COAL: 1968 Ford Mustang – Chapter 4, A Brief Opportunity To Be Normal

When we left off I had just sold both my ’67 Galaxie convertible and my ’63 Cadillac Fleetwood to the same guy for not as much money as I should have, abandoning a free parts car in the process.  Which put me back into that favorite state of life – money in my pocket and an entire world of used cars to consider.

So how did I go from cars that were, let’s say, typical of a much older demographic into the thing that every other guy my age wanted?  That is a really good question, and one that I lack an answer to.  It was just one of those “I’ll know it when I see it” moments.

I saw the classified ad in the newspaper, and called to ask the basic questions.  Which led to a much longer drive than I had intended – to Decatur, Indiana, a county-seat town nearly an hour from my mother’s house.  I think I asked about the color during that phone call.  I did not like the answer.  “Damn” I thought – that same lime gold and black combo that had dogged me during my entire car-owning life.  But as would be a recurring theme with me, when you find the right car the color just rides along as part of the deal.  And besides, I still had some unused spray cans of Dupli-Color, so at least there was that.


Upon examination, it was a great looking Mustang.  Keep in mind what most early Mustangs looked like in northern Indiana in 1979.  They usually came in two flavors: First, and least common, were cars that were fairly straight, clean and decent, but rusty.  More common were cars that had been beaten half to death by some (other) idiot kid, and were rusty.  Quite amazingly, this Mustang was “none of the above”.  I think this was a picture I took as soon as I got it home in March of 1979.

Someone had done some really good bodywork to slay slow the rust monster and the car looked absolutely right, other than some slight color variations between panels – something almost impossible to avoid with that color, which tended to fade with age.  The paint was shiny, the panels were straight and the black vinyl roof was in great shape.   The black interior was “great-minus”.  It had the console and everything was very presentable, but it had the misfortune to be a 1968 instead of a 1967.  I kind of liked the universal FoMoCo steering wheel hub that year, but the problem with a 68 was the seat vinyl.  That was the year Ford had switched to a softer, more pliable vinyl material on the inner parts of the seat cushions that had an unfortunate tendency to split at the seams.  My late, lamented Galaxie convertible’s black vinyl seats had been stiffer but much more durable, marking 1968 as one of Ford’s periodic slouches into cost cutting.  The photo above is not my car, but was close if we subtract the air conditioning and the automatic and add a few splits in the driver’s seat.

The six cylinder engine was a plus because gasoline was jumping in price, and the floor-mounted 3 speed stick provided at least a little performance benefit.  The car drove right, too.  OK, the brakes pulled hard to the right, but I knew how to do a brake job so that was fixable.  I had spent enough time in a friend’s early 1970 Falcon that I knew how a 200 cid six with a 3 speed should feel, and this one was spot on.  For a basic six cylinder Mustang hardtop, it had been pretty well equipped.  In addition to the vinyl roof I had the upgraded wheelcovers and the hood that contained turn signal lights in the recessed louvers.  Yes, someone had chosen a very nice car and had taken great care of it.

There were two weaknesses – the car had 103k on the odo, which was a lot in 1979.  It was certainly more than on any car I could think of in our extended family.  This was still the era when 60k was getting up there, 80k had “had the wheels run off it” and where 100k put the thing one repair away from the junkyard.  But this one did not look like a 100k car.  Except for the second weakness, which was the way the blue oil smoke got going at idle.  But once you got it underway the exhaust cleared up.  My friend Lowell was with me and he was pretty sure this was a sign of hardened valve stem seals and not something more serious.  All in all, given the condition and the price (a very fair $800), I was happy to become a Mustang owner.  I am not sure when the days of finding a decent used early Mustang for $800 slipped into the mist, but I am pretty sure that those days are long gone.

There was one other thing – the AM radio didn’t work either.  But what a great excuse to go to the local discount merchant and buy a brand X radio with a cassette player.  I mounted two 6×9 speakers in the rear package shelf (like any self-respecting teenager) and for the first time in my life had some real car audio.  I did have to go to a junkyard to find a pair of knobs because those that came with the radio unit were not deep enough to poke beyond the heavy vinyl padding on the front of the console, right over the little roll-top mini garage door that concealed the storage cubby ahead of the shift lever.   A pair of knobs from a ’64 Dodge in a junkyard were perfect.

I must digress on that radio.  I have always had some fairly unique tastes, and music is one area where that hit hard.  Somewhere in the mid 1970s I quit listening to the stuff everyone anywhere close to my age was listening to.  I had played in the high school band and gotten exposed to big band jazz and came to love it.  When I first got my convertible my favorite album was a fairly recent Count Basie release, simply titled “Big Band”.  When the convertible was in the body shop I was sopping up the music by Woody Herman’s First and Second Herds of the late 1940’s.  My time with the Cadillac was spent with some Stan Kenton stuff from the 50’s.  This is a long way of saying that an AM car radio had been a pretty useless thing in my life since Fort Wayne’s little WGL dropped its jazz-ish programming and became “1260 Gold” in the summer of 1977.  And the FM of the time was no better for me.  I had developed a habit – I listened to music at home and listened to my car in the car.  But no more!

When I got the tape deck for the Mustang I was deeply into a multi-disc set of Benny Goodman stuff that was mostly live air checks from “The King of Swing’s” radio broadcasts (The Camel Caravan) of the late 1930’s.  I had a basic cassette recorder and converted those discs to a cassette, which accompanied me for most of that summer of 1979 and became the sound track I will forever associate with this car.

