It's a beautiful spring day, sun glinting off the Potomac, birds chirping, the whole bit. A standard-issue Honda Civic coasts through a crowded marina parking lot -- that spot's taken, that spot's taken, that spot . . . Whoa, what's this? A row of half a dozen Ford Mustangs appears: restored classics from the '60s and '70s, culminating in a brand-new 2005 model. The Civic driver stops and gets out. He stands, slack-jawed, staring at the menacing Mustangs. His Civic idles meekly behind him, door open, forgotten.
It would have been a great TV commercial as the scene played out half a dozen weeks ago at the Washington Sailing Marina in Alexandria. The impromptu car lust was exactly what Ford was hoping for when it rolled out the new Mustang last fall, and Americans have provided it in numbers even company executives didn't expect.
Sales are up 25 percent from last year. Ford has had to increase production, to 192,000, a 70 percent increase over last year. Like a Beatles album, the car is one of those rare products loved by critics as much as the public. The new Mustang proves that despite all the recent news about Detroit automakers stumbling financially, they can still get things right once in a while.
"This is the best Mustang ever produced," said Brad Barnett, who runs an enthusiasts' Web site called TheMustangSource.com. "It's all-American. Baseball, apple pie and Mustang are all-American."
Which makes it all the more remarkable that the new Mustang is largely the creation of a Vietnamese immigrant named Hau Thai-Tang.
At 38, Thai-Tang is younger than the car itself, which debuted in 1964. He and his family escaped from Vietnam as Saigon fell in 1975, and he hired on at Ford as an engineer shortly after college. Despite his unusual background, Thai-Tang was well aware of what was at stake when he landed the assignment as chief engineer on Ford's most iconic product. Or maybe it was because of his background.
"This car symbolizes so many things about America," he said. "There's so much made in the media these days of the stereotype of the ugly American overseas. But there are a lot of very positive images of America that don't get mentioned enough, and I think in many ways the Mustang embodies those things."
Qualities such as "strength, power, confidence, freedom and the sense of inclusiveness," he said, were always in mind as he oversaw decisions about how to design and build the new Mustang.
Sometimes it takes a distant vantage point to see America quite that way. After all, it was Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville who captured the spirit of American democracy in essays in the 1800s, and fellow countryman Frederic Auguste Bartholdi who created the great symbol of the Statue of Liberty. Think of the Eastern Europeans of the early 20th century who shaped American cinema -- Samuel Goldwyn, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer. Or French designer Raymond Loewy, who created the Greyhound Scenicruiser, the Shell and Exxon logos, the streamlined S-1 locomotive that was the pinnacle of 1930s railroading.
In the auto industry, it was another Asian American -- Larry Shinoda, held in internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II -- who designed the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray, arguably the top rival to the Mustang as the quintessential American car.
"There is probably a dynamic there that allows a -- for lack of a better word -- an outsider to express what all of us would like to say," said Wes Brown, an auto industry marketing expert with the consulting firm Iceology Inc. In the case of the new Mustang, he said, Thai-Tang "was able to express his love for everything American better than someone who was born here."
Thai-Tang knew war his whole childhood. His family was comfortable -- his father was a schoolteacher and South Vietnamese army conscript, his mother a clerk for Chase Manhattan Bank -- but their neighborhood in Saigon was no escape from combat. Viet Cong would infiltrate the city at night, he said; one morning the family opened their front door and found an enemy fighter shot dead on the stoop.
During trips in the countryside, Thai-Tang and his younger brother saw bodies of Viet Cong guerrillas strung up by the roadside. An uncle and aunt both died in the war.
When Thai-Tang was around age 5, his father and grandfather took him for a treat: The U.S. military was staging an exhibition near the airport, displaying tanks and planes and other military hardware. But what really stood out was a group of souped-up Mustangs, brought over by U.S. drag-racing legend Al Eckstrand to boost troop morale and promote safe driving for soldiers headed back home.
Accustomed to Vespa scooters, Volkswagen Bugs and the family's crank-started Citroen, Thai-Tang hardly knew what to think of the powerful Mustangs. They were "just totally out of this world," he said. "As a kid, you envisioned this big country, wide open spaces. The people are big, and here's this car that's big and muscular -- you envision it driving out West somewhere. The freedom, and escape."
He held that vision for four more years. In 1975, as South Vietnam was about to be overrun by the communist north, Chase Manhattan Bank selected Thai-Tang's family for relocation to America. They had to listen for a signal -- Armed Forces Radio would play Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" -- and leave small carry-on bags packed by the front door.
The song aired one day in April. The family rushed to a rendezvous point, pausing only to leave keys with Thai-Tang's grandfather, then caught one of the last planes out before Saigon fell.
Resettled in Brooklyn, 9-year-old Hau plunged directly into public schools, despite knowing almost no English. He was a whiz at math, though, and gravitated toward engineering. After college, Thai-Tang interned at Procter & Gamble, where he quickly tired of an assignment designing twist tops for orange juice containers.
So he went to an interview at Ford, where someone met him at the airport in a company car: a Mustang. "I thought, 'How cool is that?' " Thai-Tang said.
Too cool for a newcomer, as it turned out. Mustangs were the prestige program within the company, and after Thai-Tang hired on it was years before he got anywhere near them. But he did wind up working on rear-wheel-drive vehicles, a shrinking part of the business in an era when most Americans came to prefer front-wheel drive. Mustangs were the last major rear-wheel-drive car at Ford, and when the company decided to redesign the car a few years ago, Thai-Tang was coming off successful work on the Lincoln LS. He was in a perfect position to take on the Mustang job.
When he was named chief engineer, a top executive called and congratulated him for winning a "stand and deliver" opportunity. "The implied message is, you're accountable. High risk, high reward," Thai-Tang said. He didn't need reminding. "There's the additional burden of 8 million customers who bought the car over the last 41 years. You realize they're looking to you to not screw it up."
Hau Thai-Tang does not come across as a Steve McQueen type of guy. His carefully composed demeanor -- wire-rimmed glasses, trim business suit -- conceals a dry, self-deprecating wit ("an Asian guy who's good in math: imagine that," he quips). He's more likely to attend his young daughter's ballet recital in the evening than to race around Detroit in some new prototype. His iPod doesn't get any wilder than classic rock, Black Eyed Peas, Gregorian chants and -- of course -- several versions of "White Christmas."
But it was McQueen, the 1970s movie tough guy, whom Thai-Tang looked to for inspiration in pulling together the Mustang. He put up a poster of the actor in the work area where, at peak, some 200 team members collaborated to create the car. Steve McQueen's scowl, he said, set the look for the car's front end, the headlights set back under the rim of the hood to suggest the same air of menace.
Workers used the Steve McQueen movie "Bullitt," which featured a Mustang in wild car chases, to get the engine sound for the new car, tuning its exhaust pipes like a musical instrument, seeking the right rumble and roar.
Engineers and designers hung out with enthusiasts at Mustang clubs and rallies. They watched how Mustang owners lived with their cars, and had customers clip pictures from magazines to illustrate their feelings about the brand.
By the time the redesigned car rolled into showrooms last fall, with its mix of retro-flavored looks and updated technology, it had enough preorders on the books to debut as a hit. Critics had a few complaints -- the car has a solid rear axle instead of independent suspension; stability control is not available -- but by almost any measure the new Mustang was a home run, and one of the few highlights for Ford at a time of financial peril.
Thai-Tang has since been promoted to oversee development of all of Ford's advanced and performance vehicles. But he continues to travel around the globe touting the car, such as at the Alexandria marina in April when members of several Mustang clubs showed up to hear him speak (and wowed that Civic driver with their cars). At a Mustang show in Europe, enthusiasts from several countries arrived wearing cowboy boots. At rallies in the United States, Thai-Tang inevitably runs into Vietnam War veterans who are eager to meet him.
"In some ways it brings a little closure for them to realize, Hey, it wasn't a lost cause," he said. "They made a difference in people's lives. People resettled in America and were able to contribute to this new country."
Thai-Tang made sure he got that message to Eckstrand, the former drag racer who organized the Mustang show in Vietnam. Now living in Florida, Eckstrand has been amazed to see Thai-Tang credit him in television and newspaper interviews. The two men spoke by phone, and Thai-Tang sent Eckstrand a book about Ford products inscribed to the man who inspired the 2005 Mustang.
"I was so proud," Eckstrand said, his voice breaking with emotion. After three years of touring those cars around Southeast Asia in the 1970s, he said, he has always been haunted by the thought of all the children who came out to see them. Now he knows that at least one not only made it out, but accomplished something remarkable.
This Bavarian immigrant, born in 1829, followed the Gold Rush to California in 1853 to sell tents and bedding in bustling San Francisco. Twenty years later, with a partner, he patented copper-riveted denim "waist overalls," which evolved into that American icon, blue jeans.
Vietnamese American Hau Thai-Tang, chief engineer of Ford's reborn Mustang.Frederic Auguste Bartholdi
One of the ultimate symbols of America, Lady Liberty herself was the creation of an outsider. Sailing into New York Harbor to promote his idea, the French sculptor even identified the ideal spot for his "Liberty Enlightening the World." The gift from the French people to the American people marked the American centennial. Alexis de Tocqueville
The French aristocrat, legislator and judge toured the United States as a 25-year-old in 1831 and went on to write "Democracy in America," still considered one of the most insightful looks at America and its institutions.T. Dosho Shifferaw
The 1974 revolution that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie stranded this young Ethiopian in California, where he was studying industrial design and engineering. He proved that he understood two American passions when he invented the Bowflex exercise machine and made a wild success of it by hawking it on TV.New Home,
Again and again, the idea of America has been captured and beamed back to the nation, often synthesized most successfully by those who stand at the edges of the culture, and sometimes completely outside it.