New American Muscle
By Nick Caruso
on 12.9.13
Photo by Nick Caruso

My dad and I
are alike in a lot of ways — the way we fall asleep in chairs and lose our hair, for instance — but our love of cars has bound us for as long as I can remember. Not long ago I sent my dad a handful of questions about what makes me a car guy and asked him to write quick responses; I got back six pages. (Dad and I also like to tell stories.) And so I realized this story is best told in tandem, with excerpts of his answers interspersed with my own. Together, they are the story of our similarities and our passions, and of the car that is, as my dad put it, “a mild street rod imported from the junction” of the two of us.

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The story of my automotive inclination really begins with my dad’s childhood, which started in 1942 in Dearborn, just outside Detroit. His dad, my grandfather, Tony, worked on the famous Ford Motor Company assembly line installing transmissions, eventually rising to the position of supervisor at the Dearborn Engineering Center where he was in charge of print distribution for the whole company. Grandpa’s work and the culture surrounding Detroit gave dad the bug.

It was in middle school that I actually began to notice cars, brands, features, sounds, design differences, and to learn some stats like horsepower, 0-60 times, etc. As friends and enemies alike began to acquire cool cars, my temperature rose for cars. The sixties and the drag strip propelled my passion and fanned the flames — briefly quenched by the purchase on college graduation of the Mercury Comet hardtop that I used to tear it up, at least until I was married.

My dad’s first car was a ’30 Model A; he picked up a ’55 Ford convertible his senior year of high school. I had a ’93 Thunderbird and an ’01 Focus coupe. By high school I was fully obsessed with automobilia: I had five car magazine subscriptions; I had posters of Testarossas and Diablos; there were Ferrari flags strewn about my room. Friends would rib me about failing to spot some girls because I was busy ogling the sculpted ass of a Porsche heading the other way. As a kid I could quote stats for just about any vehicle you’d spot: engine size, horsepower, wheel diameter, options packages, colors, performance figures.

Your interest and passion grew throughout middle and high school…but in college, it reached other avenues and obsessions. You fell in love with all things automobile. You devoured everything you could learn about autos. You waited impatiently to attend…the Detroit Auto Show and local rod shows. While others were sleeping on the plane, you were reading auto magazines. I would say that then and now your brain is a compendium of all things auto.

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My folks and I would go to auto shows in Detroit and Chicago, heading to St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula to see classic car shows where dad would point out carburetors and hand-painted pinstripes and marvel aloud about the beauty of the machines we gazed upon; he’d know the model year of just about anything that we passed without so much as blinking. Still, we needn’t travel anywhere to visit the car world — there’s always been a project car in our family garage. I was born not long after my dad bought a ’67 Chevy Nova project car with a 327 small block, and though I was too young to realize it, even as a small child I was gleaning a great deal from dad’s hobby. Dad’s next ambition was true to our Ford heritage: he sold the Nova and purchased the body and chassis of a ’37 Ford Coupe and a Ford 302 HO V8 and promised me I’d drive a hot rod to my senior prom.

And here was the point at which our passions intersected truly: a common goal built on a common interest, the obsessions we’d nurtured in our individual childhoods meeting at a mutual apex — a hot rod we’d build together. But building a street rod is a Herculean proposition, and Dad sold the ’37 having not worked on it at all.

I had outgrown a part of the mystique. I knew in my core that as much as I desired it, the coupe was not the car I needed or wanted. I wanted something less temperamental, easier to own and to drive. I wanted full reliability and turnkey operation. I wanted to enjoy the car now, not sometime in the far off future following countless hours of labor.

So in my early high school years the search was on for a turnkey hot rod, and I was involved fully — possessed by the idea of our car. Though my dad was equally driven by his passion, he had not forgotten the hot rod prom promise he’d made me. He wanted a Mustang.

Once we had decided what our car would be, we set out to find it. We had a road trip down through southern Michigan, some of Indiana, and the Chicago area attempting to look at cars. The trip was not successful regarding the car but it was a resounding success for you and me. We stayed overnight in Chicago, had a great dinner, shopped the shops. Our project had lunged forward greatly. We were bonded together in commitment.

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I was in social studies class my sophomore year, 2000, doing a computer project, when my attention wandered to Autotrader.com. I found a 1991 convertible, red, black leather, black top; the famous 5.0 V8; manual transmission; 53,000 miles. 10 miles from home. I bolted out of my seat and ran to a phone to call my dad. (For reference, it felt almost exactly like the scene in The Last Crusade when Indiana Jones rushes back through the booby-trapped gauntlet to let his dad drink from the Holy Grail.)

When we arrived to see the car and the cover was pulled off we were both somewhat stunned; when asked if we wanted to hear it, our answer was an emphatic yes. I was standing a foot away from the rear bumper when the owner cranked it over for us and the motor — which at the time was connected to aftermarket Blackjack headers and no catalytic converters — very literally roared to life. It barked so loudly that I actually jumped, shocked by my own adrenaline. It was growling, the lumpy exhale of this hot rod, our hot rod: the hot rod my dad had wanted and had promised I’d drive.

We were not disappointed. It was nearly perfect. A very straight body, an excellent interior and a nearly new soft top were top points. But when it was started and the engine barked out through the free exhausts, I was sold. We looked at each other and smiled all the way to our innards.

We’d found it, parked it in our garage — a full two years before my senior prom, no less — but it ended up that I had a date to that year’s prom, which was a week away. And there was the not-so-inconsequential fact that I couldn’t drive a stick. So the prom promise accelerated quite a lot: over that next week I was imparted, by way of my dad’s patient lessons, with the beginnings of what has become my favorite skill. (I taught myself to heel-toe on the same car, revving that mother around every possible corner.) That prom date was my first girlfriend, but I remember little else beyond incredible nervousness at leaving my car outside during dinner, the dance and in the driveway at my friend’s place afterward.

With prom out of the way, our goal quickly shifted to something much more impressive, more hands-on and more meaningful for the both of us. Never mind a hot rod for prom; instead, it was time to build a pavement-ripping hot rod for us. Dad started ordering parts and we spent the summer in the back garage installing a 3.73 gear ring and pinion, 73mm mass air meter, 65mm throttle body, a Cobra intake with phenolic spacer, 24 lb/hr injectors, roller rockers, Edelbrock aluminum heads, equal length ceramic headers, a Borla X pipe and high-flow cat backs. We were a good team, working together and supporting each other, torquing bolts, greasing gaskets and swearing evening after evening after dinner until the sun set.

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There was a lot of learning on the fly as we researched, purchased and installed our modifications. It was stifling working in our garage in the deep summer heat and humidity. We were often covered with oil and sweat. We were loving every minute of it.

When we’d finished that first huge round of mods, our beast breathed fire. We’d massaged the powerplant up over 300 horsepower (though to this day it feels as though there are booster rockets out back), made its sounds hypnotic and thrilling. We bombed around in it together a great deal, and I couldn’t wait for every opportunity to take it out solo. I’d drive it with my friends and we’d show off for girls and rev the engine at meatheads with their tin-can-exhaust Civics. I recall the first time I showed off for a girl by expertly drifting the corner (I may still do this, alone); mom and dad and I would rumble over to Detroit for the Woodward Dream Cruise, where I’d rev the ever-loving hell out of the engine and idle alongside Ford GTs and Hot Rods and various muscle from every era, our Fox Body always getting looks and nods of interest and respect. My dad would be in the passenger seat, and we’d both be silently boiling over with pride and excitement.

I have never seen anyone in my lifetime who wanted to drive a particular car more than you liked to drive the Mustang. Evidence of this is the differential in mpg between your thrilling rides and my plodding journeys.

Our Mustang is, simply, my favorite car. Some day I’ll own that ’99 Ferrari F355 Spider; there will always be room in my garage for an E39 M5. But no vehicle will ever — could ever — be more important to me or closer to my heart. The Mustang represents the things I’ve loved and the things I’ve learned, many of which are the same things my dad has loved and learned. I learned my passion from my dad, and molded it for myself. I learned how to be patient from my dad, and also how to be frustrated. I learned how to use tools, to love the sound of a pneumatic wrench and to trust jack stands. I learned to be authentic from my dad; that you don’t have to show off in front of people you love.

Our decision to find our car, our learning about the Mustang models year-by-year, our specifications list, our search, our purchase, our modifications, our time riding together in town, in cruises, has been a vehicle for bonding no less legitimate than other fathers and sons sharing travel, outdoor adventure, or remodeling. We have always been close; but the car has provided us with a multitude of opportunities to share, to discuss, to experience a common interest, thus expanding our reasons for being close. We have grown with the Mustang.

“The GT”, “The Red Car”, “the Mustang”, “the ‘Stang”, “The Convertible” — we call it a lot of things — still only has 80,000 miles on the odometer. It could use some love: there are paint chips; the suspension needs firming and the brakes need to be redone; one of the spark plug wires keeps slipping off for some reason. But dad and I are older too — we’ve gathered our own chips along the way, and could both probably use a tune up, but we’re still pulling strong. Our individual car manias have evolved with time, intersecting and diverging time and again, but we’ll always share the passion, and we’ll always have this story.