Confession time: I’ve never driven a car built before the 1980s.
Actually, scratch that. I may have driven a car built before the ’80s — likely late ’70s — but it wasn’t memorable enough for me to actually, well, remember.
Thankfully, my hobby-turned-career has afforded certain pleasures, such as driving two incredible examples of what Detroit had to offer the buying public more than 40 years ago.
It was time to right my dark secret. These two cars — a 1968 Ford Mustang GT and an Oldsmobile Cutlass S of the same vintage — would allow me to do just that.
If you are looking for a head-to-head, take-no-prisoners comparison test of two affordable classics, you might want to click away — there are quotes around Test in the headline for a reason. Instead, this is about two everyday heros: The Mustang is of Hollywood provenance while its opponent, an Oldsmobile Cutlass S, is of commoner origins.
Kevin MacDonald, the owner of the 1968 Ford Mustang GT, assures me his car is an original GT and not a clone. (Disclosure: I’m inclined to believe him without digging through his papers. I’ve known him long enough to recall he was the proud owner of a World Wrestling Federation action figure collection as a child, along with other embarrassing secrets.) The car is a former Hollywood star car, though it wasn’t this well dressed when it graced the silver screen.
In the 2005 remake “Assault on Precinct 13,” Ethan Hawke drove this very Mustang when it looked a little worse for wear. While you can’t see it clearly in this scene from the movie (below), the Mustang’s fenders were painted along the wheel wells with primer (on top of the paint) to make it look like it had a recent — or long forgotten — rust repair.
Now, that same car looks primed for a spot in a Haggerty commercial. (And, just so you know, Kevin is my age. That makes him a Millennial. There’s still hope.)
While this GT is an original, many of its parts are not, making this Mustang fit in as a moderate restomod. For starters, instead of the old three-speed manual, this car is now home to a T-5 five-speed manual gearbox mated to its original 302 V-8. A 600 Edelbrock carburetor, long tube headers and Flowmaster exhaust make sure it will be heard as it blows past you on the freeway. Its Vista Blue paint — a circa-2006 shade instead of the original Acapulco Blue — ensures its image will be burned into your retinas well after it’s been lost to the horizon.
The Mustang’s 302 powerplant has accumulated 40,000 miles in its 47 years of service, but it’s still as spritely as it was when it came off the line in Dearborn.
The Cutlass S is certainly the more relaxed of the two cars and comes with an equally interesting — but maybe less impressive to non-enthusiasts — story of its own.
The Cutlass’ current owner, Greg Beaulieu, had been hunting for a winter beater in 1993 when he stumbled upon an ill-conceived ad for the car in a local Auto Trader. After checking out a Volkswagen Fox, ’75 Chrysler New Yorker 2-door, and an ’80s vintage four-cylinder Mustang, Greg test drove a pristine ’76 Buick Regal.
“(The Regal) was in perfect condition, drove really well, but the emissions-choked Buick V-8 had no power worth speaking about,” Greg said. “In fact, I had to look under the hood to confirm it was a Buick 350 and not a V-6.”
After that, Greg dug deeper in the classifieds. Again and again, month after month, he saw an ad for a ’68 Oldsmobile Cutlass S with 28,000 miles. Accompanying the ad was a solitary, dark photo that “did (the Cutlass) no favors,” said Greg.
Asking price: $6,000.
It turns out the Oldsmobile was owned by a long-serving secretary who’d recently come on bad health. The then-owner’s brother explained the Cutlass had hardly been driven in years, but that it was a good car and Greg should make a visit to check it out.
“It was covered in dust, the paint was dull, it had some crappy bodywork done to it, and it was wearing bias-ply tires with snows on the back.” Greg still took it for a test drive.
Lacking the emissions controls that saddled the ’76 Regal, the Cutlass made full use of its 350 Rocket and two-speed Jetaway automatic transmission. “The drive was fun,” Greg explained, “but not for $6,000.”
Upon returning home, Greg offered the then-owner’s brother $3,000 for the car. “‘I’ll take it’,” Greg recounted the man saying. “He wanted it gone, and was tired of having to deal with it. I wished I had said $2,000 — but I had bought myself a car.”
Due to neglect, the Olds’ oil had gone grey and was replaced immediately along with the filter. Ignition parts — distributor cap, rotor and points — were also replaced. Oldsmobile SSII-styled steel wheels were sourced, wrapped with white letter T/A rubber, and fitted to the car. However, the Cutlass’ big makeover item was paint. Greg transformed the classic from dreary turquoise to a bright, period-correct shade of red.
