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…
Nice colour and car to enjoy. Not original but not a trailer queen. Some one said there is so many remanufactured parts on the shelf you could build a new one. If I won the lottery I like to do that for laugh. Am expensive laugh because I m sure it be cheaper to buy one like yours?.
Why would you build a classic Mustang when you could pay Revology to do it for you? That’s my lottery dream.
Fun, fulfillment, being built not bought, personal attachment to the machine?
I mean the same question can be asked why buy a mustang someone else built when one can just buy a brand new mustang?
Thanks for the link. I’m not into restomods. If I wanted a more modern version I would just buy the new version and be done with it. I get that rest mods bring life into a common,,non matching numbers car.
That may be true, but my experience with the aftermarket parts is less than rosy. There’s a future COAL where I’m prepping the Mustang for a trip to Alaska where I learned of the quality (or lack thereof) of aftermarket parts that led me inevitably to the stance of NOS or refurbished OEM or nothing, haha.
Hate to be that guy, but the most important part of the GT package was the fast ratio steering box. I always wanted a GT Pony interior Notchback, in Candyapple red. Kind of like my moms car with a lot more boxes checked.
This car did have the fast ratio steering box installed, which rereading the post, I wasn’t clear on. Still steered really slow, haha.
Yes, Mustangs are the cliche first classic car, but there are good reasons for this, some of which you touched on in your post, and some of which are the same reasons the car was so popular in the 1960s.
Ford made these by the millions, so there are still plenty around. Almost everything can be cheaply repaired or replaced, and there is a huge community of owners and vendors supporting this car.
With three body styles (hardtop, fastback, and convertible) and a multitude of engines and transmissions, there is something for everyone. This was true in 1966 and still true today.
Our Venn Diagrams kind of overlap, Johnli. A ’65 Mustang was my first car (I still have it) and I can’t stand when someone goes to a lot of effort to repaint a car and doesn’t do a little homework on badge placement. Early Mustangs seem especially prone to this malady. I also autocrossed my stock ’65 one time back when I was 21 or so. It did NOT handle well, but it was a good time. Mine has the slow steering box, so I got a little bit of a workout that day. You also summed up ’60s T-Bird ownership; I fall into the category of someone who bought a ’63 with a bunch of stuff that didn’t work. You’re smarter than me because you didn’t take the bait. 🙂 An early Mustang is a WAY better choice as a first collector car; they’re simpler to fix and parts availability is almost unparalleled. They also take up less space than most old American cars.
What blows my mind is how consumers of the time
just accepted it.Like, oh well she’s 3,5, years old and all the windows
don’t work anymore, plus going deaf from all the hissing, ruptured vacuum
lines,AND the AC quit! , time for the glue factory. Imagine having a 5 year old anything nowadays where 70% of the ancillary systems had failed, even FCA’s better than that!…
This past week, I came to the conclusion that mine will need a full air conditioning rebuild if I ever want it to work; it won’t accept any refrigerant, so I imagine there’s a blockage in the system. Someone did a little work on it in the past, as it’s had an R134 conversion, but I can’t find a high-side conversion fitting anywhere locally, and nobody bothered with that in the past on my car, so I haven’t done any real sharp diagnosis yet. Compounding the issue is the fact that I have little experience with air conditioning, as the T-Bird’s my only car that has it.
I did replace two leaking underdash vacuum motors/servos, so at least all the HVAC doors are in the right place at the right time now. Yep, I’m sticking to lightly optioned cheap cars in the future.
I bet I know why you can’t get it to accept any refrigerant.
Cars of that era had service valves. That is what is under those aluminum caps, if they are still present. Those are there so you can isolate the compressor to check the oil (or replace the compressor) without having to Vent (Recover today), Evacuate, and Recharge. They are also what seals the service ports as they didn’t trust a Schrader valve to do the job reliably.
So turn the valves all the way in to isolate the compressor to check its oil. Mid way to connect the compressor to the system and the service valves and fully back seated to block off the service valves for normal operation.
If you are just using a can adapter then you just put the low side valve in the mid position and charge away. You MUST keep the can upright to prevent liquid from entering the compressor. I’d back seat before connecting the charging hose and when you disconnect it to change cans, just in case.
Thanks…I’ll check those out the next time I have the car home in a few weeks. The aluminum caps are still there. I still think I’m in for a big job; the filter/dryer looks original and I’d say that the bare minimum was ever done just to keep it going with a once-a-year recharge.
Yeah the drier should be replaced in a proper conversion as they claim the desiccant isn’t compatible with 134a. However by this time it is likely saturated. That said I did the quick and dirty conversion on my 82 Econoline and that baby would make ice and it continued to do so for 15+ years and it did a lot of sitting.
Great COAL and video, and a great choice of car. I think autocrossing a Model A would be like a Sunday drive with a chance of rollover. But I’d really like to see a video of you autocrossing a 65 T-bird.
To be blunt: mechanically, those early Mustangs were sexy Falcons.
Just about anything else you could buy from GM/ChryCo rode and handled better. What nobody else had, however, was Mustang’s looks and marketing. And by the time GM’s Camaro/Firebird hit the streets, Mustang had 2 1/2 years of momentum.
