( Relationship experts say that trials can actually be good for couples, families and friends. What may seem miserable at the time becomes a positive bonding experience once it’s over. A rained out camping trip eventually becomes an oft-told family adventure tale that’s seen in a positive light because the family weathered the storm and overcame obstacles together.
The same idea of turning adversity into adventure is an all too common theme of dragging home your latest automotive treasure. The stress-free option is to hire a professional auto carrier. Your car arrives in perfect condition—no broken parts, no scratches, but no amusing stories.
The following tale is ostensibly about driving a newly purchased ’83 Mustang GT from California to Michigan, but it ended up being as much about cementing the most important relationship of the author’s life. Ed.)
You learn a lot about a person on a long, cross-country road trip – much more so when your car doesn’t have a radio or a heater – and it’s February. Such a journey is often a watershed experience, making or breaking a relationship.
Fortunately, the music- and heat-free trek my then girlfriend, Carrie, and I made about 6 years ago proved to one of the relationship-making kinds of road trips, although that outcome was far from certain as we headed east from Los Angeles toward Michigan in a car I’d purchased sight unseen. Heck, when we were in shivering in Indiana, rolling along with extra layers of socks, gloves and hats, and it began to snow, I considered breaking up with myself.
Like many misadventures, ours started with the best of intentions – intentions propped up by a heaping pile of naivety. It was the winter of 2002 and I was an eBay newbie, scanning for my favorite Fox-body Mustangs. I bit on a white 1983 GT; it was Polar White, with a medium red interior and a five-speed transmission. The seller listed the car as being in excellent original condition. Like a chump, I believed him. I was also attracted to the car because it was located near the home of a friend, whom I knew I could rope into taking possession of the Mustang until I could fly out and drive it home.
I won the auction and cajoled my buddy into picking it up from the seller. I called him a few hours later.
“How’d it go?” I asked
“Well, the guy was a real jerk and apparently siphoned all but the fumes out of the gas tank,” he replied. “I barely got it to a gas station.”
“Oh, sorry about that,” I said.
“Did you know the driver’s seat is broken and there’s no radio?” he asked.
“Uh, no,” I said, starting to feel the shooting pains that go along with the realization of being “taken” on a car deal. “The seller never mentioned those things in his auction listing.”
There was one more thing: the seller gave me incorrect contact information for completing the sale, so when he didn’t hear from me for a couple of days – because I’d been trying to contact him at an incorrect phone number – he beat me up on the eBay feedback form. Jerk.
To be fair, the car fired right up and ran well. The driver’s seat was afflicted by that classic Ford malady of the stripped-out recliner mechanism. As for the radio, the seller simply omitted its, well, omission in his listing. Apparently, his description of “mostly original” referred to the parts that were still attached to the car. The car didn’t have the original-type exhaust or original wheels, either. It wore early-1990s-vintage “directional” aluminum wheels.
I flew out to California a couple of days before Carrie in order to get the car prepped for the long drive. It was during my inspection of the car in my friend’s driveway that I noticed the heater lines were tied off in the engine compartment. It also appeared as if one or both of the head gaskets had been recently replaced. Those “I got screwed” pains again began to shoot through my body. I fixed the seat enough to keep the seatback from falling onto the rear seat whenever the car hit a bump and had the car inspected at a local garage. There wasn’t time to tear open the dash to replace the heater core and the rest of the engine checked out, so I headed out to the airport to pick up Carrie, all the while thinking of how I’d explain that the cabin would be a bit on the chilly side the closer we got to home.
Heading out on the highway
It was Carrie’s first trip to Southern California – I lived there a few years earlier – so before heading home, we hit many of the landmarks, such as Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, Santa Monica Pier, Griffith Park and more. We then pointed the Mustang’s nose east and hit the freeway. It was less than six months after the September 11 tragedy and we marveled at the sky-high gas prices as we drove further into the desert. Yes, some of the gas stations out there were commanding $1.50 per gallon!
Rather than the direct path that would have taken us up past Las Vegas and east toward Denver, on I-70, we headed toward Arizona and New Mexico. I had friends in El Paso, Texas, and we planned on visiting them during the trip. Besides that, I reasoned, a more southerly route would like stave off the bone-chilling cold for a few more days.
We rolled into El Paso on the second day, bunking in with a high-school friend and her family. We also visited my friend Todd Ryden, who’s been a fixture at MSD Ignition for about 15 years. The Mustang ran fine and after El Paso, we spent a few good days soaking up the seemingly endless asphalt of central Texas. It was a looonnnngggg state to drive through and we encountered more than a few interesting characters there, but none who compared to the gentleman counting and stacking pennies in a Dairy Queen booth – like, thousands of pennies. He was also mumbling to himself. We, uh, didn’t ask him to pass us the ketchup bottle.
