COAL: The Great American Road Trip with a ’66 Mustang

The Mustang under the stars at Big Bend.


After the success of the Mustang’s first road trip down to North Carolina for the Mustang 50th Birthday celebration, I was thinking about the next road trip I could take with the Mustang. I decided that I’d drive the car to the West Coast and back, charting a similar course as I did when I drove my ’09 Miata out west, except instead of taking a southerly route back home, I’d take a northerly route instead.

Prep for the road trip

I did three things to the Mustang before taking it on its next road trip. The first thing I did was add electronic cruise control. I used a generic Rostra cruise control kit, bolting the control box to one of the shock towers, connecting the cruise control cable to the throttle linkage on the carb, and using a Rostra vehicle speed sensor reading off of magnets zip-tied to the driveshaft. For the cruise control controls, I used a slip-on turn signal switch. To the untrained eye, the cruise control setup looked almost OEM.

The second thing I did was install a modern radio in the car. I went with a pricey Retrosound head unit which installed in the same location in the dash as the original radio did. It looked a bit too blingly, with its overly shiny chrome plated plastic bits, but I didn’t have to cut up the dash and could now listen to my podcasts on long drives.

Finally, I took out the console and put in an aftermarket one that had cupholders.

I got some insight into the previous owners when I did all of this work. For example, when I removed the center console, I discovered that some previous owner had butt spliced six short lengths of wire together to power the courtesy lights at the end of the console. In what world would this be “easier” than just going to the store to buy a longer length of wire?!

Also, when installing the radio, I reached underneath the metal dash and pulled out an ancient box of condoms. Judging by the clinical title of “Trojan Prophylactics” and the absence of a bar code, I’m guessing that they perhaps dated back to the 70s or early 80s. I had previously joked that the Mustang, looking like a mini Thunderbird with its disco green paint and black vinyl roof, could have been driven by a man looking for action with the ladies, and now I knew for sure that that was the case. The box had only a third of its condoms left, still there, foil packaging cracking and the condoms completely dried out.


I started my road trip by heading to Chicago. I rolled into town late in the evening, taking a quick stop in downtown before continuing north on Lake Shore Drive to visit my friend Kevin who lived on the edge of the Loyola campus.

The Mustang rolls into downtown Chicago.


As I was cruising down Lake Shore Drive, windows down, radio on, and the V8 purring along, I felt cool in a way that I had never felt before.

Colorado Springs

I left Chicago and made a beeline towards Colorado Springs. Along the way there, I stopped by Lincoln, Nebraska, to hang out with my autocross friends who were competing in Spring Nationals. After refusing generous offers to let me run their shifter karts in competition and the goads to drive the Mustang in competition, I left Lincoln and continued on to my brother’s place.

A brief stop in Lincoln, Nebraska to see friends competing in Spring Nationals.


Once there, I realized that I no longer had low beams, just high beams on my headlights. At first, I taped half of my headlights off, figuring I could just run high beams all the time and cut off the top of the light beam so as not to blind others. My high beams were barely any brighter than modern low beams, so why not, I thought.

Fortunately, finding parts for an old Ford is easy, so I quickly sourced a new headlight switch and high/low foot switch, installing the new parts in the parking lot of my brother’s apartment complex after we’d had our fun out and about. I left the tape on the headlights though — not sure why now. Laziness, perhaps?

Pikes Peak

Outside Colorado Springs lies one of the most famous mountains in motorsports: the famed Pikes Peak, home of the legendary hill climb. One can drive the road up to the very top, and I was determined to do so in the Mustang.

If the Mustang’s carb wasn’t a happy camper at this altitude in Colorado Springs, it was positively cholicky on the mountain. I followed a Honda Odyssey minivan out from the Pikes Peak entrance, and attempted to follow it into the first scenic pullout, whereupon the car immediately stalled in the middle of the road when I pressed the clutch pedal in.

I’m in the middle of the road, cranking and cranking the motor while the family clambering out of the minivan looks on in confusion. Unable to get the car going with the starter, I point the Mustang downhill, bump starting the car with the clutch. I drive down back to the road entrance, and turn around again. Okay, so I can’t stop the car until I reach the top.

