Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sweet Chariot has moved to Wordpress.

Please visit to read exciting news about Bruce's forthcoming tour--and so much more about life, independence, and the open road.

When you visit, be sure to click on the "follow" selection for automatic updates.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Getting There, Part II: A Picture Perfect Day in Jacksonville

I woke up early on Saturday, May 19th to start getting the convertible ready for the Mustang and Ford Show sponsored by the Jacksonville Mustang Club. Normally I’m not crazy about car shows. As I mentioned in the previous post, my opinion about car shows is that most—at least those in my part of Florida—are boring. Too often they’re held in unattractive parking lots, where the sun beats down on the pavement and there isn’t a shade tree in sight. Spending seven or eight hours in such a setting is not my idea of fun. The exception is Friday Fest. On the first Friday evening of every month (March through November), the Panama City Downtown Improvement Board transforms six blocks of Harrison Avenue into a street festival. There are live bands, upwards of 200 show cars, and numerous food and beverage vendors. The downtown area is packed with people from all over Bay County and beyond who come to eat, drink, dance, and ogle the cool cars.
            Although I don’t care for typical daytime car shows, I’ll drive hundreds of miles for an event held in a unique or attractive setting. One prime example is the Vintage Motor Classic, sponsored by the St. Petersburg Yacht Club every November. The venue is Straub Park, a grassy, tree-lined public area adjacent to the municipal marina on Tampa Bay. The surroundings are sublime: a blend of attractive buildings, shade trees, and the waterfront.
             This year, I was eager to check out the 10th annual show sponsored by the local Mustang club at The Jacksonville Landing, a popular destination in the city for shopping and dining. Because of its location on the St. John River, it compares favorably, albeit on a smaller scale, to the Riverwalk Marketplace in New Orleans or the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.
            The Jacksonville Mustang Club had arranged with municipal authorities to cordon off several streets and parking lots for the show. The setting was excellent, as the following photos attest.

The cars were parked on a winding city street, which had plenty of upscale landscaping and an interesting skyline.

This sort of setting is far more appealing than your average strip mall parking lot.

The Jacksonville Landing complex is surrounded by glass towers and tropical landscaping.

A unique contrast of old-school automotive curves and modern linear architecture.

            Best of all, the weather was more than cooperative, with a steady breeze and low humidity after the morning clouds burned off. The show itself was a quality event, very well-organized by the JMC members and volunteers, with dozens of exquisitely detailed Mustangs and Fords on display. I happened to be sandwiched between a ’64 ½ convertible in original condition driven by its original owner, and a ’65 fastback that had been picked up by its present owner only six weeks earlier.
In the early afternoon, I enjoyed lunch with some extended family members (my cousin’s son and his family). We were joined by one of my former Navy squadron buddies, Ralph “Gumby” Cummings and his wife, Barb, which led to some retelling of old sea stories. We got back in time for the show awards, the icing on the cake. I received the Silver in the class for modified ‘64 ½ to ’70 Mustangs with 99 points (yes, the Gold winner scored 100). I also took home a nice plaque for the Farthest Driven Award, having outdistanced the next contender by just 11 miles.
            Evening found me back at The Jacksonville Landing to meet a high school classmate and his wife for dinner. We got a table on the outside balcony of The American Grille, overlooking the central amphitheater, and enjoyed a fabulous meal. We also had ideal seats for a performance by Retro Catz, a highly talented six-member band. When the sun went down, the inner city and electrified bridges lit up like a jewel. All of the necessary ingredients were in place for a memorable evening. Thank you, Mark and Cathy!

The incomparable Jacksonville riverfront at night.
           The drive back to Panama City on Sunday morning was a mirror of the trip described in my previous post. I had anticipated a fun weekend in Jacksonville, and I was not disappointed in the slightest. Getting there had been half the fun, you bet. And all the rest—the car show, the city sights, the gatherings with friends and family—had been equally unforgettable.
            Can’t wait to do it again!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Getting There: It Really Is Half the Fun

