Things were going well. I had moved to Michigan to work a job in the auto industry, I had brought my Miata with me to and purchased a brand new Ford Focus to serve as my daily driver. I was living in a condo with an attached two car garage, and was suddenly inspired to get another fun car. After all, did the daily driver really need to live in the garage? I could park something different next to the Miata… perhaps a classic of some sort!
And so began the search for my very first vintage car.
Test driving a bunch of cars
From the very beginning, I knew what I didn’t want: a first-gen Ford Mustang.
With over a million built within the first 12 months of production, and many examples still roaming the roads today, I was determined not to end up with the Fisher Price “My First Classic Car” of classic cars. Everyone’s got a Mustang. I can do better than that!
My first thought was that I could have a vintage cruiser to go along with my modern day sports car. I had been following Jonathan Klinger’s adventures in driving a Model A as a daily driver for a year, and had read Paul’s “Best Ford Ever” about the Model A, and was inspired to go find a Model A of my own.
I must have test driven at least half a dozen Model A Fords. Most of the cars I looked at had needs to address, ranging from worn interiors at best to wood rot and terrible paint at worst. I also learned that there’s a wide gulf in what some folks deem “road worthy,” with some examples being perfectly fine for long distance touring and others being fine for parades, but nerve-wracking to drive (or stop!) above 35 mph.
I also dabbled in 60s Ford Thunderbirds, perhaps my favorite of the 60s personal coupe cruisers. I especially loved the jet age design of the Bullet Birds. I test drove a few Bullet Birds and several of the later Flair Birds. They were stylish, they were comfortable, and they had presence on the road. They were also slow, very heavy — I had never before seen doors so thick! — and full of delightful features and conveniences that I’m sure wowed buyers half a century ago but now merely represented a potential expensive failure point. It seemed to me that the typical ownership cycle for old 60s Thunderbirds today was something like this: you owned the car until something expensive broke, then sold the car cheap to someone else to fix. The market was bifurcated into the few pricey examples where everything worked and all the rest with low asking prices but expensive issues.
There were other luxurious and luxury-adjacent cars that I looked at. Being a fan of sporty cars, I thought I’d take a look at the Ultimate Driving Machine, BMW. I test drove an 80s BMW 7 Series, of which the exact model number escapes me right now, but it was a large BMW sedan with a stick shift. Drove nice, but it was a large, plushy sedan, and it wasn’t my cup of tea.
The BMW Bavaria I drove definitely was. I loved the way the car drove, I loved the view out the greenhouse, and I thought the car looked beautiful. There was no way I could afford its E9 coupe cousin, so this 4-door sedan was the next best thing. However, the example I drove had some serious rust and a host of interior needs. No problem, I thought to myself, I’ll just look for another example that has no rust and a good interior. News flash: I’m still looking, to this day. A lot of the E3 BMW sedans were considered disposable compared to their more beautiful E9 coupe brethren, and as such, there are few survivors today. It also didn’t help that they rusted very easily, which explains why finding an example in the rust belt is near impossible and one must venture to the Land of Old Cars in the West to find one.
If I couldn’t find a vintage cruiser, then perhaps I could go find a vintage sports car? I could go buy something that was similar to my Miata, just older and slower.
I test drove some old British sports cars. There was a Triumph TR6 that someone was selling that was in cherry condition, but I was dismayed to find that there was no place to put my left foot in the foot well — there was no dead pedal and for the entire test drive, I had my left foot hover over the clutch pedal. I rejected the car not realizing that nearly all old sports cars have these ergonomic quirks.
I took a look at the MGA, and while the car was very pretty, it quickly became obvious that the car was really only happy as an around town driver. Never mind the short gearing, the lack of roll-up windows, or the process of erecting the top, I was surprised to discover that the trunk of the car was even smaller than my already low expectations for luggage room. No wonder so many owners back in the day bolted luggage racks to their MGAs; with the spare tire in place, I’d be hard pressed to bring home groceries for one let alone pack for a road trip.
Just for good measure, I test drove an Alfa Romeo Spider. Wonderful car with roll up windows and an easy to use top, but I simply couldn’t figure out the driving position. With my seat positioned close to the steering wheel, my knees we jammed up again the bottom of the wheel, and the only comfortable position for my right foot was pedal-to-the-floor. Wonderful for aural pleasure, not so wonderful for any drive longer than five minutes. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had done it all wrong — seat back, extended arms is the “Italian driving position.”