I set off once again. The car is running absolutely pig rich all the way up. Knowing that I couldn’t ever take my foot off the gas pedal meant that it wasn’t exactly the most relaxing drive up to the top — never mind the steep vistas and awe-inspiring and fear-inducing heights that are a part of driving up the side of Pikes Peak anyway.

But I made it to the top. Well, not quite the top, as road crews were still plowing the final section of the road to the top, but I made it as far as the road was open. Before stopping the car, I made sure to point it downhill.

Mustang going as far up Pikes Peak as allowed.


I took some pictures and chatted it up with some of the other tourists there, some of which were amazed that such an old car was in their midst. One of the park rangers took a keen interest in my car too. I told him my problem with stalling the car out on the mountain, and he started regaling me with tales of how folks back in the day dealt with trying to climb and descend the mountain with their carb’d motors and drum brakes.

He left me with a final suggestion: unscrew my fuel cap and let it hang loose. Something to do with equalizing pressure inside the fuel tank. Sure, I’ll give it a shot.

I bump started the Mustang and headed back down the mountain, now much more relaxed knowing that I could get the car started whenever I needed to.

The little Mustang made it down to the bottom just fine. Okay, note to self, it’s probably worth it to rejet the carb when going to a place like Colorado. As someone who only previously knew fuel injection, this was something I had never considered before.

Arches National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park

I continued west, heading into Utah. You may remember that when I first came to Arches National Park with the Miata, I found a beautiful night sky that I had no ability to photograph.

Well, this time, I had the equipment and more importantly the knowledge to capture some half-decent nightscape shots. I had timed my arrival at Arches National Park to coincide with a new moon to give myself the best chance of nailing the shot I wanted.

On the night of the new moon, I headed up the path to the Delicate Arch. Of course, I wasn’t the only one who had the idea; I reached the top of the trail to find about two dozen other photographers there, waiting to shoot the Delicate Arch against the Milky Way. Most folks were part of a photography workshop, and the workshop instructors had brought along continuous lights with which to light paint the arch. I learned some new tricks that night and had a great time shooting pictures and chatting it up with the other photographers, spending a good four hours up there underneath one of the most beautiful skies I’d ever seen in my life.

After failing to capture this shot when I was last at Arches with the Miata, I returned to do it right and captured one of my favorite images of all time.


When I went back down and back to my campsite at Big Bend, I was inspired to shoot a picture of the Mustang under the night sky too. (That’s the lead picture for this post.)

My next stop was Bryce Canyon, though I didn’t have the time to spend there as I did at Arches. I stayed around the rim of the canyon for a few hours after dark, shooting another nightscape shot, before returning to my campsite for some rest. Maybe someday I’ll return and actually go into the canyon and do some photographing and hiking.

Hypermilling across Nevada

Inspired by a Top Gear segment in which the British hosts find themselves on the “Loneliest Road in America,” I had hoped to find the same road and take it west across the state. I don’t think I ended up taking that exact road, but for all intents and purposes, the route I took served the same purpose.

The signs along the side of the road proclaimed that I was on the “Extraterrestrial Highway.” Near the start of the highway was a massive metal building that had a large alien leaning against the side of it.

There was also a sign that noted that the next available fuel stop was in 150 miles. I glanced down at my fuel gauge. I had 3/4 of a tank left.

Not something that would strike fear into one’s heart if one were driving any modern car was decent fuel economy, but I was driving an old Mustang with a serious thirst for fuel. I briefly contemplated turning around and taking the fifteen minute detour to the nearest gas station to fill up, but passed on the thought. In hindsight, I was an idiot.

Traveling the Extraterrestrial Highway.


I embarked on my trip across the middle of nowhere in high spirits. There was literally nothing out there save for hills, great expanses of tan dirt and rock, and the occasional cow. There was no cell phone reception whatsoever, and nearly no traffic. I never same someone going the same direction I was, and over the three hours of driving I did, I saw a grand total of three cars for oncoming traffic.

An hour into the drive, I was already at 3/8s of a tank. Worried, I began slowing down.

