Defining Moments In Mustang Monthly History
We celebrate our 35th anniversary with a look back at the covers, people, and cars that helped establish Mustang Monthly as the "All Mustangs, All the Time" magazine
Thirty-five years ago this month, Larry Dobbs was a proud but nervous father in more ways than one. His wife, Judy, had just given birth to their first son, Jason. And from the dining room table, Larry had conceived a new magazine, the Mustang Exchange Letter, a buy-sell-trade publication for '65-'73 Mustang owners. On January 25, 1978, the first quick-print issue was mailed to the 92 subscribers who had responded to Larry's ads in Hemmings Motor News and Bob Page's Mustang News from California. Larry told the rest of the story in the February 1983 issue:
"On February 1, I resigned from (my ad sales job at) The Ledger. Judy went into shock. The $644 taken in from subscriptions barely paid for the ads, much less printing and mailing costs. We had no savings and less than $500 in our checking account. When I approached the bank about a loan, the loan officer agreed with Judy—I definitely must be a few bricks short of a full load. Reluctantly, he loaned us $5,000 and made me sign a second mortgage on the house.”
Larry soon changed the name to Mustang Monthly and took off on a 21-year ride that included publishing books (How To Restore Your Mustang and the Mustang Recognition Guide, among others) and adding additional niche automotive titles (including Musclecar Review, Super Ford, Mopar Muscle, and Corvette Fever). In 1999, Larry sold Dobbs Publishing Group to Petersen Publishing. Today, Mustang Monthly is published by Source interlink Media.
I was there for much of the fun and chaos, either as an editor for Mustang Monthly or one of the other magazines, or as an editorial director. For this 35th anniversary tribute, I've picked some of the covers, people, and happenings that helped define Mustang Monthly as the go-to "All Mustangs, All the Time” magazine.
Mailed to 92 subscribers, the first issue of the Mustang Exchange Letter, February 1978, contained mostly classified advertising—not surprising due to Larry Dobbs experience in the advertising department at the local newspaper. There was no internet in 1978, so buy-sell-trade magazines, like Hemmings Motor News, were popular in those days, and Larry saw an opening to take advantage with a Mustang-only version that offered free classifieds to subscribers. Within weeks of launching his Mustang Exchange Letter, Larry heard about a similar publication, Super Ford Parts Exchange, from John Paradise in New York. Fearing confusion in the Ford and Mustang market, Larry changed the name of his magazine to Mustang Monthly, which would become the first successful automotive niche magazine.
Sidenote: Nine years later, Larry purchased Super Ford magazine, formerly Super Ford Parts Exchange, to add the all-Ford performance title to his growing stable of special interest automotive magazines.
Full Size with Color
After publishing his first 20 issues as quick-print or tabloid on newsprint, Larry took a leap of faith with the October 1979 issue by switching to a regular magazine format with color cover and features along with historical articles and event coverage. "The long rumored format change is finally here!” Larry announced in his "Hoofbeats from the Editor” column. "Beginning with this issue, Mustang Monthly Magazine will attempt to bring Mustang and Shelby enthusiasts in the U.S. and abroad the type of monthly publication deserved by the classic Mustang.”
The 40-page issue included coverage of the Mustang Club of America's fourth Grand National and the Shelby American Automobile Club's fifth national convention, SAAC-5. Several of the advertisers are still providing parts and services to Mustang owners today, including California Mustang, Larry's Mustang Parts, Cobra Restorers, and Bill Harris (now doing business as wholesaler Harris Mustang Supply).
Sidenote: The cover photo for the October 1979 issue came from an 8x10 print of Lee Iacocca and Don Frey that was originally given to Ford dealers during the Mustang's introduction in 1964. Larry bought it at a swap meet.
New Editor in Town
Maybe it wasn't so much a defining moment for the magazine as it was for me. After several months of contributing to Mustang Monthly from South Carolina, I received a call from Larry Dobbs in December 1979. He wanted to know, "Would you be interested in moving to Florida to become editor of the magazine?”
