Here’s part two of the story that kept my occupied while I was on total bed rest last week.Here’s part one in case you missed it. Also, since there seemed to be some hostility toward the “haigiography
of a gas guzzling testament to why we
don’t have widespread public transportation,” you can feel free to skip this. Or, you can feel free to substitute “planet-killing
vehicle of extinction and death that I should be ashamed for loving” for every referent to the car.
While popular, the Ford Mustang was not without it’s flaws.
Deep wells in the trunk’s sides left the quarter panels vulnerable to rust. The
floor pan of the car was one solid piece and relatively thin, making rust not
only an aesthetic problem, but also a safety issue. The seats bolted right
through the pan and thus if rust ran rampant across the it, you could literally
fall through the floor of the car.
Even worse, a design flaw in the assembly of the cowl
allowed debris to build up in the outside vents. Water would then flow into the
cowl when it rained but couldn’t leave the cowl area. This caused the cowl to
rust through and allow water to pour into the car under the dash.
They didn’t call them “Rustangs” for nothing.
Additionally, the engines tended to leak oil here and there.
Ford also didn’t include grease fittings on certain parts of the car, which led
to squeaking control arms and tie rods that could snap with little warning.
In short, a lot could go wrong.
When I was about 2 years old, my father had a feeling
similar to the one I was having and a car became his happy place.
He’d spotted a 1974 Corvette sitting on a lawn across from
the bowling alley he frequented. Mom urged him to consider it.
“If you want it, you should get it,” she told him.
Easier said than done.
They were making ends meet, but were not in great financial
shape. They were paying off their first home on the salary of a factory worker
and an elementary school teacher.
Still, at Mom’s urging, Dad took the car for a spin.
It was love at first gear. Dad bought it.
It was that same car that helped save me from making one of
the biggest mistakes of my life.
I was considering marrying someone that everyone except me
knew was bad for me. She was making me miserable, but I thought that was part of
getting older and getting married. Even more, the misery had been slow
building, making it harder for me to see how it was impacting me.
One weekend, I was in Milwaukee with my fiancée and my
folks. Dad was sick, my fiancée was being a twit and we were all supposed to go
to church together. Instead, just Mom and I were going.
“If it’s just the two of us,” she told me, “pull the Vette
out of the garage.”
We went to church and then we drove around a bit, stopping
for ice cream somewhere along the way. I noticed that when I was driving the
car, I was smiling, something I hadn’t done in a long time. I noticed I was
happy, again a rare feeling those days.
It dawned on me that I shouldn’t feel the way I felt when I
was with my fiancée. My friends were right. I broke the engagement off several
weeks later and started carving out a new path in life.
I dare say it isn’t hyperbole to note that the car saved my
By the late 1980s, Betsy was a garage car. Ginny had
purchased another car for every day use after Betsy had developed a number of
major problems. The heater no longer worked, the carb was gagging and the valve
covers were leaking oil. Coolant had begun to drip from the block, the
alternator was starting to go and the ignition coil was bad.
The seals between the windows and the doors had grown
brittle and chipped. Water poured down the driver’s side window and into the
door, rusting it from the inside out.
The car tires rotted from lack of use and mice had taken
over the interior. Nests were popping up everywhere from the cowl through the
headliner. The smell of mildew and age had settled into every porous surface.
Still, Ginny kept her. Giving up on her would be like giving
up on a family member. Too much history, too much time together.
Finally after almost 20 years in storage, a friend convinced
Ginny it was time. He brokered a deal to take Betsy off her hands.
She signed over the title in April of 2009.
The day a flatbed truck arrived to take Betsy away, Ginny
The best thing about Mustangs is that people love them and
tended to keep them. Because they remained popular over the years, Ford kept
making them. These two things conspired to create a staggering after-market
production of replacement parts. While collectors who wanted pristine show cars
were willing to pay astronomical prices for original equipment, folks who
considered their ponies to be daily drivers could fix about anything for 1/10th
of the price.
When the flatbed truck arrived at the repair shop in Fond du
Lac, Betsy was a sight for sore eyes. The goal of the mechanics working on here
was to get her running well enough to turn a quick profit.
She got new plugs, wires, a cap, a rotor, a PCV valve, an
air filter, an oil filter, an ignition coil, a computer, a battery and an
alternator. The entire cooling system, including the water pump, was replaced,
with new hoses and belts.
She got new oil, a transmission fluid change and a greased
up suspension. The rotten tires were replaced by four new white walls and every
part of the braking system from the master cylinder through the lines to the
pads were replaced.
While this may seem like a massive undertaking, those
after-market parts made the repairs possible. Had Betsy been an Edsel or a
Nash, such a job would have been a fool’s errand.
She wasn’t perfect and she had many more problems, but she
started, she ran and she was road-worthy.
Less than three months after she had parted company from
Ginny, Betsy was sold again.
A dealer on the outskirts of Milwaukee had bought her with
the goal of making her a show car.
