Mustang MonthlyProject Vehicles
Fear and Loathing in the World’s Most Hated Mustang: Part Two
“We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the 60's.”
Hunter S. Thompson’s words lingered in my subconscious, fully aware of the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait as we negotiated our way over rural two-lane roads then on to Interstate 96, heading through central Michigan on the way to Illinois with the goal to make it past Chicago before nightfall. “If you break down, and I’m sure you will, call me and I’ll come get you,” were Cole’s final words as he handed me a bag full of quarters for Chicago’s toll roads.
Chicago’s toll roads aren’t just a minor expense, they are a total nuisance if you’re not ready for them and therefore don’t have the correct change to chuck into the little buckets at the tollbooths. You see, most of them do not have a human teller ready to take your $5 bill and give you $3.75 in change for the privilege of navigating over the most horrible pavement this side of downtown Detroit. I had been in this situation several times before: not enough spare change to satisfy the toll yet with no option other than to just run through the damn booth with the red light flashing, hoping the powers that be wouldn’t bother sending me a ticket after running the plate on my rental car. So once again, the mind started to wander.
“Hmm, no front license plate and only a California temporary paper ‘plate’ with just the number 11 visible, taped to the rear window—if I blow through the toll they’ll never be able to find me anyway. This is now beer money!”
A quick stop for gas netted the first compliments on the car. A middle-aged lady filling her minivan said, “Nice car, I always liked those.” Really? Sarcasm, already? Then a guy pulling up in a pickup rolled down his window in the rain and asked if he could buy it—seriously. I had to call Cole on the cell and tell him, “Told you so, jerk!” He wasn’t buying it.
By the time we hit the edge of Chi-town, my confidence in Dangerfield (as I had taken to calling my new hooptie) grew. It coughed a few times here and there, could barely accelerate up to speed to merge with traffic, and you had to give yourself a football field of following room in traffic thanks to those peachy brakes, but otherwise it ran like a dream. Midway through Chicago it started raining cats and dogs but the RainX was called into action. It worked great—not as good as wipers, but good enough to see. Goal Number One was met when we pulled into a hotel at the Quad Cities airport in Moline, Illinois, on the Iowa/Illinois border.
Remember in part one when I mentioned that the radiator had been freshly topped off when Cole went to pick the car up, and I also foreshadowed a story about the water temperature gauge? As we were leaving Chicago, after a stop for gas and a quick Subway sandwich, we were pulling out of the Gulp & Sip and that’s the first time I saw movement from the temp gauge. “Hmmm, I guess it does work.”
Since that was the first time it moved at all, I figured the car must have been getting hot so we went back to the station to check it out. It turns out the car uses water, but where I have no idea. It didn’t leak and didn’t blow steam out of the exhaust, so where it was going was anybody’s guess. Sure enough, when I popped off the radiator cap the thing was bone dry, so I bought a few gallons of bottled water, topped it off, and hit the road, making a mental note to refill the radiator every morning.
Prior to my trip, boss and Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords editor Henry De Los Santos had forwarded me photos of what looked like “barn find” Shelby KR convertibles that his fiancé sent him from Iowa. Realizing that I was driving through there on the way to Vegas, I arranged to see the cars with their owner Brad Klodt along the way, so that was the first destination for Day Two. The GPS on my phone led me right to the Klodt’s farm in the south central part of the state, and we spent the next several hours photographing the cars, interviewing the Klodt family, and then going to see an incredible, uninhabited, turn-of-the-century building that once housed hog auctions and all sorts of debauchery that is best left unmentioned. During the stop, Brad expressed his appreciation of my car and Mustang IIs in general, and this from a guy who owns four legit KR convertibles, a Boss 302, a Boss 351, and all kinds of other Mustangs and Fords. You can read all about his cars in a future issue of Mustang Monthly.
With the goal of making it to Lincoln, Nebraska that night, we said our goodbyes and Dangerfield (I wasn’t sold on the name yet, but that was his name for now) and I hit two-lane Highway 2 through central Iowa. A stop for dinner at a local choke-and-puke turned unexpectedly unsettling when I inquired about how far it was to Lincoln. “Well, normally it’s about two and a half to three hours, but there are a lot of deer out there and they’re always getting hit by cars. And boy, those things do a lot of damage to a car, especially one as small as that thing you’re driving. Seriously, they’re everywhere. So you should drive slow and don’t take your eyes off the ditch for a second. In that case, I s’pose you’ve got a good four hours ahead of you, ya know, assuming you don’t hit one,” was the barmaid’s reply. Aw crap. With visions of a 10-point buck flying through the windshield in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, I thanked the Lord that the headlights worked really well and set out for Lincoln...at an extremely cautious and highly attentive (some might say paranoid) pace.