Yes, I was interested, but there was much to consider. I was secure in the family feed and fertilizer business, Pam and I were living in a nice brick home on a hill, and we had just learned that our second child was on the way. Was I willing to move away from friends and family to take a job with a relatively new magazine with less than 5,000 subscribers?
In February, we traveled to Lakeland—it was the first airline flight for both of us—to visit Larry and Judy. Something told me that Larry was going to make it work. He agreed to allow me to work from South Carolina until Matthew was born. We moved to Florida in August 1980 for an annual salary of $11,500—more than I was making in the family feed store. I had no formal journalism education, little experience, and nothing more than a hand-me-down IBM Selectric typewriter and cheap 35mm camera. It was the perfect description of on-the-job training.
My arrival as editor of Mustang Monthly took that time-consuming job off Larry's shoulders and allowed him to focus more attention on Mustang Supply Company. He was also able to pursue other publishing ideas, including one about restoring a Mustang for a how-to book. Larry never told me that the job description included sandblasting sheetmetal and cleaning fuel lines with steel wool.
The Hot Rod Ad
During my first week on the job, I remember Larry creating an ad for the December 1980 issue of Hot Rod magazine. It was a huge gamble for Larry. The 2⁄3-page ad cost $5,000—a lot of money at the time for a fledgling company. But it worked. I seem to recall that Larry had to rent a larger box at the post office to handle the incoming letters, each with a $15 or $28 (two years) check or credit card transaction for a subscription to Mustang Monthly. With that one ad, we added over 5,000 subscribers, more than doubling the magazine's circulation. The incoming revenue also relieved the cash-flow crunch.
Let's Publish a Book
I arrived as editor of Mustang Monthly in mid August. By October, I was spending most days at a shop on the other side of town to photograph the restoration of a '66 Mustang GT fastback for a book, How To Restore Your Mustang. It was the first procedures manual for restoring Mustangs and established the "how-to” format for the magazine that continues to this day. And it sold well, topping Classic Motorbooks sales list for several months and providing another infusion of cash to keep the company, now called Mustang Publications, afloat and growing.
Sidenote: For How To Restore Your Mustang, we started with a pretty nice '66 GT fastback. The cover photo is actually the car before it was restored.
I can still remember my home phone ringing on a Saturday afternoon in 1981. I knew Bob Aliberto from Shelby American Automobile Club conventions, and he was calling to see if Mustang Monthly would be interested in a question-and-answer technical column. As a long-time Mustang and Shelby owner, high school shop teacher, and owner of Eastern Mustang Supply, Bob was uniquely qualified for the job. His first "Beyond the Basics” column appeared in the July 1981 issue. For over 31 years, Bob's advice has provided a valuable service to Mustang owners around the world.
It all happened about the same time in early 1984. Through reader Les Newcomb, who worked at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, we had learned that the ceremonial first production Mustang, 5F08F100001, was stored in the museum's basement. Then we heard that Ford was introducing a special 20th Anniversary Mustang in the spring. That's when the idea struck: For April's Mustang 20th Anniversary issue, wouldn't it be great to have the first Mustang and the new 20th Anniversary model on the cover?
A call to Paul Preuss in Ford public affairs revealed that Ford's marketing department was not even aware that 100001 was in the company's possession. Paul said he would check and call back. When we heard from him a few days later, the photo opportunity was all set. Even better, Ford would shoot the cover for us in their studio.
When the press release for the '84 20th Anniversary Mustang arrived, we learned why Ford had been so accommodating. They had used our cover shoot to photograph the press release photos. We were glad to help.
Sidenote: The April-May 1984 issue was the first Mustang Monthly to appear on newsstands. It's also the only cover with a double issue date, which was done to align future issues with the lead time required for newsstand distribution.
No Japanese Mustang
As it happens so many times, the idea for my July 1987 Hoofbeats came from the panic of realizing that I hadn't come up with anything to write about for my monthly editorial column. Then someone handed me a copy of the April 13 AutoWeek that reported on Ford's plans to drop the rear-wheel drive Mustang and replace it with a Mazda-based front-wheel drive platform. Bingo! I had my editorial.
