As I rumbled across the Ambassador Bridge in a brand-new Boss 302 Mustang (444 horsepower, six-speed manual, lime-green paint), I realized that I was travelling through both distance and time. At the other end of the bridge was Detroit, aka the Motor City, and whatever might remain of a golden age.
Once upon a time, Detroit was the Vatican of internal combustion, cranking out cars that we all lusted for. I thought back to a summer night in 1969, when one of my friends rolled up in a new Boss 302 that he'd quit school to buy. When my friend blipped the throttle, the rest of us were ready to quit school too.
Now, 43 years later, I was heading into the Motor City in a 2013 Boss 302 – a new version of the car that lured my friend on to the rocks of financial ruin so many years ago.
As I rolled into Detroit, I could see that the new Boss had some of the old magic. Heads turned on Woodward Avenue (the famous cruising strip) and I got dozens of thumbs-up signals. When I stopped at a gas station, a Dodge with blacked-out windows pulled in behind me. The paint had peeled off in sections, and there was a hole in the front fender that looked like it was probably made by a large-calibre bullet.
One of the passengers got out and walked over to me as I filled the Boss 302 with high test.
"Yo," he said. "You paint that ... up? Or that how it come?"
I told him that lime-green was a factory color.
"Nice," he declared.
Detroit had changed a lot since the first time I saw it with my dad back in the 1960s. Now, half the buildings were deserted, and the residential streets looked like a war zone, lined with gutted houses and vacant lots strewn with junk. The grand boulevards that had helped earn Detroit its reputation as the Paris of North America were filled with torched structures and downfall-related businesses – pawn shops, liquor stores and check-cashing joints with bullet-proof windows.
I pulled onto a side street to take some pictures of the Boss. A woman with three kids walked past pushing a rusted shopping cart. Then I saw a dark gray car idling up to me. It was an older Mustang, covered with dents. One of the side scoops had been ripped off. Then I realized it was an SVT Cobra, a performance flagship from about 10 years ago.
The side window rolled down, and the driver leaned over to me.
"How you like that Boss?" he asked. "Fast?"
I told him it was.
"This too," he said. "Wife had to bail me out of jail three times for street racing."
He bade me farewell and rumbled off in his dented SVT. I fired up the Boss and headed south, flicking the manual shifter up through the gears and trying to decide if this new Boss could possibly come close to the coolness of the 1969 original that stopped me in my tracks so long ago.
If you read my column regularly, you may know that I have misgivings about Detroit's resurrection of the muscle cars that defined its golden age. Comebacks are tough, but each of the Big Three has built a new version of the car that represented them in the late 60s and early 70s: Dodge has the new Challenger; Chevy has the new Camaro; and of course there's the Ford Mustang, the reincarnation of the machine that launched the pony car movement in the first place.
Making a modern pony car is only slightly easier than raising Marvin Gaye from the dead to make a new album. Back in the late 60s and early 70s, manufacturers had carte blanche to make the cars they wanted. Today, they must meet a bewildering set of government regulations and consumer demands – airbags, crumple zones, air conditioning, cup holders, stability control, room for people grown large by years of supersize portions, and, well, the list goes on.
As a result, the new pony cars are much larger than the originals that inspired them. The new Camaro looms over its forebear like the Nimitz docked next to a rowboat, and compared to the original, the new Challenger looks like it has spent the past 40 years gorging at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The new Mustang is also bigger than the original, but it has gained less than its competitors. The Boss 302 I took to Detroit weighs about 10 per cent more than the 1969 version (the new Camaro, meanwhile, weighs about 20 per cent more than the original.)
On paper, the 2013 Boss is a superior car to the 1969 model. It has a six-speed gearbox, digital fuel injection and sticky, low-profile Pirelli tires. The engine puts out 444 horsepower (although it wowed us back in 1969, the original car only made 290 horsepower.) Thanks to computerized design and robotized manufacturing techniques, the new Boss also has vastly improved fit and finish.
The new car included a feature that really surprised me – a loping idle that gently shook the car. This was some serious deja vu. Back in the sixties and seventies, when tuners souped up cars by installing wildly modified camshafts that altered the valve timing, loping idles were common. (Some muscle cars would actually stall unless you kept your foot on the throttle.) But digital ignition and fuel injection has rendered the loping idle extinct. Or so we thought.
A little research showed me why the new Boss was loping. The car came with two keys. The second, called the Track Key, enables a set of race track programs that make the Boss more aggressive – the throttle responds more quickly, the engine makes more power, and the suspension tightens up. (So of course I used the Track Key every day.)
The Track Key's digital wizardry also included the loping idle. Since the Boss wouldn't naturally shake, the engineers wrote lines of code that tweaked the timing to replicate the low-end hacking and coughing that you'd get with a ramped-up camshaft. Amazing. And a little weird. The lumpy-cam idle was part of Sixties tuning culture, in the same way that tube amplifiers and reel-to-reel analogue recording were part of Sixties music – and I wasn't sure if a digital lope really captured the spirit.
That afternoon, I drove the Boss over to the Motown museum on West Grand Avenue. This is the place where Berry Gordy launched his musical empire from a little house with a handmade sign on the front that read "Hitsville USA."
From 1959 to 1972, Motown ran around the clock, cranking out hit music in the same way that Ford's giant Rouge plant pushed out cars. I was amazed to see Studio A, the recording room where so much of my favourite music was created. It was the size of a living room, lined with plywood and cheap acoustic tiles. The control room was like a broom closet, packed with crude-looking electronic gear. But this was the place where musical magic had been made – Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and the Supremes had all recorded here. So had Marvin Gaye (to me, the greatest if them all.)
That night, I fired up the new Boss and headed back to Canada. The car was fast and effortless. The six-speed shifter clicked through the gears, and the twin exhausts crooned behind me. If I hadn't set the cruise control, the Boss would have happily blasted along at twice the limit (and landed me in jail like the guy with the battered SVT.)
I had hours of driving ahead of me. I loaded the stereo with the collected works of Marvin Gaye and listened to songs that were recorded when the original Boss 302 Mustang was built. I hung on Marvin's voice as he soared through the vocal registers in his classic hit What's Going On. Like the original Boss, Marvin had it back in the Sixties and Seventies. And he still did – I drove through the night with the stereo cranked, amazed at the ethereal sounds Marvin achieved without digital enhancement – when it came to a loping idle, he could do it without the engineers.
And I liked the new Boss Mustang, too, digital lope and all. Recapturing past magic is tough, but Ford came as close as you can get: the Boss had the best Zero-to-1969 time I've experienced in a while.
Click here to see Peter Cheney's gallery from his trip to Motor City In pictures: The birthplace of the Boss – A tour of Detroit
For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)
Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive
Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/