American icon in a foreign land: Japan’s police-spec Tochigi Mustang Mach 1

With 10 million Ford Mustangs on the road, you’d expect to find them everywhere, but perhaps not here in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan. Tochigi is a couple of hours north of Tokyo, and its driver licensing center is a plain, officious-looking building. No one speaks English here; foreigners applying for a license must bring an interpreter if they do not speak Japanese. And yet, tucked in a mouldering display between the two buildings is something that needs no translation: a 1973 Mustang Mach 1, wearing the full uniform of the Tochigi high-speed pursuit division.

In service from 1973–84, this brutish machine was the long, brawny arm of the Japanese law. Woe betide the highway runner who thought their hopped-up Fairlady or Celica could outrun the consequences of their illegal actions. Yes, at the time Japanese tuning was gaining respect overseas, thanks to the efforts of Peter Brock’s BRE and the like, but in Japan, there wasn’t much that could outrun this Mustang and its big-bore 429-cubic-inch Cobra Jet V-8.

It is Dirty Harry in the land of the samurai, swaggering around with a .44 Magnum on its hip. Do you feel lucky, panku? I wouldn’t chance it, no matter how high up you might rank in the yakuza hierarchy.

1973 Ford Mustang "Tochigi police car" top light
1973 Ford Mustang "Tochigi police car" Brendan McAleer
1973 Ford Mustang "Tochigi police car" bumper sticker
1973 Ford Mustang "Tochigi police car" Brendan McAleer

Just one question: how in the heck did a prefectural Japanese police force get its hands on a fully-optioned 1973 Mustang? And why, when you start digging deeper with the help of Google translate, is this forgotten machine so famous in Japanese car culture? The Tochigi Mustang has appeared in everything from children’s books to magazines, and Hong Kong-based modeling company Autoart even put out a 1/18th-scale diecast of the thing. Autoart produced 6000 of them, but they’re difficult to find today.

The answer might surprise you. This isn’t just a one-off, but the tip of a little-known phenomenon. The Tochigi police car is a Japanese Mustang, one of several officially exported to the land of the rising sun. And it’s not the only one that survives.

Ford North America Vehicle Personalization Manager Mark Wilson knows more than a little about the Japanese Mustang. He stumbled across an original-looking 1973 Mach 1 on eBay, that was located in California, but he couldn’t help noticing that some of the equipment and lighting was slightly off. The car had yellow side-marker lights and round, red bumper lights. And the speedometer read in kilometers.

The ad mentioned the car’s original Japanese ancestry, and Wilson’s interest was piqued. He called a fellow Ford employee across the Pacific, and sourced a Marti report that confirmed the car’s official export status. Intrigued by this lost piece of Ford history, he bought it.

1973 Ford Mustang "Tochigi police car" rear 3/4
1973 Ford Mustang "Tochigi police car" Brendan McAleer

According to Wilson’s research, Ford officially exported Mustangs to Japan from 1971–73, always as high-option vehicles. In 1971, it appears only Cobra Jet-equipped Mach 1s were exported, but all three body styles (fastback, hardtop, and convertible) were exported in 1972 and ’73. All appear to be automatics.

Wilson’s guess is that Ford was looking to take advantage of large numbers of American troops stationed in Japan during and just after the Vietnam War. The muscle car era was coming to an end, but the demand was still there, and highly-optioned cars sold into a limited market would have meant profit for Ford. Further, American influence on Japanese culture at the time can’t be overlooked. I contacted a Japan-based Ford Mustang specialist named Takayuki Hirano and was told that classic Mustangs still have a large following in Japan despite the country’s strict vehicle inspection laws and punishing road tax. Hirano has both a 1971 Mustang Grande and a 1973 Mach 1, both imported new into Japan.

The modifications required to fit Japanese law were performed somewhat haphazardly, as they were done by at least three different importing companies. Power antennae were sometimes installed on the driver’s or passenger’s side, and in various locations. Japanese-language decals are affixed throughout, including instructions on jumpstarting and other ownership procedures. Wilson found that some of the lighting components were sourced from the contemporary Nissan Skyline, while the side marker lights appear to be taken from a Ford Galaxie.

1973 Ford Mustang "Tochigi police car" front badge
1973 Ford Mustang "Tochigi police car" Brendan McAleer
1973 Ford Mustang "Tochigi police car" fuel cap
1973 Ford Mustang "Tochigi police car" Brendan McAleer

1973 Ford Mustang "Tochigi police car" front clip
1973 Ford Mustang "Tochigi police car" Brendan McAleer

The cars have since turned up back in the U.S. and Australia, where they are usually converted back to USDM specification by owners who simply assume that someone has bolted on a bunch of extra bits to a Mustang. However, a handful of vehicles, Wilson’s among them, are still in full original Japanese spec.

And as for the Tochigi Mach 1, it’s in pretty sad shape—slowly rusting in its dusty showroom next to an old Chevrolet Impala convertible that was used as a parade car. The front is jacked up to prevent suspension collapse caused by that huge engine, and the car is a little dirty. It looks forgotten, tucked away behind a rope in a room with blotches on the carpet. The showroom has windows, but is not otherwise normally open to the public. No one at the station could find any pictures of the Mach 1 in its heyday.

However, it’s almost guaranteed that there’s some retired policeman out there in the rural areas around Tochigi, puttering around his garden, checking on his harvest of dried persimmon or just making a cup of tea, who remembers what it was like to drive this thing in anger. To open up the ram air, and hear that big Cobra Jet V-8 roar, eager for the pursuit. Ten million Mustangs, and this one always got its man.

1973 Ford Mustang green mach 1
1973 Ford Mustang Mach 1 courtesy Mark Wilson
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