It’s funny how the “ripple effect” can take shape - how a seemingly mundane choice by someone at one point in time can affect future generations in ways nobody expected.
My grandmother Ann was born in 1912 to an Italian immigrant family in Boston. As a young child she saw the First World War. At age 5, her family moved across the country to Santa Barbara, California, where they weathered the Roaring 20’s, including a big earthquake in 1925 that destroyed much of the town (see pic below), and the Great Depression.
She grew up, got a BA in English, worked the switchboard at a local hotel, and taught typing and shorthand at a business college. She met Frank, a Southern Pacific railroad switchman, and they married in 1939. They lived in a modest apartment and had a couple kids during the Second World War: a son (my uncle), and a daughter (my mom). Accustomed to driving old used cars and living simply, it wasn’t until 1968 when the kids were away that they could finally afford something nice for themselves.
My grandma was a petite but very classy and charismatic lady, and wanted something with a V8. She always dreamed of a Jaguar, but they were a bit out of reach. The Cougar was the next best thing, and it’s likely that the lower price of the 1968 base model Cougar was a helping factor.
In early June of 1968, Frank and Ann went down to Foothill Motors in Pasadena and placed their order for a Polar White base model Cougar with a black vinyl top, and Parchment interior with black appointments. They added only the most essential options: air conditioning, power steering, and an AM radio. The San Jose plant was fairly efficient, and the finished car was delivered on June 27.
Over the next several years, they drove the Cougar around Santa Barbara, and took it on road trips to national parks around California and beyond. Here are some fun photos I was able to unearth from the family archives:
Sadly, Frank passed away in 1976. But Ann continued to drive and maintain her prized Cougar, always politely refusing to sell it to inquiring young men. There was never a question of passing it down to either of her grown children; the Cougar was her car.
Fast forward to 1988 when I entered the picture. I’m not sure exactly how it began, but I've been into cars for as long as I can remember. As a kid I had various toy cars, including Hot Wheels / Matchbox, slot cars, and the wind-up DARDA cars and plastic tracks. I also had one of those plastic kiddie cars which I rode down our steep driveway over and over until I wore my “brake” shoes out. I amassed a collection of 1/18 scale model cars and had posters of cars on my walls.
Even though I was more into cars than anyone in my family, I can still attribute much of that interest to the cars that they had. My mom had a 1973 Opel Manta (owned since 1975), which was fun to ride around in, and we had a couple of Volvo 240s that were great family hauling machines. But my grandma’s Cougar was the coolest of them all. It was always a welcome surprise to see her pull up to my school, standing out amongst the sea of bland 90's cars, to pick up my sister and I to go get ice cream.
We always cherished the time we got to cruise around with Grandma. One of my favorite expressions of hers applied when coming to a 4-way stop at the same time as another car: she'd be the first to go, and say "He who hesitates is lost." Also when searching for a parking spot, she'd always remind us to "keep good thoughts," and it seemed like we’d always get lucky and find a spot. Once a motorcycle cop pulled her over, with my sister and I in the back, and it turned out it was someone she knew who just wanted to say hi. She was very outgoing and seemed to make friends with everyone she crossed paths with.
My grandma continued driving and maintaining the Cougar all the way until she passed away in 2001 at the age of 89, when I was in 8th grade. After that, neither my parents nor my aunt & uncle, nor their kids had any interest in driving the car, but luckily they didn't sell it. It was pulled into a small garage at my grandma's property and forgotten about for a few years.
When I got my license in high school, my first car was a well-used, hand-me-down, poo-brown 1984 Toyota Camry. It was a pile, but I loved it for the freedom it gave me, and for how easily the tires would squeal if I took a corner a little too fast. At one point I designed and installed a cardboard spoiler for comedic effect, which didn’t last long.
By the time my senior year was approaching, it occurred to me that the Cougar was just sitting neglected, and I wanted to resurrect it. I asked my parents if we could get it up and running for me to drive my senior year. Fortunately, they agreed. It needed tires, brake work, fluids changed, plugs and wires, and the original carburetor had to be replaced due to a cracked base. It was a very cool car to drive as a high schooler in the early 2000s. The manual drum brakes scared the crap out of me, but I got used to them. It was in pretty decent driver condition, but not so nice that I had any real qualms about taking it to the beach, or anywhere around town. Despite the rust and dents, it was actually quite presentable.
Here's one of my favorite early shots on film. I took a photography class in high school and used a Pentax K-1000 for this, which I still have.
Ready for the senior prom...
Happy driver circa 2006:
When I went away to college in Montana, my attention shifted to the 1973 Opel Manta that had been sitting non-operational in my parents' driveway for years at that point. Since I conveniently had a car-restoring uncle in the same town I was going to college in, we trucked the Opel from SoCal to Montana. Most of my spare time during school was spent over at my uncle's house working on the Manta, and thanks to his help and guidance, by the time I was done with school in 4 years, I had also finished my first restoration project. Little did I know how much these new skills would come into play in the next several years. By the way, if you think finding parts for a Cougar is hard, try restoring an Opel.
After graduating, I took the Opel on a road trip from Montana back to Santa Barbara. That voyage didn't go entirely smoothly, but that's another story. On my way south, I passed through Oregon and decided to swing by this Cougar parts place I'd heard of, called West Coast Classic Cougar.
