After 9.5 years in Michigan, I have completed the first half of my move to Los Angeles, and I’m completely overwhelmed. There’s just too much going on all at the same time, and this — coupled with a few days of illness — is my excuse for why I haven’t written the final chapter of Jason and my road trip across the country. But this very article you’re reading is the final chapter, so no more excuses needed: Here’s what it was like driving a radio-less, worn-out 1966 Ford Mustang 2,500 miles across America.
Sitting on the floor of my new apartment with no furniture anywhere, listening to fireworks pop off as the year 2023 hatched from its shell, my heart pumped a concentrated dose of terror through my veins as things now felt real. “This is where I live now” were the words that grew from that terror, which stemmed from the realization that almost every aspect of my life was going to be different from my time in Troy, Michigan. I was nervous, excited, and admittedly a bit thrilled that I managed to escape what was quickly becoming a life of hoarder-dom on that half-acre plot in Troy, Michigan whose collection of cars (which frequently drew ire from nosey neighbors, who complained to the city) could likely be seen from space. A downsizing effort was absolutely necessary, and though it’s still not complete since I have to return to Michigan for a few weeks to finish packing and driving more mechanical beasts westward, it’s going to simplify what was becoming an incredibly complicated and cluttered life.
Anyway, let’s talk about leg-one, which involved me driving this 1966 Ford Mustang while Jason Torchinsky and his son Otto followed in a new Jeep Wagoneer towing my 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle.
The Christmas Night 14-Degree Oil Change
I bought this Mustang in college as a gift for my older brother Mike, who has been in love with early Ford Mustangs since he was a kid. Abandoned and being used to store old tires, the Mustang sat in a dirt lot just outside the University of Virginia’s campus for years, and through a series of serendipitous events, I managed to snag it for $4,500. I never really got the thing driving properly, and even after college, I stored the machine in a garage in Richmond, Virginia and then at my place in Michigan. I didn’t want to touch it, since I wanted my brother Mike to fix the car so he could build a bond with it.
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But Mike’s in Hong Kong for the long-haul (see above), and the Mustang deserves to trot, not rot, so during the pandemic, I finally got it running and driving. I replaced the entire brake system, rebuilt the carburetor, tuned the motor, swapped out many of the cooling system bits, and installed new tires. I drove the Mustang to car shows every now and then, and then in the summer I drove it on errands, but never did I take it on any drive that I’d consider far. So this trek to California was a risk; the vehicle hadn’t driven more than 100 miles in a single trip since…probably 1997, if I had to go by the last inspection sticker on the windshield.
I spent my Christmas all alone, wolfing down the tin of cookies my mom had made (from scratch), and also packing and prepping the Mustang. Yes, I literally did an oil change in 14-degrees fahrenheit on a snowy Christmas night (see above). I posted that clip to my Instagram and received a message from my friend Jeb: “Uh, are you alright?” he asked. “What? Why do you ask?” I responded. “Dude, it’s Christmas and you’re doing an oil change at midnight in 14 degree weather…”
Dude had a point.
In preparation for my drive to Los Angeles, I'm having the Mustang undercoated. This thing may see salt on the drive, and I have to make sure it's protected! pic.twitter.com/tHzU3CN0WG
— David Tracy (@davidntracy) December 16, 2022
Anyway, in addition to having the Mustang undercoated (see above) and installing snow tires just in case I ran into ice or snow, I completed a comprehensive inspection and found… some fairly significant issues. The suspension was worn out, and it wasn’t just the sagging rear leaf springs (which were hardly aided by the 70 pound winch I had loaded into the trunk); the front suspension bushings were nonexistent, and though the vehicle’s alignment was so far off that the tires squealed driving down the street, I knew it made little sense to do an alignment on a car with such a worn-out suspension. That’s just money flushed down the toilet.
