Incredible Rare Finds and How to Unearth Them
Adventures in Rare Find Hunting: Jerry Heasley’s First-Hand Account of Heading into Parts Unknown to Unearth Mustang Rare Finds
Hunting Classic Mustangs in Juárez, Mexico Ciudad Juárez, commonly called Juárez, had become very dangerous by about 2007, so we quit crossing the border from El Paso into Mexico to hunt old cars. But two to three years ago, Michael Lightbourn, who speaks fluent Spanish and lives in El Paso, began driving back into Mexico to find cars because Juárez has moved from Number 1 on the most dangerous cities list in the world to only 37—whoopee! In March 2015, we crossed into Juárez with Michael in his Dodge Ram four-door diesel pickup. There were no stops at the border, but the military carried rifles and there were hundreds of beggars asking for handouts. A guy named Chuy (pronounced Chewy) was waiting to lead us to old cars, starting at his shop Street Toys that was filled with American street rods and muscle cars, mostly Camaros and Mustangs.
Michael led me to a 1969 Mustang hardtop in the “bullpen” outside the shop in an enclosed area not visible from the street and said, “That’s a Shelby De Mexico.” Already, Street Toys had taken the car apart and I wondered why the door, laying in the cab, was lettered GT350 R. The R certainly wasn’t stock. Or, was it? Chuy drove Lightbourn’s pickup to our next stop, a rooftop that hid a covered 1970 Chevelle SS with a 396 (but we’ll leave out Brand X cars) and to the residence of Rodrigo Martinez Hernandez. On his long front driveway, hidden under a lean-to draped with a tarp, Rodriguez and his sons showed us a 1965 Shelby G.T. 350. “No, it’s not real,” Lightbourn said, interpreting for me, same for a Calypso Coral Boss 302, which amazingly they had already sold for $20,000.
We headed to the backyard to a real Mustang K-code hardtop, red, and I couldn’t wait to pop the hood and check the VIN. The K in the fifth digit was for-real. Five grand wasn’t a bad asking price, but there was no drivetrain in the car. “Why have they pulled the Hi-Po, four-speed and 9-inch rearend?” I asked. “They feel like they can make more money parting it out,” Chuy answered.
I hustled into the shop behind the house to see a roomful of parts. If nothing else, maybe I could buy the original Autolite four-barrel carburetor, but it was gone. I did not see the stock exhaust manifolds or the intake, but I spied various sets of heads in the pile. I could not find a Hi-Po head in the mix and wondered about the four-speed laying there. Was the original engine long gone when they found this K-code hardtop? Rodriguez went inside his house to retrieve stacks of Mustang Monthly issues and wanted my autograph, and then he pointed to a big-block Ford V-8 on the side of his drive.
“Is it a 427?” I asked. “No, 390,” Chuy replied. We drove to another house, where we walked a block to a tall iron gate and waited a good five minutes until some kids rode past on bicycles eyeballing us from otherwise deserted streets. This is one of the scenarios I feared being in a sketchy area, and we were about to leave when a woman opened the gate and let us in. In the courtyard under a lean-to, beside a red and white van on a concrete drive, was a car covered with a tarp.
“The only reason we can even see this car is because they know me,” Michael said. I was amazed to see an original paint 1969 Boss 302 appear as Chuy and the lady peeled back the tarp. “Anybody can go across the border to Juárez and hunt cars, but finding them is much harder now. People are very leery of speaking to anybody. You saw the way when you knock on the door and start talking to people? Unless they know you, they are not going to talk to you.”
The danger level might be decreased from a 1 to a 37, but our State Department warns: “Exercise caution in traveling to the business and shopping districts in the northeast section of Ciudad Juárez and its major industrial parks, and the central downtown section.”
On this trip we found some interesting Mustangs, as well as a few Chevrolets and Mopars, and I learned that car discoveries have gone “underground.” Unlike the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, we did not see classics just sitting out, ripe for purchase, with friendly people wanting to sell; my how the times have changed.
1971 429 Cobra Jet Convertible
“I found out about it Saturday night and drove 5½ hours the next morning. The guy hadn’t even looked at the car in 13 years.”
