Joe Greeves
January 3, 2017

We know that there are hundreds of reasons to create a personalized car. Some builders want to exercise their sense of style while others value performance or comfort. Most old cars don’t handle or stop as well as their modern counterparts so builders often create restomods using aftermarket parts that blend with the old but act like new. There is one more element that’s equally as important—safety.

James Graf, 43, is a fireman from Callahan, Florida. He’s been involved with Mustangs since he was in high school and vividly remembers that at 17, the accident in his teenage dream car nearly killed him. “The only reason my dad (Richard Graf) would help me build another Mustang was if it had all the safety features,” he told us. And, many years later, that became the basis for his latest, “new/old” Mustang, a 1966 fastback transformed with the help of a 1997 Cobra. Although it was an ambitious project, James had an advantage when it came time to create the car since he grew up in an automotive family. His father is a talented car builder, as was his grandfather. The automotive gene had clearly been passed down to the men in the family.

Even though there are dozens of changes underneath the vintage sheet metal, all the classic lines of the 1966 fastback show through. A Shelby hood and custom grille are personal touches.
The distinctive rear uses a full-width custom LED taillight that flashes once when the brakes are first applied. Welded-on metal wheel flares add an aggressive look. Note the new gas filler door.
The later Cobra DOHC V-8 looks imposing and is worlds ahead of the original 1966 Mustang powerplant. A special extension was fabricated so that the 1997 K-member and shock towers would match the 1966 wheel openings.

The idea began to take shape when James found the 1966 C-Code on a website, in extremely rough condition with no power train. Since his previous Mustangs were coupes, the fastback would be a stylish upgrade, and since all he needed was a shell of a car and a VIN number, it fit the bill perfectly. James and his dad went through the car, eliminating the dents and dings acquired over its lifetime, repairing rusted areas, replacing panels as required, and making the shell factory straight. The next step was a donor car and when James spotted a 1997 Cobra on the internet, equipped with a four-cam V-8, five-speed, ABS disc brakes, and more, he knew it was the missing piece of the puzzle. He drove the car for six months to make sure that everything was mechanically correct, the motor was strong, and the running gear was tight.

Once everything on the Cobra passed the test, James and his father began a systematic disassembly. Everything that could be used from the 1997 was fitted to the 1966 to include the entire power train, suspension, wiring harness, and more, right down to the pair of air bags for the driver and passenger. The area that created the biggest challenge was the fact that the 1966 had a longer wheelbase than the 1997. They had to fabricate an extension that positioned the Cobra’s K-member and shock towers seven inches closer to the front bumper so that the new wheels would fit the old wheel openings. They used two-inch square tubing to create the extension, and followed up with 1x2 tubing to create subframe connectors. By using the Cobra’s firewall, all the connections were simplified, accommodating the air-conditioning, steering, controls for the disc brakes, accelerator, and cruise control, and even the air bag sensors. Modern stopping power was guaranteed thanks to 13-inch two-piston caliper disc brakes up front and 11.6-inch single-piston calipers in the rear along with factory Ford shocks that stabilize each of the 17x8-inch five-spoke rims. Michelin P245/45ZR18 rubber ensures crisp starts, stops and turns.

With the Mustang on the lift, the full extent of the swap can be seen. Running gear from the 1997 replaces the 1966 suspension and brakes, making a decided improvement in handling.

Moving inside, the new center console holds the five-speed shifter from the 1997 and the controls for the power windows and door locks. It also holds a touchscreen Kenwood four-speaker Bluetooth-equipped stereo that pairs with a smart phone for hands-free conversations. The white-faced gauges are from the Cobra and work just like a factory-built Mustang. Vents for the A/C were built into the dash, also with a distinctive factory look. While the adapted-to-fit black leather front seats came from the Cobra, the rear seat is the functional fold down version from the fastback. With safety always in mind, all four seating locations have modern three-point restraints. In the trunk, the relocated battery was positioned on the driver’s side. The central gas filler was moved to the passenger side, providing additional unobstructed trunk space. The trunk lid now works on a remote. The interior stitchwork was done by Terry Brothers in Jacksonville, Florida.

All that was left was a few personal touches to the exterior, beginning with aftermarket Julian Brothers metal wheel flares that were welded in place. The front end benefits from a Shelby double-scoop hood, custom aluminum upper and lower grilles, clear aftermarket headlights and 1964 Mustang parking lights. The lower valance is all metal, hand formed in the family garage. Custom sequential taillights create a distinctive single flash when first illuminated, providing a full width brake light that you can’t miss, another subtle safety upgrade. The paint is a beautiful shade of Vista Blue Chromabase with multiple coats of Chromaclear, sprayed by James and his dad.

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Like everything else on the car, the interior is a blend of old and new. Late-model seats from the Cobra team up with the original fold down back seat of the 1966. White-faced gauges from the Cobra fill the dash along with dual air bags. Note the Cobra’s shifter and center console, and the 1966 fold-down rear seat.

What did they wind up with? The 1966 fastback now boasts mechanical and safety features that are more than three decades newer. In addition to the modern high performance Cobra double overhead cam V-8, Borg-Warner five-speed, and modern suspension, the car has all the crumple zones of the 1997 Cobra plus power steering, ABS braking, limited slip 8.8-inch rear, three-point restraint harnesses, dual air bags, and modern creature comforts that include air conditioning, power windows, power door locks, remote trunk release, stereo/NAV head unit, and factory key fob alarm system. All the modern safety features make sense, especially when James and his wife Holly go cruising with their two girls in the family Mustang. The girls can fit in the fastback easily.

What does he think of the finished product? “I knew that when I built the car that some people wouldn’t like it since it’s not a factory original car, but it fits my personality. To me it’s art and of course, I especially like the safety factor.” What are the future plans?

Although the filler cap was retained as decoration of the custom taillights, the actual filler was moved to the passenger side, allowing for a flat trunk floor. The lid now opens with a remote.

James says “We plan to enjoy it and hope to have the car long enough to pass it down to our children. We already know it will be safe for them!”

What’s next? This father and son team is already planning for their next “safety build,” using the templates established for this car to upgrade the next one. Special thanks goes to farther Richard Graf, brother John Graf, and stepbrother Todd Hogan for their help in creating James’ latest dream Mustang.