People who love road trips start out with great expectations. The anticipation of an outing, whether it’s just an afternoon jaunt or a weeks-long odyssey, generates excitement. This probably goes back to a fundamental human instinct. Some folks enjoy venturing out to discover what’s over the next hill, whereas others are content to stay close to the familiar confines of their community. I consider myself one of the former. I feel adventurous and want to explore—not necessarily on a grand scale, but simply because I periodically get an itch to wander.
 My latest trip was a perfect example. A couple of months ago I registered for a Mustang show in Jacksonville, about 270 miles east of my home in Lynn Haven, FL. I normally don’t get excited about car shows, namely because they're usually held in unappealing parking lots; but this event would be staged at the Jacksonville Landing, an upscale shopping and dining establishment next to the St. John River. I could also visit relatives and friends who live in the Jacksonville area—the perfect justification for a weekend road trip.
I fired up the Mustang on the morning of Friday, May 18, and headed east across Florida. Sticking with my usual practice of avoiding interstates, I paralleled I-10 for more than an hour on FL 20. Although I’d traveled that portion of the road dozens of times, it was still a pleasant stretch of smooth two-lane. As I got near Tallahassee, however, I decided to hop on the interstate. This allowed me to sail through the city at 70 miles per hour rather than get caught up in the snarl of downtown traffic. East of Tallahassee, I exited the interstate onto U.S. 90, which I followed all the way to Jacksonville.
Many years ago, Route 90 was the main east-west artery across the Deep South. The highway extends from Jacksonville to West Texas and is still mostly two-lane, dissecting numerous small towns. Some are truly picturesque. Passing through the quaint city of Monticello, for example, one is tempted to stop and sip a glass of sweet tea in the shade of the massive live oaks—as townsfolk have been doing on their front porches for generations. More of the moss-laden trees line the rural stretches of Highway 90, which even passes through a town named Live Oak. Other distinctly Southern trees are numerous as well, including crepe myrtles and magnolias.
A real John Denver moment: a lovely two-lane highway in rural Florida.

I had never traveled this stretch of road before and I also had it virtually to myself. So I was already satisfying an important goal of my weekend. It was, for me, the essence of road-tripping. The weather was ideal, with deep blue skies above and lush greenery alongside the country highway. I enjoyed the feel of the Mustang’s nicely balanced suspension, which reacted solidly yet smoothly to the roadway. As a paraplegic I have little sensation in my lower extremities, but I could still feel connected with the car through the seatback and the steering wheel. The ride quality was complemented by the baritone note of the small block, which hummed in my ears about an octave below middle C. It is an altogether pleasing sound, yet never annoying if I want to plug my iPod into the stereo and crank up some rock-n-roll.    
            A few miles east of Lake City, I decided to pause at a gem of a state-maintained picnic area. Olustee Beach lies on the southern shore of Ocean Pond, an oxymoron if ever there was one (it’s actually a large lake). The picnic grounds consist of cool green lawns that sprawl beneath a grove of tall pines—an unexpected oasis in the middle of this sparsely populated region. The setting was so inviting that I found it well worth my time to unload my wheelchair and explore the neatly maintained grounds. Near the main picnic shelter, a large information board got my attention with its repeated warnings to swimmers about alligators. A dip in the lake could be risky; but in all fairness, the gators were here first.
A quiet retreat in the middle of nowhere: Olustee Beach picnic area on Ocean Pond.

I couldn't resist the setting for a telephoto shot of Sweet Chariot in her glory.

            From Olustee, the rest of the journey was less than fifty miles. After a few more small towns with lyrical names like Glen St. Mary and Macclenney, I found myself in the outskirts of Jacksonville. The highway widened to four lanes and traffic moved surprisingly well for a Friday afternoon. In good time my dash-mounted GPS directed me through the glass-tower banking district to the Hyatt Regency Riverfront, located along the north-flowing St. John. So far the trip had been absolutely pleasant, and the Hyatt staff kept the trend going. When the head valet saw that I had a wheelchair in the backseat, he directed me to self-park in the valet lot, mere feet from his booth and the hotel entry.
            The Hyatt was everything you’d expect from the name. After relaxing in my room for a short time, I noticed dark clouds forming outside and went back downstairs to put a lightweight cover on the Mustang. The last thing I wanted was hail damage the night before a show. The head valet helped me fit the cover in place just before a gully-washer pounded the downtown area for twenty minutes.
A worthy destination: the Hyatt Regency (at right), just yards from the St. John River in Jacksonville.

