Many Returns, Part II: A Classic Mustang


Last week, my post titled “Many Returns” touched on the philosophical question of whether a machine can possess a mechanical soul. At the heart of the essay is the suggestion that my thirteen-year-old Lincoln coupe is rewarding me for saving it from the crusher.  Can a vehicle and its driver make such a connection?  Or is the sense of reward simply derived from the time and money required to restore the vehicle? 

If effort is the benchmark, then it’s important to point out that I’ve invested far more in another vehicle, the 1967 Mustang convertible that has been mentioned in previous posts. Restored twice over the past 17 years, it routinely earns trophies at car shows, yet it’s no garage queen. I deliberately made it fun and safe to drive, for a convertible is meant to be enjoyed in the open countryside on a warm summer day. That it happens to be almost 45 years old is no reason to take it off the road. Just the opposite: it has been retrofitted with modern upgrades and is capable of being driven anywhere.

The story of the Mustang known as Sweet Chariot begins in Pensacola, Florida, where I retired with a permanent disability at the age of 30. I was fully immersed in the classic car hobby, having driven a restored 1968 Mustang coupe (a well-optioned deluxe model) for several years. In 1994, seeking something a little more collectible, I phoned Jim Salter in the nearby town of Pace.  Owner of Salter’s Classic Autos, Jim was well-known across the Southeast for his meticulous restorations. I asked if he had any convertibles for sale, particularly a 1967 or ’68, which have always been my favorite years among the first-generation pony cars. My timing was perfect. Jim had just acquired a rusty ‘67 convertible from an elderly gentleman in the Florida panhandle, and intended to restore it for himself. Always open to offers, he invited me to take a look.
“Rough” does not begin to describe the condition of Jim’s new find. Already 27 years old, the Springtime Yellow convertible had been stored outside for a long time. Mustangs were economy cars in their day, with poor corrosion protection, and the convertibles were notoriously leaky. This one showed obvious signs of long-term exposure to rain and the Florida humidity. Under the rotting carpet, the floors were disintegrating, the ground plainly visible through huge, jagged holes. The cowling at the base of the windshield was likewise rusted through, and the convertible top was torn. The paint was seriously faded on most of the body panels, which also showed telltale signs of rust underneath the finish. The engine compartment resembled a condo for squirrels, but the two-barrel 289 engine was original, and it started and ran. The car was marginally drivable, though the brakes were worn and a cracked manifold caused a noisy exhaust leak.


But there was also good news under all that grime and rust.  The Mustang had rolled off the assembly line with a nice list of desirable options, including a power-operated top, the exterior décor group with the popular turn signal louvers in the hood, automatic transmission with a center console, power steering, power brakes (with front disc brakes), and in-dash air conditioning.  As the convertible did not come with the GT equipment group, it was not in the “high value” category and was therefore affordable. Jim agreed to sell me the car—with full repairs to the floors and cracked manifold—for $4,000.

Over the next two years the convertible was restored to its original condition—almost. Because the car was not rare, I had no qualms about modifying it for personal preferences. The initial dismantling revealed that the factory paint was Wimbledon White, not the Springtime Yellow that someone had applied later. Neither color scored high on my meter, however: combined with the car’s standard black vinyl interior, they were just a little too plain for my taste. The decision on color was made by my daughter Rachel, then three years old, who wanted the car painted Candyapple Red. Easily the most popular color among early Mustangs, paint code “T” is jokingly referred to as “resale red,” and I thought her choice was perfect.  After all, what could be more iconic than a red Mustang convertible? Another change involved the color of the convertible top, my rationale being that white would be cooler during Florida’s blistering summer days than black. Lastly, I chose to upgrade the interior to the deluxe version, which featured panels of real brushed aluminum in the doors and dash. That particular option was available only in 1967, and looks stunning with a black interior. Jim Salter had a junked ’67 coupe in his “pick-and-pull” yard and sold me the deluxe components for $200.

In September of 1996 the restoration was mostly complete, and I drove the car from Pensacola to Hendersonville, NC, where my family had moved a few months earlier. There, however, the convertible seemed jinxed. It made its public debut the following summer in a Fourth of July parade, but on the way into town the left rear wheel fell off! It was purely my fault for not properly tightening the lug nuts, and with the help of some passing motorists the wheel was back on in time for the parade—missing a lug nut and with a damaged rear quarter panel. I should have returned home. By the end of the parade the engine was overheating badly, and the radiator boiled over the moment I pulled off the route.

Over the next several years I drove the convertible only occasionally. The overheating issue persisted, and a few other quirks, including a tendency for the steering to wander, kept me from really enjoying the car. The situation might have continued indefinitely, but Fate intervened in a most unusual way. In mid-September 2004, Hurricane Ivan moved inland from the Gulf Coast and caused severe damage in Western North Carolina. Among the thousand or so trees that fell in Henderson County, a huge oak smashed the front of our garage and landed squarely across the back of the Mustang. I called a tree service, which arrived the following day and removed the fallen trunk and branches. We could then evaluate the garage, which had sustained over $50,000 in damage.

The Mustang was buried under a pile of sheet rock and other debris. The fortunate news was that the tree had struck behind the rear axle. If it had landed anywhere forward of the axle, there is no question that the car would have been destroyed. As it was, the rear wheels acted as a fulcrum, the weight of the tree lifting the front wheels off the ground. When the tree was removed, we were surprised to find that all four tires were still inflated. The car was then rolled outside for inspection. The tree had crushed the Mustang’s deck lid into an almost perfect trough, and the downward force had bent the convertible top frame, springing both latches. Surprisingly, the car could still be driven and the tail lights were functional. An insurance adjuster was on site the next day and, after some careful calculations, determined the car to be repairable. 

 

Over a period of nearly two years, the car was gutted and then rebuilt at a collision repair shop in Weaverville, NC.  The end result was a much improved vehicle, with superior fit and finish. A new top frame was acquired on eBay and fitted with a snug vinyl top—black this time, which requires far less maintenance and cleaning. In July 2006 the family moved back to Florida and I continued to make major improvements to the car. The most important was an upgrade to an automatic transmission with overdrive. Gone was the old C-4, which had only three forward speeds. Thanks to the extra gear in the AOD, the engine now turns at less than 2,100 rpm @ 70 miles per hour.  Other upgrades included a modern air-conditioning retrofit, electronic instrumentation with digital readouts, cruise control, extensive use of sound and heat insulation, and performance enhancements to the engine such as a four-barrel carb, dual exhaust, and electronic ignition. Comfort and safety improvements were also made, including a pair of reclining bucket seats from a 1990 Mustang, modern inertia-reel shoulder belts for the front occupants, and a 240-watt stereo system with an iPod adapter. There’s even a subwoofer hidden in the trunk. She’s a true restomod—a conjunction of  “restored” and “modernized”—which has come to define a popular new category in the classic car world.


The upgrades were completed by the spring of 2009, and the convertible known as Sweet Chariot has been a road warrior ever since. That summer alone she made two round trips to Pennsylvania. In August 2010, she made it effortlessly to Wisconsin and back. Although not entered frequently in car shows (I’d rather cruise than sit for hours in a parking lot), she’s earned a trophy every time. Probably her most prestigious result was a tie for Second Place in the Mustang class at the Vintage Motor Classic in St. Petersburg.

In the past two years I’ve put over 19,000 miles on the digital odometer. By the spring of 2011, some 16 years after the first restoration, the steering and suspension were worn out.  A complete makeover was completed just this month, and we’re ready to clock another 19,000 miles. I swear I can feel the car enjoying every outing. Is it so unusual that I, as a paraplegic driver, share a bond with a car that received a crushing blow to its back–and made it better than before? In a very real sense, we have both been restored. 

Sweet Chariot, indeed.



Many Returns

Have you ever wondered if your ride has a soul? If you’re like me, you might have suspected from time to time that your vehicle possesses a spirit, either good or bad. Now, I’m not so naïve as to believe that a vehicle has feelings, but I’m pretty certain that most driving enthusiasts have experienced some sort of personal connection with their ride—one that goes beyond simple enjoyment or entertainment. Such a philosophical concept is open to broad interpretation, so the best way for me to indulge in the idea is by sharing a few personal examples.

In my three-plus decades of driving, I have owned several cars—mostly coupes—and I tend to keep them a long time. One of my all-time favorites is my 1998 Lincoln Mark VIII, truly a fun car to drive and quite unique in that it represents the final year of production for Lincoln’s long line of luxury coupes. It is the second model I’ve owned, which speaks volumes about the car’s appeal. From 2001 until 2008, I owned a ‘98 Mark VIII base model, but sold it because the tan leather interior was constantly dirty after years of stowing my wheelchair in the backseat. I soon came to realize that it had been one of the best vehicles I’d ever owned, so in the late summer of 2009, I began to search for another. This time I wanted a black interior, and I decided to get the more refined LSC model with a power sunroof. As a resident of Florida, I’ve learned the benefit of ventilating a hot car quickly.


