Skin Deep

We’ve all heard it before: the old adage that beauty is only skin deep. What really matters, the saying implies, is what’s on the inside. 
The truism usually refers to people, but it ought to be valid for cars as well.
One example that immediately comes to mind is the Corvette.  It doesn’t matter what year or model, they are all exquisitely beautiful to look at. However, you have to give up a few things to drive one. Seating is limited to driver and passenger, and stowage space is skimpy at best. The early Vettes have a reputation for a stiff ride—like driving a buckboard—so long-distance touring is not typically associated with the Corvette philosophy. It’s a sports car, period. The good news is that real improvements in creature comforts have been made over the years, and the Corvette remains a popular upscale car among the Boomer generation; but you still have to make some sacrifices if you drive one.
A friend of mine has been a car lover all her life, and she’s had some fine wheels over the years. When we were at Penn State, she was driving a sweet Firebird. All I could afford was a used motorcycle, a 1972 Suzuki GT-750 (aka “Water Buffalo) which cost me $500. When I visited my friend a few years after college, she had a Beemer. Now, some three decades later, she drives a 2011 Jaguar XF. Interestingly, she describes it as “gorgeous on the outside…too bad it has a few design flaws.”
Ah, that’d be a bingo, folks. Point made.
If what’s on the inside is indeed important, then let’s segue back to my classic convertible—a car that’s been featured here over the past few postings. In this edition, I’ll describe the car’s interior features and upgrades. In a subsequent post, I’ll discuss the mechanical enhancements.
First, we need to turn the clock back to the year the car was built: 1967. Back in its day the Mustang was an economy car, designed for the masses. This, of course, translates into “cheap to own.” With a sticker price of just around $3,000, my car rolled off the assembly line in January 1967 with some rather unimpressive design characteristics, at least by today’s standards. Corrosion protection consisted of zinc coating in the lower areas of the steel body, whereas other areas exposed to moisture, such as the cowl vents, were untreated. Not surprisingly, the cowl area rotted quickly. (For that matter, so did the floors, despite the zinc coating.)
Sound deadening was also a far cry from current methods. It consisted of thin material spayed on the insides of door skins and roofing (except convertibles, of course), a fiber pad on the inside of the firewall, and thin pads of rubberized asphalt on the floors. All Mustangs boasted molded nylon carpet—a luxurious touch in an era when base-level cars still had rubber mats—but the overall level of noise reduction was well below modern standards
Interior safety features were likewise lacking. Activists such as Ralph Nader were making an impact in automobile safety awareness, but air bags were still a quarter of a century in the future. In fact, the only restraints provided in Mustangs were lap belts. Shoulder belts became available the following year, but only in the coupe and fastback. The early generation Mustangs had low-back bucket seats without headrests, which meant the occupants were vulnerable to neck injuries in rear-end collisions. Minimal padding of the dash and arm rests represented the only other active protection. A seat belt reminder light was optional as part of the “convenience panel,” but was rarely ordered.
Fortunately, the classic car industry provides numerous options for improving the quality and safety of older vehicles. The following is a brief description of the upgrades I’ve made to the Mustang’s interior over the years (still an ongoing process):
1.       Soundproofing and heat reduction: My son Ian helped me dismantle the convertible’s interior in 2007. I then lined the entire floor area with Dynamat, a commercial product described by the manufacturer as “a patented, lightweight elastomeric butyl and aluminum constrained-layer vibrational damper.” In simpler terms, it’s a layer of flexible aluminum bonded to a black tar-like substance. The material reduces squeaks, rattles, and other unwanted noises for the benefit of today’s high-end stereos. It is also an effective heat barrier. The dual exhaust pipes beneath my Mustang act like heavy-duty heating elements, but the Dynamat effectively blocks the heat and deadens unwanted road noise. Although Dynamat is fairly heavy, it can be cut with stout shears and has a peel-off backing that makes it easy to use. As a wheelchair user, I had no difficulty applying it to a large area.
 2.     Improved bucket seats: Wanting to find safer front seats with full backs and headrests, I did some research and found that the seats from 1987-1993 Mustangs were a close fit and used similar slide tracks. One online article even described the procedure for adapting the seats into an early generation Mustang. I went to a local salvage yard and bought a pair of bucket seats from a 1990 Mustang for $100. The cloth upholstery was in bad shape but the frames were fine. The seats were reupholstered by Randy Morgan in a combination of black vinyl and heavy tweed cloth, with new padding. Randy matched the stitching pattern of the back seats and added the polished emblems used in the interior décor group. I now enjoy fully reclining seats with good side bolsters and a full headrest. They are comfortable, too. 
 3.       Active shoulder restraints: I ordered a pair of 3-point seat belts from Andover Companies in Columbia, MD. This is a bolt-in conversion. The retractable belt housing is installed in the floor near the rear quarter panel, and an upper pivot point is added to the inside of the quarter panel near the door jamb. Only four holes need to be drilled to install the belts for both front seats. The inertia style, locking reel belts work just like the type installed in modern vehicles.
 4.       Electronic instruments: When driving on a long trip, it’s important to know exactly what’s going on under the hood. The mechanical instruments in early Mustangs provided a basic range only, such as the water temperature sitting somewhere between Cold and Hot. I like having precise info, and found a great system by Dakota Digital, which makes aftermarket instrumentation for a wide range of vehicles and applications.  The fluorescent digital display is mated to an original-style instrument cluster for a neat “old-school” look with high-tech functionality. Now I have exact readouts for water temperature, oil pressure, voltage, speed, rpm, and fuel percentage.

