January 7, 2007

Dick Stokes has a teddy-bear persona, yet he clearly is all business-a nice guy committed to the art of the deal. He's a sales executive attuned to the belief you don't get what you earn-you get what you negotiate. And this '76 Mustang II Mach 1 hatchback is all about negotiation, proving why it's a better Mustang than the more popular classics.

The Mustang II is the no-respect Pony that enthusiasts like to pick on. But did you know the Mustang II has a lot of penthouse engineering refinements that make it a better car than its '65-'73 ancestors?

Ford set out to build a betterMustang when it developed the '74-'78 Mustang II. Ford President Lee Iacocca wanted to get the Mustang back to its original size, with nice refinements designed to attract new buyers and lure back old ones. So, Ford worked on the wheelbase, the body, cleaner-burning engines, elegance, and something new in the auto industry then-noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH).

It's easy to wonder why Ford didn't develop the new '74 Mustang based on the Maverick/Comet platform-more like the original '65 Mustang in size, but there was a motive to Ford's madness. The Maverick and Comet were economy cars that catered more to Falcon buyers who liked the Maverick's low-ball $1,995 base-sticker price.The Mustang had to be a cut above the Maverick and Comet, and a "right-sized" ride for a world that would become downsized. That's when Ford decided to base the Mustang II on the Pinto platform instead of the Maverick/Falcon/Comet.

The Pinto platform had a bolt-on front subframe like Camaroand Firebird. The beauty of a separate front subframe was being able to isolate powertrain vibration and road noise. Ford chassis engineering called it the toilet seat because it looked like one, however its performance was anything but in the dumper. By isolating engine harmonics and road noise, Ford was able to build a quieter Mustang with a more solid feel. The Mustang II clearly had a better suspension system that was also quieter.

Dick Stokes could have built any kind of Mustang imaginable. He chose a Mustang II. When he found this '76 in Eugene, Oregon, in 2003, he bought it as a Christmas gift for his wife, Kim. It didn't take long for Dick to figure out that parts for the '74-'78 Mustang II are hard to come by. Discouraged, he tried to talk Kim into selling the car. It is also when they affectionately named the car "Nightmare." "They call the Mustang II the forgotten Mustang, but this is one I will never forget," Dick says. At their first show, a gust of wind lifted the hood off its prop rod, smacking the roof and windshield-just one week after paint and final buff.

Dick and Kim put a lot of thought into their Nightmare project. They landed on DuPont's Abyss Blue Pearl basecoat/clearcoat. Custom Innovations in Eugene, Oregon worked the body and laid down the paint. Dick liked the Fox-body Mustang hoodscoop so popular from 1979 to 1983. He also liked the King Cobra slats and brake scoops. In the end, he wound up with a custom King Cobra derivative that keeps people guessing about what it is. Dick likes things that way-keeping people wondering. It makes it easier when it's time to negotiate.

Dick didn't need to do much underneath the car because Ford did all the engineering work for him. Gas shocks and stock springs did the job nicely, making the Mustang II a handler right off the assembly line. You may look at Dick's choice for wheels and tires, and wonder why 14 inch? His decision was twofold-ride comfort and cost. When you opt for larger 16-, 17- or 18-inch wheels, you get less sidewall, which adversely affects ride quality. The more sidewall you have, the smoother the ride. The larger wheel size, the more costly it becomes when it's time to buy tires.

Dick decided to channel money to the body and interior. The body speaks for itself, with LeMans stripes and cool ground effects. Inside, it isn't your mother's Mustang II. Dick went with custom-upholstered '04 Mustang bucket seats, doing the rear seat to match. We like the plush carpet and rich appointments. In the sunvisors are LCD monitors aided by a DVD player. The Stokes mixed in a powerful sound system encompassing tweeters in the ceiling, 6-inch speakers in the armrests, and even larger speakers in back. Dick opted for the Mustang II's factory brushed aluminum to round out his efforts.

Underhood, Dick went with what worked best-a solid, reliable, 302ci, smog-legal, small-block. Before you is essentially a box-stock 302 topped with an Edelbrock Performer 289 dual-plane manifold and 600-cfm carburetor. Dick used matching Edelbrock finned valve covers for good looks and to keep the oil inside. That's Ford's Duraspark electronic ignition with vacuum advance. Down each side are Hedman long-tube headers designed specifically for a Mustang II. Underneath is a custom dual-exhaust system designed and bent for one uncommon Mustang II fun car.

Dick's profession calls for a lot of negotiation-but he never had to do much of that to get what he wanted from this sporty little Mustang II. With careful planning, he and Kim wound up with an enjoyable, comfortable, road car they can take just about anywhere.