Winching The Golden Eagle With The Wrong Tools
For reasons unknown, Jason wanted to leave the night he showed up. So I picked him up at the airport in our press Jeep Wagoneer (thank you, Stellantis! — more on the vehicle later), we packed up my belongings, and used a tiny winch to pull my 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle onto a U-Haul trailer:
We used a combination of a small electric winch that we hooked to the Wagoneer’s trailer hitch via a shackle and a hand-operated come-along; in the end, the 4,300 pound SUV (with an extra engine in its cargo area) slowly made it up the U-Haul trailer (which, it’s worth noting, cost me $300 for 8 days):
By the time we loaded everything, it was late, but Jason wanted us to get a few hours of driving in since his lovely wife Sally would be meeting us in LA and we wanted to see her, so the first little leg of our trip took us to Defiance, Ohio — about two hours and 15 minutes from my house.
The Road Trip Begins
I don’t like driving at night in old cars with questionable ventilation systems. Nighttime visibility is already tricky, add the sub-par lighting of old cars, plus the fog on the windshield on a cold December evening, plus whatever smudge I’ve got on my glasses, and really I’m just guessing at where I’m headed. That looks like a road ahead, right?:
What about this?
Keeping the Mustang in a straight line wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected it to be given the bad alignment and slop in the steering and suspension, but it wasn’t ideal either. What was ideal, though, were the bits I’d actually spent time fixing: The engine ran beautifully, the cooling system worked like a charm, and the three-speed C4 automatic shifted great!
Watch this old V8 fire up quickly on a cold Ohio day:
We did end up hitting a bit of snow and slush, and that made me feel a little guilty, given how solid the ol’ ‘Stang is. But between the undercoating and a future wash, I figured it’d be okay.
I drove the Mustang roughly 60 MPH most of the way; to a 30+ hour trip, this probably added about 5 hours, but it’s just where the Mustang felt right. The engine was silky smooth, and with a nice, big rust-hole in the exhaust pipe, it made a beautiful, but calming burble as it confidently pushed the vehicle down the highway. Engine speeds at 70 mph weren’t too high, but they were enough to make me a bit uncomfortable when paired with the poor front wheel alignment. So 60 MPH it was.
It Was Boring, But Also Exciting
I gazed through that big clear crystal ahead of me, glanced down every now and then to see beautiful oil pressure, coolant temperature, and battery voltage readings on the gauges’ art-deco-style readouts, and just cruised.
There was no radio, and many people have asked me how I kept myself mentally awake. “That’s like being in solitary confinement for 40 hours!” one told me. And while I think that takes things a bit far, I will admit that, technically, the drive was unbelievably boring. And yet, for me, it wasn’t.
There’s a level of connection that one can have with a car that I really hope everyone can experience at least once in their life. It’s a feeling of, almost, adoration; you cheer the vehicle on, and feel immense pride when it achieves great things, in part, because it was at your hands that it managed to get on the road in the first place. Glancing at those gauges, and knowing that this machine was just humming along, mile after mile, because I put in the work, and dialed in that carburator, swapped out that water pump and belt and radiator, greased the bearings, replaced all the brakes – it’s akin to watching a sports competition, and cheering your team on as it absolutely kicks the opposition’s ass.
In this case, the opposition was America’s sometimes maddenly-long stretches of roadway. I’ve driven across the country before, and I’ve driven old junkers from Michigan to Moab — which is just one day’s drive less — on multiple occasions, but this felt different. This felt like a slog, and I’m really not sure why. It’s possible that my responsibilities as leader of The Autopian mean any moment I’m not working becomes just that much more stressful; it’s possible the Mustang’s alignment issue made me feel a bit uneasy, particularly since this is a vehicle that’s so beautiful I need to really take good care of it by, you know, not crashing; and it’s definitely the case that the weather played a role. It was borderline arctic outside at times, and though I didn’t feel too chilly in the cabin, getting out to refuel every 200 miles was just miserable.
There was also an air of seriousness about this trip. This wasn’t some boondoggle jaunt across the country to do silly stuff with a crappy car; this was me, a man with responsibilities, moving to a new place to confront those responsibilities head-on. I had places to be, stuff to do, and I wanted to get there pronto; unfortunately, pronto wasn’t happening quickly enough because, again, I was stuck at about 60 mph and refueling every three hours.
The ride quality was okay, but the car never felt stable. To help describe what I was feeling, imagine a car whose front two tires are pointed inboard towards one another (the right wheel is pointed left, the left wheel is pointed right). That vehicle, on smooth surfaces with uniform traction, will track straight. But, as soon as one tire gets more grip than the other, the vehicle will want to turn wherever that tire is pointed. So, oftentimes I’d hit a bump or a bit of gravel with my right tire, and the vehicle would then dart towards the shoulder, requiring me to then steer left. Of course, me steering left then made the car’s body want to roll right, putting more weight on the right side, increasing the grip there, so the car then wanted to pull left (where the right tire was pointing). So then I’d correct, and I’d get caught in these cycles of the car wanting to turn left then right then left then right; eventually, I’d get it under control, but it made for a long, long 3,200 mile road trip.
I Got Tired. Really Tired
Here’s me taking a break somewhere in Missouri, clearly fatigued by the Mustang’s dynamic tendencies:
We eventually made it to St. Louis to meet up with two awesome readers.
As we mentioned in a previous entry, one reader (Toecutter is his name here on The Autopian) drove this little bike a long distance to hang out with us:
Thank you, Toecutter. The other reader, Will, showed up in this awesome rust-free Jeep XJ:
Here’s our crew of vehicles. Jason and Otto are basking in the glory of that 2022 Jeep Wagoneer — a plush, powerful inline-six powered machine with TVs! I don’t even have a radio! Not even AM!
After a night in Lebanon, Missouri, Otto turned on the hair dryer Jason was using as a telephone. The dynamic between this father-son paring is something out of a hilarious movie:
Here’s the fleet in front of that far-too-expensive Quality Inn:
The Mustang scored roughly 17 MPG, and burned about a quart every 1,000 miles or so — honestly not bad numbers. I did have some issues with the fluid reservoir from my rear brakes running low on DOT3; there’s a leak somewhere, though I can’t seem to find it. I suspect the issue is actually the master cylinder itself, since it’s always wet (the fittings seem fine, though, which is odd). The beauty of this dual reservoir unit I installed to replace the single reservoir that came in all pre-1967 Mustangs is that if the rear brake lines leak, I still have the fronts. This is a reminder: Always replace your single reservoir master cylinders if you have the space for a dual; I call single reservoir master cylinders “widowmakers” for a reason.
Missouri was an interesting stop, not just because we got to hang out with Caleb from our competitor, The Drive, but also because I felt tired — very tired.
But I wasn’t tired enough to forego taking photos of this beautiful 1993 Jeep Grand Wagoneer (that’s right; there was a Grand Wagoneer that came after the full-size Jeep with faux wood panels that you all know and love)
In short order, I was laying on my back, my energy tank completely empty:
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Perhaps the strangest moment was in a rest stop that arches over the highway somewhere in… either Missouri or Oklahoma. I parked the Mustang, and Jason stopped his Wagoneer behind me:
He and Otto went inside to use the facilities/to buy junkfood, while I sat in the car. Eventually I mustered just enough energy to walk in as Torch and Otto were alighting. “See you in the car in a few” I said, but then I just sort of…stayed in that rest stop. I admired this wrought iron Corvette:
And I looked at the sunset over the highway:
In due time, Jason and Otto walked in to find me, just sort of…standing there. It was a bit odd, I’ll admit, and it wasn’t entirely clear what the deal was. I later snagged a carbon monoxide alarm to see if the Mustang’s rather large exhaust leak was a potential culprit, but in the end, the answer was food poisoning. I didn’t know it at the time, but my body was in the heat of an intense battle with something I’d consumed; maybe just bad road-trip food.
I hopped back into the Mustang, and wrestled against fatigue for a bit, but at the earliest sign that I might be close to dozing off, I pulled off the road and found a hotel in Weatherford, Oklahoma. Check it out:
Otto Learns About Religious Crosses On The Roadside
The following day, I pointed the Mustang’s nose westward down I-40, and we were off to New Mexico. It was during this stretch that I finally felt the tiniest bit of warmth entering through the many cracks in the Mustang’s old seals. Jason and Otto saw Cadillac Ranch, which I hadn’t seen since I was about eight years old, and which I wanted to see — but I was just too fatigued. Here’s a photo from Jason:
And here they are stopped a bit west of Cadillac Ranch, apparently trying to catch a tumbleweed:
But I had someone I wanted to see in New Mexico, so I drove on, realizing that Jason could drive his Wagoneer faster than I could drive the ol’ ‘Stang. He later caught up with ease.
Worth noting: As we found ourselves farther and farther south, we saw more and more crosses, especially in rural areas. This perplexed young Otto. Here, I’ll let Jason (who is Jewish) tell you how his conversation with his son about crucifixes went:
As a little Jewish kid, Otto was a bit puzzled by all the massive crosses we passed on the trip. I mean, in America, it’s not like he’s not already familiar with crosses, but the real meaning behind them just wasn’t something that had come up much. So, when he asked what they meant, and I explained to him that they were the means by which Jesus was killed by the Romans, this just brought up more questions.
Questions like, what if they stabbed him? Would there be big swords? What if he ate a bad clam? What if he got hit with a rock? All this kept going, ending up wondering if he slipped in the shower, would there be massive shower stalls or if he choked on a chicken bone, would we be passing under the shadow of colossal bones, as people wore gold bones on pendants?
I know how significant they are to so many people, and I respect that, but from an unfamiliar perspective, massive crosses are weird.
The stretch of road between Weatherford, Oklahoma and Santa Fe, New Mexico was nice, and undoubtedly the one during which I drove the fastest, as the night was falling, and I had an appointment.
As the sun set over the horizon, I experienced something I hadn’t before: I simply could not see. The sun was too low to block with my visor, and placing my hand in front of my face was a problem because, well, I needed to see the road; to have a bright sun right there basically on top of the road I was trying to look at was, uh, suboptimal. So I pulled over and enjoyed its beauty; it seemed a smarter call to gaze in wonder than to squint in frustration at the fiery ball around which our planet orbits.
Driving the Mustang 75 MPH wasn’t a huge deal, and you might wonder why not just do it the whole time; “It’ll save you hours!” I can’t really explain it, but there’s just a feeling you get when driving an old machine that tells you when the car is happy and when it’s not; it has everything to do with Noise, Vibration, and Harshness — that’s how a car communicates its feelings to a driver.
My old Jeep J10 pickup also has a 1:1 final gear like the Mustang does, and it has an engine whose origins begin in the 1960s. Mechanically, it’s not that different from the Mustang, but it’s happy cruising at 75 all day thanks to a 2.73 axle ratio and tall 31-inch tires. There’s just a sweet spot RPM where an engine feels happy to chug along all day, and at 75 mph, the Mustang – thanks largely to small tires — is spinning around 3,000 RPM, possibly more, and this motor talks to me, saying it prefers to chug along at about 2,500 – so about 60 to 65 mph.
Staying In An Incredibly Dumpy Motel, Then Wrenching In A Cold Walmart Parking Lot
Anyway, the following morning, we stopped by a local Walmart, bought a little hydraulic jack since the Mustang’s scissor jacks were slow and clunky, and then set about swapping out the Mustang’s tires. The fronts were worn down badly due to the poor alignment. Here’s a look:
It was cold — probably somewhere in the low 40s, though if you add the windchill, it felt quite a bit cooler. I won’t lie, even though this was a simple front-rear tire swap, the job was pretty miserable. But then take a look in the background of the photo below, and you’ll realize why I didn’t complain for a moment — those men in the background were stuck in that Walmart parking lot trying to mend broken RVs; one had a bad wheel bearing, and the job looked pretty significant, and it looked like he’d been there all day. Poor bastard.
But there was more than just misery in that parking lot, there was a beautiful second-gen Dodge Ram. Check it out:
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Highlights of the drive that day include this sentient gas pump nozzle:
While at this gas station I noticed I’d lost a wheel trim ring:
There was also some pretty great dancing from Otto:
And there was some not horrible weather (followed shortly by horrible weather):
Weirdness In Las Vegas
As night fell, I drove down a big hill and began seeing the lights of Las Vegas, and it was here that I felt immense pride in the Mustang. It felt like I was finally west; it was Vegas, baby! That’s like California-lite. Or should I say “light,” because wow are the lights of that city exciting. They gave me a huge energy boost after yet another tiring slog of a drive in my 50 year-old machine.
