How to restore a car in 217 days, take it on a 5,000 mile test drive, fix stuff, then drive 2,200 miles to SEMA


2015…where do I begin? A year ago I was working on getting all the parts for my restoration as Mustang Monthly’s Project Road Warrior. I had previously swapped the engine, along with adding new paint so I thought I knew what the future held. This time I even had all new parts so it would be easy, right? Now looking back I laugh at those thoughts!

 As we started to tear down the car at Stono Body Works in South Carolina we found so much more rust than ever anticipated. I had planned on replacing the rear quarter panels and wheel wells from the beginning. Slowly, the list started growing, adding a new trunk panel and frame rails, then the floor pans, and part of the engine compartment. By the end, the roof and trunk lid were the only things that survived the makeover process untouched. Needless to say, the three month restoration doubled to six months in no time. 

In June, the day of paint finally arrived. This is when you do the happy dance! Finally I was starting to believe there was an end in sight! I may have gotten a little too excited. Everyone told me once it’s painted it’ll just be another week until I was back on the road. Funny how all those people disappeared when it came time to wire the car, which included the engine, electronic transmission, and EFI system. Luckily, with a lot of patience and beer, and the help of Classic Speed and Custom in Charlotte, North Carolina, we got it done and just in time for a 5000-mile test drive!

Yes, a normal person would probably drive the car around locally for a few months or so, but “normal” has never been one of the words people would pick to describe me. I had to get to Colorado for the start of the Goodguy’s Tour! With less than 200 miles on the car, I was off. The car did amazing for the first 2000 miles considering every nut and bolt had been touched in the last six months. The overdrive from Performance Automatic really changed history on the highway. Instead of traveling with the truckers I was actually passing people and not overheating in the process. Done (35)Then it happened… Right after the Colorado border the car started to get angry. With everything being new, I wasn’t sure what was actually wrong, but I knew she was struggling and not happy. We decided to stop for the night after driving 800 miles. I was just hoping the car was tired. After tossing and turning, and running through everything that could be wrong I got up the next morning to check the fluids and see if I could spot any loose connections. The car started right up and sounded good so we hit the road for the last 200 miles to Loveland, Colorado.

We arrived at the Goodguy’s show and spent the next few hours getting excited with the other tour participants for the adventure ahead. We made it, the rest was easy, right? Once again I laugh when I think back. All 50 classics rolled out of the show together and we were off to the first checkpoint of the day. The previous year I was shocked at the speed of the tour. After participating in Bullrun and Rally North America I figured I finally had a shot at keeping up with older cars. I was totally wrong. These guys don’t just fix up a car to look nice, they make it go fast. So this year I was pumped to have overdrive and a chance to keep up. Done (39)And we were, until it happened… The car just cut off. We were cruising in the left lane of a 5-lane highway and she just decided she wasn’t going any further. I have had similar experiences with my dog when she finds a good sniff on a walk, but this was a little more dangerous. When the car cut off I lost my power steering and brakes and the lack of hazard lights made for quite an adventure. Luckily, we were able to limp to the side of the highway with the help of some arm flailing out the windows. After a few minutes the car started back up. It wasn’t running great, but she waited for us to get off the highway before cutting off again. Luckily, Goodguys’s has a trailer that follows the tour for these situations and I made the sad phone call. Yes, it was awesome to have some back up, but geez! Did the car really have to be a jerk on the first day in front of all the people? Why couldn’t this happen on the 2000-mile trip out here without so many eyes watching?!

As we waited for the trailer to arrive I started checking the fuel filter and pump. I could hear it running, but it sounded like it was starving for fuel. About 15 minutes later the guys from Goolsby Customs arrived with the trailer and that thing that always happens, happened. You know, when you ask someone for help and then they get there and the problem disappears? Yep, the car started right up and sounded great. Now I had become the girl that cried wolf. We figured there must have been something that clogged up the fuel filter and we were back on the road…for about 30 minutes until it happened again. Luckily the Goolsby guys were willing to come back and we hitched a ride with them to the hotel and planned on fixing the car that night. Josh Henning of Goolsby’s was very familiar with new the Holley EFI system on the car and brought out his laptop and made a few adjustments for elevation. We also realized the fuel tank was not vented, which is fine for a carburetor, but with the added pressure needed for the EFI, combined with the high elevation in the mountains, it was creating a vacuum. Josh drilled a hole in the gas cap to allow it to breathe and with a quick test drive we thought the problems were fixed. 

