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1969 Ford Mustang - High School Hotrod
What one man with a great group of friends can accomplish
Twenty-five years is a long time to maintain a steady relationship, but San Bernardino, California's Chris Catalano has been through thick and thin with his first love. As you might have guessed from the title, we're talking about Chris's first car here, his '69 Mach 1. It's stunning appearance and performance is representative of the efforts Chris has put into his relationship with it, as well as the efforts of a large group of close friends that have regularly pitched in.
There's nothing quite like the camaraderie that occurs when a close-knit group of guys get together and build stuff, and the SportsRoof you see here was welcomed into the fold when Chris was in 11th grade.
"We were cutting class at the end of the school year and came across the car," he recalled. It wasn't even for sale, but one of Chris' buddies knocked on the door to find out if the owner would sell it. As fate would have it, he was willing to part with it, and Chris returned later that day with his dad in tow—he didn't bother to mention he had skipped school that day, but we can't exactly blame him as things may have turned out quite differently.
"My dad and I negotiated the price down to $1,600 and I worked the summer to pay my half of the bill." Chris' dad offered to cover the other half provided Chris finish high school. Oddly enough, the owner told Chris that he would have had to charge him more if it was a Boss 302, little did he know he was parting with another rather desirable model.
Evidently the owner wasn't aware of that, and it was probably hard to know since so much had been changed on the car. It was primer gray, had an 8-inch rear out back, and someone had "slaughtered" a Shelby fiberglass hood, cutting it down to fit the '69's original front end. Someone had also used gobs of plastic body filler to fill in where the rust had eaten the metal away, as well as to graft a set of '78 Camaro Z28 front fender vents in. It also had a salvage title, and the previous owner had rescued it from a wrecking yard. Either he hadn't gotten to repairing it or did a really bad job.
Still, it was a running/driving four-speed car, and Chris' first ride. The 302 eventually buckled under teenage driving pressure, and Chris built a 351 Cleveland for it. However, street racing every weekend killed the Cleveland within a year.
It was about this time that Chris started getting interested in the Mustang's history, and after reading a few books and decoding the VIN, he found out that it was actually an R-code 428 CJ Mach 1!
"I was only 19 years old at the time making $5 an hour, so I stuck with the 351C," Chris said. Since the money situation wasn't improving, the Mustang sat idle for a few years.
"I eventually had the engine rebuilt by a 'Chevy guy' who didn't know what he was doing. The engine died about two weeks after I put it in; he warrantied three more engines after that one, so my friend, Scott Spitzer, and I built the last 351C 4V." That engine lasted until Chris smacked the oil pan on a speed bump, which cut off the engine's oil supply. "I didn't even get out of the parking lot before I heard it start knocking." Still, the Cleveland showed it still had some oats once the oil was flowing again, that is until the Tremec transmission swap and it's much different gear ratios threw Chris for a loop.
"I over-revved it on the testdrive and it blew up—the only surviving parts were the intake manifold and one head. Everything else was destroyed."
It was then that Chris discussed the situation with his good friends, Kevin Van Noy and Dennis Carlson at Carburetor Solutions Unlimited. The CSU duo convinced Chris that a late-model powerplant with a turbocharger was the way to go.
Joel and Paul Barrett got to work on assembling the small-block, while Chris tried to figure out where to put the turbo.
"Downsizing the cubic inches was a hit to the ego," Chris told us. Size wouldn't matter once the turbo was boosting the 306, and Chris moved the battery to the trunk to make room for the PTE 54mm hairdryer. Starting with a pair of shorty headers turned forward, Chris then cut the collectors off and tack-welded the crossover pipe together. He later had his long-time friend and master welder, Rick Coricelli, take the pipes home and TIG-weld them properly. Rick also fabricated the downpipe that runs from the turbo to the rest of the exhaust system.
"The car was reassembled and a dream come true for a car guy," said Chris. To see what the turbocharged car could do, Chris drove an hour to Los Angeles County Raceway. With Mickey Thompson ET Street tires mounted on Centerline Convo Pro rims, the Mustang scooted to an 11.70 at 118 mph with Chris behind the wheel.
"Kevin, being a much better driver than I am, then got behind the wheel and said "sit back, son, and I'll show you how it's done.' (Famous last words before something is about to go horribly wrong!) As Kevin did a smokey burnout, the engine mount broke and the engine moved enough to puncture the oil filter," Chris recalled. No one noticed the oil hosing down the front tire, and once the left rear tire followed it through the oil, it started spinning which broke the right axle and sent the car to the right and into the wall. While Kevin was fine, the Mustang suffered sheetmetal damage and a small engine fire.
"I am glad Kevin was driving; had it been me, I don't think I could have saved it the way he did," Chris told us. Further good news came when a full quart of oil was found in the oil pan, and no internal engine damage resulted from the gusher.
Chris started looking for replacement parts and found that most of the aftermarket stuff didn't fit correctly, and original parts had become rather pricey.
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"I decided drag racing should be done in something I don't love this much, so I sold all of the drag racing parts and put together a plan to build a Pro Touring car," Chris noted.