It started out, "As much as I try to rationalize the whole deal (ordeal?) and attempt to bring my thought processes into the 1980s and beyond, I just can't force myself to accept Ford's intended future for the Mustang. Call me old fashioned or sentimental or just plain stubborn, but a Japanese car, even one built in America, is a Japanese car and I'm not prepared to see a Mazda with the Mustang name and running horse affixed to its fenders."
Noting that some Ford executives were not sold on the idea, I recalled Hot Rod's 1968 write-in campaign that resulted in the Cobra Jet Mustang. I suggested the same type of enthusiast response to the idea of a front-wheel drive, V-6 Mustang and provided Ford president Donald Petersen's address at Ford World Headquarters. I suspect some responded to the AutoWeek article, but in Bob McClurg's book, Mustang: The Next Generation, John Coletti credited my editorial with 30,000 letters swamping Ford World Headquarters. As we know, Coletti spearheaded the skunkworks operation that became the '94 Mustang. The front-wheel drive, Mazda-based car became the Probe.
Sidenote: Credit for the write-in campaign actually goes to reader Michael Perih, whose letter in the April 1987 issue complained about Ford's plans for the Mustang. He suggested that each reader send a letter or postcard to Ford. He also asked for an address. We happily obliged. For my July editorial, I merely expanded on Michael's idea.
I still have Tom Corcoran's letter of introduction to inform me that he was a freelance photojournalist in Fairhope, Alabama. He mentioned Jimmy Buffett album covers and articles in Playboy and Esquire so I wondered why he was contacting Mustang Monthly. But he also owned an early Mustang and wanted to write for us.
After several years as a contributor, Tom joined the staff as editor in 1987. His writing skills and simple yet majestic Mustang photography added class and entertainment value to the magazine. However, it was his April 1990 Hoofbeats editorial that still has longtime readers talking today.
Tom wrote, "In Ypsilanti, investors thought they were buying the future open-stall ‘flea-market' type shopping barn. It was those fortunate folks who, eight weeks ago, discovered 550 unsold, untouched '64½ Mustangs in a ramp-accessed basement. The documentary proof in several of the cars (including a Hi-Po fastback built a full 15 months before Ford unveiled that bodystyle and a GT built two years prior to the option's debut) indicated they were produced and stored prior to December 1963."
Then he went on to imply that the cars would be sold at an auction.
Most readers never got to the end of the column. Many hurriedly called newspapers in Detroit in an attempt to find the cars. In fact, so many people called that the Detroit News reported on Tom's column. By then, they knew the truth, as indicated in Tom's last line: "It's news that leads us out of winter and headlong into April Fools' Day."
Sidenote: Since leaving Mustang Monthly in 1994, Tom Corcoran has written a number of Key West mystery novels as part of his Alex Rutledge Series. You can find them at www.tomcorcoran.net. The main character, Alex Rutledge, is known to drive a Shelby Mustang.
Mustang Monthly remained dedicated to the '65-'73 Mustangs into the 1980s, but we couldn't ignore the ground-swell of enthusiasm for the fast and inexpensive 5.0L Mustangs. We incorporated coverage of each new performance model, from the GT to the SVO, along with the many hop-ups that became available for late-model Mustangs. In 1993, tech editor Mark Houlahan, an original owner of a '90 5.0L LX hatchback, suggested the addition of a monthly section just about 5.0L Mustangs. Called "5.0L Power!" Houlahan's new section debuted in the October 1993 issue as a 28-page "magazine within a magazine" with departments, tech articles, and features. It ran for a couple of years before being absorbed into the regular content of the magazine.
Sidenote: Unbeknownst to the Mustang Monthly staff, Jerry Pitt at Hot Rod's Mustang magazine was spearheading the launch of a new Petersen Publishing title called—you guessed it—5.0 Power. When Pitt learned about Mustang Monthly's new 5.0L Power! section, he quickly changed the name of the Petersen title to 5.0 Mustang, which today is a sister magazine to Mustang Monthly. After merging with former Dobbs' title Super Ford, it is now called 5.0 Mustang & Super Fords.