Dangerfield was running like a brand new car at this point, for some reason better than he had all trip. It was like he had warmed up to me, realized that I was his buddy and that he could trust me, and dropped his guard. We bonded at that moment. I actually caressed the dash and said supportive, comforting things to him and thanked him for being such a capable and willing accomplice to my retarded concept of “adventure.” I’m not kidding. And yeah I know, I understand that most people give their vehicles a female name, but this thing was more male than female for some reason and I still haven’t determined why. It was built in the year of the most limp-wristed Mustang ever—1974 was the only year in its now 50-plus year of existence that a V-8 wasn’t even an option—but a female name just didn’t fit with the relationship we were building. And besides, in my personal experience women usually bring far too much drama and tension to a relationship, compared to a pal that you can go drinking with and talk about guns. And football. Racing. And tanks and stuff.
The next few hours were fairly harrowing (I’ve hit a deer at speed before and it’s not as fun as it sounds) but we made it to about a half-hour outside Lincoln, in Nebraska City. Pulling into the hotel, my little buddy developed a bit of a miss and didn’t want to idle, almost like a plug wire had come loose. It was dark and I was hungry so I’d deal with that in the morning.
I awoke to a car covered in ice. Though I grew up in Ohio and Colorado and are therefore well experienced with iced-over windows, I’ve been in So-Cal for 27 years—“what kind of Midwest bool-sheet is this?!” A Fresh & Easy rewards card was called into action for an ice scraper and then I popped the hood to diagnose the miss from the night before. The miss remained a mystery as everything looked Kosher under the hood, so I chalked it up to temporary insanity or maybe the result of too many miles in a heightened state of deer-spotting awareness from the night before, so we hit the road again, this time with Denver in our sites.
Within about 10 miles, the miss in the 2.8 got worse and legitimate concern set in. As the miles struggled by my brain was furiously trying to figure out what was wrong while I put the car through all sorts of different situations in an effort to figure it out. It was either spark or fuel, obviously, but the true answer evaded my Sherlock investigations. Semi-defeated at a diagnosis, I pulled off the interstate and into an O’Reilly’s near Aurora, Nebraska to get a new set of plugs, and that’s when the first “typical eBay problem” of the car surfaced. Apparently, my ’74 Mustang II Mach 1 has the “performance” version of the 2.8L V-6 and takes spark plugs with a 5/8-inch hex, but the plugs currently in the engine had a 13/16-inch hex. The problem with that was that the hex was too big to fit a socket onto—the socket hit the cast iron head before it would engage the plug. Obviously the previous owner performed a quickie tune-up and used what the parts store guy told him were the right plugs. The only way to get them out was to use a 13/16th socket ground down in a bench grinder, but that wasn’t an option in a parts store parking lot. And did I mention that it was starting to rain at this point, and the wind wasn’t helping my mood any? While trying to stay somewhat dry and understand how and why the previous owner even got the damn things installed when no off-the-shelf spark plug socket had any hope of working, I realized that four of the six weren’t even hand-tight. I could screw them out by hand, though the toughest two plugs to get to—of course—were too tight to loosen by hand. So in went four new plugs of the right size, with two potentially dead plugs stuck in service, and we hit the road again with crossed fingers.
Back on the road, the four new plugs didn’t make a bit of difference and the miss got worse with every mile until I finally pulled off to look again. A true car guy would never take a classic Mustang to a new car dealer, but it seemed serendipitous that right at the end of the off ramp was Friesen Ford, a brand new shiny dealership, and by this time I thought “What the F” and pulled in, hoping to find an old-guy mechanic that understood ancient points ignition and Autolite carbs. Thankfully, I found him and he diagnosed the issue as a wasted set of points and possibly a clogged fuel filter. Problem is, no parts store in Aurora, Nebraska had a set of points for a 2.8 Ford, and faced with the decision to get a hotel and wait it out for a delivery of antique parts that might or might not make it there by Monday or trudge ahead on a hope and a prayer, I decided that the car had gotten me this far, by God it can keep going. So he installed a new fuel filter and said, “good luck” and we were back on the road, miss still there but only about half as bad. I hoped, with crossed fingers, that it was good enough.
Catch up on the rest of Project Rodney: