By Tiffany Estes
I have always loved old cars. Vintage cars, slightly rusty with that old car smell are the best.
It is a musty and intoxicating aroma; a mixture of old leather, paint, Pennzoil, and gasoline. Vintage cars smell nostalgic, like old metal, old age, wisdom, and defiance. It is a chemically diverse potpourri of carcinogens, guaranteed to stimulate your senses. Next time you are at a car show, stick your head inside of a ‘68 Mustang or a ‘57 Chevy Bel-Aire and sniff.
Since I was fourteen years old, I have been fascinated by old cars, particularly the Ford Mustang. I have long dreamed of owning a Mustang and favor the body style of the ‘65-’68 model. I remember saving my money earned from babysitting, mowing lawns, or helping my dad around the garage in hopes that I would save enough to own such a car. I remember seeing these old cars in the classifieds going for around four thousand dollars, in drivable condition. This was in the ’90s, of course. Nowadays, a classic Mustang of that generation starts at around ten thousand dollars in drivable condition, but with questionable appearance. The value only goes up from there. I never did get that old Mustang I longed for.
Recently, my new husband surprised me and found a fantastic deal on a ‘66 Mustang.
She is red, (yes the car is “she”), and “she” has a few rust spots. The interior has the classic bucket seats made of black leather, with matching black carpet throughout, and is fully restored in excellent condition. She is in very good shape for a fifty-six-year-old car. She did not run when we got her and she came to us, towed in on a trailer.
I call her Sally… Mustang Sally.
Sally had been sitting outside for a number of years. The seller could never seem to get her engine running, however, they did give her some cosmetic restoration. Most importantly, she has that smell. Oh, how I love that vintage car smell!
My husband and I tinkered around with her for a couple of weeks, trying to get her to start. Sally groaned, spit, and sputtered in protest as we attempted to wake her from an extended slumber. We gave Sally a new battery, and my husband taught me how to put in new spark plugs with a big, clumsy tool. For this, I used the old “lefty-loosey, righty-tighty” technique. I banged up my knuckles a few times doing this and learned the hard way to be careful while working under the hood. My husband talked to me in a calm, assuring tone, coaching me along. The love and patience in his voice guided me throughout the mechanical process. I have to give him credit, though; he did all the hard stuff, but still let me get my hands dirty, a little.
The engine is what they call an inline 6. It is simple construction and easy enough for my very non-mechanically-inclined mind to grasp the ins and outs of basic car maintenance. This is a necessary skill if you plan on driving a fifty-plus-year-old car around. We experienced trials and tribulations. Due to the many failed attempts to make her start, we wore out three solenoids, two starters, a set of spark plugs, and the ignition switch.
Then one day, while working on Sally, after much resistance she finally started up! She fired right up and purred like a box of kittens. I couldn’t believe it! The problem was, that we could not get her to stop running. Oh well, I shrugged my shoulders. I could not stop smiling.
Beaming proudly, I said, “Let’s take her for a spin!”
That was a special day. My son hopped in the backseat along with our English Bulldog, and my husband sat next to me in the passenger seat. He knew how long I have wanted to drive a car like this and he had made this special moment happen. I had never even driven a classic Mustang before that day.
I carefully slipped in behind the wheel of Sally. The black leather seats, warmed by the sun, sent a surge of excitement coursing through me that matched the warmth in my heart for this old car. There is no air conditioning or power steering. In fact, there is no automatic anything with the exception of the transmission. There are no fancy safety features. The seat belts are lap belts only, and they do not “beep” at you when you fail to use them.
I eased Sally’s transmission into reverse and slowly backed out of the driveway. The steering wheel is big and bulky, but not too hard to turn the car, possibly due to her short wheelbase. Once Sally was on the road, I put her into ‘Drive’ and we were off.
Being how she is a Mustang, naturally, Sally wanted to run. So, we ran! She was slow to start out at first. However, once we got her on the highway and picked up speed, Sally-girl ran like a top! Sally isn’t going from zero to sixty at any record speed, however, once she started to pick up momentum, she was gliding down the highway like a luxury yacht. I kept Sally between the white lines and inhaled her lovely antique smell. Together, we headed off on a little adventure.
The sun was shining on that lovely Spring day and the weather was gorgeous. We drove into nearby Medicine Park, which is a tourist town. Everyone seemed to be out and about that day. We drove Mustang Sally across the old wooden bridge which crosses over Medicine Creek and enters the downtown area. As Sally slowly crept across the bridge, she caused the old wooden planks of the bridge to creak and groan beneath her weight. This sent a little shiver of excitement up my spine.
My old bulldog had his big head hanging out the window, which was a humorous sight to see. His tongue dangled wildly, flapping in the wind as he grinned at everyone we passed by. The sidewalks and streets were packed with people. We saw a few other vintage cars driving along the roadway with us. Sally crept behind bikers with their Harley Davidsons and choppers. People were pointing and smiling and so were we.
Sally crept slowly down the main street, did a U-turn at the dam, and we made another lap back through downtown. All the while I inhaled her lovely, organic antique car smell. That nostalgic smell takes me back to days gone by. As the saying goes, “The old school was the good school”. If you don’t already understand this, maybe someday maybe you will.
When we finally made it home, we had to disconnect the car battery because Sally simply didn’t want to stop running. Ironically, she would not start back up again after that glorious ride. It was like she was toying with us to see if we were going to make it worth her while for waking from her comatose state. She definitely had at least one good ride left in her, but I believed that there were many more joy rides left to be had with this old girl.
We spent a painstaking couple of weekends troubleshooting and rewiring the old Mustang, and finally, we located the problem. There was one loose wire behind the dash that had become disconnected. Once that lone wire was reconnected, Sally fired right up every time with the key and switched off just as she was supposed to.
Sally and her owner share a lot of the same qualities. She is a quirky, yet classic. Sally looks good from a distance, but when you get up close to her you can see her imperfections… and that’s okay! Sally is not perfect, but she is perfect for me. Like most of us, she just needs a T.L.C. from time to time. She enjoys taking us for a drive to get a soda and making her rounds through the wildlife refuge, around the mountains, lakes, and through historic Medicine Park. Sally has awoken to a new life of retirement where she can be pampered and enjoyed for what she is.
A sweet little classic car.
Driving Mustang Sally reminds me that nostalgia certainly does have a smell that is linked to emotional memories. For me, the smell of that old Mustang reminds me of long hours working on old cars with my dad when I was a little kid. My husband talks to me in the same gentle and patient way my dad used to do while teaching me how to work on old cars. That is a very comforting thing for me to experience. Nostalgic smells provide a connection with the past.
In this case, nostalgia came to me in the form of a ‘66 Ford Mustang.
This level of nostalgia can easily be achieved by filling your home with the smell of fresh-baked bread or cookies. One whiff of a musty-old canvas tent and an autumn bonfire can cause one to reminisce about camping with the family as a kid. The smell of chlorinated water can elicit memories of spending endless summers in a swimming pool.
In this writer’s opinion, with the age of uncertainty we all live in, maybe we should all lean into nostalgia a bit more.