Mike Lattin was talking fast. He was still excited even though he and his brother, Tim, had already bagged their latest wild game, a 1971 Mustang 429 Cobra Jet convertible. “I have your book [Jerry Heasley’s Rare Finds] and I read your column [Rare Finds] in Mustang Monthly. I’m like man, this car qualifies,” he added. Mike was as right as rain; Ford built a mere 42 Cobra Jet convertibles in 1971, the last year for the big-block.
Mike was at his own birthday party when he got word this 1971 was for sale. He didn’t want to give away his car-finding secret, so I can’t print the bait he used to find this car, but the good news was the owner was finally ready to sell. Lattin and his brother live in Snohomish, Washington, and eight miles southeast in Monroe is his business, Mainly Muscle Cars. Sunday would have normally been a day spent with the family, but the car was too important to let rest when the owner said he had a Super Cobra Jet—a SCJ would definitely put this convertible in rarified air.
I busted out my Mustang … by the Numbers (1967-1973) book written by Kevin Marti and turned to page 104 to see “1971 Engine/Transmission Production” figures. Marti broke down the total of 42 Cobra Jet convertibles for 1971 as follows:
|Cobra Jet Convertibles for 1971|
|C-code (non-ram air) automatic||1|
|C-code (non-ram air) four-speed||9|
|J-code (ram air) automatic||9|
|J-code (ram air) four-speed||23|
The book doesn’t break down the number of 429 Cobra Jet convertibles with the Super Cobra Jet step-up option (meaning with Drag Pack). However, that number, from one of our feature articles on a 1971 CJ convertible, is eight. Lattin requested the VIN and found the fifth digit (for the engine code) was a J, which means a 429 Cobra Jet with ram air. However, this car could also be a Super Cobra Jet.
Lattin said, “With a J-code, we knew we were in the gold. We just told the wives we had to go Sunday because if he mentions this 429 CJ convertible to someone else we’ll never see the car again.” Mike and Tim arrived at a farm north of Spokane late Sunday morning and the owner and his wife were outside waiting. “They had equipment everywhere. I mean if they scrapped that place out they’d probably be billionaires,” Lattin said. The car was stored in what Tim calls a machine shed, which looked like a real barn. Mike and Tim couldn’t wait to get a glimpse at the 1971, since only then would they be sure this thing was for real.
“We were pretty excited because I’ve read about these cars. I had a Drag Pack hardtop and I had a regular CJ ram air hardtop, and so I knew these cars were rare. I didn’t think I’d ever see one. So, it was pretty exciting.”
Since there was no debris on the car, Mike and Tim walked right up to the sleeping giant once the owner swung the door open. Of course, without the correct letter in the fifth digit of the VIN, this Mustang would be just another convertible. So, Mike scrapped dirt from the driver’s side windshield to scope out the VIN tag on the top of the dash. Wiping away 13 years of dust, he found a J in the VIN’s fifth digit, plus 03 in the third and fourth digits for the convertible body style. The transmission was an automatic. “I looked under the car to see staggered rear shocks. That’s the Competition Suspension package.” The car was checking out as real.
Lattin negotiated a good deal, but doesn’t want to reveal the price. The deal was good enough that he didn’t worry to match the engine to the VIN, but later, at his shop, found this motor was a match to the car. “We had to move a big wood pile to get our trailer close to the door. There was a quad [off-road vehicle] in front of the Mustang and an old Monte Carlo in front of that. The car was pretty clear of debris, but coated in [a massive amount of] dirt.” Arizona license plates were still on the car: the story is that the current owner’s father bought this car in 1978 in Arizona and the son moved the Mustang to Washington State. Stored on a dirt floor, the 1971 appeared rust-free except for two tiny spots where the front and rear apron on the driver side meet the shock towers.
The “Going Thing” Super Cobra Jet
Lewis Lukanc said he couldn’t see the VIN on this 1969 SportsRoof, since it was so covered with junk and parked in a dark and crowded garage, but said, “I stretched my body across the cowl with my camera and flashed a picture of the VIN.” Gazing at the lighted screen on the back of his digital camera, Lewis hit zoom a couple times to make out the fifth digit of the VIN—R. Hooray, this 1969 was a for-real ram air 428 Cobra Jet!