Once in Vegas, I met up with Otto and Jason, and checked out this incredible art exhibit called “Omega Mart.” It’s a fake grocery store with hidden doors that take you to a bizarre, almost psychedelic alternate reality. We all had a great time — especially Otto.
Finally I Arrive In LA And Things Feel REAL
We crashed in a ridiculously cheap, and honestly quite sketchy, Holiday Inn in Vegas, then bounced out the next morning for the ~five hour drive to my new home: Los Angeles. Arriving there, I saw traffic for the very first time in over five days and 2,500 miles, and worse, the sun that I’d been promised by all the California Brochures was nowhere to be found — I was cold, and I was wet.
But I was there:
The Mustang had done it. It wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t efficient, I’m not entirely convinced it was all that safe, but the car I had bought for my brother a decade prior, and that had sat the vast majority of the past 25 years had proven itself to be a road-tripping beast. It ended up with a few missing bits by the time it made it to the west coast (that trim ring and also a headlight bucket), but it was a beast nonetheless.
During this trip to California, sitting in a car with no radio for 12 hours a day for five days, I had a lot of time to think. One thing I thought about was something Jason brought up, and something that thousands of folks have asked me over the years: “Why do you do this to yourself?” Why do I struggle with a rusted-out $500 Postal Jeep, and freeze as ice-cold water gets shot up by the rear tire, right onto my ass? Why do I spend a month dealing with huge spiders and getting my arse handed to me by an impossibly broken ute in Australia? Why get trenchfoot trying to fix a horribly rusted Willys FC-170 in the Pacific Northwest? Why freeze in the Baltic Sea while sleeping in a $600 diesel minivan? Why torture myself sitting in 10 hours of traffic, with no AC, and 100F weather in Eastern Europe? Why deal with a freezing cold, incredibly boring drive across the country in a worn out old Mustang? Do I like the pain?
The short answer is “yes.” But the longer answer has to do with two factors: 1. My upbringing in a military environment and 2. A constant focus on gratitude.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel to a number of countries around the world — from Serbia to Vietnam to Sweden to Australia. What I’ve learned is that things we take for granted in the U.S. are things others would give appendages for. So when I’m changing the oil on my Ford Mustang in 14F at midnight on Christmas, I always keep that in the back of my mind. People would kill to own a car like this, they’d kill to have a driveway to wrench in, and they’d kill to have car parts stores so accessible and filled with so many affordable components. Most of all, many folks would absolutely kill to drive a classic Ford Mustang across America.
Few things about this country are more romanticized than the Open Road — scores of folks I’ve met over the years have told me they dream to someday come to America and go on a road trip. And the two most quintessentially American cars that come to people’s minds are 1. A pickup truck and 2. An old Mustang.
Obviously, when I’ve got food poisoning and am violently vomiting into a cheap motel toilet, this and pretty much all other “grounding” thoughts are out the window, and I’m in my own world, but otherwise I always keep this in mind when I have to endure all forms of bullshit while driving or fixing an old junker.
Of course, why put myself in a position to deal with bullshit in the first place? Well, I think that comes down to point 1 — my military upbringing. My dad was a career army soldier, and in our household — and among our friends — you didn’t complain, like, ever. In fact, you took pride in how much you could endure. Sure, there was some machismo involved, but I’m not convinced that’s such a bad thing all the time. I think testing yourself, seeing what you can handle, and never complaining can be a good thing (it can also be bad if you keep things in, but that’s not what I’m talking about here), and can set yourself up for instances when you’re in a tough situation for reasons outside your choosing. I just recall hearing about friends’ parents passing away in war, watching funeral processions down Grant Avenue on Ft. Leavenworth, and listening to “Moments of Silence” over my high school’s intercom to honor a young graduate who had died in Iraq. And in that context, you can complain about absolutely nothing. You don’t want to.
These are some incomplete thoughts, I’ll admit. And I’m not entirely sure how much those two truly factor into my willingness to endure pain for automotive adventures, but they definitely play roles.
Anyway, the night of my arrival was New Year’s Eve. I sat in my apartment just thinking of how much different everything will be from here on. It was a bit overwhelming, but also exciting. I’ve still got to head back to Michigan for part two of the move, but knowing that didn’t make this moment feel any less real: