When I thought about the idea of spending my birthday in
bed, this wasn’t what I had in mind.
I managed to do something to my back to completely
incapacitate myself for upwards of a week. My new best friend (a.k.a. the
chiropractor) told me I needed a week of bed rest on top of an ice pack and
that was a minimum.
After 112 “Law and Order” reruns, I was going stir crazy.
Still, between the back and the muscle relaxers, I had little else I could do.
Then it dawned on me: I still need a post for the week.
So, given the date and the circumstances, here’s part one of
a story that’s been rolling around in my head for quite a while.
If you believe in fate, destiny or even coincidence, I think
you’ll like it.
If not, well, that’s OK too.
It was 42 years ago today that Ginny waited in the offices of
Jack White Ford, a prominent car dealership on the north side of Milwaukee, fighting
her nervous anticipation and excitement. This was the first car she would buy
and she was getting exactly what she wanted. She’d spent her first year out of
school working as a registered nurse, pulling together the money for the car.
She’d placed a $500 deposit on the car and was told to come back to pick it up
in three days.
The three days since she signed the retail buyer’s order
were a blur.
The car was a beauty: Gold with black interior and a black
vinyl top. Automatic transmission, power steering and white-wall tires
completed the core of the car.
She’d opted for the safety package, which included lights
under the dash, hood and trunk as well as a driver’s side adjustable mirror.
She added on the undercoating for $30 in order to protect her baby against snow
and salt. The big guilty pleasure was the addition of the radio. She took the
AM only radio, but opted for the push-button model, which cost $61.40.
A corralled horse decorated the grill while the word
“MUSTANG” was spread out in letters across the trunk and around each hubcap.
Running ponies with “289” marked across them graced each front quarter panel.
The car seemed to smile at her as it glittered in the sun.
As salesman Jack Lentz handed over her ownership card,
owner’s manual and a brochure for “the Mustang Club,” he could tell she was
ready to roll. Whatever she didn’t know already, she’d figure it out as she
The total cost: $3,270.30. The feeling of owning her first
One name came to mind as Ginny stared at the car.
Depending on whom you believe, the name “Mustang” came from
an executive’s love of the P-51 fighter plane from World War II, a research
manager’s love of quarter horses or the result of a focus group’s approval. In
any case, somewhere in the early 1960s, Lee Iacocca began poking at a project
that would help usher in the era of the “pony car.”
The concept was simple: build a car that had a low curb
weight, a high-powered engine and would compete with European roadsters. The
car was meant to appeal to women, but also was to be coveted by men.
With only 18 months to go from prototype to reality, Ford
began borrowing the core components from other cars already in production.
While the exterior would be unlike anything else the company had, the chassis,
suspension and drive train components were derived from the Ford Falcon and
Ford Fairlaine. Additional borrowing continued from the Galaxie and other cars
in its stable.
The original model changed dramatically from its August 1964
early production to the remainder of the cars produced in 1965. Thus, Mustang
purists often refer to those earlier cars as a 1964 ½ model.
The cars were a hit with men and women alike. The original
sales projection of 100,000 was surpassed in three months, with a total of
418,000 sold during the entire model year, which was a record.
One year ago today, I celebrated my birthday.
Perhaps celebrated is the wrong word.
When some of us get to a certain age, we feel the pull of
things unfulfilled. Some people call it a mid-life crisis. Some people call it
being a crybaby. For me, it was a sense that I wanted something that I was
One of the best/worst times of my life was when I worked for
a gas station that also ran a mechanic operation. As strange as it sounds,
picking at the cars and making them work right was a heck of a lot of fun. I
also would come home each day bone tired, looking like a victim of a tactical missile
Aside from the grease and grime, I’d had an oil filter spurt
oil into my eyes, a tire machine whip a metal bar just past my head and a
fellow mechanic drop an air-racked SUV on top of me. And that was just one
(Let’s not talk about the time a guy burned my arm with a
I also felt like I was doing something I liked. I always had
a thing for cars and had been thinking about this job as an apprenticeship. I
figured I’d be able to earn a living and play with cars. Instead, college
called, cars got more complicated, the garage shut down and I moved on.
The object of my desire that particular birthday was a 1963
Barracuda that needed a ton of work. It was barely roadworthy and the guy
selling it told me as much.
This was the pre-1970s Cuda: think a front end that looks
like a toilet and a back end made completely out of glass. It looked like an
AMC Pacer staring into a fun house mirror.
The downside wasn’t the amount of work. It was the car. I
didn’t really want it. I just wanted it. Think about it like the difference
between finding a person to marry and the drunk person who happened to fall
into your lap at a bar one night.
The Missus clearly understood the difference.
“You don’t want this car,” she said. “However, if you have
to have it, buy it. You never said you wanted a Barracuda, though. It was
always a Mustang that sent you drooling.”
In 1969, Ginny’s path took her west to California, all of
her worldly belongings packed around the full-sized spare in the trunk and the
tiny back seat. A Wisconsin girl driving her Wisconsin car, she took the car over
mountains the likes of which she never had seen before.
The Speedomatic transmission kept the coupe rolling down the
pre-1970s highways. She spent the trip stopping off along small towns and
quaint villages tucked along the Plain States.
She found her way to Palo Alto, where a job awaited her down
the road at Stanford University.
She was married around 1976 and moved out to Sunnyvale,
California, where she stayed for the remainder of her time out there.
In spite of the changes in her life, the one thing that
remained constant was Betsy.
By 1967, Iacocca was being moved out of the Mustang project,
onward to bigger and better things in the company. The project had been a
success the first three years of its production. In each of the 1965 and 1966
production years, the car had seen an increase in units, peaking at around
607,000 in 1966.
A major retooling took place in 1967, but the Mustang’s grip
on the market was beginning to slip. The advent of pony competitors and the
relative lack of newness of the Mustang conspired to drop the number of sold units
The 1968 model saw additional changes, some by choice, some
Federal safety standards forced Ford to put side marker
lights on the rear quarter panels. In addition, all cars that were completed as
of Jan. 1, 1968 were required to have three-point seatbelts for front-seat
passengers. Ford resisted the change right up until the Jan. 1 deadline. The
company welded the necessary anchor points for three-point belts into the car’s
frame throughout the whole production year, but kept putting lap belts in all
cars produced prior to the end of 1967.
The company also moved away from the 289 V-8 to a larger 302
in midyear. The 289 was a tight, fast and strong engine. However, Ford got
caught up in an arms race with the Chevrolet and AMC, thus viewing bigger as
better. In mid-1968, they even introduced a 428 Cobra Jet, pushing the bounds
of reason and good sense.
The cars in the subsequent years would continue to gain in
size and horsepower, eventually topping out with a ridiculous 1973 Mach I and
Grande models. The number of Mustangs produced from 1969 to 1973 slid from
nearly 300,00 units to 135,000.
The following year, Ford would introduce the Mustang II, an
attempt to stop the bleeding sales and take advantage of the surging gas
crisis. The car had a smaller engine, lighter body and was ugly as sin. It was
the beginning of downward spiral that would nearly cripple the Mustang brand
until the revival of the traditionally tooled coupe in the mid 1990s.
I’d been spending a good amount of time looking at the
classic Mustang message boards and classified ad websites, in search of a car
that I could handle. After a short while, you begin to understand the reality
behind the euphemisms people used to disguise some harsh realities.
“Runs well” means it has an engine and will start, but don’t
expect much more.
“Restorable” means it has most of its parts and you will
need to put a ton of money into it.
“No rust” means it’s been refinished with Bondo and the
engine is likely a piece of crap.
The problem you find in looking at these cars is that most
of them go in one of two directions. The first kind is show car that’s
dramatically overpriced and that you won’t want to drive for fear of dirtying
it. (Folks in the collector’s world refer to these as “trailer queens” because
you take them to shows and events on a trailer and rarely drive them.) The
second kind is a piece of scrap metal that if you dump $30 grand into it, you
can have a workable car.
Neither was in my price range or my interest level.
In 1979, Ginny loaded up Betsy again and headed back to
Wisconsin. She’d recently divorced and decided it was time to go home.
By this point, Betsy had seen better days. The dings and
dents of every day driving had taken the shine off of her. The driver’s seat
had become ripped and frayed, with foam hanging out and about. A large nick was
punched into the black vinyl hard top along the passenger’s side as well.
The quarter panels were showing signs of rust and the power
steering pump had been replaced somewhere along the way.
She was 11 years old, more than old enough to be replaced.
She wasn’t a classic. She wasn’t new. She was just a used car.
After a few more years of service, it was time to make a
decision on whether to keep her or turn her in. Ginny took the former route,
dropping several hundred dollars on removing some dents and getting her
She stuck with gold, but added a heavy metallic flake in the
Imron paint.Betsy was still
suffering an exhaust leak, lowered compression and a lot of rust under the hood,
but in the sun, her freshly painted body gleamed and sparkled.
There’s my girl, Ginny thought.
(Continued Next Week)