How one man discovered he owned Shinoda’s personal Mustang Boss prototype

Car enthusiasts dream of coming across a “barn find,” spotting a desirable or collectible vehicle that’s been stashed away somewhere for years, maybe even forgotten or abandoned. “Barn find,” of course, is a euphemism. Many such finds are located not in literal barns but rather some other kind of storage, like a garage or warehouse.

John Grafelman is an actual farmer with actual barns and other outbuildings on his rural Illinois farm, outside of the little town of Hanna City. He’s a bit of a Ford fan. Fan is short for fanatic, which in this case definitely applies.

When I first met John at a big Mustang show at Ford’s world headquarters, he was wearing a Ford New Holland seed cap. (If it’s on the head of a farmer and has the logo of an ag business, it’s not a baseball or trucker’s cap, it’s called a seed or feed cap.) You may not know this, but Ford made tractors for a long time, starting with the Fordson brand in 1919, and getting out of that business in the 1990s with the sale of New Holland to Fiat.

“So you like Fords, do you?” I said to Grafelman, nodding to his hat. “We’re a Ford family,” he said, grinning. “We drive Fords, we farm with Fords, we race Fords, and we collect Fords.” I wish I could write dialogue that good.

In addition to his working farm equipment, Grafelman owns about 40 vintage Ford and Fordson tractors, a Mercury Cyclone Spoiler that was the personal car of Leonard Wood, one of NASCAR’s legendary Wood Brothers, and a 1969 Ford Mustang that has turned out to be a very special vehicle.

1969 Ford Mustang Boss Prototype interior
Ronnie Schreiber

When he bought the Mustang in 1977 to drive with his new bride Danette, he bought it from a well-dressed man in Peoria, who told him, “It has some Ford history.” Grafelman had seen the car advertised and called the seller, who told him there was a lot of interest in it. It was raining, preventing him from working with his farm’s hay, so he drove up to Peoria right away.

The car had some parts that looked like those on a Boss 302 Mustang, but they were obviously not identical to factory Boss components, and in any case, the VIN was from before Ford started assembling the Boss cars. That VIN indicated that it had a Mach 1 body and the equipment list matched that of the Mach 1, but like the Boss 302, it didn’t have the Mach 1’s rear fender-mounted air scoops. This Mustang also had a 428 Cobra Jet motor, not the smaller 302-cubic-inch V-8 engine that came in the Boss 302. Underneath, there were signs that the rear brakes had been modified but returned to factory spec, and there was a very thick rear anti-sway bar. John figured it was just another Mach 1 with a 428 Cobra Jet engine, an automatic transmission, and some aftermarket stuff to make it look like a Boss, including painted black Boss side stripes that weren’t reflective decals like the real Boss stripes. The stripes also only had “BOSS” lettering, not the two-line “BOSS 302” that appeared on the production Boss 302.

The aluminum-spoke, leather-wrapped Momo steering wheel was custom, and it had the initials LB on the center cap and a #1 stamped onto one of the spokes. The rear deck spoiler was three inches wider than the Boss production wing, thicker, and with mounts that are too close together and plated with chrome, not wider and blacked out like on the production Boss. The rear window’s louvered cover was also not a factory Mustang piece. Additionally, the car sat differently. The stance of Grafelman’s Mustang is lower than that of the Mach 1, which John attributed to sagging, tired springs.

1969 Ford Mustang engine
Ronnie Schreiber
1969 Ford Mustang Boss Prototype steeringwheel
Ronnie Schreiber

1969 Ford Mustang Boss Prototype
Ronnie Schreiber

The Mustang had about 70,000 miles on the odometer and Grafelman paid cash for the car.

The Grafelmans drove the Mustang for a couple of years, putting about 7,000 miles on it, but they had a growing family and Danette had a hard time getting their son Jason in and out of the car seat in back, so John stashed the car in one of his barns, where it sat for almost 30 years.

The Boss 302 project was the first assignment Larry Shinoda got at Ford after leaving General Motors’ design staff. Ford was going racing in the TransAm series and wanted to distinguish the production-based race cars with their own styling and sell a similar-looking street model. Ford managers wanted to call it the SR2, but Shinoda convinced them that the then-current term “boss,” as slang for something good or desirable, was important to appeal to the youth market. It may have also been a tribute to Bunkie Knudson, Shinoda’s corporate mentor and patron who brought Shinoda with him when he left GM to become Ford’s president. Shinoda also did the design work on the Cougar Eliminator, Mercury’s version of the Boss 302.

After the project was finished and Shinoda got wind of plans to crush the styling prototype, he arranged to buy the car for $1. He drove it for a couple of years and then sold it to his tailor in the early 1970s. A well-founded rumor has it that at one point after he took possession of the car, Shinoda drove the Mustang over to the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan, home of GM Design. A guard recognized him from when he worked there, so Shinoda was allowed on the grounds, where he proceeded to do donuts with the Ford.

