In the middle of summer last year, I was considering buying a classic car. The car that would eventually grace my garage is a 1966 Ford Mustang in a very 60’s shade of green, replete with a black vinyl roof. The car has simultaneously been one of the best and one of the worst purchase decisions I’ve ever made.
Buying the car
It was never my intention to end up with a Mustang. A bunch of Mustangs, especially of the very first generation (over 1 million within a single year of production!), were built, making the car pretty much ubiquitous in the classic car world. Go to a car show, and everyone has Mustangs. What’s so special about adding to the crowd with another Mustang?
I test drove quite a few vehicles during my search for a nice classic car. My first thought was to get a cruiser, with the initial candidates being the Ford Model A and Ford Thunderbird. Many Ford Model A’s looked good cosmetically, but I quickly found out that most were maintained only well enough to creep along in parades and were downright frightening to drive at speeds above 35mph. Ford Thunderbirds were nice cruisers, but are extremely slow, extremely fuel inefficient, and worth so little that finding a nice example is a tad difficult — many folks drive the cars until something breaks, of which the repair costs way more than the owners are willing to pay, who then drop the car onto the market.
So Fords built for cruising ultimately didn’t make the cut. I started test driving old sports cars. I drove a Triumph TR6, the example which I drove being a cherry one for a damn good price. I ultimately passed on the car as there wasn’t a place to put my left foot — there was no dead pedal. Silly me, I hadn’t realized at that point that ergonomic quirks were part of the ownership equation when buying an old sorts car.
I drove a very nice Alfa Romeo Spider, and discovered that I couldn’t get used to the very high gas pedal in the car. I drove two examples of the MGA, which is one of my favorite shapes of all time, and found that while the car was very charming, it simply wasn’t a good road trip car; now I understand why so many LBC’s had luggage racks installed — the trunks of these cars are pretty much useless. Test driving all these old sports cars gives me a newfound appreciation for just how revolutionary the Miata was when it was introduced: a sports car that is reliable, with wind up windows and a top that doesn’t take forever to assemble, with a trunk big enough for weekend bags for two and a spare tire, with very few handling quirks to squash in stock form? Amazing!
I also did a little bit of poking around older German cars. I test drove an 80’s BMW 7 Series that was fortunate enough to be graced with a manual transmission, and while I felt like quite the Boss, ultimately I passed on the car because it drove too much like a modern day car. I also test drove a BMW Bavaria, which is essentially the four door sedan to the much desired (and very expensive) 3.0 CSL. I loved the car, but the example I drove had a lot of needs, from minor body rust to a worn out interior and literally almost every rubber seal crumbling apart. I’ve been on the lookout for another example, as I’d really like to own one, but once again, these cars are worth so little that no one saves or preserves them, making it hard to find a good example.
Finally, I considered a Mustang. On Craigslist was a Mustang that I’d had my eye on for a while, in a shade of green that I had never seen an old Mustang painted in. And with the black vinyl roof, it looked really classy, almost like a mini-Thunderbird.
I took my friend Mike, who knows enough about these old cars to be crazy enough to daily drive his old classic Mustang, even through the wintertime, with me to check out the car. After giving the car an initial inspection, I took the car out for a test drive with the owner.
In was smitten the instant I drove the car. The car wasn’t fast, and while it had disc brakes on the front, they were unassisted, as was the steering. The heavy clutch made the car a bear to drive in stop and go traffic, and a lack of A/C meant that sitting in traffic would necessitate peeling oneself off the vinyl seats once the destination was reached. Didn’t matter. It was a different driving experience from what I was used to with modern day cars, and best of all, the car sounded awesome. I had never owned a V8 car before, and the sound alone was intoxicating.
Only one little problem. The asking price of the car was just over $15k. I had originally set my budget at $10k. I would be breaking my budget by quite a bit trying to get this car.
I spent a week agonizing over the decision. I finally made a cash offer on the car, and drove the car home. I bought the car under two assumptions. First, it would worth paying the purchase price of the car because I would have one hell of a lot of fun with it. Second, I wouldn’t need to dump any more money into the car and could just drive it and then sell it later down the line. The former proved to be true, the latter not so much.
The low down on the Mustang
Before we move on, let’s talk a little bit about the details of my particular car.
The previous owner owned the car for about 15 years or so, driving it on occasion. The car looks like a GT, but it didn’t start life out as one. The car was not sold as a GT, and the price reflected that; still, I had a glimmer of hope that the car would turn out to be an actual GT. It had, after all, of the things that GT Mustangs come with. But no, a quick look at the door tag reveals that the car started life out as a A code 3-speed coupe. At least the color, Sauterne Gold, is original to the car.
Inspecting the Mustang showed that, at some point in the past, the car was repainted in blue. Thank goodness someone decided to paint it back in its original color, because there are a ton a blue Mustangs around, but not enough in this awesome green.
