Be Different: What My 1967 Ford Mustang Taught Me About Leadership
I had been through the luxurious Lexus stage, the beautiful BMW stage, and the beefy big truck stage. They didn’t do it for me. I longed for something different; I wanted to break away from the sea of white, black, and grey automobiles that flood our streets. I wanted to drive something that reminded me of my dad under the old shade tree in our driveway, something from the 60’s that smelled like gasoline and provoked thoughts of a simpler time—like actually being able to work on your car with your own hands. Imagine reaching a phase of your life where you could pretty much drive any car that you wanted. What would most people choose? A Tesla? Lamborghini? Ferrari? Range Rover?
For me, there was only one option—a 1967 Ford Mustang.
It’s my only mode of transportation. Los Angeles traffic? No problem. Grocery store? Random errands? In & Out burger run? She’s with me. My Mustang is not a trailer queen or a car that you only drive on Sunday to impress the coffee shop crowd. It’s my daily driver, with nicks and scratches and a lot of character. It’s not a torque monster with crazy horsepower. I won’t be winning any races. The carbureted 302 engine with four on the floor is enough for me. It’s not filled with all of the modern accoutrements—no AC, no power steering, no stereo system—but that’s what really makes it special. The original radio only picks up Spanish stations or hell and brimstone preaching. I can pull up to a stop light next to any modern muscle car or luxury vehicle and still get a hand wave and a head nod—a sign of respect for the battle-scarred time machine and acknowledgement of the fortitude it takes to maintain its shipshape.
“Marlene” (who always runs lean) is the antitheses of what new cars represent. She provides a raw driving experience where you actually have to pay attention and drive the car. I cannot text and post to Instagram with a mechanical clutch and manual steering. I don’t even have a place to put my phone—no cupholders. She’s unrefined and uncivilized. And that’s what I love about her.
My car is a statement that conformity is boring, and that I will never conform. It reflects my personality and I enjoy the smiles per gallon. As any classic car enthusiast will tell you, it’s a lot of fun driving an iconic car that turns heads. If you need a boost of self-confidence, just hop behind the wheel of any classic and observe the instantaneous thumbs up and adulation from other drivers. However, the deeper sense of accomplishment and pride that you feel knowing you built something is what really appeals to me. Classic cars allow you to participate in the driving experience. You are not a bystander being ferried to and from by a soulless computer. You turn the key, pop the clutch, and engage with time travel.
My work as a consultant is filled with constant meetings, deadlines, and demands. Getting into the Mustang at the beginning and end of the day is a way to leave that behind, if only for a moment. I drive my Mustang because it is the ultimate expression of freedom and therapy on wheels. It’s a constant reminder that we don’t have to follow the crowd and blend in with the herd. It’s OK to be different and, sometimes, way cooler.
Mentorship: All Leaders Need Mentors.
Whether you are restoring a classic car or designing your workplace culture, all leaders need mentors.
Marlene took a year to get roadworthy. I bought her when I first moved to the West Coast with only a limited mechanical knowledge and great optimism. Just about everyone in the hot rod business has heard of Lincoln Electric and their popular welders that are used to fabricate and repair classic cars, but I had no idea of the connection when I was recruited to California. John C. and James F. Lincoln founded Lincoln Electric in 1895, and it was John’s son, also named David, who hired me to help establish a legacy university. So, in essence, I met Marlene because of Lincoln Electric.
After she broke down almost immediately, I rode a bicycle to work for six months straight while trying to get her running again. They say that it never rains in southern California, but it does. You could find me in a suit and tie on my bicycle riding seven miles to work each day as I worked on Marlene. It was my way of “earning” my classic and my spot in the “club.” Sure, I could have gone the easy route and purchased something else, but I had made the decision that this would be my daily driver and I was all in. Persistence paid off.
For anyone who wants to drive a classic daily, I do suggest three things:
(1) do your research, (2) establish a budget, and (3) find a mentor.
A good mentor is someone who can help you with the restoration process and also guide you through mechanical problems. You can repair classic cars with basic hand tools in most cases, but the tools are no substitute for experience. I met my mentor, Rocky, for the first time where all car enthusiasts meet: a Walmart parking lot. I had just purchased Marlene and I was running low on oil. As I pulled up to get a quart of 10W-30, I saw a cherry red 1966 Mustang slide into a parking space a few rows down from me. An older, silver-haired gentleman, with a thin mustache, and dingy Ford t-shirt approached me and said, “Nice Mustang.” I replied, “I like your ride, too.” A friendship was born at that moment. Rocky has owned Cobra R Automotive in Upland, California, since 1994. He had been a Ford mechanic for decades prior to opening Cobra R, and specialized in building custom Shelby Cobras and Mustangs for clients throughout the country. He congratulated me on my initiation into the club and told me that if I ever needed some help with the restoration, to stop by his shop.