To this day, I cannot look at a picture of this car without hearing in my mind Harry James’ opening trumpet blasts on the first track of the first disc, “Dear Old Southland”.  If I had to describe the Goodman band of the 30’s with a single word, that word would be joyful.  BG always put me in a good mood (still does).  And so did driving that Mustang.

I was really proud to drive this one around because it looked so great.  I was also proud of having four matching tires for the first time in my life.  Until I drove over a broken bottle in a parking lot and punctured one of them.  Oh well.

I got it not long before the end of my first year of college at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.  I drove it back to school for the last week of class and loaded all of my worldly possessions into it for the summer back at home.  Which was the last time that everything I owned would fit in a single small car.  I had never had to worry about efficiency in packing before.  I wasn’t crazy about it.

The clutch pedal was a little sticky at the top of its travel, so I replaced the clutch pedal bushings.  The throwout bearing was getting noisy and I decided that I would replace the clutch.  I had at least one person shake his head, saying “I’ve never heard of replacing a clutch if it ain’t broke or slipping”  but I was up for the adventure.

My buddy Lowell and I got all four corners of the car in the air and started to work.  Clutch disc, pressure plate, throwout bearing, the works.  It took us an entire day but by nightfall we had it all buttoned up and ready to test.  Hmmm – we wondered why the wheels wouldn’t stop turning when I pushed on the clutch pedal before we took the car down off the jack stands.  Fortunately it was a Saturday so we had another day to figure it out before we both had to be at work.  On Sunday morning we took everything back apart and discovered that the clutch disc was 1/4 inch larger in diameter than the label on the box had indicated. The guys at the auto parts shop were as amazed as we were.  One correctly sized clutch disc later, we were in business.  We were a lot faster replacing that clutch the second time – another life lesson in the importance of experience.

I took my first solo road trip in that car, to a small town near Sandusky, Ohio to visit my cousin John.  He had kept the 68 Mustang he had driven in high school and college, and it was getting rusty in all the usual places.  He was a teacher who had more time than money and he had worked out a deal with someone he knew for a paint job if all the prep work could be done in advance.  He had finished the body work and all that was left was the over-all sanding for the full body repaint.  Lots and lots of sanding.  The sensation of endless sanding on a gold car was like being in a desert.  The dust, the drab lack of color and the hot summer weather made me endlessly thirsty for water.  Or maybe beer.  For the first time in my life, my light green car parked nearby looked like an oasis.

My Mustang would turn out to be a summer fling.  There were many things about the car that I really liked.  Not least was that it was a hoot to drive.  Early Mustangs have gotten dissed for being mediocre handlers, but for a guy whose previous wheels were big land yachts in the 4-5,000 pound range, the Mustang was like a go kart.  I liked the direct feel of the manual steering and brakes, and really loved shifting my own gears.  My previous cars were cars that put a lot of buffering between me and the road.  The Mustang was a much more direct experience that really felt like driving.

But little things were irritating me, like the worn hinges that made the drivers door drop a half inch when you opened it, and the constant rattling of the lock posts in the metal areas under the windows.  Also, I didn’t like the way the front suspension bushings  would start squeaking about 1,000 miles after a grease session. It felt like the car was giggling at me.  My big Ford had never done that.  The oil burning also nagged at me, and another oddity was that something about the interior plastics filmed-up the inside of the windshield faster than any other car I have ever owned.  But I wonder if the biggest problem was that it was so socially acceptable.  Every kid my age either had or wanted a Mustang.  A friend saw me in it and said “I never took you for a Mustang person.”  And though his comment irritated me a bit, that friend was right.  I had proved to myself that I was a fan of cars that were bigger and more unusual, and I found the Mustang a little too compact and a little too common.  And it was that damned light green.

I drove the Mustang back down to Muncie when school started at the end of August.  State Road 3 was a direct route between Fort Wayne and Muncie, and was a largely deserted highway with good pavement.  In other words, it was a great place to open it up.  I had, by then, gotten multiple cars to 100 or more.  My Galaxie would do it and so would the Fleetwood – I suspect that one would have gone a fair bit above 100, but it was old enough that I had no desire to press my luck.  OK, press my luck any more than I was already pressing it.  On that bright, sunny day I learned that 90 mph was every bit of what an aging six cylinder Mustang with a 3.25 axle could deliver.  Oh well, the short axle had made the car feel lively in normal use so I could live without better highway gearing.  Besides, the 55 mph speed limit was the law, and was a good environment for that Mustang.

As for a social life, my roommate and I put a little more effort into assimilating on the dorm floor, but not as much as we should have.  In retrospect that is something I would do differently if I were to wake up and find that I was still a college sophomore.  But as I actually lived life, I enjoyed time by myself and time with cars, so one way I loved to spend my free time was cruising the car lots on Sundays.  I wasn’t looking for another car any more than someone who likes going to the zoo is looking for a lion – I just liked going out to see them.  Indiana law decreed (and still does) that car dealers must be closed on Sundays, so it was the one day when I could browse to my heart’s content without being accosted by a salesman.  It was on one such Sunday in October when one such car dealer’s lot contained something I simply could not live without.

It was a stupid trade – something my mother regularly mentioned for years afterwards.  But the Mustang was really, really mainstream – and I wasn’t.  “It’s not you, it’s me” as the saying goes.  I am, however, glad to have had the experience.  I am part of that great Mustang alumnae club which is nearly universal in my age group.  This was a car that everyone had or rode in with some frequency.  My Life With A Mustang lasted roughly 6 months and 3,000 miles, and during that time the little car did everything that anyone could have asked of it.  Had I possessed more brains or more self control, I would have kept if a lot longer.  But . . . . yeah.  And besides, I would not have been able to write next week’s COAL installment.