I forgot what I was looking for that September afternoon. I
was trolling Craigslist for something my Dad had wanted. I don’t remember what
it was, but I know I never found it. For reasons past my own understanding, I
punched the word “MUSTANG” into the search engine and let it whirl.
I should have known better. That summer, the Craigslist
Killer, Philip Markoff, was making headlines across the country. Sure, I wasn’t
looking for the same kinds of things he was, but fear of a dangerous situation
Less than a year earlier, a UW-Milwaukee student named
Haroon Khan was killed while trying to sell his car. The story gained national
notoriety and served as a reminder that some times, a deal can be deadly.
With a bit of fear still scratching at the corners of my
mind, I avoided ads that looked suspicious. Anything that said to meet them at
a home in a place I’d never heard of, well… thanks, but no thanks.
Most of the Mustangs were from the 1990s. Those that were
older were either trailer queens or reclamation projects.
Just before I closed the window, one last ad caught my eye:
1968 Mustang: Hott Wheelz, Cudahy, WI
The car, the year and the price weren’t what got me. It was
My parents, their parents and their parents’ parents had
grown up in Cudahy, a small factory town in the greater Milwaukee area.
The address placed the dealership approximately eight blocks
from where my grandmother used to live.
The end of September was coming up fast on Lou and Mike. The
men ran a modest car lot in the heart of downtown Cudahy. The town’s main drag
was lined with homey taverns and was punctuated by the edifice of Ladish
Company. The giant factory helped power the town since the turn of the century,
producing everything from jet-engine parts to rolled rings for the Space
Shuttle. The foundry had seen boom times and bust times as had the rest of the
Right now, it was anybody’s guess what kind of time it was,
but for the owners of this car lot, it was time to roll up the sidewalks.
The Hott Wheelz car lot stood on the 4900 block of Packard
Avenue, sandwiched between an antique car restoring business and an Oreck
vacuum dealership. The men had bought and sold everything from sports cars through minivans and had done all right for themselves. However, a number of factors had
transpired to make it necessary for them to close up shop.
The garage stalls and car lifts were unused and instead
served as a storage area for their tools and a few cars they didn’t want to
leave outside at night. In one stall sat Lou’s 1964 Chevy. In the other sat a Mustang
they’d wanted to restore, but had neither the time nor money to finish the job.
Instead, the men posted an ad on Craigslist, hoping to sell
the car. If all else failed, they would take it and whatever was left of their
inventory that was worth anything to a car show in Jefferson on the last
weekend in September.
Either way, they figured they’d be able to move at least one
more car before they turned off the lights and handed over the keys.
With the Midget and Dad in tow, I ventured over to a small,
grimy car dealership on Packard Avenue. I was in town to judge a debate
tournament that weekend and I managed to get in a bit earlier than expected.
The rush-hour traffic I predicted for Milwaukee failed to materialize and thus
I had a couple hours to kill.
When I asked Dad to take a ride to see a Mustang, he was
“Never heard of the place,” he said. “You sure about this?”
No, I wasn’t sure.
I wasn’t sure what the hell I was doing, where this place
was, where I’d get the money if I liked the car, if the car was worth buying,
if I was going insane or if the three of us wouldn’t be gagged, thrown in a
van, killed and buried in a shallow grave behind Patrick Cudahy’s pork
I was many things. Sure wasn’t one of them.
Still, I went. And after two failed attempts, we found the
place. The Mustang was nowhere in sight. No car on the lot seemed to be worth
more than about 12 bucks.
A short Hispanic guy emerged from the makeshift office and
asked if he could help us.
“Did you guys advertise a Mustang for sale?” I asked.
“Yeah. Come on in the garage.”
The first thing I noticed about her was the color. Gold. The
photos made her appear to be the color of pea soup, leading one friend to note,
“You need to tell them to knock two grand off the price so you can repaint it
and get rid of that puke green.”
There was some rust on the rear quarters, a dent in the
vinyl top and some nicks in the paint. It could have been a lot worse.
The interior was.
The seats were torn up, the rear deck was in pieces and the
shifter looked bent. Mice had eaten away at the headliner and petrified mouse
shit was everywhere. The dash had a long, wide crack in it and the glove box’s
face was rusting. The chrome paint had peeled off the gauges.The fuzzies that lined the windows were
cracked apart and the rear quarter window wouldn’t raise or lower on the
The problems were pouring into my head.
“Does it run?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Great motor. 289. I can find the keys if
I checked the time. I needed to be somewhere in an hour and
I had a 45-minute drive in front of me.
“No. I’ll pass.” Pause. “What do you have to get for it?”
He told me the price, about $1,200 less than what he posted
“OK. I gotta go. Thanks for the help… I didn’t catch your
I looked back at the car in the garage. Of all the cars I’d
seen and all the ones I’d bought or drooled over, none really ever seemed to
call to me.
This one actually spoke.
“Please take me home. You won’t regret it.”
(Continued next week.)