Sidenote II: Last year, Mark Houlahan returned to Mustang Monthly as tech editor. He still owns his '90 5.0L LX.
It's the Pitt
Editor Tom Corcoran resigned on January 17, 1994. I know the date because it was also the same day as the Northridge Earthquake in southern California (although I somehow don't think Corcoran's resignation had anything to do with it). Later in the week, I received a call from Jerry Pitt, editor of Petersen Publishing's Mustang & Fords magazine. His wife was unsettled by the earthquake and wanted to leave California. Jerry wanted to know if there was an opening at Mustang Monthly.
As a matter of fact…
After my three-month stint of filling in at the editor's chair after Corcoran's departure, Pitt hit the ground running when he arrived in Florida. With him, he brought the experience and knowledge from having worked at a larger publisher, along with contacts for freelancers, enthusiasts, and advertisers on the west coast. Although he was editor for only nine issues before moving into an editorial director position, Pitt's out-of-the-box ideas added a fresh slant and appearance to the magazine.
Sidenote: After packing up his California home and family for the move to Florida, Pitt made the trip cross-country as part of the Mustangs Across America cruise for the 30th Mustang Anniversary Celebration in Charlotte in 1994.
Sidenote II: Through all the buyouts, Pitt climbed the corporate ladder to eventually become publisher of Hot Rod. He's now senior marketing director for Source Interlink Media.
Okay, perhaps this is a stretch for a defining moment, but the December 1997 cover surely defined the often irreverent and always humorous tenure of editor Jeff Ford. With a feature about comedian Tim Allen's '68 Shelby G.T. 500KR and a tech story on "Garage Improvements," Ford seized on the perfect opportunity to spoof Allen's popular TV show at the time, "Home Improvement." With Ford as Tim "The Toolman" Taylor and tech editor Houlahan dressed in flannel as sidekick Al Borland, the pair of editors almost looked like the real thing. Houlahan gets the nod as most authentic.
Sidenote: Tim Allen actually mentioned Mustang Monthly in season eight (1998-1999) of Home Improvement during the "Young at Heart" episode. You can find it on YouTube.
For many years, Jerry Heasley's "Rare Finds" column ran in our sister magazine, Mustang & Fords. But when M&F merged with Modified Mustang to become Modified Mustangs and Fords and changed its editorial focus to restomods, editor Steve Baur asked if Mustang Monthly would like to take over the column. You betcha. Since its Mustang Monthly debut in March 2011, Rare Finds has become a reader favorite with its reader stories about Mustangs found in barns and fields.
Sidenote: Heasley has compiled many of his Mustang rare finds into a new book, Rare Finds: Mustangs and Fords, available from Car Tech (http://www.cartechbooks.com).
The Great Stories
Over the years, we've been fortunate to discover, thanks to our readers, many historic and unusual Mustangs for stories in Mustang Monthly. Rich Downing was on his way to the Mustang 45th Anniversary Celebration in Birmingham when his brother-in-law called to ask if he knew anything about the 1964 World's Fair convertibles. Turns out, Rich's father-in-law, Dr. John Mansell, had purchased 100004 back in 1965 and still owns it. A couple of years ago, our friend George Huisman from Classic Designs Concepts called to say he was standing next to a 2,900-mile '70 Boss 302 survivor, a car that had been sitting—still on jack stands with headers halfway installed—since 1970. We featured it in the September 2009 issue.
Those are the great stories we love presenting in Mustang Monthly.
Readers who have been with us for many years (and we've heard from several who have subscribed continuously since the first issue in February 1978) will recall the various editors over the years. Each brought their own flavor and expertise to the magazine. For me, it seemed like I was always coming back to fill in between editors.
Larry Dobbs: February 1978 – September 1980
Donald Farr: October 1980 – May 1984
Jim Smart: June 1984 – December 1986
Donald Farr: January 1987 – August 1987
Tom Corcoran: September 1987 – March 1994
Donald Farr: April 1994 – June 1994
Jerry Pitt: July 1994 – March 1995
Rob Reaser: April 1995 – July 1996
Jeff Ford: August 1996 – April 2003
Donald Farr: May 2003 – Present