‘Can-do’ attitude spurs teen to restore 1966 Mustang

A rusted-out car taught Tom Brady a couple of things about life: Education isn’t restricted to the written word, and a summer drive can be the best medicine.

Brady, a 17-year-old junior at Traverse City (Mich.) St. Francis High School, is more of a “hands-on” learner than he is a reader, but that hasn’t slowed him down. In fact, his can-do attitude reached new heights when he completely restored a 1966 Ford Mustang with the help of his father.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Brady said. “My dad (also named Tom) kept saying, ‘It’s going to be a lot of work.’ But I thought it would be a great learning experience.”

And Brady learned plenty during the eight-month project, which began in earnest in the fall of 2009 and was completed in June 2010. He was 15 at the time.

“It was hard, but it was a lot of fun,” Brady said. “About halfway through, I kind of thought, ‘You know, this would be a fun career.’ ”

The project began when Tom’s mother, Marian, saw the Mustang for sale on craigslist. The car clearly needed work, but the price was right for Tom, who had saved $900. His parents covered the rest of the $1,400 price tag, but his father admits his first thought was, “It sure has a lot of rust.”

“They had to twist my arm a bit,” he said. But since the family patriarch already had an appreciation for classic cars, they didn’t have to twist very hard.

“I’ve always loved the classics,” said Brady Sr., 53. “When I was 18 I had a ’60s Cutlass. I could never afford a muscle car, but I admired them from afar.”

He feared, however, that he and his son might be in a bit over their heads.

“I’m just a backyard mechanic,” he said. “As a teenager I did a little Bondo and a little spray painting, but never a real restoration.”

What the twosome lacked in experience and skill, however, they made up for in enthusiasm. Since the elder Brady is a flight instructor, he wasn’t able to help until snow began to fall in northwest Michigan. But young Tom dove into the project like a lion devours a steak.

“Tommy has this mechanical curiosity, and he figures things out,” his father said. “He tore out the interior, started working on the floor pan… He didn’t just sit and wait for me to help.”

Young Tom didn’t receive any assistance from his twin brother, Jimmy, either. “I think he helped for like five minutes,” Tom said. “It wasn’t his thing.”

But once Mr. Brady was on board, the project moved at a quicker pace. Since Mustang parts are easy to find, and plenty were needed, young Tom began receiving holiday gifts from his parents that were slightly different from those given to other boys his age. For instance, “For Christmas he got parts for the front suspension,” his dad said.

Young Tom worked on the car “practically every night,” according to his father, in addition to playing high school football and baseball and performing in a play. He is also a radio-controlled plane pilot and, like his dad, is learning to fly real airplanes.
“He isn’t the kind of kid who sits around,” Mr. Brady said. “And he isn’t afraid of a challenge.”

That’s fortunate, considering all the work that needed to be done to the Mustang and everything the two learned on the fly. Like welding.

 “We cut the floor boards out. We did the floor pans and trunk. The vents near the windshield were rusted out. We spot-welded on the quarter panels and in the wheel wells… and crossed our fingers that it would all line up well,” Mr. Brady said. “I was so worried that it would be misaligned. We did everything blindly and everything came together well. We were lucky.

“We also redid the interior ourselves. We bought a kit, but we did the installation.

“And it’s amazing how much work went into one piece of the project, and in the end it’s unnoticeable to most people. There was a horrific mildew smell, and we discovered that rain water would go down through the cowl and into the carpeting and floor boards. We had to take the cowl off, which was a very difficult task. We probably spent two weeks on that one thing, and it would be tough to convince someone of that.”

As time went on, father and son took turns motivating each other. Then something unexpected happened that pushed them to the finish line.

Eileen Knape, the mother of one of Tom’s classmates, was diagnosed with cancer. Since she once owned a Mustang, she took great interest in the restoration project, and she told Tom she would love to take a ride in the car when it was finished.
On a summer day in 2010, he fulfilled that wish.

“It’s something I thought a lot about when I was working on the car, so it meant a lot to take her for a ride,” he said. “She loved it.”

It was a moment that Tom’s mom certainly will never forget.

“Eileen sat in the front seat with Tom while I sat in the back seat with her son,” Marian Brady said. “She rolled down the window and let the warm air blow through her hair, and she laughed and smiled the whole ride. She shared memories of her Mustang and how ‘you never forget your first car.’

“She told Tom to cherish the memories and moments, and when the ride was over she said it was one of the happiest times she’d had since she got sick. I will never forget it. She passed away a few months later.”

Young Tom Brady, who had learned so much about restoring a car, had also discovered how much joy his car could bring to others.

“People seem to like it,” Tom said. “It came out nicer than I thought it would. I’m glad I did it. I’m pretty proud of it.”

Probably not as proud as his parents are of their son.

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