The next morning we headed out with the group. The car was still shaking on the hills so we decided to just take it slow. As the day went on and the sun heated up the car started to be a jerk again. You could hear the pump straining to work and the last 10 miles to the checkpoint were very similar to a bucking bull ride. I had to keep pumping the pedal to get gas to the engine. We made it and luckily the last stop for the day was Mark Warrick’s garage in Amarillo, TX. We were able to put the car on a lift and try to figure out what was causing the problems. After checking the fuel filter and finding nothing, the brainstorming began. The fuel pump was too far away from the tank, which was causing the fuel to vapor lock before it even had a chance to get there. Afraid we had burned up the pump during the bull ride, we had a new one shipped to George Poteet’s shop, the destination for the following day. We figured another day of limping was ahead of us. Then someone had the genius idea of ice in the trunk. The trunk floor of a ’65 Mustang is also the top of the fuel tank so in theory if you keep it cool, the gas will be too. 

Day 3 of the tour started out with me emptying my trunk. So far up to this point I probably sound like a guy’s girl. Well, my trunk is where the girl in me comes out. After 30 minutes of unpacking, I had everything in the back of the Goolsby trailer. Next stop was the gas station for 80 pounds of ice. At this point I had no idea if the redneck plan would work, but I was willing Done (59)to give it a try. Hours later in the heat of the day we were still rolling without any problems and I now had a fun game to play with people. The ice was slowly melting and made it look like my fuel tank was leaking, throw a match at that puddle and see people run! It also made for a great cooler for beverages.

Funny how looking back now the last 2 days of the tour seem so easy. We kept the trunk full and managed to make it to the final stop in Kentucky and then back home to South Carolina without further problems. Whenever I tell people about what I do, driving around the country in a 50-year old car, the first question is always, “what do you do when you break down?” After this trip the answer is a little more entertaining. I have always found a way to make it work and keep going. Yes, there have been times I want to give up and just cry, but that won’t get you anywhere; other than possibly a looney bin. My motto is to keep on truckin’ and I always will!

After I got back home, the SEMA count down began. With a little less than a month before we had to start the 2200-mile trip to Vegas, I had a lot to get done. First thing, switch out the external fuel pump with an in-tank fuel pump from Tanks, Inc. I also decided to give up my Year One 17-inch wheels and go to the Scott Drake 16-inch Legendary Styled Alloy Wheel. With the 17-inch wheels I was still running into clearance issues with the back fenders even with the air shocks so swapping to a smaller size was an easy fix.

I finished up the changes at Classic Speed and Custom just in time to make it to the Goodguy’s Show in Charlotte. On the way back to South Carolina I was still having a “memory steering” problem. Basically, the wheel wouldn’t stay straight. If you turned hard to the right it would stay to the right, even though the car stayed straight. After talking to Speed Direct we had a new rack and pinion on the way and 3 days to put it in before hitting the road to Las Vegas.

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With my partner in crime Amie Williams in the passenger seat, we left South Carolina on Wednesday with the plan of getting to Las Vegas by Saturday to have enough time to clean and detail the car before checking in Sunday morning. I love when I make plans! We had planned on leaving by 9 or 10 in the morning…Around 3 in the afternoon we finally hit the road after a last minute stop at Hay Tire for an alignment and Impact Image for decals I had messed up the day before. So much for getting an early start! As we entered Georgia it started to get dark. It definitely made me appreciate my summer rallies with daylight well into the evenings. No worries, right? Just turn on the lights and keep rolling, right?! Well, the car had different plans. I’d been fighting a flickering headlight situation since leaving Charlotte. I thought I had it fixed when I swapped out the dimmer switch, but I was wrong. As darkness took over we decided to stop for the night and deal with the problem in the morning. After getting such a slow start I was disappointed in the miles we traveled, but I knew we could make it up the next few days. Once I’m 50 miles away from the house my whole mode changes. Instead of wondering if I should make one more stop or thinking about something I forgot, it’s go time.

That next morning we were up at 5AM and rolling. The headlights were working-ish. They flickered a few times, but Done (82)stayed on until the sun came up. At the next gas stop I decided to take out the instrument cluster in the dash and see if I could detect the problem. I tightened up all the connections. Everything looked good and we were on our way again. Thursday went smoothly and we managed to make it through Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, before stopping for the night 20 miles before the Oklahoma border. 

