Some find solace in fly-fishing, while others spend their vacation time scaling the world’s tallest mountains. For me, a few days on the road in a newly acquired car is like a week at a resort spa.
Most of these trips have been made driving from the West Coast to my Michigan home and more often than not, the cars have been Mustangs. My motis operandi is the same each time: Locate a candidate car in an area where a local friend can inspect it, make a deal with the seller, fly out to pick up the car and drive it home.
The routine also includes enduring incredulous questions from my out-West friends who typically ask penetrating things such as, “Why on earth would you want that car?” From there, I have to explain why comparatively cheap, used Mustangs on the West Coast mean much more to us Midwesterners who have to deal with rust and the loony price tags that seem to be imbedded in the rust.
The cars I’ve purchased have ranged from beaters to excellent examples of rare models, but they all have been purchased based on the inspection experience of Left Coast friends. And while the pursuit of corrosion-free cars seems justifiable enough to any red-blooded enthusiast, there’s another, more personal reason why I’ll take the better part of a week to drive across the country: it clears my mind.
The satisfaction of making a good buy, the change of scenery while on the road and the realization that, while on the road, I’m answering to no one else that day, is immensely therapeutic. Think of all the clichés regarding the freedom of the road and they apply. Four days on the road may numb some, but it invigorates me.
It’s not that such trips have been trouble-free – far from it, in fact. My first cross-country trip was in a 1975 BMW 2002 that, at best, ran hot in populated areas and, at worst, overheated out in the middle of nowhere. Check that; the worst on that trip was when the shifter linkage fell apart while pulling into a Helena, Montana motel parking lot. Finding 25-year-old BMW parts in a small Montana town is impossible. Luckily, a hardware store had the nuts and bolts necessary to get the old Bimmer on the road.
That trip taught me Lesson #1: Beware foreign cars when traveling through sparsely populated country. So, I started seeking out example of my favorite ride: Fox-body Mustangs. All cars have their common maladies, but I was familiar with Mustang quirks and was prepared for them while on the road – a “devil you know versus the devil you don’t” philosophy.
With that, I bought my first car via eBay. It was a white ’83 GT from Southern California. The description and photos were good and the seller assured me the car was in “mint” condition. Lesson #2: photos lie. Lesson #3: sellers lie.
A friend of mine in Corona, Calif., picked up the car for me while my then girlfriend (now wife) flew out to drive it home. Yes, the car was reasonably straight and fired right up with a single twist of the key, but clearly the gulf between what the seller considered mint condition and what I considered mint condition was the difference between, say, expecting turkey and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving and receiving day-old pizza and flat soda.
The GT’s heater core most certainly leaked, as heater hoses were tied off at the firewall; there was no radio, only a hole in the dash; the front seat recline mechanism was completely stripped, meaning that any pressure on the seatback caused it to fall back against the rear seat.
We fixed the seatback in my buddy’s driveway and decided no radio was livable for a few days, but it was February and we were headed back to Michigan – somewhere along the way, heat was going to be necessary. The car ran flawlessly on the drive home and we only got really cold on the last day or so. And while I thought I anticipated all the common Mustang maladies, an incident about 10 days after we returned home reminded me that anything can happen at any time: While driving to lunch with a co-worker, I heard a clunk from under the hood and the amp meter dial suddenly fell.
On the little juice the battery still had, I drove straight to an auto parts store and popped the hood. The serpentine belt tension pulley had disintegrated and thrown off the belt. Fortunately, the auto parts store had the tensioner in stock and we were mobile within a few minutes, but it was all too clear that the problem could have easily occurred along the freeway in deepest, darkest Nebraska.
I’ve made such West-to-East road trips about a dozen times now and other issues that have cropped up include weak batteries, excessive oil consumption – about a quart every 100 miles, thanks to a broken piston ring (not in a Mustang) – and a few other trivial items. I’ve also made the trips in less than ideal winter months, where driving a V-8, rear-drive Mustang through snow-covered Cascade Mountains and Rocky Mountains could be chalked up as less than one of my brightest ideas.
The Mustangs I’ve liberated from the constant sunshine and low humidity of the West include the aforementioned ’83 GT, a 1995 GT convertible, a 1992 LX Feature “Summer Edition” and my current project, a rare 1984 GT Turbo. A couple of years ago, my wife and I also spent the weekend driving to the middle of Pennsylvania to drag home a 50,000-mile, one-owner 1985 GT.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s all gone quite well and nothing catastrophic has occurred nor has any problem dissuaded me from continuing to make the trips (knock on wood). I boil it down to a combination of reasonably informed car buying and a huge dollop of luck.
And when those two things come together, it’s wonderful, relaxing way to enjoy the hobby.
LONG-DISTANCE BUYING AND SHIPPING TIPS
If you can’t afford the time to take off a week and drive a car across the country, there are ways to buy a long-distance car and have it delivered relatively easily. Here are a few guidelines:
1. Search for cars in areas where you have friends, family or other contacts that can inspect the car. If you don’t know anyone in Provo, Utah, forget that car you just found on eBay or Craigslist. Ads and other listings often leave out as much as they offer, so a personal inspection is an absolute must.
2. Photos and seller descriptions don’t tell the whole story. Frankly, it’s rare to find a seller who, even with the best of intentions, will describe a car in a way that won’t leave you at least a little dissatisfied upon your first, in-person inspection. Buyers romanticize the car, while sellers are, well, trying to sell the car. Of course, some sellers are more forthright than others.
3. Photos are deceptive. They hide flaws that are obvious when viewed in person. Ask the seller to email you a million photos of the car, including plenty of close-ups of the front-end – where the rock chips and other road debris take their largest toll – rocker panels, upholstery, etc. Ask for a photo of the radiator core support, too, to look for obvious accident evidence.
4. Shipping a car from a distance can be relatively economical. There are numerous shipping companies and they’re quite competitive with prices, so don’t be afraid to ask for some flexibility in the price quote. Skip the door-to-door pricing; it’s much cheaper to ship only between local drop-off points. Most sellers are happy to take your new car to a drop-off location, if it’s not too far away.
5. It’s cheaper to ship from west to east and cheapest of all to ship from metropolitan California drop-off points, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. It all has to due with the shipping companies keeping their trucks full; there aren’t too many cars being shipped from the Rust Belt to sunny California, so the cost is accordingly higher.