“My winter beater was suddenly too nice to be a beater.”
Since then, Greg has owned the car for 22 years and he’s accumulated 22,000 additional miles on the car. And even with the work he did to the car when he first bought it, it’s still a project and not just a cruiser.
“This winter I had the front seat upholstery and floor carpet renewed. At some point in the next while I’ll have the front end rebuilt and convert it to disk brakes up front. A three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic 350 transmission sits in my garage waiting to be rebuilt and installed to replace the original 2-speed Jetaway. Someday.”
Involved, not separated
“I need to teach you how to drive the car first,” Greg said to me before setting out on a short drive where he was at the wheel.
“Really? It’s a car, right? It can’t be that difficult,” I replied.
While he sat in the driver’s seat, Greg instructed me to hold down the accelerator pedal slightly when turning the key. “If it doesn’t start right away when you do that, floor it.” As he’d anticipated my arrival, the Oldsmobile was already warmed up. Greg turned the key with his foot slightly depressing the throttle, the Cutlass came to life, and we pulled out of his driveway.
Not two blocks away from his home, while sitting at a stop sign, the looks from passersby — whether conveyed by vehicles or by their own God-given feet — were of amazement. The Cutlass S didn’t wear 4-4-2 badges or sport a convertible top. In 1968, this car would have been a common sight — but that didn’t matter today. In 2015, this Olds is exotic.
Thumbs were up’d. Fingers were pointed. Hands were waved. In this car, you are connected with all those around you through a constant stream of real-life Facebook likes and Twitter favorites.
* * * * *
“What’s that smell?” I asked.
“What smell?” Greg answered the question with a question.
“It’s kind of musty. Organic. I don’t know how to describe it.”
However, I knew exactly how to describe it. It smelled like, well, old people. Specifically, it smelled like the home owned by an elderly gentleman who lived next door when I was a tyke.
Reggie was our shared neighborhood grandfather. That was perfect for me when I was young. I’d been born much too late to meet either of my grandfathers. On a fairly regular basis during the summer, Reg would provide ice cream to a few of us neighborhood kids. I think it was his way of caring for the younger ones around him, having no children of his own. He’d invite us in, put a single scoop in each bowl and hand them out to each of us along with with 40-year-old silver spoons. (I used to always wonder why Reg’s spoons looked “dirty”, but the silver was just tarnished due to age. Sometimes I would hand my spoon back to Reg and ask him why he didn’t clean it properly. I feel bad about that now.)
The inside of Greg’s Cutlass smelled exactly like the inside of Reg’s home; the aroma instantly transported me back to those summers filled with vanilla ice cream provided by our shared neighborhood grandpa. The Cutlass even featured another item shared with Reg’s home — an 8-track player — that Greg had sourced after he bought the car. In Reg’s home, that 8-track constantly played honky-tonk.
“Seriously, Greg, the smell is taking me back to my childhood.”
“That’s funny. A lot of people say that,” said Greg.
After our “getting acquainted” tour, Greg released me — sans chaperone — with his Cutlass.
* * * * *
Our first short drive, after meeting Kevin and his Mustang, took us to Halifax by way of the MacDonald Bridge that spans Halifax Harbour. Kevin led the way as I followed his Mustang in Greg’s Cutlass.
With my windows down, all I could hear was Kevin’s exhaust and all I could smell was unburnt fuel being shot from the rear of the Ford — or maybe through the vents on the Cutlass, not that it mattered. The turning vent windows in the Cutlass aimed the late-afternoon air, and Kevin’s exhaust note, directly at my face. The gas fumes stung my nostrils with their sweetness.
Normally, with a loud exhaust in the vicinity and the essence of gasoline in the air, I would roll up my windows and turn on the air conditioning — but not today. With my arm resting on the window frame of the door and my other hand steering the ship, I felt like I was transported back to 1968. I could hear, smell, and feel everything around me. As a motorcycle rider, I’m used to being more in-tune with what’s happening in my immediate environment when on two wheels. This was something wholly different. I could see why driving this car — or any car like it — could make someone fall in love.
And that’s really the best way to explain the time I spent with Greg’s Cutlass — romantic. It’s bright red paint, black interior and simplistic controls were a blank canvass for me to paint my own existence atop a time when this car — and the Ford in front of me — were commonplace, and the people that owned them truly cared and loved their cars.
The Cutlass didn’t fit like a glove in the same sense we now use that idiom to describe a seat’s ability to keep its driver in place. Instead, it fit like a friend.
* * * * *
Greg’s advice would come in handy, more than once, as we moved the cars around to shoot them in different locales. The Olds would crank but not catch, I’d floor the pedal, and the 350 Rocket would come to life.
In 1968, you really needed to know about cars to operate them. Instead of simply pushing a button, and the vehicle sensing a fob in your pocket, and an order being commanded by the computer to start the engine, it was up to you to remember each car’s Konami code. It was up to you to know, from a moderately technical standpoint, how to start a car properly.
* * * * *
After shooting the cars, I drove Greg’s Cutlass to a local gas station to fill it up with the best supreme I could find. Looking at the gas gauge on the dashboard offered no clues as to which side to fill the Olds — because there wasn’t a side to fill the Olds.
I made my way to the back of the car, flipped down the license plate and offered liquid essence to the 47-year-old coupe.
The pleasure of problems
After the Cutlass had been returned (with a minor shedding of tears) to its rightful owner, Kevin and I returned to my home where I would take the reins of the pony car. However, there was a slight hiccup.
Even though the wiper switch was firmly in the off position, the wipers were doing their best to ruin their rubbers by batting back and forth across the dry glass. Jiggling the wiper switch didn’t help.
“If you don’t want me to drive the car tonight, I fully understand. You should get this home,” I said to Kevin.
“Just gimme a minute,” he replied.
That minute turned into 10, then 20, then 30. Kevin, armed with some basic tools from my garage and lacking any gumption traps that would certainly stop me in my tracks, was now taking apart the dash of the Mustang to inspect the switch. Panels were removed and the gauges were flipped up and out of the way. Kevin fiddled with some of the electrics out of my view.
“Mark, look at this.”
Kevin held out his hand and dropped the wiper switch in mine. It was an original part wearing a FoMoCo stamp that did duty under the dash since it rolled off the line in Dearborn. At least, for now, the wipers would be off.
After the dash was reassembled, we all piled into the Mustang. Kevin rode shotgun while our girlfriends took the back seats. I sat myself behind that big, wooden steering wheel and fired up the Mustang.
Then I stopped to think about this moment — for a moment. There was something very old school in the scene besides the car itself. The boys were up front talking cars while the girls were in the back talking about whatever girls talk about. Only a convertible top, dropped down to open up the night sky to us, could have enhanced the experience.
Once we got moving, the Mustang proved itself to be a raucous machine. It wanted to go — and now! The clutch, while not heavy, didn’t have much travel in its engagement — like an on-off switch. Same with the throttle, though to a lesser degree.
I egged on the old Ford with a tender but heavy foot, rolling into the throttle instead of stomping it to the floor. It responded in kind with lumps of torque pushing us into the bucket seats.
Damn, I want to live in 1968.
Attention Millennials — this is authenticity.
Let me be clear, fellow Millennials: There is nothing authentic about the modern automobile outside of some choice examples.
The Mazda MX-5 Miata, the automotive journalist collective’s car of choice in perpetuity, is a copy of British sports cars of yore. Today’s Mustang, Camaro and Challenger come close, though the latter sits atop a cast-off Mercedes platform while it awaits something bespoke and more befitting its name and history. A current Mustang, sporting a turbocharged four-cylinder engine to make it palatable for European consumption, is little more than an idea that started in a marketing meeting before being executed by engineers. Same applies with the soon-to-be available Camaro.
This experience has made me think that maybe, possibly, I have this enthusiasm aimed in the wrong direction. Why am I considering a new Charger? Why don’t I just get an old one? It’ll sound better. It’ll drive like it’s being held aloft by clouds (modern suspension engineers should really benchmark this Cutlass when it comes to ride quality). And if you are just going to drive it a couple of times a week, who cares how much it costs to fuel it up?
Most importantly, a car like the ones featured here makes you really, truly love the automobile. And it makes everyone around it love automobiles, even if they swear by public transport.
The Mustang and Cutlass are two very different answers to the same classic question. The Ford is eager to move and wants the chance to vulcanize Mickey Thompsons into something resembling road tar. The Oldsmobile is more laid back with its front bench seat, offering its driver and passenger to sit close together as they cruise down Main Street window shopping.
Which car is for you? I know my answer. But, that’s a story for another day …