            Knowing the Mustang was safe and sound, it was time for a most excellent bacon cheeseburger and a domestic draft, both of which I found in the sports bar located on the Hyatt’s ground floor. Yep, the road trip was living up to expectations.
If getting to my destination was supposed to be half the fun, then I was in for one great weekend indeed.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Photo Shoot: A Classic Mustang at St. Andrews Bay

There really is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In this case, the reward for a lot of mechanical and cosmetic work on the Mustang during the past year means that it’s about 99% “there.” Whatever “there” represents, that is. A vintage car is never completely finished. An owner can always find something to tweak or mess with, even if the car is mechanically flawless. Right now, the tweaking on Sweet Chariot is down to a very short list. And that means it’s time to get out and enjoy the car. So that’s exactly what I did on this lovely Sunday: I headed down to the St. Andrews Marina in Panama City and took about thirty photographs.

Soon after arriving at the marina, I made a new friend. Kim Fuller, one of the owners of Emerald Coast Landscaping, was enjoying a bike ride around the parking lot when she stopped to ask about my Mustang. She was like a lot of folks I've chatted with over the years: she drove a Mustang in high school (a 1967 fastback, in her case), and she wondered what has become of that cool ride.

It occurred to me, while I was taking photos, that the Mustang is looking better than ever. A big part of the reason is that many items are new:
                        Windshield (Pilkington)         
Tinted side glass
Aluminum rims (American Racing)
Black carpeting
            Grant “LeMans” steering wheel (polished aluminum)
            Export brace (chrome)
            Hood hinges
            KYB front shocks
                        Fox-body Mustang seats with custom upholstery

But enough of the blah-blah. Let the photos do the talking….

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Perfectionism: Sometimes Even Big Companies Get It Right

During a cruise to Tallahassee with the Bay Mustang Club a little more than a month ago, I was driving on Interstate-10 at about 70 miles per hour when an object hit the upper windshield of the Mustang. The outcome was a four-inch vertical crack. I opened a claim with my insurance carrier (Grundy Worldwide) the next day, and was informed that the windshield would be replaced with no deductible. The recommended vendor was Safelite, a nationwide company that advertises on television. I was not choosy about using an aftermarket brand of windshield, since I've already modified the convertible extensively, but I did wonder how a big company like Safelite would deal with an "old school" gasket-mounted windshield in a 45-year-old car.

By coincidence, I had been planning to replace the gasket, which was 17 years old and leaked in the corners, while having some other work done at a local body shop. Fortuitously, the cracked windshield meant the labor would be covered. Thus, while the car was in the shop, a tech from Safelite removed the windshield. Minor corrosion in the frame had led to a couple of pin holes that needed repaired in the recessed area, so that was handled as separate labor from the insurance claim. Once the corrosion was repaired, the tech returned and installed a new Safelite windshield using a gasket that I had already received from an online vendor.

Soon afterwards I drove the convertible to the Mustangs & Mustangs gathering at Fantasy of Flight, an aviation museum near Orlando. It was a great show, but a heavy rainstorm spoiled the afternoon at about 3 pm. While driving back to my hotel in a deluge, I discovered several leaks in the new windshield gasket, even at the top. That led to the discovery of a significant flat spot or cupped area in the glass itself—a noticeable deformity. It also explained why I was getting a lot of wind noise that I had not heard previously.

A major cup at the top of the glass caused both wind and water leaks.
Back in Panama City, I went to the Safelite shop and showed them the problem. They agreed that the windshield was deformed and ordered a replacement. A few days later, Mike Stephens came over to my house with his company van to install the new windshield. But as soon as he pulled the new piece from its cradle in the van, we could see that it was also deformed—probably worse than the windshield already in my car. Mike admitted that the glass was manufactured overseas, and that its quality was poor. He promised to track down a better windshield. Both he and the manager, who followed up with a phone call, made sure that I knew they were going to make things right. I was impressed by their professionalism and attention to customer service.

It took Safelite a few weeks to track down a quality windshield within their system, but eventually a Pilkington windshield was shipped from Michigan. The glass was actually manufactured in Mexico, and it was literally just a few weeks old, with a March 2012 inspection date. Say what you want about NAFTA, but this was obviously a superior windshield. Best of all, it was tinted darker than either my original glass or the overseas replacement. The feds recently mandated a higher UV rating in windshield glass, which should help reduce the daytime heat inside the car—a bonus here in Florida.

