Jerry Heasley
June 1, 2013

Sudden Death Wish: Thomas Tate Finds His Dream Mustang

Thomas Tate could scarcely believe his dream was coming true. He'd been hunting the old Gapp & Roush "Sudden Death" for 15 years. While in high school, he had first seen the wild Mustang II featured in the April 1977 issue of Hot Rod. And now the legendary street-legal racer was on a trailer in front of his house.

In May 1975, Joe Ruggirello ordered a new '75 Mustang II hatchback, then sent it to Gapp & Roush's shop in Livonia, Michigan. His goal was a street-legal Mustang II powered by a 460 big-block. Tate explained, "Gapp & Roush took the car and cut it up to put in wheel tubs and a rear sub-frame. They re-used the original leaf springs, just moved them in with offset shackles and a narrowed '70 Galaxie rear end. Of course, fitting the 460 required quite a bit of engine compartment modifications."

Getting such a big engine in such a little car was a feat in itself, let alone putting monster torque to the ground. The bill came to more than $12,000, a huge sum in 1975.

Ruggirello street-raced the Mustang II for a short time before sending the car back to Gapp & Roush in the winter of 1976-77 for more power. They also reduced weight with fiberglass bumpers, aluminum brackets, and Don Hardy racing seats. The car went back to Gapp & Roush again in the 1980-81 time-frame for more upgrades, including twin turbochargers.

Tate first saw Sudden Death in person in 1995 during a Fun Ford Weekend at Gainesville Raceway in Florida. He recognized the car from the Hot Rod article. "The thing that gave it away was the notched cowl," Tate said. "Gapp & Roush moved the engine back 10 inches and built an entire new firewall and torque boxes."

Tate has been able to locate some photos of the Ruggirello Mustang II shortly after it was built by Gapp & Roush. He is currently restoring the car.

Almost 20 years old at the time, the car wore a copy of the Hot Rod article and a shoe-polished "For Sale" on the windshield, but there was no contact info or phone number. "I kept watching the car all day. Then I turned around and, poof, it was gone."

The sighting spurred Tate to find this incredibly fast Mustang II. Sudden Death became an obsession. Finally, in January 2010, he ran across an Internet post with "two guys talking about the car for sale on eBay." Apparently, the ad had listed the Gapp & Roush Mustang but the sale was over.

"I got the New Jersey phone number and called the next day," Tate said. Luckily, the Mustang II was still available. The owner's name was Pete Magner in Sicklerville, New Jersey.

"We started talking," Tate adds. "It took about a week. He started high and I started low and we ended up meeting in the middle."

Luckily, Sudden Death was "mostly intact" when Tate bought the car in 2010. The odometer registered 535 miles. As far as rust, Tate found some oxidation in the lower rear quarters. The hatch was rusty and had to be replaced. The doors were "perfect." The floors didn't suffer at all and the interior was still dry.

Tate feels the Ruggirello Mustang II helped put Gapp & Roush on the map. They already had a Pro Stock drag racing team. However, this Mustang II also appeared in Car & Driver as well as twice in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated.

Tate's plan is to fully restore the car to the configuration as seen in Hot Rod's April 1977 issue. He has been unable to find photographs of the car in its original twin-turbo configuration. Tate believes the car left the Detroit area in 1981. If anyone has pictures, Tate would love to see them. You can email them to us here at mustangmonthly@sorc.com or to jerryheasley@gmail.com.