I met the owner, Don, who mentioned something about wanting to start a series of how-to videos. I thought it sounded like a good idea and mentioned that I'd been doing video production since high school. I didn't think much of it, but kept in touch with Don and did a little remote photography work for him, taking pictures of WCCC parts installed on cars at shows in SoCal.
By the end of 2010, I hadn’t yet found a solid job in Santa Barbara, despite the magical piece of paper I had acquired from college. One day when browsing the Cougar forum, I saw that Don was looking to hire someone. The job description was pretty broad, including some sales software I had never heard of. His post read simply:
I was a little hesitant but figured why not, I had nothing else going on and was arguably a very good fit for the job. I was also enticed by the possibility of fixing up the Cougar. Being 22 and unattached, there was no reason I couldn’t pick up and move, and I knew I could do WCCC some good with my skills. I reached out to Don, we talked on the phone, and he said, “When can you start?”Looking for that one in 50 million person that;
Knows 67-73 Cougars (and or Mustangs) well to very well inside and out.
Knows Stone Edge & Blackthorne software (or similar / or can learn).
Is capable of maintaining an email list and sending out a monthly newsletter.
Wants to work with a tiny company with an unknown future that does not offer health benefits currently.
Is a self starter that does not require much (if any) supervision.
Likes sitting at a desk for hours on end staring at a monitor. Did I mention you actually get paid to surf craigslist / ebay and MC.net?
Has video skills and is capable of producing / editing short clips for Youtube.
Does not mind year end bonuses awarded in the form of used parts.
Wants to live in Salem OR.
My first day on the job was actually before I moved to Oregon. I flew out to Scottsdale, AZ to meet Don at Barrett-Jackson, to document the sale of Brian Aust’s red GT-E. I was handed a camcorder and that was about as much direction as I got. No pressure! (see that video here)
In late January 2011, I loaded a few clothes, a couple guitars, and an air mattress into the back of the Cougar and hit the road. Here's one random shot from Yreka, CA on the way north. You can tell the rear suspension is pretty tired.
I knew nothing about Salem, Oregon, nor did I know anybody there. I didn’t have an apartment lined up, and would have to share with other unknown roommates due to budget. For the first week or so, I stayed in Don’s trailer behind the WCCC warehouse, until I found a room to rent.
Anyway… you don’t need my entire life story. Once I was all settled in and getting used to life in Salem, my thoughts again turned to fixing up the Cougar. The worst thing about it was the roof. The metal was almost completely rusted away under the vinyl top. There was also some rust in the quarters and floors, dents and scrapes here and there, and general tiredness due to age. In September 2011, Don encouraged me to tackle the roof panel replacement, so I dove in. That also turned into one of WCCC's most-viewed videos, and is currently approaching 300k views (link).
At first, I thought I would just fix the roof and leave the rest alone, to keep it a driver and worry about the rest later. But since we had a part time body man on site available to help out, I figured it would be a good time to fix the rusty quarter panels, floors, etc. Then at that point I figured, why not give it a fresh paint job? And then I figured, why not… you get the idea. Hence the name “Snowball” - as the project snowballed into something bigger and bigger.
Engine rebuilt, circa 2013:
I won’t get into much detail on how that all played out. You can read my entire Snowball Saga thread if you really want to see the build from start to finish, and to read about how I had to get it painted twice, and every other struggle that I went through. It really was a saga. It took almost 8 years to complete, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But the result is essentially a brand new 1968 Cougar. It’s still my grandma’s car, but it’s better in almost every way.
Doing a full-on, high quality classic car restoration as a young person with no money is a pretty dumb thing to do. I had to make a lot of sacrifices to make it happen. But in my mind, once I had started, it was never an option to not finish it. I was never worried about whether I could sell it for what I put into it. That’s never been the point. It’s a priceless family heirloom that will never be sold, as long as I can help it. And this way, I’ll get to enjoy the fruits of my labor for a long time.
There’s no way I could have pulled off this restoration at this stage in my life if I hadn’t been at WCCC, or had the constant advice and help of the people there. Darrell in particular was often there after hours and on weekends to lend a helping hand, and was instrumental in helping me build the engine and many other major, intimidating tasks. Don's extensive knowledge saved me on many occasions, and he helped with many parts installations, some of which ended up on video. Richard's electrical know-how was valuable in chasing down bugs and finding the right components and repair pieces. You get the idea - pretty much everyone there had significant roles in making sure I succeeded.
Access to parts was an amazing luxury as well. Anything I needed was on a shelf a few steps away. This was somewhat dangerous too; since I was aware of all the new shiny things that were readily available, it was hard to pass them up. Also, anytime I needed a specific original fastener, or just to look at another car for reference, I could walk over to the junkyard and find what I needed.
Not long after finishing the restoration, the universe seemed to tell me that I needed to return to Santa Barbara, whether I was sure about it or not. More on that in this thread. So I did what any intelligent person would do, and drove a freshly restored classic car 1,000 miles down Interstate 5 in late July. No problem! I also had a friend drive my cargo-carrying Volvo 240 wagon, which hearkens back to the ones my family had when I was younger.
Nevermind the coolant puking out, I had topped it off too much before hitting the road.
Luckily it all went smoothly, and we made it to Santa Barbara without incident. This was about 3 weeks ago, by the way. So I’m still in the midst of the big change, and it’s all been a bit crazy. I’m still trying to process it all. But wow, what a journey it’s been with this car, and how that journey has forever changed my life. Now I’m ready for the part where I get to enjoy it.