A quarter tank, I slowed down some more.

An eighth of a tank, and I was getting really worried. There was no sign of civilization, and I had never run the gas gauge to empty, so I didn’t really know how much fuel I really had left in the tank. Now I’m crawling along the vast stretch of road unfolding in front of me at a meager 40mph, keeping the Mustang in top gear and being super easy on the throttle.

The gas gauge reads empty. I’m crawling along on the road with my hazard lights on when I get pulled over by a local cop. Before I knew it, two other cop cars came by too. I must have been the most exciting thing to happen that afternoon.

I was pulled over because one of my tail lights was apparently out. I was then asked why my car didn’t have a front plate. (Car’s from Michigan, sir!) After learning that there was nothing to see but a kid in an ancient car looking for a fuel stop, the cops let me go. I asked where the nearest gas station was. I still had some 20-odd miles to go. Did I have enough fuel to make it?

I continued on, finally rolling into Tonopah. At the gas station, I filled my tank, and then did some calculations. I had burned 11.5 gallons of fuel over 197 miles, resulting in a hair over 17 miles per gallon. At the time, I thought the car only had a 12 gallon fuel tank, which was the source of my panic attack; I would later figure out that the car in fact had a 16 gallon fuel tank, and that I needn’t have worried so much. But yeah, at the time, I didn’t know any better.

Filling up my Mustang after hypermilling the car for three hours.


I wiggled the wire to my left rear tail light and suddenly I had a working pair of tail lights again. Go figure.

The next stop was Lake Tahoe. I was supposed to have arrived in time for dinner, but my slow hypermilling session put me behind schedule. I rolled into the AirBnB’d vacation home near midnight, hours after I was due to arrive.

San Francisco

I spent a few days hanging out with my friends in Lake Tahoe, doing some hiking before continuing west to San Francisco. Joining me in the car was my friend Lauren.

We drove across California and into San Francisco. Lauren lived in the Mission District, so I found a place to park the Mustang for the evening and we went to hang out at her place ($1500 per month for a space no bigger than a dorm room!) and check out her usual haunts.

During the daytime, I hopped back in my Mustang and went exploring outside the city. I made a trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, driving down to Monterey for lunch and taking pictures of whatever I found interesting along the way. Cruising down the coast in the Mustang, windows down, radio up, V8 purring was another one of those “damn, I feel so cool” moments.

On the PCH with my ’66 Mustang.


Coming on my way back, I decided to drop by some National autocross friends and check out their place. Their place was off of Highway 9, a gorgeous mounting road cutting a path from the coast towards San Jose. I remember trying to follow a clapped out Ford Ranger through the twisties and being totally unable to keep up. Damn, the locals sure knew how to carve corners, I thought. No wonder Shelly was so damn fast — she had the perfect practice road in front of her house.

Hanging with Ken and Shelly.


Which led me to Ken and Shelly’s place. I checked out what was in their garages — a 70s Celica that was getting a modern Toyota V8, the Datsun Roadster that Shelly got her racing license in, and a Pantera sitting outside underneath a carport, among other things! While I was there, Ken also helped me adjust the toe on the Mustang so I could get my steering wheel pointed straight.

I also spent a day with Lauren, taking the Mustang north into the Napa Valley region, looking for fun roads and fun activities.

Mustang vs. Morgan

I said goodbye to Lauren and San Francisco and continued my journey north, once again hugging the coastline as long as I could before shooting back onto one of the major roads heading towards Portland.

As the Pacific Coast Highway finally veered away from the coast and headed into the mountains, something in the rear view mirror caught my eye: a tiny, black roadster closing in at a rapid pace. I glanced to my left to watch a Morgan blasting by the Mustang. Oh man, it’s on, I thought. I dropped a gear down to third and began to give chase.

All of a sudden, it was 1966 again. The coast was nowhere in sight, the road now climbing into the hills, asphalt flanked by dense groves of trees. Dappled sunlight spotted the narrow road. Having autocrossed the Mustang many times before, I knew how the car would handle at the limit, so I pushed the car as hard as I could trying to keep up with the little Morgan. The roadster would fly around the corners, the Mustang chasing after, tires howling in protest as I’d set the front axle, then power my way through corner exit, catching up with the Morgan on the brief straights as the roadster struggled to accelerate uphill.