The ’68 Mustang campaign is pure ’60s idealism as channeled thru Madison Avenue. I include it here ’cause it was the first Mustang campaign that caught my then-11 yo attention. This special 3:00 version ran Sunday nights on CBS’s Smothers Brothers show…Chevrolet usually bought airtime on NBC’s Bonanza, which ran opposite.
That’s a lotta banjo. The 60s were weird.
It was one of the most annoying things I’ve ever seen, and I enjoyed it very much.
The squared-off face lifted 1964 Falcons included different rear leaf springs (fewer leaves, I think, among other changes) and I think changes to the front suspension as well, and probably a lot of other detail changes. My parents had a top trim 1963 Falcon wagon and a friend’s family had a 1964 which was clearly quieter and nicer riding although continuing the same structure including for the wagon’s the whole original greenhouse. So the Mustang would have all these updates. I rode in a couple Chevy II’s back then and they didn’t seem any better if not worse, but Valiant/Lancer/Darts definitely were.
We put coil-over overload rear shocks in the Falcon and the additional rear stiffness definitely helped make the handling more neutral at the limit without hurting the ride noticeably. I think they had front anti-roll bars and a relatively modern front suspension. But somehow all the steering and front suspension angles and movements got a lot more figured out later. There isn’t much else to handling since the rear wheels definitely stay vertical to the road surface with the nonindependent rear suspension. The Mustang would benefit just by being lower.
Of course those are all kid car nerd judgments.
Besides collector interest today the sharing of most parts between Falcons and Mustangs means most parts must be available and not that expensive today.
Well there is just this thing about an early Mustang that you just have to experience. I have a 68 and every time I drive it I swear to god that I’m back in time and a teenager. Same for my Cougar but not the other three cars. It is just plain old fun still. A 289-2V is a great little V8.
I was never a huge fan of that color on Fords but it looks really nice on this Mustang. Yes, that axle ratio is kind of odd.
I can imagine the autocross problems – these cars were always exceptionally light in the rear end – which we learned back when we drove cars like this in the snow.
And there are few things as pleasant as the sound of a moderately muffled Ford V8 from that era.
The 2.80 gear was the only gear available on all 289 2-barrels in ’65 and ’66, so it’s entirely possible that someone found a used 8″ center section and just swapped it in. I think the C-Code was the most common engine option during these years, so it would be the easiest to find. My record for changing a pumpkin in my ’65 was two hours on my uncle’s driveway, using his impact gun. That was from the time I turned off the key to my waving goodbye as I drove off. Not bad!
That was my Dad’s complaint with my mother’s ’67. He said the rear end hopped all over the place on Cincinnati’s pot-hole-marked roads. My mother didn’t care, however. It was her favorite car.
The pony package does a lot to dress it up a little and set it apart a lot from most of the other ’66’s out there. And the color is also great partly due to it not being as common. This looks like a fun car that seems relatively easy to own, I guess you figured out why exactly they are still so popular!
Sweet! Yes, the burble of a 289 is hard to beat. And yup, the rear ends of these have a mind of their own. Sort of the polar opposite of a Corvair, in more ways than one
Rust has been my major deal breaker in my search for a true classic, given my region. But that’s the other factor that makes these Mustangs the perfect first classic car, every piece of metal is reproduced, dirt cheap and the rather basic unibody is fairly friendly to something as normally very intrusive to a full floor pan replacement. These early models didn’t even have torque boxes in the front.
Handling is unsurprising, the front suspension was designed to be cheap to build and maintain and nothing more. Couple that with a flimsy chassis and you soon see the rational for Shelbys GT350 mods, from export braces and Monte Carlo bars to dropped control arms to traction bars. All done to expediently remedy the chassis shortcomings
A first gen Mustang — is — probably the perfect starter classic. They are simple, plentiful, and a huge aftermarket/NOS/reproduction parts market. And they continue to be desirable.
If you decide later that you want more of a project, you can get something that requires more experience and skills and is more challenging to find parts.
I concur with the comments on the wickedly unpredictable handling, vis a vis the rear suspension. I’ve still got my ’68, which I’ve driven since ’85. With the original-equivalent P195-75R14 tires, the stock set-up was downright dangerous. Nearly totaled it several times when the rear end would flip out 45-degrees without warning after hitting a bump during a hard curve.
Back then, I would just find any old thing in the junkyard that looked different, and add it to my car. One day I found a Boss 302 and this weird bar in back …. turned out it was the stock 5/8″ (1/2″?) rear anti-sway bar. WOW, did it make a difference. After some more experimentation with tires, I settled on BF Goodrich T/As … P215-70R14 in front (28psi), P235-70R14 in back (25psi) …. and left it that way permanently. It handles great – like a totally different car. Sticks like glue, compared to the stock set-up.
The revised set-up saved me from a bad wreck a few years back when this lady turned in front of me, and I was able to throw the car almost sideways at 40MPH and not lose control …. a few quick left-right-lefts with the wheel, and a cloud of smoke.