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09/04/2014 Tales of Time, Dwight Porter

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A boy and his wild Mustang

I feel like I grew up with the Mustang. After all we both hit the ground as a 1964 1/2 model and we are both turning the big 50 at the same time. The Mustang and I also share the fact that we went through some serious growing pains through our teen years in the late ’70s. The Mustang has bounced back from those lean years. What’s not to like about today’s retro mustang that has the body lines of old, combined with the latest technology and a fuel-injected engine packing some serious horsepower? As for me, I have not yet replaced my old Mustang, but it’s coming one of these days. Largely a function of the Arab oil embargo and the subsequent gasoline shortage, Ford made some drastic changes to the Mustang in the late 1970s. So what exactly did those lean teenage years produce for the Mustang? I always thought of it as the Mustang Lite. Ford Motor Company named it the Mustang II. In reality, it was nothing more than a Pinto with a much more graceful body style. For those younger folks who have almost certainly never seen one on the road, I would describe it as a scaled down Mustang, as a vehicle I would say it was roughly at the midpoint between the late 1960s Mach 1 with a big block engine and the go-kart with a lawn mower engine we drove as kids. That’s about as close I can come to downgrading the Mustang II. You see a 1977 Mustang II was my first car as a teenager. It’s good advice to watch what you say about a teenage boy and his first car, even if it was a Mustang Lite. The story of my Mustang Lite actually begins with a case of mistaken identity and a real Mustang, a dark green Mach 1 with a massive 390-engine. It was arguably the fastest car in town. Well it wasn’t exactly in town. We are not sure where it came from really. There were some bad boys who would come from out of town on occasion and bring their Mach 1 and hot rod around town. They were harmless and never really bothered anyone, but me. They would simply race around town, usually with girls in the back seat, smoke the tires a few times to show off their ample horse power, and then go back where they came from (most likely Ocala). That was a beautiful car and I always coveted a Mustang with a 390. The issue with that Mach 1 was the color. Unfortunately, for me, those bad boys were driving the same model and same color Mustang that my parents had let folks store under a car cover in their backyard. In a small town, where you were considered the wealthy elite if your car would crank up and run, these knuckleheads were tearing up the town in a one-of-a-kind classic just like the one parked in our yard. You can see that presented a problem. To this day, I am convinced those bad boys are the reason my first car turned out to be a mini-Mustang. My beloved Mustang II was a little rough when I bought it. The tires showed no signs of ever having tread, every door or fender had at least one ding and the driver’s seat had a number of cigarette burns. None of that mattered. I had joined the wealthy elite. I had my own car that would crank up and run, and it was surprisingly quick with its 2.3-liter overhead cam engine. With that in mind, our obvious first course of action was to pull the engine. Sure it ran fine when I bought it, but it “needed” a bigger cam and a header. By the time the ’Stang cranked up again it had an oversized cam, a header, a shaved head to increase compression and 30 over pistons for slightly larger displacement. By stacking several different adaptors, we were able to install a carburetor off a 351. In short, we had created one-half of a formidable V8 engine. Installed back in our oversized go-kart with 50 series tires that were almost as wide as they were tall, it was very quick off the line but not much for top-end speed. After all, we were missing the other side of our V8. It was distinctive and fun to drive. It may have been unique in the entire state. I can’t imagine why anyone else would hop up a four-banger in an era when every cow pasture around had a rusting Barracuda or Firebird in the back corner. In a short race, say to the end of the school parking lot, it could hold its own with pretty much anything. While the big V8s would smoke the tires off the line, our little ’Stang would launch hard and go. With those huge tires and a four-banger it was impossible to spin the tires. When you revved her up and dumped the clutch, you either launched hard or broke something. Of course, the guys with V8s had no interest in a fair fight. No one would race me to the end of the parking lot. In the end, I had to resort to drag racing at the Gator Nationals. OK, it wasn’t really the Gator Nationals themselves, but the Gainesville Raceway; the same two lanes where the speed records are rewritten every March. On Saturday nights, you could race anything there. The rules were simple; you had to wear a helmet and you had to divert your radiator overflow into a gallon milk jug to avoid spilling on the track. Drag racing taught me about competition, the dings and rust must be bondoed. Bondo is a kind of filler for filling holes. Oh, and that other rule: you would guess your time and write it on your window with white shoe polish. The trick to winning was to launch fast right on the green and run a consistent time. Top speed was not a factor. Back in the day the Grand National and the V8 Vega were the rage. They did not enjoy facing the Mustang. You see they had a number on their window, too. They had their own elapsed time to meet. The timer would enter them in and the Christmas tree — starting light — would balance them out. In real terms, if I dialed in 19 seconds and I was racing a 12-second car I would get a seven-second head start. Trust me on this; that is an eternity. Seven seconds with your high-performance engine screaming was too much for many a Corvette or Camaro. They would leave early or “redlight” and the race was won before it started. Of course, I did not win them all and sometimes you did not know who won until you got your trip ticket. With a top speed of 72 and a V8 Vega that may trip the lights at 130 mph, it was difficult to know who got there first. After all these years, all I have of my brief drag racing career are memories and a single trip ticket that I have kept. It reads car No. 88, elapsed time 18.97 seconds, top speed 70.97 mph on the bottom it has a box to check for a win and a box for a loss. Someone, somewhere, is still angry that they lost a drag race to a 19-second elapsed time. I learned a lot from drag racing, especially about completion and life. While I would prefer not to, I’ve lined up other times since then with a car that only had half a V8 engine and finished the race ahead. In a way, I feel the story is not finished. Someday I will return to Gainesville Raceway with another Mustang II. It will be a 1977 like my old one. It will be Gator blue and any dings or rust will be bonded and primer grey just like back in the day. It will have 13-inch mag wheels and the widest tires I can find. In short, I want it just like my old ’Stang. Well, except for the hood that is. Once I cram that supercharged 390 into the engine bay I’m not even going to try to put the hood back on.