The trees echoed with the roar of a V8 and the bark of an English four. It truly felt like I had somehow discovered a time machine and gone back in time to what I probably would have been doing if I had been alive back then.

Partway through our joyous romp through the hills, we came upon a brand new C7 Corvette that was hindering our rapid progress. After a couple of corners of us on the Corvette’s rear bumper, the driver finally relented and let us pass. The Morgan zipped away, and I quickly followed.

I watched the Corvette in my rear view mirror attempt to keep up with us. After three corners, he was already being left behind in our collective dust. Another 20 seconds later, and he was no longer in our mirrors.

The road eventually straightened out and spit us out towards a local highway. The Morgan pulled over to the side of the road, and I did the same.

The driver was a fellow SCCA racer — of course! — and had been road racing Morgans for decades. This particular Morgan, a 1962 Plus 4, had a quarter of a million miles on it.

The driver and the Morgan that I chased into the hills of Northern California.


While we were chatting, along came the white Corvette, the driver squinting to see exactly just what it was that left him behind in the switchbacks. Just two experienced drivers, driving cars whose combined power and tire width couldn’t match what he alone had in the Corvette.


I bid the Morgan driver adieu and continued north. I took a detour and checked out the redwood forests, which was another amazing drive, having never seen trees with trunks so massive or heights so tall.

Checking out the redwood forests.


Once in Portland, I picked up my friend Angela, who had flown to Portland from Detroit. She didn’t have enough vacation time to join me for my entire road trip, and so decided that she’d join me for my return leg. The two of us stayed with my friend Tong, the person who helped my buy my black Subaru XT Turbo.


Waiting for us in Seattle was Kevin, who had flown from Chicago to Seattle to see a Seattle Mariners game in his quest to visit every single MLB park in the US. Angela and I drove up north to join him for a baseball game.

At a baseball game with Angela, Kevin, me, and someone Kevin literally made friends with at the game.


We also went and took a look at the LeMay auto museum, which is an absolutely amazing place that every car nerd should visit should they find themselves in the area.

The Mustang takes us to the LeMay, America’s Car Museum.


Angela and I stayed the evenings at my college friend Noah’s place. We spent a day or so exploring Seattle with Noah as our guide, finishing off each evening with a meal and drinks at the many hip cool dining places in town.

Glacier National Park

We departed Seattle and began the long journey back home to Detroit. The first stop on our return leg was Glacier National Park.

One of the many lakes in Glacier National Park.


At the time, the Going-to-the-Sun road was still covered in snow, so Angela and I couldn’t drive the road and do any hiking up there, so we stuck to the lower elevations which still offered plenty to see. We did a lot of hiking and spent plenty of time relaxing near or on the park’s beautiful lakes.

Long exposure of the night sky at one of the many lakes at Glacier National Park.


Yellowstone National Park

We took a quick detour to the south to check out Yellowstone National Park.

I hadn’t realized that, as one of the most popular National Parks in the US, it would be jam packed with people and cars in weeks after Memorial Day. There was a traffic jam just trying to get into the park, and finding a campsite proved to be impossible. With the hotels nearby basically booked, I spent the most money I’ve ever spent on a hotel room — over $500 for a single night — to avoid sleeping in the Mustang on the side of the road.

My advice: if you’re going to go to Yellowstone National Park, try to go during the off-season!

Angela snaps a picture of one of the smaller geysers at Yellowstone.


Still, once inside the park, we got to see a bunch of geysers and hot springs, and took lots of photos. We got to see Old Faithful, but perhaps my favorite geysers to visit were the little ones accessible only by small roads — no buses or RVs at these, which meant the crowds were a lot smaller.

Wildlife traffic jam.


On our way out of the park, we got caught up in a wildlife-induced traffic jam. A herd of bison, slowly and blithely crossing the road, caused a major backup in both traffic directions, but once we got to the source of the jam, we too took our own sweet time getting photos of the wildlife before proceeding.

