Taming the wild Mustang

Wild Horses' founder Allan Fearnley breathes new life into classic Ford Mustangs
Wild Horses' founder Allan Fearnley breathes new life into classic Ford Mustangs
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CLASSIC car shows are wonderful. You can marvel at the automotive confections of yesteryear – all ambitious lines, gleaming chrome and chunky tyres, unfettered by the safety-led design restrictions and fickle fashions of today. But would you actually want to drive one home? The reality is that today’s Vauxhall Astra is more dynamically capable than most classics, and wheezing engines, wobbly suspension, creaky interiors, vague steering and dubious reliability don’t exactly make for happy motoring.

But there is a solution in the form of modernised icons, such as the Jaguar E-type-reviving Eagle Speedster, the Singer 911 and rejuvenated Jensen Interceptors from Cropredy Bridge, using modern engines, up-to-date suspension and retrimmed cabins to make classic motoring practical.

Inspired by this movement, car detailing expert Allan Fearnley, pictured, founded Wild Horses two years ago, and his Edinburgh workshop has just turned out the knee-weakening black beauty you see here – a 1965 Ford Mustang Fastback – the first of several the company plans to modernise.

On the surface it may just look like a tidy classic, but more than 1,000 hours of labour tell you there’s much more to it. The donor Mustang’s bodywork was chemically stripped, treated, refitted atop copious sound deadening and painted, with troublesome parts such as the rear bumper recreated from scratch. The front suspension was binned in favour of adjustable modern kit, while the rear setup was tweaked for better articulation, and extra braces were added to stiffen the notoriously flexible chassis.

The engine is an authentic Mk1 Mustang 4.9-litre V8 stroked to 5.7 litres and enriched with aluminium heads, electronic ignition and an electric fuel pump. Fuel injection was declined in favour of retaining carburetion, but output is still 424bhp – roughly twice the car’s original power. A modern five-speed manual gearbox replaces the old three-speed auto. There’s also modern rack-and-pinion steering, a plush leather and alcantara cabin with a retro-styled, iPhone-ready stereo and all-round ventilated disc brakes to replace the primitive drums.

The result is stunning. It’s important to remember the Mk1 Mustang was not a rich man’s car – it was based on the workaday Ford Falcon and more than one million were sold in the first two years for the equivalent of around £15,000 of today’s money – so to see flawlessly finished body panels fitted with precision and all that interior craftsmanship is a real treat.

The first time I drove a Mk1 Mustang, my excitement was crushed by the car’s vague handling, lacklustre engine and persistent overheating; the final insult being an exhaust silencer that flung itself free 25 miles from home. At the risk of being twice bitten, I fire up the Wild Horses Mustang to be rewarded with an aggressive bark that becomes a throaty idle. The chassis and cue-ball gearknob tremor gently in that muscle car style. Close-quarters manoeuvres are a piece of cake: the throttle and clutch are progressive and the turning circle surprisingly handy, and as we shuffle out of town, cobbles and potholes don’t resonate through the car as you might otherwise expect.

Since the engine’s still running in, we keep below 3,000rpm, but the short sprints we try on the A1 tally with the car’s estimated 0-60mph time of 5.5-6.0 seconds, refreshingly sharp throttle response bringing with it the beginnings of a violent V8 scream. This is heady stuff, yet the gearbox has a lovely, short mechanical action, and there’s no deafening wind noise or lane wandering. Leaving the dual carriageway, we still need to allow extra stopping distance, but the brakes are much better than before.

On East Lothian’s A198 – the kind of undulating squiggle of a road that usually embarrasses hefty American hardware – the Mustang’s control is impressive: there’s no floatiness and little roll on the corners, and the steering responds quickly. There is a lack of feel from the helm and a tendency to skip at the rear over mid-corner bumps, though. The former is traded off against cruising stability, but could be improved with suspension adjustments, while the latter is a function of the Mustang’s live rear axle that can be swapped for a suppler independent setup at extra cost.

Speaking of which, for some additional beans, Wild Horses can install the current Mustang’s Modular V8 if you’d prefer a powerplant that’s more advanced and less thirsty. Despite the promise of just 12mpg, I’d stick with this car’s carb-fed Windsor V8, though – it’s got plenty of power and bleeds ’60s road-racer character.

As does the whole car, and I can see why its owner sold his Ferrari 599 to buy it. This Wild Horses Mustang cost in the region of £75,000, or about the same as a new Mercedes-Benz SL350. Your head might choose the Merc, but just ask yourself what Frank Bullitt would do.