5.       Cruise control: Just about every vehicle has it nowadays, and you really notice the absence in vintage cars. As a disabled driver using a hand control, I use the cruise function a lot to avoid fatigue. One reason for choosing a Dakota Digital system for my instrumentation was that the company makes an integrated cruise control system. It even comes with the controls mounted on a turn signal stalk that screws into the original steering column. I am happy to report that both the digital dash display and the cruise control have worked flawlessly for over 20,000 miles so far.
6.       Air conditioning: Yep, we’re spoiled. Surprisingly, my convertible came with factory air-conditioning in 1967, the first year that Mustangs featured an in-dash system rather than a dealer-installed unit under the dash. The original system was inefficient, relying on a complex vacuum system and a boxy compressor that was prone to vibration. Luckily, the aftermarket industry offers choices of modernized systems that replace the factory components. I chose the “Perfect Fit” package made by Classic Auto Air in Tampa, FL. It’s a nearly invisible conversion except for the more efficient Sanden-style compressor.

As a testament to the overall comfort of the convertible, I have driven it more than 20,000 miles since the spring of 2009. That summer, I made two round trips to Pennsylvania from Florida. The following summer, I drove the convertible to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the big AirVenture week sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association. The mileage eventually took its toll on the front suspension, which had originally been restored in 1994. After seventeen years it was literally worn out again. So during the past month, the entire front suspension was replaced and new rubber bushings were installed in the rear springs. I just finished installing new interior door panels (the integral arm rests on the old ones were cracked), and the Mustang is ready for its next big road trip.

And it starts tomorrow! I depart from Lynn Haven on Wednesday morning, July 27, and if all goes well I’ll pull into State College, Pennsylvania on Thursday afternoon.  The following evening I’ll be giving a presentation at the inaugural Glenn Bowers Memorial Golf Tournament (Glenn was a Marine fighter pilot who flew in Pappy Boyington’s squadron, VMF-214): And on Saturday, July 30, I’ll take part in the 19th Annual Moonlight Memories car show, a surprisingly big event sponsored by the Greater Hatboro Chamber of Commerce just outside Philadelphia.
After that I face a big decision: do I spend a few days at the National Archives doing some much-needed research, or do I spend that time joyriding through New England? God knows I’d love to do the latter, but work is important, too. Either way, I know the Mustang can handle the long trip. She’s lovely to look at, but also safe and remarkably comfortable, especially considering that she’s now 44 years old.
Let’s roll!