The world of custom cars is fascinating. Sometimes history is well-preserved. Other times, as with a shortened, two-seater Mustang that resurfaced a couple years ago, it must be peeled back layer-by-layer. Often, the full and true story (mired in years of fable, or even corporate secrecy), can never be realized.
This unique 1964/65 Mustang caught my attention when the folks at The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance recently announced that in 2013 it would be headlining “What Were They Thinking?”, a class for significant, interesting cars that don’t fit into any traditional category.
By the early 1960’s, Detroit auto manufacturers were keenly aware of the importance of customizing. The preceding decade had seen the hobby grow from niche nonconformity to mainstream acceptance. Cars were being driven off the lot straight to the shops of Barris, Winfield, Starbird, and countless others to be chopped, shaved, sectioned, and sprayed in candy colors.
Riding the wave, in the fall of 1962, Ford launched a traveling show called The Custom Car Caravan. Early on, the shows relied upon cars built in-house. As the Caravan grew, more customs were needed, so Ford began accepting privately-created cars based on production models.
Enter South Bend, Indiana-born Vincent Gardner. A talented and driven designer, Gardner announced his arrival by winning the Fisher Body Craftsman Guild, a national auto design competition, while he was still in high school.
Vince landed a job at Auburn Automobile Company, and was part of the small design team that produced the beautiful Cord 810. He later moved to Studebaker and worked under Raymond Loewy, design pioneer of the streamline era. In 1951, Gardner struck out on his own, and in 1963, he began partnering with Dearborn Steel Tubing, a respected Detroit parts builder that was also commissioned by Ford to build prototype vehicles and custom cars.
It was during this time that Vince Gardner conceived a two-seater, fastback-style Mustang. By most accounts, the design was not commissioned or assisted by Ford. Nor was it a concept or prototype. It was simply Gardner’s own vision of a restyled pony car.
The Mustang began life as one of ten pre-production 1965 chassis. Working with his associates at Dearborn, Vince shortened the wheelbase a full sixteen inches. The team also assisted Gardner in the requisite bodywork, drawing from their previous experience with customs like the famed Thunderbird Italien. The car ran a standard 260ci V-8, though the mill was bored to 302. The “shorty” Mustang quickly caught Ford’s attention and, because it was based on a factory chassis and powerplant, was adopted into the Custom Car Caravan circuit.
Bill Snyder, an attendee at one of those shows, recalled his first encounter with the diminutive Mustang. “I loved it,” he said, and vowed to put one in his garage. “No dice,” was the reply from the attendant Ford rep. This car would never be produced, and might even meet a worse fate in exile or destruction.
Legend has it that Vince Gardner feared the same, absconded with the car, and walled it up inside an Inkster, Michigan warehouse. Vince, so the story goes, didn’t attempt to sell or further publicize the car, but also failed to pay rent at the warehouse. The hidden Mustang was found a few months later, after the insurance claim had already been paid. An executive at the insurance company bought it, and eventually put it up for sale.
In spite of the years that had passed since his first, wide-eyed encounter with the one-of-a-kind Mustang, Bill Snyder recognized it instantly in the pages of a car collector publication. It should be no surprise that he snatched up his dream car without delay and brought it to his home in Ohio.
The car has since undergone a complete restoration, and will make its anticipated reappearance at Amelia Island in March of this year.
It’s always fun to uncover an interesting car story. It reminds us that these machines have life, moving with us through space and time, collecting and creating history. I’m sure there’s more to this particular tale… If you can add to the legend, be sure to leave a comment.
Have fun in your garage!