Mike Stephens has removed the first replacement glass--brand new, but deformed.
Safelite also provided a new gasket. It proved to be considerably thicker and harder than the one I had purchased, and had a lip at the top where the forward edge of the stainless steel trim would lock in—a feature lacking in the previous gasket. I watched while Mike did a very professional job of roping the windshield in and filling the frame recesses with plenty of sealer, which was allowed to cure for a couple of days. Mike then returned to my house and compressed the still-soft sealer, pressing it in to eliminate air holes. He reinstalled the trim and the job was done.

"Roping in" is old school. Mike uses nylon cord to pull the inner lip of the gasket over the frame
I gave everything an additional day to cure, then took the convertible out on Friday (May 4) for a test run. With the new glass and a much heavier gasket, I’m happy to report that the amount of wind noise has dropped dramatically. I also tested the new installation for leakage. I dumped a lot of water on the windshield with a hose extension in the "shower" setting and also the high-pressure "jet" position. There was absolutely no leakage around the gasket, but I have to admit that's no comparison to driving in heavy rain at 50 or 60 mph for an extended time. I don't go looking for such weather, but on long trips it can't always be avoided. I take the Mustang on lengthy journeys every summer, so I’m certain to  run into another downpour. When that happens, I have every confidence that even in the worst conditions, leakage  will be minimal. 

With a quality windshield and gasket, everything fits as it should
In the meantime, I am pleased that the Safelite franchise in Panama City bent over backwards to make sure my windshield was repaired correctly. It’s nice to see a big, national company take pride in customer relations and service.

Note: This post is completely voluntary. I was not asked by a company representative to write this, nor do I stand to gain anything from it. Just happens to be true.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Spring Makeover

The older you get, the faster time flies. That truism hit me in a big way when I realized that six months have slipped by since I last posted here. That’s half a year—an embarrassingly long time. Visitors over the past months may have gotten the impression that “Sweet Chariot” is just another blog that fizzled, like so many that begin with good intentions but aren’t sustainable.

I don’t have a good excuse. Certainly it wasn’t my intention to let six months pass between posts. Probably the biggest factor is that I turned my attention away from my hobbies to concentrate on other writing projects, including a major deadline for a book. That project is now in production, I’m happy to report. If you’d like to learn more, please visit my author site:

Because of my writing schedule, I spent little time driving or working on the convertible during the last six months. But now, with spring approaching, I find my attention drawn to distant places. It’s easy to indulge in sunny daydreams of exploring scenic, two-lane Highways to Somewhere. And so, as the old wanderlust begins to percolate again, I’m making plans for at least two lengthy road trips. The Mustang will have to be safe as well as reliable, and this year it needs more than the usual end-of-winter care. On February 20, it was taken to a trusted shop for a “punch list” of small repairs and improvements.

New windshield. Over the past two summers, after getting caught in heavy downpours on a couple of occasions, I discovered a leak at the bottom corner of the windshield on the driver’s side. I ordered a new gasket and arranged to have a local body shop pull the glass, make necessary repairs to the window opening, and then reinstall the glass. However, a bit of good fortune intervened prior to the scheduled appointment. During a cruise to the Tallahassee Antique Automobile Museum with the Bay Mustang Club on February 11, a rock or piece of debris was kicked up and cracked the windshield. So now the glass replacement and labor is covered by insurance. As the photo shows, the sheet metal around the window opening is in fantastic shape for a 45-year-old convertible. A small rust area—the culprit of the leak—will be repaired before the new windshield is installed. Interestingly, removal of the stainless steel trim revealed that the upper frame needed additional repairs to the damage caused several years ago by Hurricane Ivan (see “Many Returns Part II, ” posted June 25, 2011). 

