There are two cars that always pull at my heartstrings. The first is a 1956 Mercury Montclair. My grandfather bought one new. I have fond memories of riding in the backseat of that car. It was two-tone Bumblebee Yellow and black. My grandfather loved that car — it was a step up from the Mercury he had owned before, and offered an upscale driving experience. Some years back, I was working as the color commentator for the Barrett-Jackson auction broadcast. A 1956 Montclair resto-mod was crossing the block. I was a registered bidder, and I knew I could catch a ringman’s attention if I wanted to take a run at the car. It was the right Bumblebee color combination. It had a modern suspension with disc brakes, vintage air, a big stereo and a modern engine. I decided to pass. I think it sold in the mid-$30k range. I assume this would have been a pleasant enough car to drive. But even with its modifications, it wasn’t for me. If I had bought it, I would have taken it to a couple of cruise-ins and then the car would have sat in the garage — a mobile remembrance of my past that would rarely be used. My heart said to buy the car and bring my past to life. But my head said no. It was the right decision.

The 1965 Mustang

There’s one other car that tugs at my heartstrings. My grandfather passed in 1963. In early 1965, my grandmother bought a Mustang. In Wimbledon White with a blue interior, it was the first car she ever owned by herself. It was a base car, with a 200-ci straight 6 and a Cruise-O-Matic transmission. Its only unusual feature was a front bench seat with a fold-down center armrest. It had no power steering or power brakes. While I had learned to drive the Ford 9N tractor on our family farm in Novato at the age of 8, the Mustang was the first car I drove. The day I turned 16, I was first in line at 8 a.m. to take my driving test in that car. That very day, with my license in hand, my grandmother said, “Let’s go to Los Angeles” — which was about 400 miles from our home in San Francisco. I’ll never forget the feeling of swinging on to Highway 101 and merging with the other traffic. I was driving a Mustang! I had my share of adventures with the car. I learned that if you are young, flexible and creative, you can make incredible things happen at a drive-in movie in a Mustang. If you sit in the back and fold the front seat down, the seatback can provide a place to recline. My grandmother used to wind plastic flowers around the antenna of the Mustang so that she could more easily find it in a parking lot. She also installed “Sexy Senior Citizen” license-plate frames and a horn from the JC Whitney catalog that made an electronic “whinny” sound.

Going backwards in one place

Without her permission, I would take the Mustang to school to impress my friends. First, I would carefully take the flowers off of the antenna and put them into the trunk. Showing up with a flower-bedecked Mustang destroyed the “cool” factor of the car. When I noticed my grandmother writing down the odometer reading of the car, I realized she suspected I was taking it out. So, each time when I returned home, I carefully put the flowers back onto the antenna. Then I used a floor jack placed under the differential to pick up the rear end. By starting the engine and putting the car into reverse, I could cause the odometer to run backwards, removing the evidence of my daily adventures. My grandmother never said a word to me about it. The car was repainted from white to light blue. I was the cause. When I was home from college for the summer, I told Grandmother I would like to paint the house to earn some money. I was standing in the balcony that went under the front windows. I carefully put a gallon can of white paint on the railing of the balcony. It fell from the balcony directly onto the hood of the car. The paint splattered everywhere. It became an excuse for a repaint.

Memories work better than Mustangs

After my grandmother passed in 1992, the car went to my cousin, Greg McDowell. Before he offered it for sale in 2007, he gave me a chance to buy the car. Just like the Mercury, it pulled at my heartstrings. I could reunite with the car in which I took my girlfriend Penny Hanks to the drive-in. But ultimately this was just a 6-cylinder, automatic Mustang with a poor respray and a color change. I wouldn’t take it on tours. I wouldn’t drive it to Monterey. I might take it to a cruise-in or two, but eventually it would sit silent, just as the Mercury would. Once again my heart and soul cried to me that I should buy and restore this part of my history — my relationship with my grandmother. But my head stepped in. My grandparents live on in my memories. And the best place for the Mercury and the Mustang is in those memories as well — instead of in my garage. ♦

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