Geoff Stunkard
November 1, 2008
Photos By: Archival Files, Courtesy Elton "Al" Eckstrand

Accomplishment is a goal all men strive for in hopes of finding success and influence. For the past five decades, Elton "Al" Eckstrand served as an ambassador in many fields. In the Mustang community, he was best known for his Lawman "Super Boss" Boss 429 and the director of the Vietnam-era U.S. Performance Team driving program. But Eckstrand, who died at 79 after a short illness last spring, had done much more. In some ways, it could even be inferred that his efforts echoed through the decades to bring us the current generation Mustang.

Never married, Al (he used Elton only for his professional legal work) served the worldwide art community through his preservation efforts, worked at the upper echelons of the corporate world, taught safety to a generation of servicemen, and became well remembered internationally for a successful racing career.

Eckstrand with the Super Boss Mustang in his driveway in Naples in late 2002. Though never campaigned in the U.S. as a race car, it was certainly the most notorious Ford he ever drove.

Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, Eckstrand's original career began after pursuing both a masters degree in social psychology with Alpha Kappa Delta honors and a doctorate degree in law at Wayne State University. Soon afterward, in 1955, he began a law career at Chrysler, personally hired by President E. C. Quinn to work in the company's Organization arm. During this time, his nickname, Al, came about through the personal development of drag racing projects with Chrysler VP of Sales Byron Nichols. An amateur racer (both track and street, he would sheepishly admit), Eckstrand soon began winning organized drag events with modified production cars. He was assisted by direct funding from Nichols and engineering help from Chrysler.

The purchase of Roots Motors by Chrysler in the early '60s took Elton to Europe for the first time. Meanwhile, as drag racer Al "The Lawman" Eckstrand, he became well known in North American racing circles for his efforts with the factory-backed Ramchargers, Golden Commandos, and his own Lawman racing team, as well as being honored as one of the Great Men of Sports along with legends such as boxer Rocky Marciano and Olympiad Jesse Owens in 1964. Al's biggest victory during those years came at the 1963 Winternationals, when he won the Stock Eliminator crown in the Ramchargers Dodge. That summer, he also posted runner-up honors in his own Lawman entry at Indianapolis.

Wounded U.S. soldiers got out of their hospital beds in Yokosuka, Japan, to see the United States Racing Team's '70 Mach 1. The 428 Cobra Jet engine must have been an impressive sight to servicemen who had been overseas for a couple of years.

After leaving Chrysler to pursue his own legal business in 1963, Eckstrand continued doing fiduciary and estate planning for top executives at Detroit's automotive corporations, including Ford. He retired from racing in late 1965 following his legendary final-round victory over Dick Landy at the 1965 Super Stock Nationals. He subsequently returned to Europe on a more permanent basis in 1966, bringing with him the first production 426 Hemi-powered Dodge Charger, which was presented to him for a new plan of action.

Because servicemen returning from duty were a growing segment of America's 50,000-plus auto fatalities each year, Eckstrand's Hemi Charger and others were used for driving safety demonstrations for American servicemen in Europe. As the conflict in Southeast Asia escalated during the late '60s, Eckstrand proposed to the United States government to bring his safety exhibitions to outgoing Vietnam personnel. Chrysler was not interested in funding the program at that level, so Eckstrand met with Ford president Bunkie Knudson and arranged for the first Ford-based program, which began in 1970.

Eckstrand (kneeling with the Super Boss) and two of the six Mach 1s visit tankers on maneuvers.

Despite setbacks (one of the two supercharged "Lawman" Boss 429 Mustangs was crushed during transport, forcing the show car planned for North American publicity into active duty; it was flown on deadline over the Arctic Circle by the Marine Corp.), this began a new tour of high-performance driving skills designed for American service personnel across the Pacific Rim, now using Mustangs and Mavericks. Okinawa, Tokyo, and Vietnam were the venues, and under the auspices of the United States Marine Corp., Eckstrand demonstrated professional driving skills to almost a quarter-million returning servicemen during the next three years; he was subsequently given a honorary citation from the Department of Defense for this effort.

At the 1971 U.S Nationals, Eckstrand presented NHRA founder Wally Parks with a special award for NHRA's support of his armed forces program. By special request, two of the Mach 1s and two soldiers, picked in a contest, were with him.