Using Craigslist, I located the right candidate near Asheville, NC.  A 1998 LSC, it was in good mechanical condition with a near-flawless interior. The Midnight Black exterior had been repainted after a minor accident and the finish was very good with the exception of several unsightly dings in the doors. After making the purchase and getting adaptive equipment installed (hand controls), I began making some improvements to my “new” car.  The previous owner had kept up with routine maintenance, but I knew going in that with nearly 90,000 miles on the odometer, the car would soon need some big-ticket repairs. I got proactive and did the so-called “100,000-mile service,” which included new front suspension and steering components. Altogether I spent about $3,000 on necessary improvements, including $200 for a dent removal service that did a magical job of eliminating the blemishes.  For a total outlay of less than eight grand, including the purchase price, I had a completely refurbished car with an original MSRP of over $40,000.

By mid-June of 2010, my LSC was in prime condition. I uploaded several photographs to MarkVIII.org, an online owners’ forum, but apparently this tempted fate. Just a few evenings later, the front of the car was badly damaged by a hit-and-run driver during a severe thunderstorm. Traffic lights had been knocked out by lightning, and I was stopped at an intersection when a slow-moving car struck the front of the Mark and nearly tore off the front clip. The offending car stopped briefly, but then drove away. Because of the darkness and the intense downpour, it was impossible to read the license plate, so I was not able to file a claim against the other driver’s insurance company.




To my dismay, the insurance company declared the Mark a total loss, even though 95% of the car was undamaged. The reason: replacement parts, especially the discontinued HID headlights, are no longer available through the usual vendors.  This raised the repair estimate well beyond the cost-to-value ratio, hence the total loss determination. Although I fully understand how the system works, I felt that it was ridiculous to waste such a basically sound car. Moreover, the insurance laws in Florida require that a total loss be delivered to a salvage yard—it cannot be “bought back” and retitled.

I undoubtedly raised some eyebrows when I decided to withdraw my accident claim and fix the car at my own expense. The thing is, I knew what I had in that vehicle, despite the damaged front end. As a wheelchair user, I can attest that there are very few big coupes out there anymore. I greatly prefer the two-door body style, which best fits my unique set of needs. Luckily, I found a reputable body shop that agreed to perform all the necessary labor and paint work for $2000 if I would supply the parts.  And the solution to the latter proved remarkably simple. I browsed the online salvage auctions, where cars that have been totaled can be purchased by licensed salvagers, and found a 1998 Mark VIII with a pristine front end being auctioned in Alabama. After a few phone calls to arrange for a salvage yard to bid on my behalf, I ended up getting all of the necessary parts, along with several extra items, delivered to the local body shop for under $900. A few weeks later, the Mark VIII was back in my driveway as good as new.

Almost a year has passed since the repairs were made and I’ve put another 13,000 miles on the car, mostly on long trips. During a 4,400-mile journey across the Southwest in April, the Mark literally purred while running at over 80mph for days on end.  More recently, I clocked almost 2,400 miles on a road trip to Pennsylvania for a family reunion. I made a deliberate decision to take my time, avoiding interstates in favor of secondary roads, and saw a lot of Americana that you just don’t see from a superhighway.


Shortly before Memorial Day, for example, I drove through Ringgold, Georgia. A month earlier a huge tornado had torn through this hardscrabble town, and devastation was visible everywhere. Yet the community had rallied, setting aside their worries to honor the sacrifices made by our country’s veterans. The main roads, with shattered buildings on both sides, were lined with hundreds of large American flags. At the base of each flag, a white cross listed the name of a deceased veteran from Catoosa County along with the conflict he or she had served in. It was tremendously moving to see so many flags waving proudly amid the destruction wrought by the tornado.


After visiting with my family in Pennsylvania, I took a different route home to Florida, again following secondary roads. The last leg of the trip took me through lovely small towns such as Madison, Georgia, an hour east of Atlanta.  The sight of handsome antebellum homes and blooming magnolias was a real treat. Farther south, near the tiny town of Lumpkin, a Watusi bull with the most enormous horns I’d ever seen stood in the shade of a roadside oak tree. These are the kinds of things you never see on a superhighway, where the only objects that vie for your attention (besides huge trucks) are the ghastly billboards–a blight on the American landscape.





So I really enjoyed my back road touring, and the Mark seemed to be sending a positive vibe, too. I know that a car is just an assembled collection of metal, plastic, glass, and other compounds, but on this fine spring day, I could feel a definite connection. Maybe it was because I had put a little money and attention into making the car look and run its best, and I was simply feeling rewarded.  But I think there was more. I think the car was telling me it was glad I had saved it from the junkyard. That made two of us.