I took him up on that offer.
Over the next two years, Rocky and I shared a lot of donuts, coffee, and hamburgers on the weekends as we brought Marlene back to life. I really cherished that time because it gave me the confidence to do the work myself, and to get fully immersed into the culture of owning a classic car. Plus, working alongside Rocky was like earning a free education in automotive repair. He taught me the basics, allowed me to do the work with him, and allowed me to make mistakes—I made plenty.
Leadership development and culture change happen one piece at a time.
It took me a while to find a 1967 given the popularity of that year, but I remained diligent and made a cash offer when I saw a solid project come available online. I have always been a Ford fan, and the 1967 Mustang was my absolute favorite. The owner could no longer repair it, and simply wanted it to go to a good home. I learned that she was born at the San Jose Assembly Plant of the Ford Motor Company in early 1967, had one owner for most of her life, and there was virtually no rust. However, the suspension was completely shot, the engine was blown, and just about everything needed to be replaced or repaired. I left a mushroom cloud of white smoke wherever I went with my blown head gasket, and the chassis creaked loudly while driving. I held my breath on the 405 Freeway driving her home for the first time. But she had good bones. Being a six-cylinder with a three speed C4, the car had not been raced or previously modified. Everything was pretty much original. We started the restoration by working on safety first: suspension, brakes, fuel tank, electrical, and steering. Then we moved on to the heavy lifting: installing a 302-crate engine, Holley 4-Barrel Carburetor, Super T-10 four speed transmission, a rebuilt 8-inch rear end with 3.25 gears, and upgrading the cooling system to a Champion 4-row aluminum radiator with electric fan and hi-flow water pump.
As for my process of finding parts, I think about the Johnny Cash song, “One Piece At A Time.” With the exception of the engine and fuel lines, nearly every part was purchased second-hand: Craigslist, OfferUp, and swap meets. I realized I could find the best deals, save a ton of money, and also build a network with other local car enthusiasts by doing it this way. I even came across a Shelby hood that we stripped down, painted and installed. I’m still actively searching for the next “need to have” part to add to Marlene, since no project is ever really finished, but I’ve learned to embrace patience in waiting for the best deal and the right opportunity. My advice is to take your time and you’ll find what you are looking for. Build the car you want, not the car other people expect.
The Daily Drive
Choosing a different path allows you to stand out as a leader.
When Marlene was finally roadworthy it opened my eyes to the beauty of owning a classic automobile. Sure, it was no fun being stranded, pushed to the side of the road, and towed during that first year, and sometimes to this day, as I worked out the quirks and learned about the car, but that’s all a part of the experience. I still got thumbs-up even while broke down on the side of the road with my hood popped and hazard cones laid out (hazard cones and a fire extinguisher are fixed features at this point). Funny how no one ever waved or smiled at me in my Lexus or BMW (they sent plenty of other gestures in traffic though). I meet new friends almost daily in the Mustang, and I have a car that is timeless and always looks great no matter the setting. People are usually shocked to learn that it’s my daily driver. “Aren’t you afraid it will get stolen?” “Don’t you worry about accidents?” “That can’t be reliable!” I’ve heard all of the criticisms. My response is simple: if it happens, whatever that is, then I guess I’ll have another project on my hands. I believe these cars are made to be driven, and that’s exactly what I do—drive.
Why I Drive?
Leadership is not automated and it never will be.
I drive for the freedom and sense of individuality. I drive because it connects me to the past and keeps me in a place of continual learning and humility in the present. I drive because I have not mastered it, despite reading every Hagerty article that I can, and having all of the Haynes Owner’s Workshop Manuals. I drive because there’s always a new challenge awaiting me, something that I can learn or improve upon. I drive because in a time of such distracted and thoughtless transportation from point A to point B, it’s nice to have a hobby that allows you to enjoy the journey.
I drive because there is no other feeling like it. Fifth gear on Pacific Coast Highway, pipes rumbling sweet music, with the ocean by my side. It simply does not get any better.
That’s why I drive my 1967 Mustang.
How will you choose to be different as a leader?