Fueling the American dream

How an American icon came to be in the hands of a Vietnamese immigrant

By Anne Thompson

Chief financial correspondent

NBC News


The Ford Mustang has been the driving force in Hau Thai-Tang’s life. Thai-Tang saw a Mustang as a kid growing up in wartime Saigon. The car he saw was one of a fleet of six brought to the region by champion drag racer Elton "Al" Eckstrand to boost U.S. soldiers’ morale. The soldiers hadn’t seen a car in two years, and because of Eckstrand, one of the Mustangs happened to sit in the middle of an American base.

Eckstrand saw the car as a symbol of what’s right with America — and so did the 5-year-old Thai-Tang. Four years later, Hau escaped with his family to New York. He grew up to share his dream with the world — as the chief engineer of the new Mustang.

“Our belief was if you design the car well, it will flatter the novice driver, but at the same time, it will reward an expert driver,” says Thai-Tang.

A reincarnation of the Mustang, the Bullitt GT, was inspired by the 1968 thriller “Bullitt.” The growl of Bullitt GT comes from the classic movie chase scene.

“We had our engineers work on tuning the exhaust system in the power plant to deliver that soundtrack, if you will,” says Thai-Tang. “Bullitt” star Steve McQueen even inspired the car's face. McQueen’s image stared down at Thai-Tang and his team from a poster in the design studio. “That scowl on his face was actually the inspiration for how we executed the headlamps. We pushed them back underneath the hood and the brow of the car, to give it a very menacing look,” says Thai-Tang.

At a time when much of Detroit is stalling, the Mustang is gaining momentum. Ford says that today, one out of every two sports cars sold in the country is a new Mustang.

Though they’ve never met, for Eckstrand and Thai-Tang, the car is their bond: "Certainly, if Al wasn't there and I didn't have a chance to see it ... well, who knows?" ponders Thai-Tang.

And for Eckstrand, to see a young lad like Hau Thai-Tang and to realize what he's done and what he's accomplished ... the dream is true.

© 2006 MSNBC Interactive