions. It’s a similar story inside as well, where the Recaro seats, Mach 1 callouts on the sill plates and the instrument panel, and the cue ball shift knob nabbed from the Bullitt are the clearest differentiators from the standard GT cabin.
On The Street
We started the day off on the roads southwest of WSIR in a standard Mach 1 with the 10-speed automatic. As you might expect, the Mach 1’s bark is similar to the Bullitt’s mid-range burble, but here the active exhaust system uses perforated 4.5-inch exhaust tips. Ford plans to sell the Mach 1 in identical specifications across the globe, and these tips are designed to eliminate the higher frequencies that could potentially run afoul of strict international noise regulations. The upshot is that while exhaust sounds lovely – and gets plenty loud when set to Track mode – it’s not quite as constant as the Bullitt was.
Once we got moving, we couldn't ignore the transmission, for better and worse. The 10-speed automatic did a great job of staying in the meaty parts of the V8’s powerband when climbing through the gears, but even in Sport and Track drive modes, it seemed like it was never really happy to stick with one particular cog at a steady pace.
Instead, the gearbox was often busy either downshifting to get back into the powerband when called upon by the throttle or upshifting into the overdrive gears to conserve fuel. Eventually we decided to just take matters into our own hands in manual mode and dictate the gear changes with the shift paddles. The 10-speed managed to earn back a few points here, bouncing off of the rev limiter rather than automatically upshifting, as well as delivering noticeably different shift behaviors based on the drive mode selected.
Our route took us along some fast, arrow-straight stretches of desert tarmac as well as a few canyon roads that allowed us to give the chassis a bit of a workout. The MagneRide dampers dutifully soaked up the imperfections of the sunbaked pavement during our highway hauls, but in some of the more technical sections, the suspension tuning left us wanting for a more pinned down, confidence-inspiring chassis. In standard specification, the Mach 1 seems to land somewhere between a Performance Pack 1 and Performance Pack 2-equipped GT in terms of the balance between ride quality and outright handling capability.
Once we got moving, we couldn't ignore the transmission, for better and worse.
We didn’t get the opportunity to drive a Mach 1 with the Handling Package out on the street, but given its mission, it seems plausible that those upgrades would have addressed our gripes. Then again, as we’ve seen with Performance Pack 2 GTs and GT350Rs in the past, factory Mustangs that are outfitted Cup 2 tires have a tendency to tramline like crazy, so the tradeoff might not be worth it for some.
At The Track
For our stints on the Streets of Willow road course, Ford provided seat time in both manual and automatic Mach 1s, all of which were equipped with the Handling Package. Streets is a tight, technical course that plays up the strengths of the upgraded tires and more aggressive chassis tuning rather than the Mach 1’s V8 power plant and enhanced aerodynamics. There’s enough variation throughout to really get a sense of the car’s at-limit character and understand how each gearbox affects the overall experience.
With its short, precise throws and close ratios, the Tremec six-speed is undoubtedly the more satisfying way to pilot the Mach 1 around a road course. The argument for three pedals is only strengthened by the unobtrusive (and defeatable) automatic rev matching as well as the no-lift shift feature, though the latter ultimately feels like more of a novelty than a necessity when hustling the car. The automatic will likely deliver faster laps under ideal circumstances, but it suffers from many of the same ills that we experienced out on the street, and on the track, those distractions come at a significantly higher pace.
The Mach 1 is a graceful dance partner if you’re willing to spend the time to get to know it.
After hours of back-to-back hot lap sessions, the Cup 2 tires on these 3900-pound cars had taken on the consistency of a soft cheese, revealing that while the Mach 1’s steering is nicely weighted, it’s short on meaningful feedback. Each time the front end started to push or the back end stepped out, the view out the front, rather than information coming through the steering rack, was the first sign something was up.
But while they don’t make for quick lap times, the nice thing about overheated tires is that they allow for more meaningful exploration of the chassis, and the Mach 1 is a graceful dance partner if you’re willing to spend the time to get to know it. The amount of power and grip available make the Mach 1 fun to drive hard on a track, but the limits aren’t so high that finding them requires eschewing one’s sanity.
The Mach 1 feels very much like a package that was culled together from other models.
Viewed outside of the context of modern performance Mustangs that have come before it, the Mach 1 is a riot. It sounds good, it’s quick, it’s reasonably comfortable, and it’s entertaining on track. These are certainly attributes that you want from a high performance Mustang.
The problem is that the Mach 1 doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and ultimately it just doesn’t look or feel special in the way that the Bullitt and GT350 Mustangs before it did. It doesn’t have the understated swagger and great boulevard manners of the McQueen tribute, and even with the Handling Package, it lacks the visceral drama of the Voodoo-powered Shelby. Instead, the Mach 1 feels very much like a package that was culled together from other models, and as a result, it doesn’t really have a distinct identity to call its own. Given the rich performance heritage it references, that seems like a bit of a missed opportunity.
Gallery: 2021 Ford Mustang Mach 1: First Drive
2021 Ford Mustang Mach 1 Premium