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Mustang arrives to an already rabid following in New Zealand

Driving.ca logo Driving.ca 26/06/2017 Lesley Wimbush

© Provided by Driving.ca We’d just picked up our 2017 Ford Mustang in Auckland, NZ, about to embark on an epic 5,000-kilometre road trip – and already we were turning heads.  The first couple of honks and cheers we accepted with delighted grins; after all it was a sunny day and we were highly conspicuous in a bright red sports coupe. But the amusement soon turned to puzzlement; sure, the Mustang is one of the world’s favourite sports cars but it’s not exactly exotic, is it?

As it turns out, yes it is. At least here in the Southern Hemisphere, on the other side of the earth from where the Mustang originated, it is a very rare car indeed. Although its been an integral part of the North American cultural fabric since 1964, the Mustang has never been sold here in New Zealand.

That is, until now. Ford’s iconic pony car finally made its debut here last year, more than 50 years after the first Mustang rolled off the production line in Detroit.  

The sixth generation model marks the very first time the car has ever been produced for the right-hand-drive market.  For now, that represents only 5 per cent of the cars built at Ford’s Flat Top Michigan plant, and prospective buyers in New Zealand, Australia, Britain and Japan face up to a year’s wait.

Yet New Zealand ranks second only to the United States as having more Mustang owners per capita than anywhere else in the world. 

New Zealanders, a.k.a. “Kiwis” have been enthralled with the Mustang since the first one was imported for racing in 1965. A Shelby Trans Am Mustang brought over the following year competed across the country, eventually winning the NZ championship. Thus began the Kiwi love affair with the pony car. 

The first imports were heavily restricted and had to be granted special permits, available only to motorsport competitors, returning servicemen and wealthy collectors who could afford the prohibitive sales taxes. American military stationed in Christchurch for the U.S. Antarctic program also brought a few cars with them. These early cars were highly prized for their scarcity, and although restrictions gradually eased, the demand far exceeded the supply of available cars.

But new regulations for private motor vehicle imports introduced in the mid-2000s required most left-hand-drive (LHD) vehicles to be converted to right-hand drive (RHD) before they could be driven on New Zealand roads. This was an enormously expensive prospect – costing upwards of US$40,000 for a single vehicle. Fortunately, there are a number of exemptions to the rules; including specialist vehicles, motorsports vehicles, and “special interest light vehicles” that are at least 20 years old, or manufactured as two-door coupe or convertible in annual volumes of less than 20,000 units.  Only 500 permits are issued per year for vehicles meeting those requirements. Needless to say, the NZ$175 permits are in great demand, and many new owners find themselves storing their collectibles until the following year when they can apply again.

Miles of uninterrupted coastline on South Island’s Route 6 in New Zealand.

Approximately 2,500 to 3,000 privately imported LHD Mustangs are currently in New Zealand, ranging from 1964 upward, and many of those brought here in the early 1960s and ’70s are still around, and regularly seen at club shows and Mustang conventions. Parts and service support is surprisingly good; aside from all the specialist suppliers internationally, there are several New Zealand-based Mustang shops offering both original and reproduction parts. And model years 1964 to ’73 share parts with the Australian Falcons. 

Over the course of two weeks we gradually worked our way down the North Island’s coastline, ferrying our Mustang  across the Cook Strait to Picton, South Island. Thus far, we’ve spotted only a couple of vintage Mustangs, but thanks to N.Z.’s lack of tariff on Japanese imports, we’ve seen some truly odd and well-preserved JDM vehicles. Nissan Skylines and Toyota Supras, so prized in North America,  are common here.  

New Zealand has some of the world’s most spectacular driving roads. The Southern Alps and Kaikoura mountain ranges form a 500-kilometre spine through the South Island with breathtaking snow-capped peaks, plunging fjords and enormous glaciers. Our route took us over the famed Targa New Zealand Rally’s Crown Range, through the infamous Devil’s Staircase and over the Crown Range Pass.  It’s a driver’s paradise of never-ending switchbacks, glorious vistas, spectacular coastlines and almost non-existent traffic. 

At nearly $2.00 per litre here, fuel cost was the deciding factor in choosing the four-cylinder Ecoboost Mustang over the hairy-chested V8 GT. But the entry-level Mustang was far from disappointing; the lighter nose proved a distinct handling advantage over the narrow roads and hairpin turns. And it’s important to note that the 310-horsepower, 2.3L turbocharged four has 38 more horsepower than the original ’64 Mustang’s most powerful V8. The twin-scroll turbo-charged mill has a broad, flat torque curve so there’s a ready supply of power. 

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Arriving in Christchurch, South Island’s largest city with a population of 360,000, we met up with Garry Jackson of the Canterbury Mustang Club.  There are seven such clubs in N.Z. – some dating back to 1975 – with a total membership of approximately 1,200 people.  With 300 members, Canterbury Mustangs is one of the largest, and to our surprise at least 30 of them turned out to greet us. 

The parking lot was full of Mustangs, with at least one of nearly every model year and body style. Garry’s own 1964 260c cubic-inch V8 – the oldest Mustang in New Zealand – is also one of the oldest examples in the world. Built on April 6th, 1964, just eleven days before the Mustang’s initial launch, the white notchback was car number 8,425 of 400,000 built that year. Owned for 40 years by Denise Monti, a famous Las Vegas acrobat, the car was finally imported to New Zealand where Garry purchased it in 2004.  Fifty years after rolling off the assembly line, the car has only 51,000 miles and rides on the same whitewall tires it wore in the showroom. 

Forbes Gourley’s green 1967 Fastback is a dead ringer for the car that Steve McQueen thrashed on the hills of San Francisco in 1968’s Bullitt.  Brought into the country by a serviceman stationed here in 1968, the moss green Mustang boasts a 289 V8 and C4 automatic transmission, an ivory gold interior and has 98,000 original miles. It’s flanked on one side by Sharyn Busch’s special edition ’68 convertible in Playboy Pink with white interior, and on the other by Barry Fairbrass’s Grabber Orange ’70 Mach 1.

While our 2017 Mustang Coupe was the only one of its kind in attendance and therefore attracted considerable attention, most of the members admitted they weren’t interested in buying one. It seems the cachet of owning a LHD vehicle far outweighs being one of the first to own the new Mustang – at least among this crowd.  

As for the rest of New Zealand – and indeed the world over – the Mustang became in 2016 the best-selling sports car on the planet.

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