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Army Vet Builds His 1965 Ford Mustang Fastback Dream Car as a Celebration of Life
Overcoming Adversity: Daniel McConnell went from knowing nothing about cars to building this 1965 fastback completely at home
They say that when life gives you lemons make lemonade. That’s easy to say when the lemon is a speeding ticket, an unexpected bill, or some other life annoyance. But it’s not so easy to turn a negative into a positive when the former is the loss of a limb in an aircraft crash and the potential PTSD that comes with both of those scenarios. Mustang world, meet Daniel McConnell.
Daniel’s story is one of resilience and perseverance. He was in the U.S. Army infantry as a medic then became an officer (Captain) and an attack helicopter pilot as a “backup plan,” but always had his sights set on a career in medicine. In fact, he got accepted into medical school in 2006 but deferred in order to deploy with his unit. Then on April 28, 2006, while escorting a Blackhawk helicopter with a demolition crew to disable an IED, his chopper went down, taking his right arm in the process. Not one to let it stop him, Daniel kept his eye on the future and entered graduate school, graduating with a Medical Doctorate in 2011, and then bought this 1965 fastback as a combined graduation and “alive day” gift on April 28, 2011 (the anniversary of his crash). Daniel said, “That next year, from April 2011 to April 2012, I did my intern year of medicine and also rebuilt this car from the ground up.”
Not only was he learning in the highly stressful and technical medical field, he was also learning a few things about building a car. Daniel had worked on cars his whole life and had built an early fastback, turning it from a rusty “field car” into a running car, but then had to sell it in 1998 because his commander threatened to tow it off base. He always wanted to build another Mustang, but this latest project would test his persistence and we applaud the work ethic and stick-to-it attitude he has, since the car turned out fantastic.
The roof was caved in when he got the car and it needed a lot of sheetmetal work all over, but Daniel had never welded or held a body hammer or paint gun. So he bought a welder and taught himself to weld and do bodywork. He hammered the roof back out and welded in both new quarter-panels, a full floorpan, trunk floor, straightened a caved-in front fender, installed an aftermarket door, filled the cowl vent with a two-piece cowl from NPD, heavily worked a Maier Racing ’glass hood so that it would fit properly, and then painted everything 2011 Nissan blue with white stripes. The paint- and bodywork was so good we questioned his experience in that regard, and Daniel said, “I’d never so much as sanded or shot anything. Google and YouTube, I learned everything, and talked to the guys at the local paint store.”
He built his own engine, a 347 with TrickFlow Twisted Wedge heads, an Edelbrock Performer RPM II EFI intake, and “the biggest hydraulic COMP cam I could get” that makes 400 hp to the tires. He paid someone else to narrow the Explorer 8.8 rearend and set up the 3.55 gears, “but they howled so bad that I redid them myself and haven’t had any problems.”
Underneath is a complete Total Control Products coilover setup front and rear, 1999 Mustang Cobra brakes up front (stock Explorer discs in back), and FR500 18-inch wheels that were custom-narrowed by about an inch to get the backspacing right so they fit and didn’t rub. “I messed up my suspension settings and chewed up the tires the day before leaving for the 2015 Power Tour. I texted Brian [Stilwell, who was also on Tour with his modified 1965 six-cylinder hardtop] three hours before his shop closed saying ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it!’” But he changed the settings and bought a new set of Bridgestone tires at the last minute and they hit the road to Madison, Wisconsin, for the Tour kickoff.
The car originally had a set of Recaro seats in it upon completion, but while Daniel was at the Silver Springs Ford & Mustang Roundup in Florida he hung out at TMI’s booth, where Brian’s car was parked, and fell in love with their upholstery. So he bought a set of 1991 Mustang convertible seats with adjustable bolsters off of craigslist and covered them in black and blue TMI leather. Seat track extenders give the fairly tall Daniel an extra 2 inches of legroom.
When Daniel first dragged the ratty, beat-up carcass of the car home, his neighbors were worried. “Is this going to sit in your driveway? Do you know what you’re doing?” they asked with the obvious concern over their property values. Daniel said “Not really” and they jokingly called him an idiot. But nobody’s saying that anymore. The car is a driver, as was shown on all 1,000-plus miles of Power Tour, and gets driven all over his hometown of Tampa, Florida, where he works at a Level 2 trauma center seeing emergency patients and other traumas. When asked about future projects, Daniel has a 1965 convertible with a six-cylinder and C4 that he’s thinking of doing old-school with a built 250ci head, Offenhauser intake, and three Weber carbs. He said, “Whenever you go to a show, you never see I-6s anymore but you see a lot of I-6 VINs. I figure I want to do something that will get attention.” Then he mentioned a 1964 Lincoln Continental with a blown Coyote and airbags, so we’re sure this is not his last Ford project.