My ’67 Mustang is imperfect, just the way I want it
When we drive our cars, they collect signs of that use—patina, in collector-car speak. The latest issue of Hagerty Drivers Club magazine, in which this article first appeared, explores the delight found in such imperfect cars. To get all this wonder sent to your home, sign up for the club at this link. To read about everything patina online, click here.
Once, on the way to school, I looked over at my father in the driver’s seat of our battered Suburban and asked him how he knew the past was real. He snorted a laugh, his eyes never leaving the road ahead, and said, “Because I have the scars.” It was the kind of answer that tumbles from a tired father’s mouth without a second thought, laden with heavier truths than he likely realized. Over the years, I’ve found it applies to more than busted knuckles. When it comes to cars, so much of our fascination is wrapped up in questions of authenticity and honesty. In proof of the past. Did Fangio sit here? Did Chapman put his hand on this panel? Does the machine have the scars that prove it suffered the slings of time and survived anyhow?
When I brought home my ’67 Mustang, I knew better than to believe it would ever be concours perfect. The original straight-six and three-speed automatic had long vanished. The cowl and floors had been carved out and replaced with cheap patch panels. There were at least eight layers of paint, some of it covering finger-thick Bondo. There was rust. There were dents and dings. The interior looked like someone had loaded a 12 gauge with self-tapping screws and pulled the trigger, but despite all of that, I loved it immediately.
I didn’t want a $100,000 pony car with mirror-finish paint and panels straighter than anything that ever came out of Dearborn. I wanted something I could use. Something I could beat on with a hammer without batting an eye. A canvas for spray paint and cut springs that I could street-park with the windows down or fling at a curled mountain pass in the rain. I wanted a car that would remind the world why we all fell in love with these things to begin with, back when they weren’t investments or heirlooms. When they were simply the key that unlocked the brightest moments of our lives.
The idea was pretty simple: What would a former Trans-Am racer-turned-PI drive in 1974? Probably a hammered notch. The day after I got the car running, I unbolted the pony from the grille, pulled off the crooked fender emblems, and discarded the rocker trim, not bothering with the holes left behind. I tossed the dog dishes on a shelf in the shed and was left with a car that looked half a shade less grandmotherly than it had an hour earlier. Over the next few months, I threw a rash of speed parts at it, the only concession to modernity being a five-speed gearbox from a Fox body.
I raided Shelby’s cupboard for handling tricks, relocating control arms and cutting down coil springs with a hacksaw until the front hunkered low and right. A pair of reverse-eye leaf springs in the rear brought the back down, the car suddenly hunched over tall rubber and 15-inch Torq Thrusts sprayed gray. Magnesium 15s are a king’s ransom, but Rust-Oleum is still cheap as chips. I rolled the fenders, hammering them out until the body filler popped and the arches accommodated the Mustang’s new posture.
But this wasn’t just an aesthetic exercise. Sure, I’d spent hours scrolling through images of grainy SCCA events, the Terlingua cars hammering through corners. I’d watched and rewatched Bullitt. But I wasn’t building an Eleanor or some cosplay racer. My garage is half an hour from the Tail of the Dragon, U.S. Route 129. I needed this car to be capable of hounding a tourist in a new Corvette up and down the hollers between Tennessee and North Carolina. That meant Porterfield pads and a Borgeson steering conversion, gracing the car with a steering ratio quicker than a Miata. It meant an aggressive limited-slip differential and a 3.55 gear. An aluminum driveshaft and a 13-pound flywheel. Tri-Y headers breathing out barely muffled side-exit pipes. It meant giving the car all of the menace that the exterior promised.
Inside, I abandoned the factory gauges. I wanted the Stewart-Warner dials found in the Cobra, but modern reproductions don’t have a sterling reputation, so I settled on AutoMeter’s take on the same. And because this car pulls double duty as both back-road weapon and road-trip darling, it needed to have a decent stereo. I sent the previous owner’s gross single-DIN CD player to the dumpster, sourced a factory FoMoCo FM unit, and had its innards replaced with an Aurora Design Bluetooth system.
So much of modifying a car comes down to feel. Sometimes that’s the physical touch of the thing. Does the sideview mirror telegraph cold chrome or cheap plastic? Does the shifter notch into gear or flop over, lifeless? Other times, it’s what the components evoke inside you. The emotions they stir up in your chest in spite of yourself. When you’re behind the wheel, your field of view narrows to a handful of bits: the gauges, the wheel, a mirror or two. Get those wrong and it’ll feel like a poorly tuned guitar. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to find a steering wheel.
Having spent some time in a friend’s 289 Cobra, I knew I wanted a Moto-Lita, but a wood-rimmed hoop seemed out of place in the all-black cabin. Half a bottle of Willett and some eBay scrolling returned an immaculately hammered leather-wrapped tri-spoke. All black, with the cursive “Excalibur” barely visible just below the horn. Perfect.
Somewhere along the way, I accidentally built something I hadn’t had since I was 20 and sold my street/track Civic to buy our first family vehicle: my car. A machine built expressly around how I enjoy spending time. My wife, Beth, and I began taking it everywhere. Finding excuses to pile in and head off for the hills for impromptu overnights in Highlands or Asheville in North Carolina. Daring January snows and mid-June rainstorms. Arcing this ancient, hammered Mustang from one glorious apex to the next, the tired 302 shouting at the river and trees along the way. Or picking up our daughter from school, letting her slot that cue-ball shifter from one gear to the next from the passenger seat.
The shock is not how well the car drives or the wide smile of everyone I put behind the wheel. It’s how the world responds to this tattered old Mustang. It is universally loved. Regardless of age, gender, race, or creed, people smile at it. Have a kind word for it. The old guys who had one in high school see something more accurate than the Barrett-Jackson beauties that clog our Instagram feeds. The baristas see something more genuine than the usual parade of Teslas. In all my days of driving, I’ve never experienced anything like it. Sure, the Mustang is an American touchstone, a bit of the blood and bone of us, but it’s more than that. This car shows its faults and bruises, and despite its black hat stance and antisocial exhaust, that makes it approachable.
Makes it a thing worth loving. Maybe that’s what all of this chipping paint and dented metal offers us: a measure of honesty. Proof of the past. In a world so obsessed with the appearance of perfection and brighter futures, that’s more valuable than any concours trophy.