Tony Branda - Love of Shelbys
After 39 years in the parts business, Tony Branda is still focusing on his favorites–’65-’70 Shelbys and Mustangs
In the summer of 1979, I was standing in line to register for SAAC-4 at the Downingtown (Pennsylvania) Inn when someone pointed toward the lobby door and said, "Hey, here comes Tony Branda!"
Even then, Tony Branda was well-known in Mustang and Shelby circles, mainly from his piles of new and used parts at swap meets and his classified ads in Hemmings Motor News, Mustang Monthly, and The Marque from the Shelby American Automobile Club. Like others, Tony caught the rising tide of Mustang/Shelby enthusiasm in the mid 1970s and rode it to a successful business venture, Tony D. Branda Performance. But unlike many who started mail-order businesses back then, Tony resisted the temptation to add parts for late-model Mustangs, instead sticking with the '65-'73 models, primarily '65-'70. Born and raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where he still runs the company with his son, Anthony Jr., Tony has no plans to stop any time soon.
Now that he's approaching 40 years in the business of selling Mustang and Shelby parts, we thought we'd chat with Tony about how he got started and how things have changed over the past four decades.
MM:: Were you always into cars?
TB:: Not until I was 13 or 14. I've always been into Fords because my dad always had Fords. I remember walking home from music lessons—every good Italian kid had to take accordion lessons—and I was carrying a little transistor radio. I heard Chris Economaki talking about Cobras during a race report. I remember hearing about how fast they were and how they were beating everything. That's the start of it. I started buying Hot Rod magazine and getting more into it. I had no idea who Carroll Shelby was back then.
MM:: What was your first car?
TB:: A '56 Ford Victoria that my dad got for me but we never got it running. So I ended up with a '57 Chevy painted in metal flake. By 1965, I was working in my dad's restaurant, making about a dollar an hour, so I ended up buying a Comet Cyclone off the Lincoln/Mercury showroom floor. Then I started buying Shelby stuff for it—emblems, valve covers, dual quad intake. Bought so much that I got a free jacket, blue with Cobra lettering on the back, which I still have today.
MM:: What was your first Mustang?
TB:: When I got drafted in 1968, I managed to avoid Viet Nam and ended up with a desk job in Germany. Back then, you could buy a car while you were in the service and get a better deal, so right before I got out in April 1970 I started looking at '69 and '70 Shelbys. Then I decided to buy a Boss 302 from a dealership here in town. I had called them about it and they found a Grabber Orange '70. Didn't have a Shaker but it was a Drag Pack car. I still have that car today. Has 18,000 miles on it.
MM:: So we're talking early 1970s. When did you get into selling parts?
TB:: I had always wanted an early Mustang but it was hard to find them in the early 1970s. Or if you did, the floors were gone. I finally found a '66 for around $1,200. Of course, I needed parts. I was getting Hemmings Motor News with ads from Bill Norton at Valley Ford in California. So I started talking to him. And one day he asked, "How far are you from Hershey?" I told him about 130 miles. And he said, "I can't make it this year. How about I give you my space and you sell some of this stuff for me." So that's how I started. Hershey was my first swap meet.
MM:: Did he send you parts to sell?
TB:: Yeah, but I had to buy them. I got married in 1973 and there was a little bit of money left, around $78, a lot of money back then. I told my wife I was going to use it to get a business started and she said okay. I bought the parts from Valley Ford and that was the start.
My first car show was a little Shelby and Mustang meet in Pittsburgh. I had ordered parts from Valley Ford and put it all in the trunk of the Boss 302. I had decals, maybe a pair of Cobra valve covers, and a few other things. I drove to the show and within 15 minutes, everything was gone. Nobody had ever seen this stuff on the east coast. Right then, I said, "Geez, I think I'm going to start doing more of this." My dad and I had gotten out of the restaurant business and started an Italian food business. So I did that during the day and at night I would fool around with the parts. I had ads in Hemmings simply under Tony Branda.
MM: You also set up at a lot of the shows and swap meets, right?
TB:: I remember when Carlisle only had the Fall show. Then they added Spring and later on they had their specialty shows. Then you had Hershey in October. And we used to go to all the little car shows. I remember if I went to a show and did $500, I was jumping up and down.
MM: What were you selling mostly in those days?