Someone did a very convincing job of making the car into a GT clone (or “tribute” if you want a nicer term). The fog lights in the grille look awesome, and the switch for the fog lights is in the correct spot on the dash. The car has disk brakes on the front, a 4-speed Toploader transmission was installed, and the dual trumpet exhausts exiting from the rear valence were installed.
I do have one quibble, though. Someone went through the effort of giving the car a very good respray in its original color. So why couldn’t they have been bothered to put the GT badge and the Mustang letters on the front fenders in the correct spots? The GT badge is not close enough to the front fender wells, and the Mustang letters are spaced too close together, and not only that, were installed directly on top of the tape stripe. Why?! The best part is that these are pinned badges and letters, so someone put holes in the wrong places in the fenders when putting the badging on the car. I’d have to do some serious work to get the badges placed in the correct spots.
Initial adventures in the Mustang
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my shopping of all these old cars gave me insight into why the Mustang did so well when it was first introduced to the buying public back in the middle of the 60’s. The car looks good, with the classic long hood, short deck sports car styling, all while having a trunk that is amazingly spacious (it’s bigger than the trunk of a modern day S197 Mustang) and enough space in the interior to seat four people comfortably (the back seats have the same amount or more of foot room compared to a modern day Fiesta, and much more than a modern day Mustang). It’s a car that is perfectly at home on long road trips, which is what I immediately tasked it with.
A mere week or two after I brought the car home, I took it on a 3 hour road trip to Grand Rapids for Jason and Sam’s wedding. The trunk fit all my camera gear, including my bulky studio strobes and light stands, without issue. The car drove just fine on the way up, with the only notable issues being a vibration right around the 65mph mark and a radio that only had the driver’s side speaker working.
I would continue to drive the car to work every now and then, driving it on days when there was no rain in the forecast. (Ah, the joys of living 15 minutes away from work, which means almost any car can work as a means of transportation!) And when I traveled about the Detroit metro area after work and on weekends, if I didn’t feel like cruising about town in the Miata with the top down, I’d take the Mustang.
I also took the car autocrossing, just to see how it would do. In short, it does horribly. The so-called “fast steering rack” isn’t ask that fast at 3 turns lock-to-lock. (The standard steering rack is even slower at over 4 turns lock-to-lock!) The rear end of the car is not located, which means lots of push as the car enters a corner and the springs wrap, jostling the rear suspension, then attempted oversteer as you add gas coming out of the corner as the springs unwrap. Attempted oversteer, as the car has an open diff with a cruiser type rear end ratio and not all that much power from the engine.
As the fall weather wound down, I trailered the car back to Illinois and stored it at my parents’ in what used to be my garage bay. It would hibernate there for the winter until I awoke it from its slumber in April of this year.
The Mustang 50th Birthday Celebration
When Josh and I took the Miata down to Central Illinois to shake it down before the Wilmington Match Tour, I had him drive the Miata back while I drove the Mustang back. It was back home in Dearborn for only a few weeks before I took it on a long, wet road trip to Charlotte and back for the 50th birthday celebration of the Mustang.
With the carb just rebuilt and the oil change, I headed down south with my buddy Patrick. He also had a Mustang, but decided that he’d rather carpool down to the birthday celebration in my old Mustang. I’m always up for a traveling companion, so why not?
Pat would prove to be quite useful on the trip. He has some experience working on carb’ed cars, so he was my wrench when we had to make adjustments to compensate for the car’s unwillingness to start on occasion. Also, he had a Bluetooth speaker, which was perfect for streaming music from our phones into the cabin, something my broken down 90’s radio and its single working speaker couldn’t do.
We began our trip on Thursday evening, staying overnight in Columbus before finishing the trip during the daytime on Friday. The plans was to roll in to Charlotte in time for the cruise. The trip was mostly uneventful, outside of some ignition switch wonkiness (I didn’t figure out until after the trip that if the dash doesn’t have power, then neither do the rear tail lights until you wiggle the ignition key. We probably drove a two hour stint with no tail lights. Whoops!) and the rain.
Oh, was there a lot of rain on this trip. Once we crossed the Ohio River, rain followed us wherever we went. Rain on the drive in to Charlotte, rain during the Friday night cruise, rain during the daytime event on Saturday, finally clearing up by the time we left on Sunday morning. On the bright side, the windshield wipers worked, and so did the defroster. And I’m happy to report that the car was mostly waterproof — there was no evidence of water leaking from the cowl, just some minor dribbles from the windshield and back light window seals. (I’ll need to replace those seals and caulk the windows.)
I’m sure that I ran the windshield wipers more in three days than they’ve ever been run in the past two decades.
(I snuck in a little bit of blues dancing on Friday night and dragged Patrick along, because of course I would.)
