If you lived through the '80s and '90s, you know there was no escaping the legend of the SSP Mustang. Maybe your uncle had his doors blown off by a Florida State Trooper in a five-liter, or your dad got popped in his Porsche by the California Highway Patrol in a four-eye. Spotting one lurking in the in the tall weeds was an event of specific terror and lust, like a glimpse down the babysitter's blouse.
Like everything else cops touch, the state police Mustangs were rumored to be hotter than anything you could get on the street. Special skunkworks motors. Experimental suspensions. The full Blues Brothers treatment. Very powerful stuff. The truth is, the cars weren't much more than stripper GTs.
Ford built the first prototype in 1981. California wanted a car capable of running down baddies, so Ford threw a black and white livery, a whip antenna, and a few lights on a V8, four-speed GL and let the CHP put the car through the wringer. It needed to do 125 mph to pass muster. The pony managed 126.
It was good enough for government work in the most literal sense, and California immediately ordered 400 cars to hand out to troopers. The SSP package was born. After banging around in a fleet of malaise-era Chryslers, CHP must have added "grin, shit-eating" to its uniform regulations. The Highway Patrol held onto that first prototype, too. Ford stuffed a cage in the thing, the state bought the coupe for a dollar, and shoved it into the Emergency Vehicle Operator Course as an instructor car.
Ford's been slowly pushing the Mustang towards sports car legitimacy for years, and the 2015 feels like the missing link between the car's past and its inevitable future. It's big from behind the wheel the way the old cars always seem to be. The interior swallows you up. It leaves you peering over that double-brow dash and long hood like you've ducked for cover in an attempt to evade the reasonably priced sedans, mortgage payments, and unidentifiable infant-related paraphernalia hurling at your windscreen. Maybe I'm projecting.
Barreling up the plateau out of Oak Ridge, it's clear the Mustang hasn't lost its soft side. The long wheelbase and generous damping make for a comfortable cruiser that soaks up miles. Pop from sixth to fourth, mat the throttle, and the car squats on its hips before peeling back the scenery. The 5.0-liter V8 is loud and brash in the we-hang-kings kind of way that makes me sentimental about the erosion of the American small block.
Traffic's heavy, and the Mustang is as impatient as I am to get where we're going. I spotted the SSP prototype in a Hemmings ad a few weeks back, called Mike Strinich, the owner, and left a message. An hour later, my phone rang.
"Hello from Nashville, Tennessee, the cultural center of the universe."
Yeah, we're going to get along just fine.
In another life, Strinich would have made one hell of a historian. He started researching the SSP program after the EVOC Mustang showed up for sale on a forum. He snapped up the car, drug it home, and got digging. For years, people familiar with the SSP program assumed that the first prototype car had simply vanished, either crushed by Ford or sold off into the wind. Everyone knew about the EVOC four-eye, but it was Strinich who figured out the two cars are one and the same after spending some time talking with Emil Lauffler. Lauffler worked at Ford as the company's fleet manager at the time, and was responsible for optioning a Mustang to fit CHP's needs.
In Strinich's words, Lauffler is the father of the SSP Mustang.
CHP's head of maintenance bought the EVOC car after the state kicked it out of service. The guy had a daughter headed to college, and she needed something safe to drive. Nothing's safer than a cop car with a roll cage and no back seat, never mind the 302 under the hood. After college, the car mostly sat in the daughter's driveway until she traded it to a neighbor for some yardwork. He planned to turn it into a race car, but spared the machine after he found out where it came from.
Now the prototype resides just outside of Nashville. The clouds are low and heavy with the threat of rain by the time I hit I-65 South on the outskirts of the city. I catch a flash of yellow in my rearview mirror as a brand-new Camaro SS slides across the lane behind me, drops a gear, and comes along side. Even through the tinted glass, I can see the girl behind the wheel. She's wearing improbably large sunglasses, the lenses fixed on the Mustang's fluid lines. She plants the throttle, and the Camaro responds by dropping its haunches and ripping forward. I hit the signal on the GT and move for my exit.