TB:: A lot of it was detailing stuff, like decals and stripe kits. I never really got into suspension or internal engine parts. I like the things you look at—valve covers and hoods. Even today, people ask if we have ball joints and I have to tell them that we don't. That stuff's not fun to me.
MM: When did you leave your dad's business to do this full time?
TB:: That would have been 1978. I established the business in 1975 but I shipped stuff in the evenings. My first employee was Carl; I think he started part-time in 1979 and went full-time when he got out of school in 1980. He's still with me today.
MM: How did you decide to specialize in Shelbys?
TB:: Shelbys are my first love after my wife. If people have to put me in a slot, I'm generally in the Shelby area. But I've always been into Mustangs also. A lot of people will walk by—at Carlisle, for example—and say they didn't know we carried Mustang parts, they thought we were just Shelby. And I tell them, no, we have sheetmetal and stuff like that.
MM: By specializing in Shelby, does that give you a bit of an edge in that market?
TB:: Yeah, I think a lot of people call here for that. They look for us to have the information. A lot of times we do, a lot of times we have to look it up or send them somewhere else. A lot of times the other companies send people to us for Shelby info.
MM: In the early days, you also sold used parts, right?
TB:: When I first started, I'd buy rusty Shelbys. Back then, you couldn't buy floorpans or stuff like that. I remember buying Shelbys cheap and we'd part them out as donor cars. If someone needed a scoop or front nose, I had it. All of a sudden, I woke up one morning and thought, "What are you doing? Every time you part out one of these cars, that's one less you're going to sell parts for." Right then, I stopped. I just didn't realize what I was doing at the time. Who would have thought back then that someone was going to come out with reproduction floor pans?
MM: Did you ever consider getting more into Mustangs, maybe even late-models?
TB:: Some people told me that I was putting all my eggs in one basket and should get into other things. Maybe I should have gotten more into newer Mustangs. I can only dream of the numbers that other companies do. But I don't want that. I like the idea of still being able to talk to people about their cars. That's one thing we do here, we talk to people. I want to know what they're doing, what they're working on.
MM: What are some of the big changes you've seen in the parts business?
TB:: When the Mustang GT came out in 1982, I think that hurt us a little. Instead buying an older Mustang and restoring it, people started buying a new Mustang GT because it had performance, looks, and features like power windows and seats. When that happened, I saw a little bit of a decline. I also notice that a lot of older people who had Shelbys in the 1960s have sold them so they can buy a new car because they want the comforts. I've got a newer Shelby myself. But I still like the old stuff, even though the new car has air-conditioning, power windows, and stereo. And it's lot faster. But I still like the old cars.
MM: How many older cars do you own?
TB:: I have my own little collection of around 24, six of them Shelbys, including the first Cobra with rack and pinion steering. Over the years, I've probably owned over 100 Shelbys. Some of them didn't last more than a couple of days because we would sell them. If you made a couple of hundred dollars, you were happy. But it wasn't my main business. If anything, it helped my business because I'd tell people that if they bought a car from me I'd give them a deal on parts.
MM: Did you see much affect from the recession?
TB:: Used to be if people could afford it, they bought it. But now with gas and everything else going on in their lives—no jobs, stuff like that—they have to watch what they buy. It seems to be coming back in drips and drabs. I don't know that it will ever get back to where it was. My best year was 2006. Thank God I was able to keep it going. I've kept everybody here in my shop busy.
MM: How many employees to you currently have?
TB:: There are 10 of us. We're like a little family. Most everybody has been here a number of years. We've all learned over the years. In fact, we're still learning. I don't know everything. And even if I did, I've probably forgotten some stuff. I see things and say, "Gee, I don't remember that."
MM: You're approaching a 40th anniversary for Tony D. Branda Performance.
TB:: Yeah, October will be 39 years, so pretty soon. I hope I'm around for the company's 50th anniversary.
MM: Is that your plan?
TB:: This business has given me everything I've ever wanted. I've got to be one of the few people in the world who can come to work every day and get to live in the 1960s again. It's been my life and I ain't ready to walk away. God willing and if the flea markets stay alive, I'm going to keep it going. MM
Like others, Tony caught the rising tide of Mustang/Shelby enthusiasm in the mid 1970s and rode it to a successful business venture, Tony D. Branda Performance.