Meet the Horse



I have always hated this car.

Not the Ford Mustang, mind you, nor the ubiquitous Fox body, but this specific car. It's not because it came from the factory cursed with a heavy and under-powered 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine or an entirely worthless four-speed automatic gearbox. No, I hated this car because once, while I was off pretending to pay attention at college, my father traded two whole International Scout II trucks, their titles and a scad load of new old stock parts for this: a secretary special hatchback Mustang. It made me ill.

Sorry, son. I've sold you to a brace of machete-wielding Somali pirates.

As a vested devotee of all things International Harvester, this was a sin of inconceivable magnitude. I would have been less crushed if he had sat me down, looked me square in the eye and told me in his most earnest and paternal tones that he spent his working days feeding laundry baskets of kittens to a wood chipper instead of wielding Autocad in a cubical as a structural engineer. Or that, "Sorry, son. I've sold you to a brace of machete-wielding Somali pirates to pay off a blood oath."

Confusion. Anger. The betrayal was made all the more painful by the news that the new owner of the two IH bruisers had simply thrown the stack of brand-new 345 heads into the back and hauled the Scouts straight to the crusher for scrap. The locals say you can still hear my teenage screams rolling around the darkened hills of Virginia on a still night.

To my father's credit, and viewed bereft of the lenses of teenage angst and romanticism, the swap made sense. The good men and women of the Virginia State Police had all but forbidden us from driving the baby blue '79 Rallye on public streets. There's something about having only one door that, inexplicably enough, seems to make officers nervous, and the second green '78 had hosted an impromptu barbecue underhood during a carb swap one crisp Fall afternoon. The Mustang, meanwhile, not only ran well but looked surprisingly good inside and out. Or, at least it did some nine years ago.

Project Ugly Horse: 1989 Ford Mustang LX
Project Ugly Horse: 1989 Ford Mustang LXProject Ugly Horse: 1989 Ford Mustang LXProject Ugly Horse: 1989 Ford Mustang LX

At first, Dad planned to turn the '89 LX into an economical little runabout for commuting to and from work. But, as usual, our best intentions languished in my parents' driveway, and after our push mower launched a pair of satellite-guided rocks into both pieces of passenger side glass at the same time, we defaulted to a secondary plot: gutting the machine and turning it into a white trash themed LeMons racer. Plans were hatched. Cats, rodents and other small fauna took up roost in the cabin while we began scavenging parts for the ultimate cheater Fox body.

I glowed at the thought of sentencing the Mustang to a not-so-glorious death by LeMons.

As the garage cluttered with a turbocharged 2.3 from a Thunderbird and a five-speed manual, I couldn't get over the coiling hatred I felt in my gut for the Mustang. The car stood as a constant reminder of the death of the two trucks I loved. My first turn behind a steering wheel was spent at the big blue tiller of the '79, and the IH had ferried our family through three houses and as many states over the years. It was as much a part of the family as our two dogs, and, by that time, it had been melted into three or four Aveos. I glowed at the thought of sentencing the Mustang to a not-so-glorious death by LeMons.

Long before that could happen, the LeMons team idea got T-boned by a variety of life events, and the Mustang continued to sit open-windowed and lifeless just off of the gravel in my parents' driveway. During one Christmas visit, Dad and I stood around the car bullshitting before the wife and I headed back to Knoxville. A thin coat of mold, filth and frost covered the battered paint, flaked to bare, rusted metal in places and peeling in others. The headlights had jaundiced opaque under the beating of 10 summer suns, and the passenger side marker stood smashed and bare-bulbed. Sitting on four flat and dry-rotted tires, the old Horse couldn't help but look sad and defeated. Inside, a layer of oak leaves a foot thick played host to beetles, spiders and ants, all acting out their microcosmic dramas under the withered skeletons of the three-inch saplings growing in the passenger floorboard.

His words set off a slow chemical burn of possibilities in my mind.

Since returning from the Targa Newfoundland the previous September, I had been hooked on the notion of buying a low-buck project to turn into a track beater. Dad and I passed Craigslist ads back and forth during the work day on a regular basis. A Miata here, a Civic there. The odd Nissan Hardbody or Mustang SVO, if we were feeling spendy.

"You want the Mustang?" He asked out of the blue. He had been on a life-cleansing warpath for the better part of a year, chucking crumpled cardboard boxes and shedding the detritus of midlife wherever he could.

His words set off a slow chemical burn of possibilities in my mind. Keep it ugly, low power. Lots of suspension, tires, brakes and a solid cage for some much-needed rigidity. Have fun. Put it into a wall, laugh and pick up another shell on the way home. On paper, it's the perfect recipe. At around 2,800 pounds, this Fox body is lightweight enough, and the bonus of front engine, rear-wheel drive is nothing to ignore, either.

"How much?" This was getting dangerous.

"For $475, you can have it, the engine and the trans if you haul it all off."

Project Ugly Horse: 1989 Ford Mustang LX
Project Ugly Horse: 1989 Ford Mustang LXProject Ugly Horse: 1989 Ford Mustang LX

A week later, I had the car loaded up onto a rented trailer and towing contentedly behind the F-250. I had my project car.

Project Ugly Horse: Part II
Project Ugly Horse: Part III

Editor's Note: This is the first of a series of posts that will follow this car from derelict hulk to semi-functional track machine. Keep your eyes peeled for regular monthly updates, and feel free to ask questions in the comments. I promise I won't answer with, "Because racecar."