Eckstrand considered this effort the highlight of his life. While not often recalled today, guys getting out of three- or four-year stints came back to a much-changed vehicle environment, especially in the late '60s when muscle cars provided a lot of horsepower but not much in the way of handling and brakes. The driving demonstrations allowed servicemen to see Eckstrand and his crew handle horsepower and provided some with a chance to drive the cars themselves. When recounting his program in later years, Eckstrand could bring a crowd of grown men to tears as he recalled recovering soldiers helping blind and crippled buddies out of hospital beds to see, hear, and touch the new Mustangs. The program ended as the war wound down, and Eckstrand began a new career overseas.

Having purchased the Thorpe Castle in England in 1969 with his racing prize money, Eckstrand initiated a restoration of the structure, which was completed in 1975. This effort won Eckstrand and architect Marcus Alan the coveted Duke of Edinburgh Architectural Heritage Special Recommendation in 1976. In 1978, Eckstrand bought the dilapidated Penkill Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland, together with its priceless assembly of pre-Raphaelite artwork. This challenge would be the start of an extensive restoration effort that would take the next 10 years of Eckstrand's life.

In 2006, Ford's Hau Thai-Tang, Mustang chief engineer for the '05 Mustang, presented Eckstrand with this special Lawman Mustang. A letter from Thai-Tang to Eckstrand in 2004 related how the original Lawman cars had influenced the Vietnamese native to pursue the American dream.

The neighbors found Elton's residency interesting, to say the least, as his collection of historical military vehicles could sometimes be found rolling on the streets of Ayrshire. As work on the castle advanced, Eckstrand continued to pursue his love of photography, taking portraits of many notables. After 20 years, he sold the castle back to the people of Scotland and moved to Naples, Florida, for several years beginning in the late '90s.

His legendary racing career never far behind him, Eckstrand was honored at numerous American events upon his return. Having recovered his beloved '66 Charger from its longtime owner in England, the Hemi-powered Dodge made an appearance at the Goodwood Festival of Speed before touring the States one last time and then being permanently entered into the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Michigan.

The remaining Lawman Boss 429, perhaps the most infamous of Eckstrand's vehicles, also surfaced. This radically modified Mustang powered by a supercharged Boss 429 engine had been reportedly destroyed, and Eckstrand never revealed how it ended up being returned to the U.S. In semi-survivor form, it was sold with much acclaim at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Arizona in 2003 after Eckstrand made it presentable again. But his connection to the Mustang would go one step further.

In the '60s, a 5-year-old Vietnamese boy named Hau Thai-Tang was forever changed when he saw one of Eckstrand's Mustangs during the driving demonstrations in Vietnam. Thai-Tang never forgot the experience and credited it as a primary influence in why he pursued his own career as an auto designer once he reached the United States with his family. Thai-Tang eventually landed at Ford as Mustang Chief Engineer, where he oversaw the relaunch of the new '05 Mustang, which relied on a several styling cues from the Lawman era. Ford gave Eckstrand a specially modified '05 Mustang in appreciation of the original program, which Thai-Tang presented to him during the Carlisle All-Ford Nationals in 2006.

But for Eckstrand, the 21st century brought new pursuits and challenges. As mentioned, a passion for photography that began with an Eastman Kodak award during high school has come full-circle. Eckstrand's dramatic photographs of birds of prey at zoos in England and North America are being used to promote the preservation of these magnificent animals and have been featured in several exhibits. In 2007, he moved from Naples further into the Everglades to pursue quiet.

In spring 2008, Eckstrand was diagnosed with a non-threatening health condition, but a stay in the hospital found more significant issues. With longtime Lawman associate and friend Bob Varcoe from Detroit at his side for the remaining weeks, Elton Eckstrand passed away on May 10.

Authors note: I was introduced to Al Eckstrand by our mutual friend Shirley Muldowney soon after his return from England in 1999. He became a close confidant during the ensuing years, always ready with a quip or sage advice. I did much of the PR work he needed during the next decade, including stories on the Hemi Charger and Super Boss Mustang when they resurfaced with Al's help. This story is the only way I have been able to say "goodbye" to a much-missed friend. - Geoff Stunkard