Mountain by Mustang
I’ve said it before: sometimes you get lucky.
The company sent me to Colorado for a few days. That was already a nice break from the usual, as Colorado is one of my favourite places to visit. It has great scenery, lots of great twisty roads, and I have dear friends there who I don’t get to see near often enough. Would my rental car be on par with the other things in Colorado to which I was looking forward? Or would the question of the day be, which Dodge Caravan would you like? Don’t laugh, that’s pretty close to the situation the last time I visited Chicago.
There were only three of us on the rental car shuttle. One disappeared to another row, the other zeroed-in quickly on a red Camaro. I was in last place due to the amount of stuff I had to carry, and I strode the row with some trepidation, noting all the chunky SUVs and vans and dull sedans. Then, miracle of miracles, I spotted a Mustang! It was a beautiful dark metallic grey convertible and I knew that it needed me. After loading my gear I started the engine to get the aircon going and tune the radio and adjust everything, and a moment after starting I noticed that something didn’t sound quite right, a bit noisier than it should be. Was the exhaust system broken? I tickled the pedal to check- was that a rumbly burble? Oh my. Look on the side in front of the door, and sure enough, it says 5.0! And a GT badge on the back end! A Five-O Ford right here in the regular section, not over there in the special upgrade section. How could it be? I decided to take my chances and drove away with it. The gate attendant assured me that all was well, that the car was where it was due to some administrata that I won’t bore you with except to say that the upshot was that I got this V-8 Mustang for the price of the turbo-four Mustangs I’ve driven in the past. So there I was, in Colorado with a Mustang GT convertible, and nowhere to be until the next morning. What would you do? Naturally, I took it to Pike’s Peak.
Pike’s Peak is famous for having an annual hill-climb racing event that lasts a week and features every class from Lightweight Motorcycle to Unlimited Car. The road up the mountain is a 28-mile, two-lane ribbon of asphalt that starts out pretty tame but once above a certain altitude it has a lot of steep grades and tight turns, as in chasing-your-own-tail-light-tight hairpins.
There are also very few guardrails and only limited shoulders, and many places where going off the pavement will result in a long and steep tumble, which is of course combined with scenery that will make you want to watch anything BUT the road. The summit is at 14115 feet above sea level, one of only three places in the United States where you can drive your car to above 14000 feet. Speed limits are low, and higher up in the thin air neither your engine nor your brakes will be able to cool themselves as effectively as at lower altitude. Add in the usual tourist traffic, and the reality is that most of the time you can’t go very fast- but it doesn’t take much speed to screw up on this kind of mountain road. Unless you go to some really unusual places, this is probably the most dangerous road you’ll ever drive.
The cruise down the interstate to Colorado Springs was effortless. Colorado has some 75 MPH speed limits on I-25 and the Mustang’s cruise control handled them easily. The forecast for the day predicted a high of 100F, so I left the top up and kept the aircon working hard. The vented seat kept cool air at my back, and that’s a very nice thing. Once off the Interstate it’s a few more miles to the Pike’s Peak Highway toll-gate, and the road curves through some canyons and passes interesting places like Garden of the Gods and Manitou Cliff Dwelling. A few miles shy of the toll-gate I pulled over and dropped the top. I figured the adventure ahead was worth some sweat, although it really wasn’t bad since the Mustang’s vents allow the air to be directed almost anywhere you want it, better than in most cars, and keeping the side windows raised helps create a ‘bubble’ of more comfortable air. But it didn’t take long for things to get more comfortable anyway, since the temperature falls as you climb, and I would later observe about 30 degrees difference at the summit.
So how did the Mustang do on Pike’s Peak? It did just fine, and it didn’t miss a beat at all. The miracle of modern electronic engine management kept it accelerating eagerly at every altitude, and I had no issues with brake fade. In fact, there’s a mandatory brake temperature checkpoint on the way down, where a park ranger takes a second to aim an infrared thermometer at your left front brake. “You’re good, you’re doing it right,” the ranger said with a smile as he waved me away. That brings up technique. One thing I did do during both the climb and the descent was use the manual-shift capability of the Mustang’s automatic transmission. I’m not generally a fan of so-called ‘flappy paddle’ shifting, but combine it with the sort of throttle-technique that you’d use shifting a real manual transmission and I was able to get very precise shift-responses in either direction. I mostly used second and third gears on the way up, with first now and then in the tighter turns. The descent was mostly just second and first, since gravity’s pull is strong on the 3825-pound Mustang.
But if you get away from the numbers and the details, how was the experience? The best single-word answer is FUN! I’ve been up Pike’s Peak a couple of times in the past, once on a motorcycle and once in a VW Mk IV GTI 1.8T, and this time was as fun as those. A powerful convertible is a really great way to experience high-mountain driving, probably beating the motorcycle by a narrow margin since I didn’t have to wear a helmet and therefore had the wind in my hair at all times. Whatever conveyance you use on the Peak, horsepower is your friend because in most places you don’t have much distance to change speeds, so whenever you can steal a little speed it’s good to be able to take it. Of course you want great handling too, so if your car is optimized for drag-racing, it’s probably not the ideal choice. But get yourself in that curve-handling state of mind, start twisting the wheel, and you’ll have a great time. It may be a dangerous road, but don’t do anything stupid and you’ll be just fine. I find that there’s a certain rhythm to the hairpins, not in how one comes after another, but in the very similar way that each hairpin is constructed. They have a similar radius and a similar grade, so the right timing of throttle and steering will work over and over again.
Relax at the summit. Find a place to park up there and take the time to walk around, enjoy the views, and by all means, go into the gift-shop and get yourself some liquid refreshment and definitely get some of the donuts they make there. They can’t be replicated at low altitude and they’re delicious, so enjoy this special treat. The calories plus some hydration will recharge you for the drive down, which can be every bit as enjoyable as the drive up. On the way down it can be tempting to put the car or bike into neutral and let it coast, but this is probably not the best idea due to how fast brakes can get hot in the thin air. Use low gears to keep your vehicle from runaway speeds and still allow you to use some throttle on the less-steep parts between turns. At some point you’ll pass the tree-line, and I find that I notice the trees coming back on the way down more than I notice them going away on the way up. Stop where it’s safe and take plenty of pictures- the views are spectacular!
Of course I had other fun too with the Mustang while I was in Colorado, like picking up my friend Craig from his office to go have a bite and a beer before returning him to finish the evening part of his shift. We made sure to leave some tire-marks in a distant parking lot before we parted. I was also able to visit my fried Ross and go for a spin in a couple of Lotus Elans he owns, and the contrast between their light, zippy quickness and the Mustang’s heavy powerfulness was really something to behold: great fun at two very different extremes. But eventually all things must come to an end, and so it was with a bit of sadness that I bid the Mustang farewell at the airport. I couldn’t have had a better rental-car for driving a fun, challenging, performance-intensive road. I really, truly enjoyed my high-altitude adventures with this ponycar and if you get the chance, you will too!