Steamboat Springs Bruce Karlberg always had been a Chevy loyalist until one day a 1967 Ford Mustang GT-A Fastback with a blown engine limped into his automotive repair shop, Astro Automotive in Denver. Now, 38 years later, their romance endures.
But it wasn’t love at first sight.
“This kid, maybe still a teenager or possibly 20 years old, just a little younger than I was, brought the car in for brakes and some front-end work in about 1976,” Karlberg recalled. “I was driving a ’64 Chevrolet Impala hot rod with a four-speed. It was my daily driver, but it was also race-modified. I had it jacked up and it had big tires and wheels.”
Schedule of events
Thursday, June 12
1 to 4 p.m. Scenic Mountain Tour leaves — Meadows parking lot
3 to 6 p.m. Autocross tech inspection — Meadows parking lot
4 to 6 p.m. First children’s radio-controlled car autocross at Steamboat Tennis Center. RSVP to sth.jeffreyc@gmai... with participant’s age, car type and skill level.
Friday, June 13
7:30 to 8 a.m. Autocross stages — Meadow parking lot
10 to 10:20 a.m. Autocross stages — Meadow parking lot
11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Autocross stages — Meadow parking lot
12:15 to 12:45 p.m. Autocross stages — Meadow parking lot
2:30 to 2:50 p.m. Autocross stages — Meadow parking lot
6 to 8:30 p.m. Party — Steamboat Grand
Saturday, June 14
6:15 to 9 a.m. Staging or Show ’n’ Shine — Meadows lot
10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Show ’n’ Shine — Lincoln Avenue in downtown Steamboat Springs
While his staff worked on the Mustang GT, Karlberg, a part-time Steamboat resident today and happily married to Sally, who is neither a Chevy nor a Ford, could see the Mustang through the window of his shop office. The car began to exert a certain pull on him.
“I looked at this car, and I thought to myself, ‘For a Ford, this is a pretty cool car.’ I kind of fell for it. The real story is, I did the brakes, he picked it up, his dad paid for it, and I never gave it another thought.”
What Karlberg failed to realize is, love isn’t always on time. Now, with the 26th annual Mustang Roundup about to begin in Steamboat Springs with a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first Mustang, he knows what it means to “stand by your car.”
“A year went by and the guy calls all (PO’ed) and says, ‘This piece of (stuff) broke down on the highway. I hate this car,’” Karlberg recalled.
He had it towed to the shop, discovered that the owner had let the classy Mustang run out of oil and the big 390-cubic-inch engine blew a rod right through the oil pan.
When Karlberg called to inform the owner that he needed a new engine, the young man launched into a rant. Recognizing an opportunity, the repair shop owner bought the rare car (the fastback with the large engine is relatively scarce) for $700, and it was Karlberg who rebuilt the engine for himself.
After treating his new love like dirt for many years, sometimes storing construction tools and materials under the fastback, Karlberg finally realized what he had in the Mustang and restored it to stock. He gradually experienced success and began showing the car at the annual Rocy Mountain Mustang Roundup in Steamboat Springs. This year's event takes place June 12 to 15.
The Chevrolet Corvette has won its own place near the top of the list of great American cars, but arguably, it’s the ever-evolving and egalitarian Mustang that has been attainable for the average person.
Steamboat’s Caroline Rule still owns the red 1964-and-a-half Mustang her father, Ed Bennett, purchased as a reward for her improving her grades in high school. It wasn’t until after she graduated that it became her car, but Rule will never forget the day her father purchased the car off the showroom floor in neighboring Decatur County, Kansas.
“I was with him the day he picked it up,” Rule recalled. “There had been all of this publicity, so we’d seen pictures before the dealership got it in. We went with every intention of at least looking at it, but he had promised me, and he kept his promise. I can’t say for certain, but I’m sure it was a bit of a reach.”
The sticker price was $2,345 for the Mustang with its standard six-cylinder engine, but with options like the Cruise-O-Matic transmission ($179.80), an AM radio (still in the car) and some smaller options, the total price came to $2,750.
Based on the consumer price index, $2,750 in 2013 dollars would work out to a brand-new American sports car with radio and panache included, for $17,386. That’s attainable by anybody’s standards.
It’s that affordability that has fueled the popularity of Mustangs for five decades now, according to Phoenix-based automotive publisher Sam Haymart, who’s stable of online publications includes TheMustangNews.
“It appeals to the kid in us, and everyone has a kid inside regardless of what our social standing is,” Haymart said this month. “You can go to a car show and young people 'oooh' and 'aaah' over Mustangs, but the car appeals to very distinguished elderly people, too. The fact that it has always appealed to everyone from rich to poor, young to old, cuts across all socio-economic lines.”
Karlberg agreed. Although the Mustang was not the first of the 1960s generation of American muscle cars, he said it has been the most enduring.
“The (Plymouth) Barracuda, which came off the Valiant chassis, came first, and the (Dodge) Challenger kind of copied the Barracuda. They were more of a sedan chassis," Karlberg said. "The Mustang was the original car that had the short rear deck and long hood. It was the first car people absolutely recognized and sought, and almost like the Model T, it was affordable and exciting. Baby Boomers were young and ready to go — it was the perfect time for that car to come out. They made great college graduation presents, and there were a lot of them available.”