We drove up through the top of the Lone Star State and into the panhandle of Oklahoma, where we jumped onto the remnants of Route 66, outside of Oklahoma City. It had been several days on the road and the Mustang hadn’t missed a beat. The radio’s absence was glaring, at first, but we didn’t miss it after the second day. We talked and soaked up the breathtaking scenery that comprises the Southwest. In fact, the radio would have been a distraction from what was becoming a very serene experience.
We cut up through Oklahoma, through Missouri and into Illinois. We stopped in Springfield, Abraham Lincoln’s home and the state’s capital. Until we hit the Indiana border, the lack of heat hadn’t really been a factor on the trip. We’d kept pleasantly warm with sweatshirts and other heavier clothes, but the weather conditions and the thermometer headed south as soon as we hit the Indiana border. It would be a whole day’s drive back to our Royal Oak, Mich., homes and the comfort factor in the car was rapidly diminishing.
The conversation ceased. The familiar territory of Indiana and Michigan, with its bare trees, gray skies and accumulating snow, was not the exotic desert locales of the previous days. In short, the road trip’s end was in sight and the frigid conditions were threatening to put a cold, wet blanket on the conclusion.
In the end, the Mustang soldiered on, without heat, into Royal Oak. A few more hours in the cold might have been the death of us, literally and metaphorically, but we arrived none the worse for wear and quickly sought out a warming, trip-concluding meal.
As fate would have it…
Typical of my projects, I brought the GT home and proceeded to clean it up and drive it for a few weeks, with the idea of selling it in the spring. All went to plan, too. I replaced the dorky directional wheels with 10-holes, rubbed out the paint and replaced a broken taillight lens (it was another thing the seller failed to mention). No, the car wasn’t what the eBay seller claimed it to be – far from it, actually – but it was a fine-running, daily-drivable car that, after a little TLC, turned into nice cruiser. And with rust claiming so many fine early Foxes in Michigan, it was a car that was somewhat of a rare sight on Detroit-area streets.
When it was time to part with the car, I listed the car for sale locally and, after talking to a few tire kickers, sold the GT to a guy who was very enthused about it. We completed the deal, I signed off the title and I figured it would be the last I would see of the car.
Several weeks later, I received a cryptic notice in the mail from the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s office – about 50 miles from my home. It said my car was still at the impound yard, accruing daily charges and that I’d better get over there and take care of it. Puzzled, I contacted the sheriff’s office and told them I’d sold the car a couple of months earlier.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “You’d better come by in person to straighten it out.”
What had happened was the Mustang’s new owner had never bothered to re-title the car. He also had a suspended license and no insurance. He’d apparently run the Mustang into another car while driving drunk and went to jail for the various offences. In the meantime, the Mustang had been towed to the impound yard contracted by the sheriff department. Because the buyer had never registered the car or re-titled it, it was still my car in the eyes of the state – and impound yard.
I visited the impound yard and viewed the crunched GT. The front end was wiped out. It was a sad ending to an ownership experience that started out shaky, but proved fun. I explained the ownership dilemma to the impound yard, the manager of which told me it was a story he heard often. He suggested obtaining a replacement title from the state and retaking possession of the car, as it seemed the “buyer” was nowhere to be found. The bottom line: I’d be stuck with impound charge unless I could find the guy.
So, I went to the nearest Secretary of State office, filed for a new title – which was disturbingly easy – and returned to the impound yard a couple days later with the requisite paperwork. I planned to have the hulk hauled home, where I would assess its viability as a restoration candidate or simply part it out. By that time, I’d spent a few days and untold hours trying to take care of another guy’s mess and, while I was standing in the impound yard office making plans to have the car hauled away, the buyer showed up and wanted “his” car.
The freshly sprung owner was irate when the impound yard told him it was no longer his car, but, to be honest, he calmed down and was suitably apologetic toward me regarding the whole affair. He paid all of the impound fees, the cost incurred by me for re-titling the car and more. I agreed to, one more time, sign over the car to him – but only at the Secretary of State office.
The Mustang had been on the hook at the impound yard, awaiting its trip to my garage, but instead, it was hauled off with the “new” owner and that was truly the last I saw of the Polar White ’83 GT. With any luck, the years since have been kinder to the car.
The years have certainly been kind to Carrie and me. We’ve made several more west coast rust-free Mustang retrieval trips and a trip to the alter. We recently returned from the maternity ward with our new daughter, Mary. The cross-country Mustang trip is now a part of our family lore.