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Fear and Loathing in the World's Most Hated Mustang
Buying a 1974 Mustang II—a car too weird to live, too “rare” to die—sight-unseen on eBay and driving it from Michigan to Las Vegas…at least that was the plan.
“What a waste of time.”
“Those cars are worthless POSs”
“That’s not a Mustang, it’s a Pinto!”
“Around here we call that a PintStang.”
“There’s a reason nobody makes parts for those cars—they suck!”
We were somewhere around Green River in the middle of the Utah desert, in the dark, when the reality of the situation hit me like a bad acid trip. I had pushed my friend Rodney too far this time, the creeping needle of his water temp gauge steadily easing clockwise, a sign that he had had enough.
That’s when all those declarations from our email inbox and Facebook page flooded my thoughts, comments from readers—but otherwise total strangers—regarding my desire to obtain a Mustang II and potentially turn it into a project car for Mustang Monthly magazine. And those were the ones clean enough to print in a family magazine. Even friends and family were unenthused about the idea, barely concealing their utter and total disdain for any Mustang built in the Charlie’s Angels era. Sitting there in the middle of nowhere, barely on the shoulder of I-70, in total darkness, no working hazard flashers, big rigs thundering inches away, with one bar-worth of signal on the cell phone, I began to second-guess my decision to wade into this adventure, wondering if all the haters were right.
It all started soon after I assumed the editor’s position at Mustang Monthly magazine. I lost count of how many people followed up their congratulations with, “So, when are you going to get a project car?” Now, as a veteran of numerous project car adventures (a far more accurate word than “build”) in my 26 years in the magazine world, I have come to realize that project cars begin as an automotive wet dream, with glorious visions of automotive greatness and immortality after building the “perfect” magazine car, but often end in complete disappointment. The reality that all of us have come to realize is that project cars rarely end up as intended, always run waaaaaay behind schedule, cost far more money than we can afford, and usually are left un-finished when we get fired or shuttled off to another magazine.
Wary of getting myself stuck with yet another still-borne project—or worse yet, a car built solely on advertising-driven commandments that, nine times out of ten, ends up a compromised pile of poodle poop that meets none of its original goals—I resisted the urge to buy a Mustang for nearly a year. Oh sure, I looked around. I mean, c’mon, someone who doesn’t waste hours every day perusing cars for sale online is not allowed to call himself a car guy. Craigslist Pro is one of the most-used apps on my iPhone, and I was often up late at night looking at it and eBay, comparing prices with my perpetually empty bank account, eventually crying myself to sleep with the exasperation that comes from being an addict without the means to feed his addiction.
But after some brilliant (some say ignorant and irresponsible…most people say that actually) cash and bill juggling, I had a few grand to spend. The problem then became what generation and body style Mustang should I get? Everyone has “the one that got away” in his or her lifetime, and mine was a ’67 GT fastback. I loved that car and kick myself every day for letting it go, but fastback Mustangs are worth stupid money anymore, taking that body style out of the running. Convertibles are also too expensive for my meager budget and besides, other than my first car I’ve never really been a convertible kinda guy. I had already built a really nice ’65 coupe for my now-ex-wife and didn’t feel like reliving any of that nightmarish drama (don’t ask), so I started looking at ’67-’70 coupes. The affordable ones needed far more bodywork and other stuff than I felt like dealing with, and I’m not in the mood for a full-on rotisserie restoration.
So the search drifted to ’71-‘73s, even the coupes. But I don’t know; they just don’t ring my bell the way they need to if I’m going to bleed on one and sink a small fortune into it. And I refuse to be one of those bottom-feeders who builds a project car with advertiser-supplied parts only to sell it for a huge profit later on. That’s just dirty pool man, and I’ve seen it happen far too often. Sure, sometimes we have to sell a project car to finance the next one, or buy a house or something, but to build it for the sole purpose of selling it for big bucks is nothing but a shyster move that unfortunately happens far too often in this industry.
My not-so-dirty little secret has always been that I like the underdogs, cars that most people deride like Pintos, AMC Gremlins, Chevy Vegas and Monzas, ’78 Toyota Celica GTs (before you cry “FOUL!” look at one—it’s a mini 1970 Mustang fastback!), and yes, the Mustang II. I looked at a few IIs online and they’re dirt cheap in comparison to “real” Mustangs, but everyone kept telling me there’s a reason for that—re-read the quotes at the beginning of this story. Then I happened on a puke-yellow ’74 on eBay, located in Michigan. I resisted the urge to bid on it, and it eventually “sold” for $2,000. But two weeks later it popped up again, a victim of a typical eBay Flake who apparently woke up with a raging hangover and the sneaking suspicion that he had “purchased” something late at night in a haze of booze or mescaline, probably both. Of course the sale had fallen though so I saw that as my chance to do the truly irresponsible thing and get it. Bidding stalled at around $1,200 this time, so I emailed the owner and told him, “I’ll give you two grand cash right now if you end the auction.” He wanted to ride it out, so I ended up “winning” the car for $1,525. Score!