The asking price a no-brainer (even for a base 1969 SportsRoof) at $2,900, so Lewis forked over the cash immediately, rust and completeness notwithstanding. “I was pretty aware of the fact I was going home with this car. I always travel with money in hand so that I never lose an opportunity,” he told us.
His day had begun at 6:00 a.m., hopping on Craigslist to find a 1969 Mustang SportsRoof “302 Cobra Jet,” a “project car in storage 30-plus years.” Ford never built a 302 Cobra Jet, but a SportsRoof at 29 Ben Franklins was cheap so he couldn’t resist calling right away.
He asked the seller, John Kovach, “Too early for you?” The answer was yes, to which Lewis replied, “You’re going to be flooded with calls, horrifically. I’ll let you go if you promise to give me first chance to talk to you.” John replied, “Okay, I’ll call you back at lunchtime.”
Noon came and there was no return call, so Lewis thought the deal was gone, but he kept calling, getting voicemail time after time until he finally got through, finding out that the seller’s voicemail filled up immediately and he couldn’t call back since his phone wouldn’t stop ringing. The car was in Cleveland ad John’s sister had posted the ad at an unexpectedly early time of day. Honorably, John held firm at $2,900 and let Lewis see the “302 Cobra Jet” first.
John had this Mustang since 1978 for a daily driver but had hit a fire hydrant. He was unaware of the 428 CJ status until friends decoded the car’s VIN, at which point he found and purchased a 428 CJ engine for the restoration that he eventually never had time for. He left the fire hydrant damage as is and parked the car in his mother’s garage, where it sat since 1978.
The driver’s door was missing, so Lewis had no door tag codes to decipher but he had an idea this R-code might be a Drag Pack by the relocated horn on the radiator support. “That was a tip off, but I didn’t want to start counting my chickens at that point. So I sent away for the Marti Report,” he told us. Sure enough, the Marti Report listed a 4.30 Traction-Lok, and all Mustangs with 4.30:1 gears came with Drag Pack. The presence of a Drag Pack meant the 428 Cobra Jet was a Super Cobra Jet, with heavy-duty components for drag racing. Lewis screamed for joy. Still, another Eureka moment awaited him.
He had told friends about the car and word got around quick, and Lewis said, “My phone was ringing off the hook with people trying to buy the car. But, I just did not want to sell without finding out what the words Local Promotion and DSO Item # 3223 meant on the Marti Report. “I’m a guy of numbers—I dwell on production dates and rarity.” So, he kept researching the car’s history. He discovered the Local Promotion on his Marti Report referred to event at Thompson Drag Raceway in Thompson, Ohio. The June 2015 issue of Mustang Monthly chronicles a blue “The Going Thing” Mustang owned by Charlie Crouch—in fact, Charlie helped Lewis document his car.
“The Going Thing” was a Ford promotion in which Ford sold cars with the same color and cosmetic look of the Ford drag team of the day. Ford’s East Coast racing team ran blue cars with white stripes. Their West Coast team ran white cars with blue stripes. Meanwhile, Lewis’ Mustang was stock in white (not special order) with red stripes (with a Blue Oval in on the rear decklid) and red interior. His car was delivered to Frank Stanton Motor Co. Inc. in Painesville, Ohio, a scant 15 miles from the event in Thompson, Ohio. This special edition status made Lewis’ find all the more special—another Eureka moment.
Then, a funny thing happened; Lewis’ brother remembered this exact car. He knew this very Mustang prior to 1978, when a man named Jeff Wells from Willowick, Ohio, owned it. “I went to Facebook and joined the ‘Growing up in Willowick’ webpage and started asking if anyone knew of that car.” People remembered the Mustang—now red, but originally white—from its street racing reputation. Lewis found original owner Jeff Wells’ phone number in South Carolina and called him. Wells was so excited he drove to Ohio two weeks after Lewis called, and incredibly he still had the car’s original 428 SCJ drivetrain—engine, four-speed, and 4.30:1 Detroit-Locker rearend.