Friday morning we were up before the sun again and ready to take on Oklahoma. Anyone that has driven across the country will know what I’m talking about here. Oklahoma is a long, long, boring, long drive. I’ll never forget my first time driving through Oklahoma with my friend Lori in 2011 on Bullrun. Over 300 miles of the same scenery. It’s even more torturous because you start at mile 300-something, then you watch the miles slowly pass by. I’m a big fan of not knowing how many miles are left to go. I think you’ll get there when you get there, and watching miles and time makes everything less fun. And that’s exactly what Oklahoma is; less fun. Luckily, it is the home of one my sponsors Kicker, or I would bypass it altogether.

After making it through Oklahoma and a quick trip through the tip of Texas we found ourselves in New Mexico right as the sun started to get tired for the day. I was trying to get as far as possible before we stopped because we still had over 500 miles to Vegas, 20151030_182547and a lot of cleaning to do the next day. A couple hours after the sun set we were right outside of Grant, New Mexico when the headlights decided to be an asshole again. In the middle of nowhere, on Route 40 they just went out. Every other time it happened I had enough light to make it to the side of the road. This time was different. No street lights for miles. Nothing, but black all around us. Panic set in, but somehow we managed to get to the side of the road without hitting any markers or guardrails using the flashlight on Amie’s phone. 

I took a few minutes to stop shaking, then it was time to figure out what the heck to do next. The next exit was 14 miles away and with very little light in the car, taking apart the dash again seemed like a waste of time. Then I had an idea. If you’ve followed along over the years you may have noticed I’m a big trucker fan. They seem to like my classic car and before overdrive I used to just plop myself in between them on the highway and roll along like that one odd duckling in a crowd of geese. And all those years of trucker travel helped me in that moment of darkness. My plan was to let one go by and then haul ass behind him with or without lights for 14 miles to the next exit. I was afraid I might distract the driver with all the flashing. Luckily once we were rolling I think the guy knew exactly what we were doing. That, or he just thought I had a lot of road rage and didn’t know how to pass using the left lane. Either way, we made it to the exit. I began to unclench the steering wheel, breathe, and cry as we pulled into the first hotel we saw. The feeling of relief lasted for about 10 seconds…and ended when I saw smoke pouring out of the hood of the car.

Let me remind you now, this was Friday night around 9PM, exactly 35 hours before I had to check the car into SEMA, the biggest car show of my life. Oh the words that came out of my mouth. They would make the truck driver we were following, blush. Funny thing was, I dropped Amie off at the lobby of the hotel seconds before the smoke started. So out she comes thinking it’s time to relax and drink a beer and I am in full on panic mode with the hood up and smoke still coming off of the headers. From what I could see in the dark parking lot, I thought the power steering pump had failed. There was fluid all over the engine and headers. Fluid was everywhere, except for the reservoir. I started to think of ways to bypass the pump with a shorter belt, but with the new serpentine system it wasn’t possible. I had muscled the car before when the power steering went out, but now I had big fat tires. Would it even be possible? And how long did I have before the pump burnt up and seized?

I called my friend Rob and about gave him a heart attack from the panic in my voice. After assuring him we weren’t in a ditch on the side of the road, or being taken captive by the Taliban, I finally calmed down enough to explain what was going on. His logical advice? Go to bed and find a shop that was open early the next morning and get it there. Yes, it was logical, but who the hell could go to sleep?! I began to prepare myself for a restless night as I searched Google for shops in Grant, New Mexico. Then I saw it. C&S Automotive was open now and until 3 am…Done (87)Thinking there was no way it could possibly be correct I tried calling anyway. A nice lady answered and the next thing I knew we were taking off the comfy pants we just put on, putting on our jeans and heading to the shop at 10 o’clock on a Friday night. 

I remember pulling up to the gate on the dark street and Amie asking, “This is safe, right?” Sure it is, how could it not be, I assured her while thinking of possible escape routes if shit went bad. Damn, did we get lucky! Looking back I think the lights cut off for a reason. The turn into the hotel was the final straw for the power steering line that had been rubbing on my sway bar. Had the lights not gone out we would have kept going and who knows when it would have blown. We ended up in the perfect place to fix all our problems. Done (88)Not only was C&S Automotive open, but this was what they specialized in; helping people at all hours of the night and getting them back on the road and where they needed to be.  All our worries vanished when we met the owner Sam Lowe. He set us up in his office with some heat while he went to get us a high pressure hose made. Yep, you read that right, Friday night at 11PM and he had a guy. While Amie took a nap in the warm office I decided to work on my light problem. We had a lot of time to make up in the morning and I wanted to get started before the sun decided to join the day. I had an idea of bypassing the switch which seemed to be the problem. I had a 3-switch toggle set up for the dimmer, and wired it directly from the fuse box. After blowing a fuse or 3 before finding the right amps, we had lights. Shortly after Sam was back and had the hose back on the car and we were rolling back to the hotel and sleep finally happened.