17 years after the previous restoration, the windshield frame is still in great shape.
 New hood hinges and springs. Modern cars have lightweight hoods, often made of fiberglass, that are easily supported by piston-type lifts. But most cars of the 1960s were equipped with heavy steel hoods that swung upward on articulated hinges with heavy springs. The springs, which are under tension when the hood is closed, gradually weaken after years of use. When that happens, the back of the hood creeps up—it no longer fits flush with the surrounding body panels when closed. The hinges and springs on my Mustang were at least seventeen years old, installed at the time of the first restoration, and when the hood was closed it jutted almost half an inch higher than the cowl. I ordered new “premium quality” hinges made by Dynacorn, the company that manufactures brand-new steel bodies of early Mustangs, Camaros, and other classics. The hinges look good and should hold the hood flush at the back.

The new hinges await the fitting and adjustment of the hood
New export brace. This is a purely cosmetic improvement. Years ago I purchased a “chromed” export brace to dress up the engine compartment, but it was a poorly finished example. I subsequently learned that all of the foreign-made braces were of the same low quality, so it made no sense to exchange the part. Fortunately, the Scott Drake restoration company began making a show-quality export brace—an improvement that is worth every penny.

Rust in driver’s door. Several years ago I noticed a small bubble in the paint of the driver’s door in the lower front corner. Originally about the size of a thumbtack, the bubble has gradually enlarged and spread into an ugly, cancerous blister. Danny Hutchinson and the guys at 231 Paint and Body in Panama City will cut out the offending area and patch in a new piece of sheet metal.
This spot of cancer has been growing for about three years.
 Stripe kit. A black racing stripe will be installed along the lower sides of the Mustang, which will simplify the blending and finish of the repaired rust spot.

Once the repairs are completed by the body shop, the convertible will receive some interior improvements such as new carpet (to replace the 17-year-old carpet from the original restoration), intermittent wipers, 6 x 9 rear speakers, and sound-deadening material in the doors and hood. At that point, the Mustang known as Sweet Chariot will be ready for the spring cruising season and some adventurous road trips.

Let’s roll!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Another Lesson in Serendipity

About a week ago, I completed a 3,200-mile round trip from Florida to Pennsylvania in my 44-year-old Mustang. The 12-day journey provided several good experiences. In one regard it was a tune-up for a cross-country odyssey of about 8,000 miles planned for next year. It was also a test of the new steering and suspension components installed last month. Except for one temporary glitch, the car performed remarkably well, especially considering the awful heat wave that gripped the eastern US in late July.

There were several purposes for my trip, including a visit with family, a speaking engagement, a car show, my 35th high school reunion, and a research opportunity. All of them kept me busy as I drove back and forth across Pennsylvania for several days.

The trip north began on Wednesday, July 27 with a loosely- planned route of secondary highways through Georgia and into South Carolina. I started early and enjoyed the country scenery as well as the pleasant rumble of the Mustang’s slightly-massaged small block. (I know, it’s a clichĂ©—but it’s also true!) I found my visual reward in Georgia on a stretch of US 19 south of Americus: wall-to-wall crepe myrtle along both sides of the highway for miles. Shortly beyond Americus, up Georgia Route 49, I paid a sobering visit to the Andersonville National Historic Site and toured the notorious camp where thousands of Union POWs died during the Civil War. Farther north, in the lovely antebellum city of Madison, Georgia, the heat of the early afternoon dictated another stop for a much-needed iced coffee at the Perk Avenue CafĂ© and Coffee House.

With a schedule to meet, I had to make time the second day and spent much of it on the interstate system. The Mustang hums along just fine at 70 or even better with its late-model AOD transmission, so keeping pace with traffic isn’t a problem; but the sheer volume of vehicles on the road was a reminder of why I dislike interstates. Most are so heavily traveled—often resembling a parking lot moving at more than a mile a minute—that a driver can never relax. Even on scenic I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley, I found it impossible to enjoy the drive. To make matters worse, rain began falling in southern Pennsylvania, and by the time I reached my hometown of State College, I had “leak-checked” the convertible through a series of squalls and torrential downpours.

The Mustang needed an adjustment to its new power steering control valve, so on Friday morning I took it to an independent shop that has serviced my mother’s car for years. While the car was up on the rack, the mechanic noticed that a clamp on the return line appeared to be stripped, and with all good intentions he replaced it. That afternoon, I drove the Mustang to Felicita Resort near Harrisburg for a speaking engagement. I was initially misdirected and found myself at the spa on the opposite side of the valley from the main resort. While I was turning around in a parking lot, the newly-clamped return line suddenly blew off. In a matter of seconds the power steering fluid drained out. The car was rendered useless at 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon—not a good time to be stranded.