About 15 years ago, when Jason Grafelman was on a trip to California, he decided to find out about his parents’ “Special Edition Mustang” as they called it, and visited a number of Mustang restoration shops in the Golden State. Eventually, he met with a Mustang historian who showed him a photo of the prototype parked on designer Larry Shinoda’s home driveway. That was the family’s first clue that their barn might have held a very rare find. It looked like it could be the same Mustang, but the car in the photo had the Mach 1’s rear air scoops.

1969 Ford Mustang Boss Prototype
Ronnie Schreiber

The car had also been used for engineering development of the Boss 302, so it had a lowered racing suspension and brackets for rear disc brakes, which were returned to stock drums before Shinoda bought the car. Shinoda himself added a custom rear sway bar and gave the 428 engine an aluminum intake manifold.

Those parts ended up being used by Grafelman to identify the Mustang as the Shinoda prototype. After his son tracked down the photo of the car on Shinoda’s driveway, John stuck a long mirror under where the rear air scoops should have been and discovered the blanking plate Ford had brazed into place. Shinoda didn’t approve of fake stuff and had the Mach 1’s non-functional fender scoops deleted for a smoother line on the production Boss.

With growing conviction that the Mustang in his barn may indeed have been the first Boss Mustang, John Grafelman started doing serious research, including finding people who worked with or knew Shinoda before his death in 1997. Grafelman found archived photos from Ford’s styling studios that showed alternate versions of the BOSS lettering in the side stripes, including how Grafelman’s car is lettered.

Howard Freers, a former Ford engineer who worked with Shinoda, told Grafelman that the people at Kar Kraft, the Dearborn shop that did much of Ford’s in-house custom work and performance engineering, called the car “Larry’s Boss.”

Thinking that might explain the initials on the steering wheel, Grafelman tracked down another of Shinoda’s personal cars, a split-window 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. The C3 Corvette was based on Bill Mitchell’s Sting Ray racer, for which Shinoda was the primary designer. Grafelman found out that Shinoda’s ‘Vette had a Momo steering wheel with initials, only LC instead of LB, also with a #1 stamped on a spoke. If LC stood for “Larry’s Corvette,” it’s likely that LB meant “Larry’s Boss.” A custom powered trunk latch and burglar alarm were also known features of Shinoda’s car and those, too, are present on the Grafelman Mustang. There was even some body repair that seemed to match the time when Shinoda put the Mustang into the wall at a race course.

1969 Ford Mustang Boss Prototype front
Ronnie Schreiber
1969 Ford Mustang Boss Prototype tail lights
Ronnie Schreiber

Finally, Mustang VIN guru Kevin Marti closed the circle by providing an order form from September 1968, showing that the Ford Motor Co. Design Center leased a Mustang Mach 1, with one “L SHINODA” on the order form, whose VIN matches that on Grafelman’s car.

Once the car was identified and verified, Grafelman initially started showing the Shinoda Boss Mustang just as it was when he dragged it out of his barn, but when he realized that people were traveling long distances to see the car, he decided that Boss Mustang #1 deserved a full restoration.

While it had been protected from the elements in the barn, it was still a relatively high mileage car that was almost 50 years old, built when galvanized sheet metal and rustproofing were years away in the future. While the body was pretty solid, the floors were gone.

The restoration was started in 2015. Bob Perkins and Phil Shultz at Perkins Restoration in Wisconsin did the body and interior work, using new old stock parts, while Grafelman rebuilt the engine himself. All the original prototype parts were preserved. Considering the car has about 77,000 miles on it, the majority of those miles put on by Shinoda, who took it racing and drove it hard on the street, the engine was in great condition. Grafelman simply honed the cylinders and replaced the rings and bearings. The cylinders and bearing journals were still within factory specs. That speaks to the special attention Ford may have paid to the relatively low production Cobra Jet engines.

1969 Ford Mustang Boss Prototype rear 3/4
Ronnie Schreiber

Grafelman wishes that he had met Shinoda while the man was still living. He says it would have saved him a lot of time verifying the car’s identity, but I think mostly he’d just want to talk about his car with the guy who made it. The seller he bought it from has been lost in the mists of time, but Grafelman believes that the sharply-dressed man in Peoria may have been Shinoda’s tailor.

Had John’s Mustang merely been the prototype for the Boss 302, it would be rare and collectible. The Boss 302 is a notable performance car, which makes its prototype a piece of history as well. When you consider that it was also the personal car of the designer, one of the preeminent car stylists of the 20th century, that makes the first Boss a very special car indeed.

It’s a rare car that has a great story, and a reminder that sometimes the best finds are closer at hand than you might think.

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