Repairs on the road

I was filling up at a gas station when I happened to take a look at the front tires.

Worn shoulders on the front tires of the Mustang.


My exuberant driving, especially during my 30 minute dogfight with the Morgan, resulted in a pair of ruined front tires. I’m sure the toe issues and the positive camber didn’t help either.

I found a tire shop and bought a new pair of tires for the front axle. As I was running an extremely tall tire on the car, the local tire shop didn’t have my preferred size in stock, so I went ahead and bought the shorter tires and mounted them. The new tires also weren’t whitewalls, so now the Mustang looked a little odd with mismatched tires front to back.

The Mustang, now with tread on its front tires.


Since we were already stopped for maintenance work, I took the Mustang to a local Ford dealership and had the oil changed.

Getting a speedy oil change with Quicklane.


With new tires and a fresh fill of oil, Angela and I continued east towards the Dakotas.

Mount Rushmore and the Badlands

I wanted to see Mount Rushmore, and I wanted to photograph it in the morning light, so we set off for the monument in the wee hours of the morning.

Mustang, on the way to Mount Rushmore.


We didn’t spend long at Mount Rushmore as we were supposed to be in St. Paul, Minnesota later that evening.

Angela convinced me that it would be a good idea to take a quick detour to go look at the Badlands. We hopped off the interstate and found a road that skirted the Badlands, stopping every now and then to take in the scenery and shoot some pictures. If we weren’t so pressed for time, I think I would have liked to spend more time there.

Taking in the view of the Badlands.


We hopped back onto the highway and headed east. The Mustang had no air conditioning, something that didn’t really bother me until this very moment. We had all the windows down and the floor vents open and were cruising at high speed, but we simply couldn’t keep our bodies cool at all.

I looked down at the dash and noted that the temperature gauge was nearly to “H”. In an attempt to make time, I was pushing the poor little Mustang to a cruising speed of 80 mph through a wall of unbearable heat.

Angela was an absolute trooper and didn’t complain about the conditions which I’d inadvertently forced upon her. Still, I thought it was a good idea to take a break, so at a rest stop, I pulled the car over such that we and the car could cool off.

The temperature display inside the rest stop building noted that the outside temperature was 100 degrees!

Angela was cooling off in the air conditioned rest area building when she noticed that there was a huge plume of steam coming from the front of the car and came dashing outside.

I had tried to pop off the radiator cap, and the coolant pressure had not yet dropped enough. Fortunately, I was wearing gloves and didn’t get burned. I assured her that there was nothing to worry about, and that I had extra coolant in the trunk of the car. She shrugged her shoulders. I guess if you’re not worried, then I’m not going to worry either, she said, and she went back inside.

The Mustang got a little hot.


I added the coolant I had, and still needed more. I grabbed some water bottles from the cooler inside the car and used water to top off the radiator. Car now cooled down, I started her back up, listening for any weirdness in the motor. Hearing none, Angela and I continued on, this time at a reduced pace. I had Angela call her friends in St. Paul and let them know that we were going to be arriving very late.

Thankfully, as we crossed the Minnesota border, it started raining. We rolled the windows up and kept the vents open, and basked in the relative coolness as we drove through the dark to our overnight in St. Paul.

Returning home and the future road trip plans

We stopped by Chicago and spent another night at Kevin’s, as he had just returned from Seattle back to Chicago. (Yes, we did end up seeing each other three times in the course of two and a half weeks!)

The final 6 hour leg back to Detroit was uneventful. I dropped Angela back at her house and drove the Mustang back home to Dearborn.

Shortly after my return back home, my friend Dmitry announced in our group chat that he was signing up for the 2018 Alcan 5000 with his bike, and that some of us should join him. Hmm, I thought. I had always wanted to drive to Alaska by car. The Alcan 5000 has classes for fools like me who would try doing the rally in a classic car. The Mustang had just completed an 7k mile journey journey without too many problems, so what’s another 3k miles on top of that?

I recruited my friend Brandon as a team mate and he was totally on board. Mere weeks after the Mustang had completed its road trip, a deposit was paid to reserve a spot for an even grander road trip just two years down the line…