Tom Wilson
November 2, 2012

John Heermann is one of those young men you're sure to read about more than once. The Colorado farmer and sheetmetal man was just 21 years old in 2010 when attending the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Between his Ag Economics studies, he read an article in our sister mag Mustang Monthly describing the Roller Hoop rotisserie offered by Auto Kraft, in--of all places--Lincoln, Nebraska. Out of curiosity, John stopped by Auto Kraft www.autokraftnebraska.com and before you could strike a gas axe, the irrepressible metal ace and Auto Kraft proprietor Doug Kielian gave John a job. Doug is something of a Pied Piper of nascent auto-body talent. He spotted John's hard-core farm-bred work ethic and searing desire and thought he could direct it to good use. He was right.

By the end of this story, you'll find John sweated bullets to hand-build the incredibly cool, sophisticated custom Mustang gracing these pages--and under that sexy late-'60s bodywork, there's an '11 Mustang GT. Yes, the bodywork is all-metal, and no, this isn't another bolt-on wonder, but a real one-off piece of auto art. The effort and vision required to execute a job of this magnitude is far off the charts for the typical car enthusiast, and if John wasn't made of the right stuff, or Doug wasn't able to spot those gifts or willing to slave himself to stewarding the project to completion, this car never would have been built. It started with--what else--the '11s taillights. In July 2010, the Auto Kraft crew went to a modest Mustang show at a local Ford dealer and took in their first in-the-steel view of the '11 Mustangs. As John put it, he overheard Doug and others discussing how unfortunate they found the 2011 rearend treatment and how they would change it, should they have a chance.

The next day, John made the 500-mile trip back to Colorado to work the farm for three days. "I thought about that car pretty hard," recalled John. Then he returned to Lincoln, "And [on July 15, 2010] bought a black 2011 5.0 that was on the lot. I didn't tell Doug or Stefanie (Doug's wife). I just showed up at Auto Krafters." You can imagine the surprise of that arrival, but what's more, John was ready to cut up the car that afternoon. "I thought I'd do just the taillights or something minor." The Kielians offered the near-parental advice to drive the achingly new Mustang a few days--enjoy it and think about it. Knowing good advice when he heard it, John said, "I drove it five and a half months," even taking it on the road course at Hastings, Nebraska, for a little fun. Even so, as seen here, the car has but 1,700 miles on it.

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In the fall of 2010, John went to the SEMA show in Las Vegas with Doug, and John zero'd in on the '60s-themed Mustangs sitting outside the main show hall. "I liked the idea but not the proportions," said John, following by, "So if they could do it in glass, I figured I could do it in metal." He wanted something more structural and not an overlay atop the 2011 bodywork. Also wanting more in-depth metal work tutoring, John flew to Connecticut and took a three-day, 36-hour metal shaping class from Wray Schelin. Then, "In early December, I gutted the interior and put it in my room." But John had second thoughts and reinstalled the interior. Screwing up his courage again, "The day after Christmas 2010, I took the interior all out again. On Dec. 26, I brought the car into the shop at Auto Krafters."

John ordered a selection of early Mustang Dynacorn skins. From the '68 fastback he got quarter-panels, door skins, front fenders, and a decklid; the rear body panel, rear and front valance, and front grille are '69 parts. While waiting for the sheetmetal to arrive, John took the car back to Colorado and stripped it. On January 25, 2011 he trailered it back to Lincoln, "…called the glass guy in, and he removed the rear and quarter-windows. He wondered what the heck we were doing."

"I didn't know where to start, but I got out the Sawsall. The car didn't have a scratch in it and had 1,400 miles on it. So I cut into the quarter-window area. I cut off a little of the quarter-panel to check fit on the '68 quarter-panel and there were a lot of problems...I didn't know where to cut the '68 quarter-panel to make it fit." "So, eventually I cut the '68 panel into six pieces, maybe, and then we just started down the side of the car. We ended up with just the door skin, I guess. I had to cut off the outer door skin and modify the '68 and '69 door skins to fit, somehow."

"By June, it started looking like a car," and Doug's idea was to get the car to SEMA in November. A call to Bill Smith at Speedway Motors got the car a date in the AFCO/Dynotech booth, and the pressure was really on. John's response was to let go of whatever was left of life other than his Mustang. "By June I gave up everything social. I just worked on the farm all day, then went to the shop. In July I started sleeping in the shop…slept on a creeper for two weeks. My parents were wondering what the hell I was doing or where I was at; my dad ordered an old army cot."

As for the hood, John "decided I'd do the whole car out of metal, so I might as well use the stock aluminum '11 hood. So, it got flattened out a little bit and lengthened. The front 14 inches is all built from scratch ... and I had to rebuild the inner structure to have something to wrap the skin around." John didn't finish the metalwork and detailing until the first week in September. The car was still in bare metal, and he hadn't touched the taillights yet. He had no good idea on how he was going to handle them. It seems Ford isn't the only one who's struggled with those taillights.

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To give his mind a rest on what to do with the taillights, John spent the next three weeks prepping the bodywork for paint. Then he ordered a scratched '05 taillight off of eBay. He cut it up to see if it might fit in the opening, and it looked like it would. The third lamp was too small, so he had to buy three complete taillight units. "That gave me one to mess up," and he did break the first one. But he had the outer lenses carefully made, then had to rebuild the inner housings, which were in 15 or 20 different pieces by this point. John plastic-welded them back together and bolted them into the body panel. Amazingly, the stock 2011 wiring harness, which had been unwrapped but never cut, just plugged into the housings.

Finally, the car was towed to the SEMA show in the Speedway Motors trailer on the Friday before the show. Besides the full-body conversion, everything worked on the car, including the back-up camera, all the lighting, and the accessories. As John put it, "The cut and weld was the easy part--figuring out what to cut was the hard part." He is also quick to credit Doug as integral in designing the car as it came together, but we can confirm the finished product is definitely John's creation. Ultimately re-styling a car is about endless work to realize subtleties in design, and this is John's greatest accomplishment: It looks like a Mustang, not a modified Mustang. Furthermore, all this was about blending old and new, not about making a new '68 Mustang or an old '11, and again, Reversion succeeds impressively.

Let's not forget Reversion drives like a new car, because it's still new mechanically. The tires don't rub, the emissions are intact, the A/C blows like Ice Planet Hoth, and there's no reason why John can't drive his Mustang anywhere. The ride is reasonably firm with the taller wheels and Eibach lowering springs, and likely the only mechanical thing to be changed is to quiet the exhaust; the current pipes have a great tone but are over-the-line loud for daily duty. Considering John is now on his own in the body business, he'll make you something similar if you've got the guts to see it through. He did. How those taillights inspired John Heerman to take his 2011 Reversion Mustang back in time

Horse Sense: John Heermann's nom de weld--Johnny Sparks--was given to him by Doug Kielian after a particularly illuminating round of arcing. It looks to be his professional name as well, as he does business under the Johnny Sparks LLC banner.

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Behind the Scenes

John's education on just how much sub-surface structure would need attention began with the quarters. The '68 quarter-panel had nothing to attach to, so John had to extend the outer wheelhouses so he could weld the panels. With the quarters, door skin, and front fender finally mocked in place, John could see the trailing edge of the rear fastback window would have to be raised an inch and a half. That, in turn, changed the trunk lid angle, its shape, and how its hinges should attach. There would be numerous other places where supports, brackets, and other non-visible work would be required.

Still, John had "one side mocked up--quarter, door skin, and fender--and probably thought it would be possible. For the first two weeks I was wondering what I had done because it didn't look much like a car. But once mocked, I could see it would eventually be something." With the driver side mocked up, John moved to the front, "working on the grille and headlight situation. I wanted to keep the 2011 headlights, so I mocked them up with poster board and the headlights moved forward and out a little. The really hard part was that it was January and February and you couldn't move [the car] outside and look at it. It might look good inside, but not outside, and so I had to change things a little bit."

"So we moved to the other side and did the same thing; modified the quarters, door skins and fenders, so we had both sides established to get the front and rear. The front was only half done at this point ... I'd work a regular day here at Auto Krafters until 5 p.m., then I'd work on my car until 2 a.m."

"The back end was almost non-existent. The back was hard, to say the least ... the '68 decklid kind of fit--within a foot! The hard part was the different styles, '69 rear panel and '68 quarters. They didn't fit, so we widened and went taller on the panel. I had to build all the mounting and panels from scratch. All the panels were modified and were welded off the car, dressed down, then welded solid to the car." "[But the trunk lid was] a head scratcher, so I worked on other things and thought about it. We were just designing as we went."

"Eventually I had to modify the trunk jamb to mate with the rear window. I ended up de-skinning the outer portion of the decklid skin from the inner structure to mod the structure; I had to add at the front and both sides. Also I had to flatten it out on the back, because the '69 is flatter than the '68, which is curved."

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"The decklid was tack-welded to the car and I figured out what pieces I had to add to it to fit the hole, pretty much. With the decklid tacked on, we mocked in spray foam and Bondo to the rear-quarter extensions. We did just one that way, then Doug shaved that to show how it should look. Then I built it out of scratch from sheetmetal." In case you've never tried to coax an exact shape out of sheet steel, we'll pause here to reflect on the skill and effort required to cut, bend, weld, grind, and surface-finish a shape as complex as a fender cap. "I had to modify the lower part of the quarters to fit the '68 valance. The exhaust holes were enlarged--they're all new from the middle to the exhaust, it's all scratch built." As if that wasn't enough, the spare tirewell hung too low--the sheetmetal wouldn't cover it--so John raised the trunk floor 6 inches. Talk about back halving a car…

At this point, there was no hood, no way to open the trunk lid, nor any taillights, or much where the front grille should be. In front, John trimmed a '69 plastic grille to suit, discovering to his delight that the '69 foglight openings and the '11 foglights mated perfectly. It was about the only easy break in the entire transformation. The front lower valance is a '69 part as well, again trimmed and re-purposed to fit the '68 fenders, which were cut off low in front of the front tires. Curiously, a '68 front bumper fit better than a '69--a fact easy to confirm because Doug has so many old parts laying around.

"So on May 25, I trailered it back to Colorado to my own shop out in the country on some guy's farm." Job one was getting the trunk lid to operate with '11 hinges and a '68 latch while laying at an odd angle. The inner structure ended up being mainly "from scratch" as John is want to say, but in the end the '11 electric latch release was incorporated and the hinges swung at an odd angle so the lid would clear the taller rear window. By some lucky stroke, the '11 trunk gasket fit the new opening, too. By any estimation, the rear decklid was a pain. Because the lid was tack-welded shut, John had to crawl inside to see the latch and hinges, and there was plenty of tack-welding done inside the closed trunk as he moved the hinges. The issue was the lid would open but hit the rear window. "It was frustrating. I wanted to throw the decklid across the shop, but then I realized I'd be the one who'd have to fix it." "By end of September, I had the car in final gray primer. At the last minute I made the rocker panels from scratch. I didn't want to put the 2011 plastic rocker moldings back on."

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"The corn harvest was about to start, so I took the car back to Lincoln. I talked to Dan Holmes, a painter with Doug, and had the painting lined up in time to leave for Las Vegas. Doug was worried about the taillights, so the last four days at my shop I didn't go home or shower. I stopped shaving. Those four days, I put probably 80 hours of work in on the taillights."

Doug and Dan did most of the final sanding and prepping. Originally some sort of gloss red, like a new Ford candy red, was the plan. But when the final primer-sealer went on, Doug and John decided it looked interesting as-is. "It's not a normal car, so why have normal paint?" was the thought. Plenty of time was spent on the black accent paint, plus the bumpers were experimentally treated to a phony chrome look, then black paint, and ultimately "body color" primer-sealer. There was no plan to follow a historic Ford color pattern, John and Doug were simply trying for what looked best. By early October the bolt-on engine parts arrived--John fell asleep on the creeper while installing the headers--and the Basssani exhaust was hand-crafted to fit the altered rear trunk pan. This was another period where John was weekly driving the 1,000-mile round trip between Colorado and Nebraska to take care of both the farm and the Mustang.

With time running out and John busy on the farm, Doug handled the interior. He fit the brushed-aluminum panels where the rear-quarter interior panels had to be modified for the revised quarter-window placement, plus the overhead "console," and the red accents on the steering wheel and shifter. Help from Doug's brother, Kevin Kielian at Auto Kraft Upholstery, was necessary to trim the interior panels. Other help came from John's brother, Will Heermann. An electrical engineer, Will scienced out mating the halogen headlights with the existing HID wiring harness, plus he made a 110-volt harness so the lights would work in the SEMA show booth. As you can see, this was no bolt-on project.

5.0 Tech Specs

Engine and Drivetrain
Block Low-pressure cast 319 aluminum w/ pressed-in thin-wall iron liners
Crankshaft Forged steel, fully counterweighted, induction-hardened
Rods Powdered metal forged I-beam
Pistons Hypereutectic, short-skirt, flat-top w/ four equal valve reliefs and moly friction-reducing coating
Camshafts DOHC, four camshafts, independently adjustable timing
Cylinder Heads Aluminum, four-valve per cylinder
Intake Manifold Constant cross section w/ long-runner single-plane (single-scroll), molded composite
Fuel System Mechanical returnless
Exhaust Dynatech long-tube headers w/ Bassani after-cat
Transmission Getrag MT-82 six-speed manual
Rearend 8.8-in

Electronics
Engine Management Copperhead w/ SCT tune
Ignition Stock
Gauges Stock

Suspension and Chassis
Front Suspension
K-Member Stock
A-Arms Reverse L
Struts MacPherson
Springs Eibach
Brakes Baer Brakes six-piston calipers w/ 14-in two-piece, drilled and slotted rotors
Wheels 20x8.5-in Latemodel Restoration Supply SVE
Tires Sumitomo 225/35ZR-20
Rear Suspension
Shocks Stock
Springs Eibach
Control Arms Stock
Brakes Baer Brakes four-piston calipers w/ two-piece drilled and slotted rotors
Wheels 20x10-in SVE
Tires Sumitomo 275/35ZR-20