Done (90)Not too much, though. During the whole trip we kept gaining time as we went west. I managed to only acknowledge the time change at night. Basically, we would drive until 10 or 11 each night, but every morning we would get up at 5AM eastern, and hit the road. We could sleep when we got to Las Vegas. Because that’s what people do when they get to Vegas. Lucky for me my road warrior companion was a trooper and never complained once. In fact, that morning in New Mexico we started the day by singing Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-A-Lot. It started with one line then the next thing I knew we went through the whole song before we left the hotel room laughing our big ‘ole tired butts off! My best friend Chris always says, “The best memories are made when shit happens.” And I am a firm believer in that. If we had just cruised through New Mexico our hotel neighbors would have missed our rapping. You’re welcome, neighbors! 

The last 500 miles to Las Vegas went smooth. We managed to get to the hotel around noon with plenty of time to clean the car, or so I thought. We got everything out of the car, checked in to the hotel, and headed to the car wash. After spending an hour or so cleaning the interior I pulled it around to a car wash bay and there was our good friend smokey. Son of a beach the hose blew again. Now it’s about 2PM on a Saturday in Las Vegas, and oh yeah, just to add to the fun, it’s Halloween. Now what? After everything that happened the day before I went right into go mode. With 18 hours to SEMA check-in, there was no crying or bitching, just fix damn thing! I talked to some guys working at the Jiffy Lube next door and they were less than helpful and basically said I was shit out of luck. Don’t ever tell me that! I started calling around and next thing I know it was off to House of Hose for the rescue. At the time, I was so fixated on getting the hose working I missed the humor. Luckily, CJ Pony Parts’ Bill Tumas made sure I caught it when I told him to meet us at the House of Hose in Las Vegas. It really is a hose and fitting shop, I swear!  A few hours later we were back at the hotel parking lot with a freshly washed car and case of beer for a detailing party in the dark.
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The next day we were up early looking for a place to print out check-in information. You know, that important thing I forgot to do. We found a place that was open at 7AM, and we were on our way to the convention center. This is right about the time that the horrible thoughts you never want to think started happen. What if I get t-boned right now? What if the jackass texting behind me runs into the car? Guess what? Nothing happened! But I did make you think something did, didn’t I? We made it to the check-in with time to spare and next thing I knew we had our spot. After spending a few more hours detailing the car it began to hit me…I did it. The moment I had been working for all year was here and there was nothing left for me to do. Everything that could be done was done. Did anyone else just hear a beer crack open?

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SEMA was amazing and everything I had hoped it would be. The week flew by with hundreds of trips to the car for pictures and other things. You know when you have a trunk Done (112)you can bring a cooler, right? Take that $10 beer line!  After an amazing week Friday showed up way too fast and it was time to roll out to the final party at SEMA Ignited. The line of cars was crazy and I had to keep reminding myself we were actually there and a part of it all! We filed into the show and parked one last time with the group of spectacular cars. All week long I was worried about the car dying or running out of gas during the final parade, but now we were officially done. All the obligations had been met and the huge sigh of relief I had been waiting for since February finally happened. Now we just had a short hop, skip and a jump, 2200-miles back to South Carolina!

The journey back home was pretty uneventful. We drove, the sun came up, the sun went down, we stopped, then did it all again the next day. Then I got the great idea of hitting up the Tail of the Dragon. With one more day left of driving I figured why not just make a quick stop? And this my friends is another reason I love Amie. Any other person would have said no or do it another time. It added 200 miles of winding back roads, but Amie let me stay west when I should have gone south. And it was totally worth it! All 318 curves in 11 short miles. It was just what I needed for an awesome finish to Project Road Warrior. 

2016 is already looking like a great year with plans to do the Hot Rod Power Tour, Rally North America, the Goodguy’s Tour and even a trip to Alaska. I’m sure there will be more problems on the road and hopefully more entertaining stories about how we make it work. But one thing is for sure, as long as I’m driving somewhere I will have a big smile on my face!
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