As for the event itself, it wasn’t too bad, all things considered. We didn’t officially sign up to be a part of the record-breaking Mustang cruise, but we joined in the longest going traffic jam to downtown Kannapolis. Once there, we braved the rain to take a look at the Mustangs that showed up, before finally getting dinner with some of Patrick’s friends.
The next day, we went the the speedway for the main event, wandering about the vendor area looking at parts, watching Vaughn Gittin Jr. drift his Formula Drift Mustang around the track, and inspecting the cars in the paddock that were taking part in the track sessions. It’s what you’d expect when a bunch of folks gather in a single place, all with the same cars, with a bunch of people with parts and memorabilia sit around hawking their wares. We got there early in the morning and had pretty much seen everything by 3pm.
From there, we headed downtown for BBQ and drinks with another one of Patrick’s friends before hitting the sack.
On Sunday morning, we packed up the Mustang and set off on our 10 hour drive back to Dearborn.
So, now what?
Epic road trips, a car that has gotten me more compliments in the short time I’ve owned it than any other car I’ve ever owned, and a bitchin’ exhaust note. Who could ask for anything more?
So here is my problem. I love driving the car around, but I can’t very well leave the car alone.
While the car is in very good driver condition, there are a lot of little niggling things that I’d want to correct and fix if I keep the car. I’ve already mentioned above my pet peeve regarding how the badging was placed on the front fenders. The wiring on this car is a bit of a mess (why would you make the hidden cutout switch glow in the dark, thereby giving away the position of your no-longer-hidden cutout switch?), the carpet is a bit of a mess, and the radio needs to be replaced. But that stuff is all easy stuff compared to the body.
The body is relatively solid. But there is minor rust in places, and who knows where else rust could be hiding. The floor pans seem solid, but they are covered in undercoating, so who knows if that’s indicative of solid floors or if it’s hiding holes. There is surface rust on the subframe rails directly underneath the battery box, which itself is a bit weak; all signs point to a leaky battery at some point in the past. And then there’s slight bubbling in the passenger side door, and some staining near the driver’s side door hinges.
All in all, the car still presents well, even upon close inspection. But I’d want to make sure I had a solid foundation first, either by repairing this car or getting a different car to start with. The cost of resorting the body of my car, even if it’s 95% rust free, would be staggering.
And then there’s the drivability improvements that I would want to make. The front shocks are on their way out, but I don’t want to just replace the front shocks. I want to rebuild the entire front suspension and make the car handle a bit better. I also want to redo the rear suspension and add a Panhard bar or a Watts link. A set of good tires on some sweet wheels, and I’ll have a sweet driving Mustang, or as nice as you can make one of these 50 year old cars handle.
That’s the thing though: if I wanted a good handling Mustang, the better thing for me would be to go and buy a S197 Mustang, which would handle infinitely better right out of the box. A little work on the modern Mustang, I’d have a nice car that could go play in F Street or E Street Prepared. The old Mustang will simply never be as good a handling car or as fast as a modern one. Perhaps the answer is to sell both the Mustang and the Miata and go play in F Street with the new S550 Mustang?
But I still really like my car. I’ve figured out that the argument can be made that I don’t really like most Mustangs, and that I just like the one that I have. It’s the color of green, and the combination of the color with the black vinyl roof that does it for me. It’s why, even though there’s a similar condition beige Mustang that has suspension and driveline work already done to it for $17k for sale, and a very nice restored red fastback that, at $26k, would have the same total cost as me putting in money into my coupe to make the metalwork perfect, and I’d end up with a more valuable fastback as a basis for modification. But I keep coming back to the fact that my car is an awesome green; the fact that it was born in a sweet color has somehow become as important to me as an unusual or unique eye color may be to one’s significant other.
Makes no sense, really, as to why I’m so hung up on the car’s color when I’m willing to do things like swap out the transmission, go to larger wheels, completely redo the suspension with new pickup points, etc.
Maybe I should throw my financial caution to the wind, just once, (gee, like that has never been said before and quickly broken,) and bite the bullet and restore this car. As car restorations go, it could be a pretty easy one, as the car is very solid. I could disassemble the car myself, take the shell to someone for metalwork and paint, then reassemble the car, putting in the suspension that I’m so keen on getting, as well as fixing the niggling little things like window seals and wiring issues.
I’ve halfheartedly put the car up for sale by posting a feeler on Facebook. I haven’t taken the final step of actually seriously posting the car up for sale, either by Craigslist, or the most likely route I’d take, submitting the car to Bring a Trailer. I’m looking for either a) a better Mustang to begin with before dumping thousands of dollars into suspension or b) a nice Model A Ford set up for touring (I still like these, a lot) that I wouldn’t be tempted to modify too heavily (I know better now than to say that I can keep myself from showering any car with money and toys).
In the meantime, the Mustang sits in the garage with a busted shifter, awaiting its fate. We’ll see if I still have the Mustang by the end of the year.