Case solved; however retrieving the drivetrain is at a standstill. The car was a good deal at $2,900, but the body is rusty and rough. Wells expressed a desire to buy his old ride back, which is understandable. Meanwhile, Lewis expressed a desire to buy the original drivetrain, and they’re at a bit of a stalemate. Lewis isn’t sure he wants to invest in a high-dollar restoration a car of this caliber warrants, but he does plan to restore it at some point.
“If my truck hadn’t needed work, I probably wouldn’t have this Boss 302 today.”
Thomas Diliberto about fell over when John at Sidney Services, a truck repair shop in Rockingham, Vermont, said, “I’m surprised you’re not buying those Mustangs up the road.” Instantly, Thomas knew what the man behind the counter was talking about, but he still asked, “What Mustangs?”
“Hurley’s, he sold the Shelby and I think he sold the Boss.”
Thomas went into instant depression. His mind drifted back 32 years, to 1983, when he worked at an ice cream shop in town. He was just 21 years old then but was already a Mustang fanatic, having had a 1966 hardtop since he was 16 years old. Understandably, he went a little nuts when Hurley Blakeney parked in front of the store in his 1967 Shelby G.T. 500, to get ice cream with his girlfriend. Thomas loved the green Shelby, but the car he really wanted was the 1970 Boss 302 that Hurley drove to the ice cream shop on a subsequent visit. This Mustang was Bright Yellow with black stripes and had Magnum 500s with original Polyglas tires.
Thomas couldn’t help but come outside when the car showed up, complete with his “The Real Scoop” company apron on. Hurley’s North Carolina accent really stood out in Vermont and Thomas says Hurley’s voice “almost sounded like Carroll Shelby’s.” He still recalls Hurley saying, “It’s got the original tires and the original air in the tires.” The Boss 302 had a mere 15,000 miles on it and had been carefully stored from day one. Thomas learned this Mustang was the same Boss 302 advertised in the local paper in 1982 for $5,500, which was a lot of money for a kid right out of high school.
When Thomas got the depressing news on a cold January day in 2015 that Hurley had sold the cars, he went home and sat on his porch to pout, staring off into space. How could he have missed a shot at his dream car, a 1970 Boss 302, Bright Yellow that he first saw 32 years ago? “I was all upset. I called my friend who has a classic car business and told him.” His friend suggested Thomas call up the owner. Maybe the Bright Yellow Boss 302 wasn’t gone.
“I can’t call him up. He’s Hurley Blakeney, a famous drag racer.”
Thomas lived three miles from Blakeney’s house—back in 2008 he had visited Hurley and looked at the cars in the big barn behind his house in 2008, and while looking at the yellow Boss said that if Hurley ever wanted to sell the car to let him know. The answer was, “Yeah, right.” So after getting the bad news in 2015, Thomas drove out to Hurley’s house again and was elated to discover he still had the Boss 302.
Thomas said, “I didn’t show any poker face whatsoever. I buy Mustangs all the time, but this one … he knew I wanted the car. I went out to see it and said ‘there’s my old friend,’ and this time he offered to sell it to me.”
The car still wore its original paint and the odometer, after 32 years, had increased from 15,000 to only 26,000. Unfortunately, Hurley had disposed of the original tires and with them that original air. Hurley wanted more money for the car than Diliberto had and wouldn’t negotiate, but Thomas put down a $5,000 deposit and set about selling stuff to get the money. In four days he sold his 2008 Shelby on eBay and then started selling other parts he had (including Boss 429 fenders and late-model KR hoods) but after three months, he began obsessing about the possibility he might lose the car. Even though Hurley said the Boss 302 wasn’t going anywhere, Thomas kept thinking that somebody, probably overseas, is going to get the car and it’ll be gone forever.” Where am I going to find another Boss 302 in this kind of original condition three miles from my house?”
But Hurley was true to his word, and with parts sold and cash raised, Thomas finally bought the car on April 12, 2015.