Strinich went so far as to trailer the EVOC Mustang to Michigan so that Lauffler could verify the car's authenticity as the very first SSP prototype. He walked away with a signed affidavit attesting his black-and-white's legitimacy, but also something else: the Mustang development mule Ford later used to refine the SSP program. Lauffler had owned the car since it was retired from Ford service.
I turn down a single-lane road, cross a set of train tracks and find myself in a cul-de-sac lined with million-dollar homes. Horses stand in sprawling back yards and perk their ears at my slow passing. It looks like the kind of place that would have an HOA with strong feelings about Fox Bodies, and yet, there they sit. I pull in Strinich's driveway and park, but he's nowhere to be found. I'm eyeballing the EVOC car when he comes strolling out of the garage wearing a grubby sweatshirt and jeans. He's spent the morning working on a bubble Caprice from the Chicago Police Department in the shop behind his house. A K-car limo sits along a fencerow, killing grass.
Strinich is friendly and talks a mile a minute. There's an IROC Camaro done up in CHP livery over our shoulders. I ask him why all the cop cars.
"I like anything with a story, and all these cars have documented history."
Strinich used to spend his time hunting down and restoring rare muscle cars for the Barrett-Jackson crowd, but he got tired of forking over big money for a rusty shell of a car.
"I started thinking about what would be cool to a guy who learned to drive in 1990, you know? After all the Chevelles and Yenkos were gone."
If I'm any litmus, he's hit his mark. I can't pull my eyes off the black and white four-eye in front of us. It looks identical to the notchback my dad drove when I was a kid, and when Strinich pops open the driver's door, I'm hit with a flood of memories of riding shotgun in those hideous cloth-and-vinyl buckets. I'm in love.
There's no telling the horrors this car has endured at the hands of who knows how many police driving instructors. Strinich says he doesn't know how many engines, transmissions, or rear ends the car has had. He does know that the old four-speed manuals were notorious for welding themselves together under high-speed reverse maneuvers.
He tosses me the keys, and I settle into the driver's seat after a quick tutorial on the ancient four-point harness. The car starts after just enough cranking to make me think that maybe I'll have to walk. It settles into a comfortable idle under the shriek of a tortured throw-out bearing. I'm grinning as I pull out of the neighborhood and onto the main road, the old 302 bellowing with more boast than brawn. In a dead heat, I'd put a dollar on a Corolla outgunning this sucker to 60 mph.
But after driving the modern Mustang to Nashville, the old GL feels brilliant. It's light and lithe, and you're nearly sitting on the rear axle. It has all the rigidity of a damp sun dress, but it wants to rotate around you. It's playful where the new GT is all business. Everything's a little loose and hilarious. The steering's over boosted, the shifter is like stirring a five-gallon bucket of gears and oatmeal, and the brakes checked out sometime in the last century. I nearly blow the first stop sign after sinking the pedal to the floor. Of course, the surplus livery, no-bullshit whip antenna, and dual spotlights only make it better. Even now, some 35 years after this car's service began, other drivers tap their brakes at the sight of the black and white. I should have brought a hair dryer to point out the window.
I make a conservative lap of the neighborhood, take my pictures, and bring the Mustang back to Strinich. I want it, badly. He's selling both cars, the EVOC and the development mule, for reasonable money, but I'd be a fool to drag home two more derelict ponies. I say my thanks, get in the 2015 GT, and promptly stall it after an hour with the '82's breezy clutch. I'm swimming in the interior. Everything seems larger than necessary, more out of reach, but there's no denying what four decades of development have done for Ford's muscle car.
As I push through afternoon traffic on the way home, I can't help but wish the car retained some of the playfulness I found in that old GL. The small proportions, the low weight. All the mass on the new car takes something out of it, and it's a shame. It's the price of progress.