After driving all of these old sports cars, I had a newfound appreciation for all the things the original Miata got right. Same size as the old cars, but more power, better handling, better ergonomics, a top that was exceedingly simple to operate, and trunk that could hold things.
Finally, I decided to take a look at a Mustang. There was an example on Craigslist that had been on sale for a while, possibly because it was painted celery green and had a black vinyl roof. It didn’t look like the vast majority of Mustangs out there, and that’s perhaps why I was so attracted to it. It looked really classy, almost like a mini-Thunderbird.
I was smitten the instant I drove the car. The car wasn’t fast, and while it had disc brakes on the front, they were unassisted, as was the steering. The heavy clutch made the car a bear to drive in stop and go traffic, and a lack of A/C meant that sitting in traffic would necessitate peeling oneself off the vinyl seats once the destination was reached. Didn’t matter. It was a different driving experience from what I was used to with modern day cars, and best of all, the car sounded awesome. I had never owned a V8 car before, and the sound alone was intoxicating.
Also, there was a place to put my left foot. True, there was no dead pedal per se, but there was a blank spot on the floorboard between the clutch pedal and the high beam headlight switch where I could rest my foot. Hallelujah!
The car was a GT clone (or “tribute,” if you want to be kind), with GT fog lamps, GT rear exhaust valence, and front disc brakes installed by a previous owner. Whoever did the work did a very thorough job of it; the only real telltale sign that this car isn’t a true GT is the fact that the fog lights aren’t powered independently of the headlight circuit.
Under the hood sat the original 289 block, with the motor rebuilt by the previous owner into a 302. On top of the motor was the original 4-barrel Autolite carb, matching the A-code designation on the door tag. The door tag stated that the car came with a 3-speed manual and 3.00 rear gears, but by the time the car came to me, it had a close-ratio 4-speed Toploader inexplicably paired with a 2.80 rear gear. It was great for highway cruising, but made for a slightly odd in-town driving experience. You could idle the car along at 9mph in first gear!
The car repainted at least twice in its life. It started out as a Sauterne Gold car, but someone decided to paint it a metallic blue, traces of which were still visible in the trunk. Fortunately, someone saw the light and repainted the car back in its original hue. Later, I found out that whomever pinned the badges and the Mustang lettering on the fenders did so in the wrong places, and it quickly became one of my greatest pet peeves. You spend a ton of money on a really nice paint job, but can’t be bothered to pin the badges in the right place?!
But as old Mustangs go, the car was in decent shape. Not so nice that you’d be scared to drive it around, but nice enough to garner looks and compliments on the street.
The first adventures
A mere week after I brought the car home, I took it on a 3 hour road trip to Grand Rapids to photograph a friend’s wedding. The trunk fit all my camera gear, including my bulky studio strobes and light stands, without issue. The car drove just fine on the way up, with the only notable issues being a vibration right around the 65mph mark and a radio that only had the driver’s side speaker working.
I also took the car autocrossing, just to see how it would do. In short, it does horribly. The so-called “fast steering rack” isn’t all that fast at 3 turns lock-to-lock. (The standard steering rack is even slower at over 4 turns lock-to-lock!) The rear end of the car was not located, which means lots of push as the car entered a corner and the springs wrapped, jostling the rear suspension, then oversteer as you add gas coming out of the corner as the springs unwrap. Well, what oversteer could be had when putting down power through an open diff and 2.80 rear gears.
At the Mustang’s first event at a Detroit Region Sports Car Club of America autocross, I managed to break the friction pin in the shifter trunnion. I jury-rigged a fix using a bolt, which gave me back the ability to shift into the forward gears at the cost of being unable to shift into reverse. I also got my first taste of the car’s hot starting issues, but at the time, I wasn’t sure what was happening — I’d never owned a carb’d car before, so I was getting a crash course in Old Car Things every time I took the car out.
Despite the steep learning curve, I was extremely happy with the car for the first couple months of ownership. As I put the Mustang away for the winter, I was thinking ahead to what I’d be doing with the car next…