Via email, I asked the seller if the car was drivable and potentially capable of driving to California, and he confirmed that he had driven it around town a bit but strongly advised bringing a trailer. Reading between the lines of his email the actual message was on the order of, “You’d be an absolute fool to even think of driving this piece of garbage more than a few miles, but hey, it’s your funeral pal.” I’ve been involved on a tertiary level with several Roadkill adventures to know that anything involving a trailer is completely devoid of “fun” and roadside misery is the bedrock of adventure.
The car was located about two hours north of Detroit, so I called my friend and former Hot Rod staff member Cole Quinnell, who lives in suburbia of the Dirty D, to ask if he could fetch it for me. After he finished berating me for buying what he termed “a piece of poop” (cleaned up for a PG audience), he agreed and our mutual friend Christopher Kill drove him up to get the car, after I Pay Palled the owner the money.
The first warning sign was that the owner had thrown the keys and title on the dash but was nowhere to be found when they went to get the car. Apparently, he had no desire to be an accessory to the crime that was about to be committed. Cole popped the hood and saw a hasty spray can rebuild, a dry brake master cylinder but a topped-off radiator. “Uh oh,” he thought, “this thing must overheat.” But the car made it the two-hour drive back to Cole’s house, after he stopped to fill it with gas and brake juice, and also after he had cut eyeholes in a paper bag to insure that he wasn’t seen by anyone of importance. The car became Project Two Bagger under Cole’s stewardship, and yes, that paper bag is still in the car today. Though insulting, it’s too funny to throw away.
After his mini-adventure with my new II, I called to see how it went. “Well, it’s a Mustang II, and an ugly one at that. It runs okay, sorta, but the brakes are scarier than Rosie O’Donnell in a bikini. And did I say it’s really, really ugly? I mean seriously, it redefines the word ugly.” Hater.
The plan was to fly from Los Angeles to Detroit where Cole would pick me up and shuttle me to his house, then after some routine maintenance I’d hit the road with the main destination being Las Vegas and the SEMA Show, then after the show to my driveway in Burbank. I gave myself enough time to account for the breakdowns that everyone knew were coming, plus a weekend stop in my home town of Denver to check out my best friend Tony’s new house and perform the repairs that were destined to be required.
My first sight of my glorious new Mustang was outside Cole’s home workshop. I jumped in and gave it a test drive down his street, learning just how scary the brakes are and how underpowered the little 2.8L V-6 was. But as bad as they were, the brakes stopped the car and everything except the dome light and water temp gauge worked. (The gauge did indeed work, but discovering that little tidbit happens later in the story). After we pushed his flat-fender Jeep deeper into its hole, I pulled the Mustang into the shop so we could assess what it needed to make it capable of a 2,500-mile road trip. The brake lines had more bubbles than Lawrence Welk’s orchestra so they definitely needed to be bled, but as I drifted off to sleep that night, vision of rusty, snapped-off bleeder screws created nightmares—the car was rust-free for a Michigan car, but still. Best to leave the brakes as-is, instead of breaking stuff and having to do a complete brake system rebuild that would put me behind schedule before I even started.
The next morning I awoke to pouring rain so wiper blades and RainX were on the list for my first stop at the parts store, as were 6 quarts of oil, a few quarts of trans fluid, a funnel, extra belts, hand soap and towels, and various tune-up parts and pieces. Back at the shop, as we were about to install new wiper blades I wondered aloud if the wipers even worked. Nope. The fuse was good but the wiper motor was buried, tucked up tight, deep under the dash. “Hell, none of my hot rods have wipers and I’ve driven them in the rain a lot. You bought RainX right?” Cole asked. Yes I had—who needs wipers when you have RainX? I fixed a bad battery ground cable and then, after checking the air pressure in the tires, bowing in silent prayer, and saying goodbye/wish me luck to my friend, the II and I drove off into the rain for the beginning of the adventure to come.
Finish the F’ing story man! What happened?
Catch up on the rest of Project Rodney: