Riding with the woman in charge of America’s last muscle car

Apr 22, 2023, 3:27 PM | Updated: 3:27 pm

Laurie Transou, who recently took over as Lead Program Engineer for the Ford Mustang, had this 1991...

Laurie Transou, who recently took over as Lead Program Engineer for the Ford Mustang, had this 1991 Mustang when she was younger. (Courtesy Ford)

(Courtesy Ford)

(CNN) — It seemed like a good idea at the time. Exciting, actually. I could take a ride in what will soon be America’s last gasoline-powered muscle car with the woman who’s in charge of getting it into production and onto the street. But we were in New York City, it was four in the afternoon and I should have known better.

Laurie Transou recently took over as Lead Program Engineer for the Ford Mustang. She’s in charge of the final adjustments and production roll-out of the new 2024 Mustang. As with every Mustang for the past 59 years, this new one will be available with only gasoline engines. During what turned out to be a very long drive over a very short distance, I learned a little about her and about Ford’s decision to keep the Mustang going after almost 60 years.

Transou and others at Ford will tell you there is an electric Mustang, the Mustang Mach-E SUV. But we weren’t talking about that Mustang. Because of the way Ford is now organized, with separate operating divisions in charge of gas-powered vehicles and electric ones — Ford Blue and Ford Model E, respectively — Transou isn’t in charge of the Mustang Mach-E. That’s someone else’s job.

As we took off, there was a burst of speed and throaty V8 engine noise as we blasted down Manhattan’s 11th Avenue. Transou was behind the wheel because journalists aren’t allowed to drive the 2024 Mustang until a few things get finalized. Still, I was getting what will become, over the coming years, an increasingly rare experience.

Transou never spoke a bad word about the Mustang Mach-E but, as someone who learned how to drive a manual transmission car in a Mustang as a teenager, she clearly has a personal attachment.

“We’ve got our Mustang Mach-E. It goes incredibly fast in a straight line,” she said. “This Mustang can go fast, but it also has this amazing handling and steering and then the exhaust note. So each offers something a bit different.”

Plus, the Mach-E’s zero fuel consumption helps keep down Ford’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy, the number regulators look at. That means Ford doesn’t have to worry as much about selling these gas-burning two-door Mustangs.

The car we were in, the Mustang coupe, is already an oddity in the American auto industry. First, it’s the only actual car Ford currently sells in the United States. Every other Ford product sold here is a truck or an SUV. Second, its main competitors, the Chevrolet Camaro and the Dodge Challenger, are both going out of production over the coming year. GM had already announced it plans to sell nothing but electric passenger vehicles by 2035 and, besides, the Camaro hasn’t really been a match for the Mustang in the competition that counts — sales.

As for the Challenger, it’s been popular but Stellantis, Dodge’s parent company, doesn’t currently have the electric vehicles to offset sales of those big V8s for fuel economy and emissions regulations. So Dodge plans to come out with an electric muscle car instead.

Given room to breathe, the Mustang will remain — like a sort of living fossil of an earlier age in motoring. That is, of course, part of its ongoing charm, and probably one of the reasons Ford decided not to even offer a hybrid version, at least for now.

“The choice for now was to lean into the ICE engine and all that an ICE engine delivers,” Transou said, using an industry term for an internal combustion engine.

Customers who love the rumbling sound might like a hybrid at some time “should we decide to offer that,” she said.

Once we’d gone a few blocks on southbound 10th Avenue with little other traffic, it was time to head back north or, in Manhattan parlance, uptown. That was when I realized our mistake. Once we turned back north, we were headed toward the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour.

The new Mustang Dark Horse’s 500-horsepower V8 engine is straightforward. No turbocharging or anything like that. And it’s still offered with a manual transmission of the sort that Transou was using, wearing out her left leg on the clutch pedal, rarely getting past first gear in gridlock traffic.

About 40% of V8 Mustang buyers get a manual transmission, she said, going for that truly classic driving experience.

“I think once you learn how to drive a manual, it’s such an engaging, fun experience,” she said. “It’s just like you’re part of the drive.”

Even from the passenger seat, this did not seem engaging and fun.

The modern “high tech” option, when it comes to the Mustang is the 315 horsepower “EcoBoost” turbocharged 4-cylinder engine which, Transou pointed out, provides much more power than the big V8 engine in the 1991 Mustang she had when she was young. The efficient 4-cylinder will now only be available with an automatic transmission. I complained about that — I liked the 4-cylinder with the manual transmission, a combination you can still get in today’s Mustang — but I don’t think she’ll change her mind.

As you might guess, given that she grew up with a Mustang and is now in charge of the Mustang program, Transou has an attachment to Ford.

“I’ve been in and around the company for over 30 years,” she said.

Her father worked at Ford. Her husband also works at Ford. So do her father-in-law, her brother and her brother-in-law. So have all four of her children.

Just before changing jobs to head the Mustang rollout, she broadly oversaw Ford’s Icon Brands, which include the Mustang, Bronco and F-150. She was involved in plans for new Mustang derivatives and special editions. No matter how long we sat in traffic, she wouldn’t divulge anything about any of that beyond the Dark Horse model we were already sitting in. But derivatives, like pricey Shelby models, are how Ford can make lots of money even with all the expensive development of engineering of what is, essentially, a “niche” product.

For now, the future for the Ford Mustang is simply that it’s still here, it still rumbles, and she promised there’s more news to come.

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Riding with the woman in charge of America’s last muscle car