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A Mustang's sally into history

Eleanor McMillan has given her 1965 Ford Mustang to the National Museum of American History.
Retired Smithsonian conservator Eleanor McMillan kisses her 1965 Ford Mustang hardtop coupe after donating it to the museum.
Retired Smithsonian conservator Eleanor McMillan kisses her 1965 Ford Mustang hardtop coupe after donating it to the museum.Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Eleanor McMillan gave her 1965 Ford Mustang to the National Museum of American History yesterday morning, and a small, short news conference was held so the museum's director and its transportation curator could say some nice things about the Mustang legend, and about McMillan, and talk in the Smithsonian way about the meaning of this make and model, the birth of an icon, the big automakers' dawning realization that the baby boomers would — well, you know. Mostly the few photographers, reporters and museum employees who showed up just wanted to gaze at the car:

It is eye-shadow blue. It has 193,000 miles on it. The curator, Roger White, said the car came to the museum pretty much in the shape it is in — dent-free but definitely giving off an aura of the used and cherished. "Really, we just wiped it down," he said.

So it still has a small rip along the seam of the midnight blue upholstery on the driver's seat. It has the Chiquita banana stickers that McMillan — who worked for the Smithsonian for three decades as a conservator before she took early retirement in 1994 and now lives in Glyndon, Md. — stuck to the dash. (One imagines her tootling around a Washington that no longer exists, snacking on bananas, listening to love songs on AM radio.)

It has a few years' worth of Smithsonian parking permit stickers on the windshield, and a dog decal as well: a small, faded silhouette of a Norwegian elkhound, which was the kind of dog an old boyfriend of hers had, and she'd hoped to please him by putting the sticker on her car, and now it will never come off.

The museum will show the car until Jan. 3, and then perhaps it will move to a permanent exhibit of vehicles on another floor, if not for the dicey fact that the permanent exhibit is sponsored by General Motors. It's difficult to know where all these big and small things really fit into the archival scheme, or if there even is a scheme. The American History Museum now owns 72 cars, and the rest of the Smithsonian owns even more.

There's no guarantee that some future curator in 2157 won't calmly, discreetly drive away in McMillan's Mustang some night, overcome with an obsession for ancient history, and who could blame her? Federal hovercrafts will chase her across outdated asphalt, determined to quell the ghastly use of a combustion engine. She won't get far, but what a trip. She'll Thelma-and-Louise it right off the 14th Street bridge. Fox 5 will still be around, and will cover it breathlessly.

The Mustang: You look at this car and think of young men for some reason. White T-shirts. George Bush and the Dekes. You think of tract-house Lotharios who just got their driver's licenses, here to pick up your sister.

But this was a young lady's car. In the fall of 1964, McMillan, whose great-grandfather was Theodore Roosevelt, had just graduated from Radcliffe with an English Lit degree. "I am not an automotive kind of person," she said. She was driving a little Austin A40 back then, and was in a chain-reaction collision on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in which she dented the steering wheel with her forehead. The car was totaled. Her father, terrified, went to Behrend Bros. Ford in Baltimore and bought her a Mustang, one of the first, because it looked sturdy to him.

She kept it 40 years.

Who hasn't driven a car that, on some sentimental level, we wished to donate to the Museum of Ourselves, and have people listen to our stories about being young, carefree and newly wheeled? It's hard to say goodbye to a car, especially a great car. Sometimes they tow it away before you're ready. Sometimes you get a chance to clean out your pennies and candy wrappers before a salesman gets in it and drives it behind the dealership — to where, you're never sure. To Mexico? To the chop shop?

McMillan doesn't know exactly when her car became an icon. Sometime in the '80s. People in the parking lot started asking if she was going to register for "classic" plates. Then there came an occasional whistle from a pedestrian or one of those long looks from another driver. She didn't drive her Mustang a whole lot. Before there was a Metro, she took the bus from Dupont Circle to her Smithsonian office every day. She drove the Mustang up the coast once, to Maine. She made day trips into the Virginia hills.

In the '80s, it kept breaking down. One time, at home in Chevy Chase, she heard a pop in the middle of the night and found a bullet hole near the gas cap. Whatever happened, she'd take it to Pedro Petrovich's car-repair shop on 14th and P. (And then farther, when the Petrovich brothers moved up to Florida Avenue.)

The Smithsonian relocated her department to the Suitland office, and she really didn't like the idea of breaking down on the freeway. Finally, she just asked the Petroviches if she could leave it with them, in storage.

She bought a Honda, and then another Honda. The Petroviches kept the car for more than a decade. "And finally, I just had to decide what to do with the Mustang," McMillan said.

She was wearing turquoise pants and a matching shirt yesterday morning. She has short snow-white and silver hair. She carried a small leather purse with long hippie fringe on it. "It's one of the last two things I have from the '60s," she said. (The other thing is a miniskirt of heavy cloth, horizontally striped in garish hues, and she's not sure if she'll give that to the Smithsonian.) She was also wearing a boot cast on her right leg, having survived a recent encounter of some sort with her sliding glass door.

After posing for photos by the director, the curator and Pedro Petrovich, she bent over and kissed her old car. (American history: It was a culture that loved gorgeous machines.) Some of the TV photographers asked her to do it again, please, and she did, keeping her lips there for many seconds, leaving lipstick on the hood.