Mustang – noun 1.
An American feral horse which is typically small and lightly built.
Friday afternoon I received a phone call from a close family friend asking me to drive his Mustang as a wedding car. Before he had a chance to rethink and renege, I had accepted! Honestly, I’ve been waiting for a chance to get behind the wheel of this Mustang ever since the “nut and bolt” restoration was completed a year ago.
Where to start? Graham (the owner) is a true enthusiast. He found and imported this Mustang 3 years ago. In the time it took to get the car packed into a shipping container Graham had sourced most of the components required to restore it. He then had those parts shipped from the USA.
Being a traditionalist at heart, Graham sought out as much genuine componentry as possible and even removed an aftermarket efi system that came with the engine in favour of the petrol smell that is a Carbie. He ended up fitting an Edelbrock Thunder 650 cfm 4 barrel carburettor. It’s fair to say Graham wanted to maintain the original appearance of this American beast, but felt he needed to improve the mechanical parts as well. As a result this car was packed with mods; starting with a period correct Windsor 351 block and fitted with 302 Cleveland heads, a so-called Boss or Clevor configuration. He installed a beautiful Tremec gearbox (TKO600 Road Race) with a custom bell housing which allowed for a concentric hydraulic clutch actuator/thrust bearing. The original recirculating ball steering box and drag links were replaced by a Flaming River rack and pinion steering setup. Graham then modified the front suspension with the “Shelby Drop” configuration as well as fitting a larger front bar and a rear bar. Rear springs were replaced with 5 leaf “mid-eye” type. (Currently Graham is undergoing a more complex rebuild on a genuine matching numbers restoration) I know that Graham experienced a feeling of disappointment when he realised that the build quality of this original 69’ wasn’t all that great. From the factory it came complete with un-even panel gaps and unsightly panel to the floor pan fitment particularly. This pushed a button in Grahams mind and the body was stripped and placed on a rotisserie, where welds were broken and refinished, dents were levelled and the finish was brought to a whole new level. All paint was sandblasted off the panels, which were then hand beaten and finished to a standard far higher than factory quality in 1969.
My first drive: Upon arrival at Graham’s, it became worryingly apparent that I was in uncharted territory. This “69’ had managed to remain a left hand drive during its restoration and although I have driven a LHD previously, it was a while ago when I was touring the US and everyone drove the same way. So it was decided that Graham would ride shotgun during a familiarity lap around his housing estate, ensuring I didn’t wander into oncoming traffic. All at once I was introduced to many characteristics that are typical for a car of this age. I found myself preparing for a corner well in advance as the ‘turn in’ leaves you with an unsettled feeling as the suspension lurches and the front tyres squeal, even at low speeds.
On the open road after clocking up 20 or so minuets in the driver’s seat, I was on my own interpreting miles per hour on the speedo and converting to kph to ensure I wasn’t booked for speeding. Pulling up at the every set of traffic lights gave me the opportunity to practice smooth take offs with the old “heal and toe” start (this car’s parking brake is actuated by a pedal on the floor and is released by a hand level under the steering wheel, so it’s completely useless for a handbrake start). Here I discovered there was a very fine line between stalling and laying rubber! Although I didn’t stall whilst taking off from the lights I did find that there are varied levels of wheel spin, which seem impossible to ease out of, with the throttle alone. When the spinning starts you have to grab another gear (if you want to stop it) because the Mustang enjoys it so much and doesn’t seem to want to stop. I think with time this “burn out tendency” can be mastered. Something else I noticed at traffic lights (while I had a moment to relax a bit) was the attention this car demanded. I had people at pedestrian crossings snapping shots on their smart phones and drivers pointing the Mach 1 out to their passengers. I had an hour or so up my sleeve before I had to collect the bride, so in an effort to hone my smoothness I took the long way home, finding the windiest roads I could.
Let’s talk engine and driveline! What a gearbox!! Gear transitions were so smooth in this drag spec Tremec TKO. I suspect this positive feeling was enhanced by a reasonably light hydraulic clutch and a decent length in the gear stick! I couldn’t have wished for a better box to learn how to right hand shift on. Engine; well what can I say, the 351 Windsor with the larger Cleveland heads and a lumpy cam just pulls effortlessly above 1500rpm. Lift the revs with your right foot to 3500+ and this rough n tumble fastback becomes an instant freight train! During casual driving I never had the need for 5th and as long as I stayed above 1100rpm the torque would hold 4th at low speeds and take very little encouragement to get back to higher speeds.
The feelings experienced whilst driving this car range across the entire emotional spectrum. It’s a mixture of joy when the engine rumbles and you’re pushed back in the seat only to be replaced with fear when you apply the brakes, hoping you’ll stop in time. To be honest it does wear on you. Any longer than 2 or so hours behind the wheel makes you mentally and physically tired, which is really evident when it comes time to park the car, with its lack of power steering. I highly recommend you pull up well away from everyone else as the doors are massively long and will easily exceed your allotted carpark space before you can squeeze out.
To the wedding! After contemplating the back seat the bride and I decided that the dress and the bridal bouquet would be somewhat compromised upon entry.. So the beautiful Ruth rode shotgun, which is the only way to experience a Mustang. Now comes the moment where I stall. Before I fully explain this let me state that it was impressed upon me that the power assisted brakes cease to function when the engine stops running, so if you stall.. you roll.. and you roll backwards if you’re on a hill! While the bride’s car leads the way in a motorcade, we weren’t parked in that configuration and the exit was via a very steep drive way! In an effort to let me past, another member of our convey stopped at the top of the drive way. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough room for me to squeeze past, causing us to come to a stop. Great I though? This is why I practiced the old “heel and toe start” earlier; so when the traffic cleared we went for it! What happened next was a great start to a wedding story for the bride.. Put bluntly we smoked the rear tyres and propelled ourselves over the top of the crest, throwing us both backward, which was followed quickly by a stall at the top (on level ground) throwing us forward. I genuinely though I was done and turned sheepishly to look at the bride who had a mixed expression on her face of both surprise and humour. I quickly said “marriage isn’t all smooth sailing, but I promise trip will be.. from here out anyway” and we burst out laughing. The next few KMs were uneventful while the bride and I debated whether you could still call your husband your boyfriend (a rather surreal conversation). We eventually decided as we pulled up at the top of Sky High Mt Dandenong, that whatever works is best! So I had delivered the bride and the wedding went off without a hitch. While the formalities and photos were performed I returned to the Mustang for departure, only to discover that several tourists were posing in front the car and snapping images. The noise from the remote central locking didn’t seem to deter them, so I just jumped in and left.
When I switched off the ignition the engine lingered for a few seconds while it used the remaining fuel in the carbie or possibly ran on. I smiled at the thought that maybe it didn’t want to stop and for a split second a sad feeling crept in because I knew my test drive was over. So many things about this Mustang go against my values. The drivability as noted earlier isn’t for the competitive and the suspension isn’t geared around comfort or handling. This car isn’t a performance car (despite the epic engine performance), rather it’s an emotional ride. When you drive it you experience so much joy, fear, envy and satisfaction as you find yourself becoming attached to it. You couldn’t drive it every day, but you’d find yourself wanting to, or rather regretting not taking it. The look, feel and finish of this car deserves praise and Graham’s attention to detail more so. It was a driving pleasure and will make the highlight reel of my driving career. Never turn down a chance to drive a real Mustang people! My closing note will is this: This car needs special treatment, special skills and will show up inexperience, but these faults, foibles and peccadilloes all add to the sense of occasion when you do take it out and it’s worth mastering the necessary skills so you can enjoy the soundtrack……