Notes from the Road, A Personal Automotive History – Issue 2: “An Experiment in Failure”

After 3 years of ownership, and into my second year of college, I felt what would ultimately become “the itch”.  The car obsession/mania/addiction had bitten and it would often defy logic, reasoning and rational behavior. With all the money I’ve ultimately wasted on cars and “car stuff”, my first bonehead move really does stand out as my absolute worst.  So perhaps that means I’ve gotten at least a bit wiser!  I’ve explained how as a young guy I viewed the Audi as a “dad car” (maybe because it had been “dad’s car”) and so when the itch become too intense to ignore, I sold it to a family friend and set out to find the coolest, most “non-Audi” car, I could imagine.  I craved a “real sports car”.  Something that was loud and mean and fast.  The cars of the day either didn’t fit the bill, didn’t appeal, or were hugely expensive.  Remember that this was now the late 80’s and the industry was not quite yet emerging from a dark period.  Just do a quick Google on what Camaro’s, Trans-Ams and Mustangs looked like at the time and you’ll see.  Of course even then the beginnings of a BMW fanboy were stirring, and the 320i was my true object of desire, but those were holding value well and prohibitively expensive unless really trashed.  The 2002’s were in reach, but I couldn’t bring myself to like that (relatively) ancient design.  Looking at the 70’s 2002’s got me thinking though… Maybe retro wasn’t so bad.  As I went farther back in time, I noticed that the American muscle got cooler, and cooler, and cooler (one could argue that it really has only just returned to that level of cool!).  And so I traveled all the way back to 1969 and, money in hand, became the proud owner of a well worn, but solid, 1969 Mustang Boss 302 fast back.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into!

Not *the* car, but this is the general idea. Only much less nice 🙂

I had driven out to Long Island to buy her, my staggeringly patient girlfriend (now wife) in tow and, during the 2 our drive back to Brooklyn on the Southern State Parkway, started to realize that I had probably made a pretty bad error.  Once the beer goggles were off, the car didn’t look nearly as good.  It needed work all over the place, outside and in.  On the plus side it drove straight and the motor was solid.  The ride back passed without event and without a breakdown.  Resigned to look at the glass as half full, I decided to view this as a fun project that would ultimately lead to a level of automotive expertise and skill that would match my competency with technology.  Suffice it to say that sometimes that glass really is half empty!  The ‘Stang, already 20+ years old, really needed the practiced hand of a professional automotive restoration specialist.  With no budget to speak of, that wasn’t happening, so it became an automotive lab rat instead.  I had it painted black on a budget (Maaco… *shudder*) and learned that there is a real reason why full repaints range from $99.95 to $9995 and beyond.  I tried my hand at adjusting the idle with a wrench and the A/F ratio by playing with a carburetor and managed to make things a lot worse before finally returning them back to where they started.  I attempted to repair a broken ignition switch after an episode where I had to pull the plugs (literally) with the engine running to keep from frying the starter, since the ignition chose to break while stuck in the “on” position (I may have lost a few years of life with that one from the near heart attack!), and managed to actually get it done.  I pulled apart doors and rear deck and dash and “modernized” the audio system to something that could convincingly blast “Vanilla Ice” (did I mention it was 1990 and for 5 minutes in Brooklyn Vanilla Ice actually seemed cool? 🙂 )  Eventually though, it all ended in tragedy and, luckily, no permanent injury to either myself or my future wife (and mother of my child!).  What I learned is that 20 year old technology (or really more specifically 1960s technology) left a lot to be desired.  High power engines with low power brakes and suspensions are a bad combo when a testosterone fueled college guy is added into the mix.  Throw in a wet road and a bad decision and you have a pretty terrible 30 MPH street accident that left one 1969 Mustang pretty totaled.  Thanks to nearly completely dysfunctional 60s safety technology head x-rays came along with, but luckily (really luckily), no concussions, cuts, bruises or blood were part of the mix.  I ended up selling the car for parts and, with the money recovered, took an even bigger step backwards, but that is a tale for the next entry!

Looking at the car objectively, it really was a lovely design.  This was a simpler time and the cabin really showed it.  Everything was uncomplicated, straightforward and manual.  Leathers and plastics and metals were high quality and put together well.  Modern treatment techniques hadn’t emerged yet, however, so they required diligent care to keep them from wearing badly.  The same was true of the exterior.  The paint and chrome finishes were excellent for the time, but need care and refreshing over time.  The body lines are a true classic, as is true of all of the best of this period, and set a high bar that Detroit would fail to match for decades to come (some might say ever again).

In conclusion, the Mustang was a fast, sexy, beast.  It’s ancient technology though from what was really still part of the paleolithic era of cars.  These automobiles are something to be admired, but also something to be respected (and even a bit feared).  Driving them fast requires serious driver ability and level headed maturity.  There has been a muscle car renaissance of late, and a real revival of retro, but I am very happy that it is mainly taking the form of modern homages to these classic monsters.  A 2011 Boss Mustang may look a bit like the 69, and may even have some bite, but it is an infinitely safer and more capable vehicle.  It’s easy to get caught up in the romance and nostalgia of that era though, I will admit.  I wouldn’t own a car from this period again, and all things considered my ownership was a catastrophically failed experiment, but I can’t say I fully regret it and I am happy that I can look back and say I was able to experience one of these classics first hand if only for a time and in less than perfect form.


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