I had a GPS unit with me, so I looked up local repair shops and phoned the nearest one. After nobody answered by the 20th ring, I dialed the next business, a truck and auto repair shop in the nearby town of Dauphin. I didn’t have much hope, but the call was answered on the third ring. I hastily explained my predicament: a disabled driver, out of state, with a disabled vehicle. The owner, Dave Szostek, explained that he might be able to shuffle some things around and take a look at the problem the next day—if I could have the car towed to him.  So my next call was to AAA. I was not first on the list, however, as there were several fender-benders in the Harrisburg area. I waited nearly two hours before the rollback arrived, and as soon as the car was chained to the flatbed and taken away, I gave my scheduled presentation.

Here’s where the story really gets unusual. The presentation was a PowerPoint tribute to Glenn Bowers, an original member of the World War II Black Sheep squadron, who was being honored with a memorial golf tournament to raise money for the Semper Fi Fund. Glenn had been a replacement pilot for Pappy Boyington’s squadron in 1943, and had arrived in the South Pacific after first learning to fly at Penn State, my alma mater. More coincidentally, he and my father knew each other at Penn State before the war: both shared forestry classes in their respective majors in the College of Agriculture. I met Glenn in 1995 and interviewed him for my book on the Black Sheep. He passed away in 2010, at which point I began corresponding with his son, Toby. As luck would have it, Toby is a car guy—he drives a Shelby Cobra replica—and he helped tremendously at the event as we dealt with my disabled car. He graciously offered to drive me all the way to State College (a three-hour round trip for him), but got a partial reprieve from my brother Chris, who met us halfway.

I called Dave on Saturday morning and he assured me that he was working on my car. Unfortunately, the day-long setback meant that I could not attend the car show that I had registered for: the 19th annual Moonlight Memories sponsored by the Greater Hatboro Chamber of Commerce. The event, which began that afternoon near Philadelphia, brought in over 500 vehicles and I was disappointed about missing it. (My registration, mailed from Florida, had prompted an interview with a local reporter that appeared in the Hatboro newspaper a few days before the show.) I was excited about sharing the story of Sweet Chariot with spectators, but it was not meant to be.

Dave called back Saturday afternoon and told me the Mustang was ready.  He had fabricated a new aluminum return line for the power steering and spent about three hours working on the car. I figured the repairs and labor would run a few hundred dollars and steeled myself for the bad news. I asked, “What are the damages?  I might need to stop at an ATM on my way to your shop.”

 “Seventy-five dollars,” he said.

I thought he had skipped a digit. Maybe my cell phone lost signal for a moment. “How much?”

“Seventy-five,” Dave repeated.

Unable to help myself, I blurted, “Are you kidding me?”

“Is that high?” He sounded a bit surprised.

“Lord, no,” I said, and quickly explained that I was expecting a bill for three hundred or more.
“I’m semi-retired now,” Dave chuckled. ” I work for myself and I only work on muscle cars and hotrods.”

Serendipity. Again. My car broke down near the one guy in the Harrisburg area who could work on a vintage Mustang—on a Saturday. Some things are meant to be.

I called my brother, who was ready to drive me back to Harrisburg when the car was repaired, and we set off for Dave’s shop. To this point I only knew him through a few phone conversations, but the best was yet to come. Following the GPS directions to his garage, we found ourselves on a little country road where Dave and his wife live in a nicely kept home a few miles outside Dauphin. Dave’s garage was in back and the Mustang was sitting in the drive, so we pulled up and met Dave, a sixtyish, salt-of-the-earth guy who gave us a cook’s tour of the shop. The inside of his large metal building was like a museum. Among the classic vehicles were a lovely 50s T-bird, a Dodge “Lil’ Red Wagon” pickup, a custom T-bucket, a hot-rodded 1930 REO, and a treasure-trove of small collectibles.

We had a really pleasant visit, and went on our way after paying Dave’s modest bill. It’s funny how a breakdown far from home, frustrating as it might be, can turn into a gem of an experience and a new-found friendship.

Dave: Here’s to you. They just don’t make ‘em like you anymore.