Immigrant Bengalis

Me and My Mustang
Amitabha Bagchi

The year 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the New York World’s Fair. There were many articles in the local Press reminiscing aboutthe event. Some of them recalled that 1964 was also the year when the Ford Motor Company introduced the Mustang. In fact, Ford created a splash by unveiling the automobile on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building to coincide with the World’s Fair. This year, on the Mustang’s 50th anniversary, Ford decided to replicate the feat by bringing up the component parts of a 2015 Mustang Convertible and reassembling it on the same observation deck. All this hoopla reminded me of the period in the early 1970s when I was the proud owner of a Mustang.

First a bit of the background. My interest in a sports car, or perhaps a “sporty” car, began with love for the shapely curves of my friend Harry’s Jaguar XKE circa 1964. He and I were fellow graduate students, and I was in the beginning without a car of my own. Harry would occasionally give me a ride in his Jaguar from the UC San Diego campus down to my apartment near the ocean beach in La Jolla. What I most remember of those trips is the five minutes or more that Harry took to warm up the engine before putting it into gear. I longed to drive a similar curvaceous beauty of my own, but could not afford it on my graduate student salary. When the time came for me to buy my own vehicle, economic considerations led me to a 1960 VW Beetle – that ‘waterless wonder” with engine in the rear and trunk in front – which had no fuel gauge (only a lever to kick in to access an extra gallon of reserve gas), no trip meter, and no side mirror on the passenger side. On the plus side, it forced me to learn how to drive a stick shift – and that too on the hilly roads of the California coast.

I graduated in 1970 and moved to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Now was the first time I was earning a “real salary” as a post-doc, and I needed to buy a car to suit my image of myself as a young man. What I really wanted was a Jag or a Corvette, but soon figured out they were out of my financial reach. I brought my sight down to three sporty cars: Chevy Camaro, Mercury Cougar and Ford Mustang. Cougar had the greatest appeal for me, but cost considerations finally led me to settle on the Mustang.

Although I did not recognize it at that time, Mustang was already beginning to have a cult following of sorts, especially because it kept showing up in Bond movies, beginning with Goldfinger (1964). There was this immortal exchange in Thunderball (1965) after Fiona Volpe drove James Bond to tatters on a wild ride in a Mustang Convertible and our hero looked visibly shaken:

Fiona: Some men just don’t like to be driven.

Bond: No, some men don’t like to be taken for a ride.

And who can forget the Las Vegas chase scene in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), the highlight of which has Tiffany Chase’s Ford Mustang Mach 1 balancing on two wheels and careening through a narrow alley? Unlike me, however, my graduate student friends at U of I were better attuned to the current social trends. One of them took me to a small village called Rantoul, where car prices were rumored to be lower than in Urbana, and took vicarious satisfaction in negotiating with the car dealer on my behalf and talked me into buying a bright maroon (some called it burgundy) Mustang.

Oddly enough, the 1971 Mustang had a re-designed exterior and looked somewhat different from its older peers. It did not have the pronounced indentations and stripes on the sides. Instead it had a more rounded, aerodynamic look with a long protruding line running on each side from the front to a little beyond the end of the door. I was slightly disappointed by the change, but the car was otherwise nice. People eyed it with interest, but if smartly dressed young girls were eager to hitch a ride in it with me, I was too naive to notice the sparkle in their eyes. I used the car for more mundane activities; I drove it with my friend and his wife, for example, to the first full-blown Durga Puja in Chicago. Then came winter; and my problems with the car started.

Early in 1971, I drove my Pakistani friend to Chicago to get some travel papers. Abdulla was getting ready to defend his thesis for the Ph.D. degree and then return home. The day in the city was uneventful, except that the weather forecaster kept mentioning freezing rain in a somber tone. Having driven mostly in California, I was unfamiliar with the term and thought it was cute. I took no heed of the forecast.

We started on our return trip in late afternoon under cloudy skies. Pretty soon it started to rain, and the raindrops kept sticking as ice drops to the car. I was unfazed and asked Abdulla if he had ever been in a car which had skidded on a highway. He answered in the affirmative and started telling me his story when voila! – I started skidding myself.

It was an eerie feeling – going at over 50 miles per hour on I-57 with zero traction on the road. The particular stretch was straight, and I felt I was skating as the car kept hurtling forward without any control on my part. I was briefly disoriented by this new experience, but recovered quickly as the car started to veer to a side. Recalling my education on how to cope with skids from DMV handbooks on driving, I steered toward the skid. Much to my surprise, the car straightened out, but then started veering in the opposite direction. I must have gone with the skid a bit too far. Again I went with the skid, this time in the opposite direction. The car dutifully straightened and then started turning the other way.  Pretty soon, my car and I were making a sinuous pattern of ever increasing amplitude on the Interstate!

This went on for what seemed like an interminable period – my prayers for the wheels gaining traction clearly falling on divine deafness – when I noticed the car was lurching toward a mile marker on the right and aiming for a ditch. I panicked and did the unpardonable: I steered away from the skid! What happened next is a blur. The car swung frictionless across two lanes on the highway, dove straight into snow that had accumulated from the previous day on the median, and was brought to a stop by the ankle-high, packed powdery stuff. I looked around, shaken after the jolting stop, and found that both Abdulla and I were unhurt. We avoided a crash through sheer dumb luck because there were too few cars on the road. But when I stepped out of the vehicle, I slid on the glass-like grass and had to hang on to the door for support. Pretty soon, a Good Samaritan appeared on the scene, parked his pick-up truck, and the three of us (slipping and sliding) had enough brawn to disentangle the car from the “ice field.” Tense and quiet, I drove the car slowly and cautiously back to Urbana.

The lesson I learnt, from this and many less scary incidents over the next two winters in Chicago, was that my Mustang was virtually uncontrollable on icy roads. Its very power and lack of weight in the rear made it extraordinarily skid-prone. After a few fender benders in Chicago, I thought my best approach to a skid was to relax and pray. Once the car straightened up after a turn by sideswiping another car; this being South Chicago, nobody bothered. Another time, I came close to crashing into a police vehicle. My knowledgeable friends advised me to put heavy sacks of sand in the trunk, but I never got around to doing that.

I was in Chicago from the fall of 1971 to the fall of 1973. My Mustang came in handy in many ways. Most of my friends were married Bengali graduate students without cars at the University of Chicago. I would give them rides for shopping, especially to the up and coming Little India area, and would be invited to dinner in return. This, I thought, was fair trade indeed! One occasion I remember with special fondness is when I gave rides to a friend’s wife to and from Billings Hospital for the delivery of her first child.

During this period though, a second problem surfaced that added to my auto-related headache. The car battery had a habit of draining in cold weather. This forced me on several occasions to walk across many blocks in the University of Chicago area in the dead of night, fighting off the twin dreads of mugging and hypothermia. The car had to be left parked at wherever I had taken it that evening, to be retrieved the next day with friends’ cars and jumper cables. This experience has made me something of an expert at jump starting cars with dead batteries. The most painful episode was the time I went to see a movie in downtown Chicago on a frigid night. When I came out of the theater, the temperature was in the single digits and the Mustang would not start. I had to call a cab to get back home. Next morning, when I went with a friend to recover the car, I found a hefty parking ticket on the windshield. I had parked the car at a meter which became operative in the morning!

From Chicago I moved to Columbus, Ohio and the problems with my Mustang continued. Chicago had mostly snow that melted and refroze into ice; Columbus, on the other hand, was frequently visited by freezing rain. During one such weather condition, I had my second skid on an Interstate. This time, I thought I was driving slowly and with caution; nevertheless I lost control on the left lane, bumped against the concrete divider in the middle, and in a surprise twist that I can hardly recall, came to a halt with the Mustang facing the oncoming traffic. I stepped out of the car and saw a car coming toward me in what I thought was a rescue mission, only to realize moments later that the driver (a young woman) was herself skidding and was saved by the concrete wall. I realized how vulnerable I was, standing outside, to skidding cars and stepped back into the relative safety of my stalled vehicle.

Even with all this excitement, the final one was yet to come. This time, my Mustang was not at fault, but it paid dearly for someone else’s. It happened in Columbus the day before I was to leave for India to get married. I was driving merrily on the left lane (always the fast lane?) of a wide 6-lane city road (not an Interstate) when I saw a car approach me from a cross-street on the right. As that car crossed lanes, I blithely assumed that he would slow down and let me pass until bang! – he crashed hard on the (unoccupied) passenger side of the Mustang. As my car spun, I felt as if I was in a weird way in free fall. I have never felt closer to certain death as I thought of my mother, and a jumble of life’s images flashed before my mental eye.

When the spinning stopped, I found that I was unhurt and unscathed. Clearly the other drivers had seen what was coming and hit their brakes. The fellow who had hit me (“broadside on,” I kept thinking mechanically) was also unhurt. He was clearly looking at the oncoming traffic on his right and completely missed me and my car on his left. His words to me afterwards were unforgettable, and I paraphrase: “Everyone goes through one bad [driving] accident in their lives. Let’s hope this is ours!”

I was drained of all emotions. I felt nothing, as if survival was so precious that anger, hatred and any other emotion had become secondary or irrelevant. I spoke little as I waited for the police to arrive. My Mustang was totaled; I knew there would be no recovery. I flew to India to get married with my Mustang in a junkyard.

Did I have a lemon of a car, or was the 1971 version of Mustang a failed model and a costly aberration by Ford? I am not sure. It seems to me that Ford lost a lot of ground to competitors in the early 1970s in the sporty car marketplace until they came up with Mustang II (or the second generation Ford Mustang) in 1973. My wife never laid eyes on the Mustang I had; she had to content herself with photographs. I also signaled a change in my status and impending domesticity by buying a Plymouth Duster in its stead. Maybe my driving had improved, or Duster was inherently a more stable car, but I have never had a skid on an Interstate since.


 Editor's note:This article was published in the July, 2014 issue of Ananda Sangbad (Ananda Mandir, Somerset, NJ). It has been reprinted here with permission from Editor of Ananda Sangbad.

(Posted August 1, 2014)


From MR (Aug 6, 2014): I enjoyed reading the articles by Amitabha and Ruma Sikdar. Amitabha's old Mustang  almost became a funny human character with a sad ending, thanks to Amitabha's deft handling, with both his choice of the sequence of events, and his command of the English language. I congratulate him on a well-done job.