Mustangs could be described as a rare steed in Steamboat Springs — the collectible cars in particular tend to dwell in the garage all winter.
However, Steamboat Motors General Manager John Centner said his dealership sells three or four Mustangs per year, a number of them through the Internet.
“My wife, Lee, is a Mustang freak,” Centner said. “But we don’t stock them; it’s a very niche vehicle here. But the reality is, we have customers, some locally, that will buy Mustangs — Shelbys and some of the specialty cars. I sold a 2014 Shelby to a gentleman form Arizona, and another to a guy in Michigan who came out here and drove it back home."
He said Ford distributes the the high-end Mustangs on a “turn and earn” system and his dealership earns the right to sell three or four of the legendary cars annually.
Cook Ford in Craig also sells a few Mustangs per year, owner Scott Cook said.
“This is not big sports car country, but it amazes me sometimes on how many enthusiasts there are here. There are a lot of Mustangs and Corvettes in Craig and Steamboat you don’t see unless it’s at a special occasion.”
High Country Specials
There was one small herd of Mustangs out West in Colorado, however, that were not so plentiful. Known as the High Country Specials, they were the relative handful of Mustangs distributed within the Denver division of the Ford Motor Co. from 1966 to 1968. You can expect to see a half-dozen of them at the Show ’n' Shine on Lincoln Avenue the morning of June 14. They are among just 500 to 550 of the original cars known to remain.
Ford knew that Mustangs were not selling as well in the Rocky Mountains as elsewhere in the country and took steps to create some regional excitement. The High Country Special Mustangs were produced in very limited numbers.
Arvada resident Bob Teets, who maintains a modern register of High Country Specials tracked by their serial numbers, said Ford delivered just 333 of the cars to Denver in 1966, 416 in 1967 and 251 in 1968. They were sold only in Colorado and in portions of Wyoming, Western Nebraska and South Dakota.
According to the Web page, www.highcountrymustang.com, maintained by an Icelandic Mustang fanatic, Stefan Thorarensen, all of the 1966 cars arrived by a single Denver and Rio Grande railroad train from the San Jose, California, manufacturing plant and represented the sum total of the freight transported by the special three-deck train.
Teets said the only differences between standard Mustang models and the High Country Specials were their unique colors and a special metal insignia that each of 100 dealers was responsible for affixing to the car’s body. Made in Denver at Details Inc., according to Teets, the badges, in the shape of a shield, showed a horse galloping above the outline of a mountain range.
As it turned out, each dealership adhered the badges on slightly different areas of their cars. On some, they are located ahead of the Tri-bar running horse. On others, the plaque rests above the “Mustang” lettering. Teets said two badges were supplied for each car, one for the left fender and the second for the right. But in some cases, dealers affixed two badges meant for the right fender on both sides of a car, resulting in one of the horses appearing to be running toward the rear of the vehicle.
The paint colors for the High Country Specials were dubbed columbine blue, aspen yellow and timberline green. Thorarensen reports that timberline green was the same color used on GMC trucks from 1959 to 1962, aspen gold was a yellow used on International trucks from 1952 to 1963 and columbine blue was used on Dodge trucks from 1957 to 1970.
Still, the cars represent a rare subset of collectible Mustangs. For example, there only was one 1966 fastback High Country Special shipped to Denver that first year of 1966.
One of Teets’ two High Country Specials is one of just nine original cars with the 428-cubic-inch engine. He was able to purchase the car cheaply because it had been stripped.
“I was able to buy that car from Klodes Salvage Yard,” he said. “My car was a theft recovery — the owner already had the insurance money. There was no 428-inch engine, no drive shaft, the front buckets were missing and there was no radiator.”
He got a tip from his son, Scott, that the car was in a shop next door to the upholstery shop where he worked and read the serial numbers to him to confirm what it was.
“They only made nine of them, and I have seven listed in the registry,” Teets said.
Staying true to their Mustangs
Could our Steamboat owners imagine a day when they might sell their classic Mustangs? Not no way, not no how.
For Rule, the little red Mustang, which she seldom drives, is a direct link to her father and the promise he kept.
“It’s the only thing I have left from my dad,” Rule said. “I wouldn’t sell it for anything. My oldest daughter, Michelle, expects to inherit it, but she also realizes that won’t be for a very long time.”
The allure of Karlberg’s car is enhanced by the fact that it is the same model that was driven by actor Steve McQueen, a man’s man if ever there was one, in the 1968 film "Bullit." In the film, the green GT Fastback becomes airborne while traveling the steep streets of San Francisco at more than 110 miles per hour (most of those scenes were tackled by a stunt driver, but McQueen did drive the car in parts of the chase scene).
“I can’t imagine giving it up,” Karlberg said. “There’s no way I could sell it anymore. At the Mustang Roundup, there will probably be six cars like mine, but most don’t have the 390-cubic-inch engine, which makes mine really rare. This is the car Steve McQueen drove in 'Bullit,' only his was green.”
Color the rest of us timberline green with envy every time the Mustang Roundup returns to Steamboat Springs.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1