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JUN 22, 2017 | ISSAC IRELAND / FORD PERFORMANCE

THE GEORGE CONRAD COLLECTION: A ‘CLUB INSIDER’S’ PRIVATE TOUR

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HURON, Ohio – The North Coast Mustang Club of Ohio has been visiting the private Mustang collection of club member George Conrad every June for the past several years, and this year is no exception. The invitation-only gathering is one of the main highlights on the club’s events calendar each year, beyond its annual Mustang & Ford Show held at Nick Abraham Ford in Elyria, Ohio, in July.

Because the yearly George Conrad Collection Tour is an NCMCO members-only event, we asked George if we could stop by and take a few photos of his cars for us to share with you on FordPerformance.com. Being the Ford enthusiast that he is, he said YES!

George Conrad started making thermocouples in 1989. He was unable to get a business loan, and ended up financing his start-up on credit cards. Through those early financial hardships, he had told himself that if the business ever did well enough, he would buy himself a few cars. Today, George owns over 140 vintage, specialty, and limited-production Ford cars.

In high school, George’s first car was a red 1970 Mercury Cougar that he bought for $800. He drove it every day to school for two years. He eventually had sold the car, as he had wanted to move on to the next cool thing. It wasn’t long before he wanted it back, and he has searched for it ever since. He saved the VIN, and still has the original owner’s manual but has come to the conclusion that his old car doesn’t exist anymore. But his love of the Cougar never went away.

Shortly after his business started picking up, he was looking for something to “keep him busy and keep him out of the local watering holes on nights and weekends.” He found a 1972 XR-7 Cougar Convertible listed in the local paper. His fondness for Cougars, combined with a low asking price, caught his interest so he immediately went to see it.

As it turned out, the Cougar was just a short drive away, in a barn with about five other cars. While it had been sitting for quite some time, the car hadn’t been kept up, and George soon realized it had a long way to go in terms of restoration. Even though the Cougar started and ran, there was still a lot to be done to bring it back to life. In negotiating with the owner and discussing the condition of the car, they settled on a price of $1,800. By comparison, a Mustang of similar condition might have been worth $5,000-$8,000, but George said he wasn’t able to swing “Mustang Money” back then.

With his newly purchased XR-7 Cougar not exactly in safe driving condition, George had a friend help him get the car home, where he was able to give it a much closer look. The car was all original with just 60,000 miles on the odometer. The good news was that the leather interior was in good shape, so he wouldn’t need to source NOS pieces that could prove hard to find. But the bad news was that after popping the hood, George’s wife Vikki saw something move. Thanks to the Cougar’s life in that barn all those years, evidence of a large family of mice came out of the shock tower! Thankfully, the vermin were easily swept out of the garage.

All still while in his 20’s, George restored the Cougar XR-7 on a budget, had it painted locally, and began taking it to judged car shows and learning about the collector car hobby. He began gravitating toward shows that judged cars primarily on originality. He located his Cougar’s build sheet and other factory documents to help him understand the originality criteria used to judge his car. Eventually, his research revealed that this XR-7 was a Q-Code Cobra Jet HO 351 car with competition suspension and virtually every option, including power steering, power brakes, power windows, power top, intermittent wipers and AM-FM/Stereo. Turns out his highly optioned Cougar was quite rare in this configuration – only one of three built this way!

Today, the car is undergoing a complete rotisserie restoration, and being repainted to the factory original Medium Blue Metallic. Fortunately, after all these years, George kept the original slotted-style steel wheels, trim-rings and caps, helping to making the restoration complete. Staying true to what he has long loved, his newly restored XR-7 will be attending judged all-Ford shows in the area, showcasing just how nice a Cougar from this era can be.

This is but one of the myriad of personal stories behind the cars that have found their way into the George Conrad collection. None of them have come by way of auction, or by way of any dealers. Many of his cars have been known to George for decades in the local car clubs, shows and meets. Others came to him by way of private listings. What does he look for in cars that find their way into his garage? Matching VIN stamps and original sheet metal will always be king.

When trying to describing the Conrad car collection, and his other passion for the Shelby Mustang, one word comes to mind: Overwhelming! It is a visual tour de force, a smorgasbord of hot metal, and tour through Ford performance history all one.

As a youngster, George always thought the Shelby Mustang was a cool car. But as it was for many of the time, it was a car that was out of reach. Today, the breadth of his collection of Shelby Mustangs starts on his building’s near wall, beginning with the 1965 GT350’s, and doesn’t end until more than a football field later, over 400 feet away, with some 1970 GT500’s and a pair of 2016 Shelby GT350’s for good measure.

Over the years, Conrad has come across many quality Shelby Mustangs so it’s no wonder why they’ve become such a focus of his collection, and why – even now – so many more prime examples are being secured. Yet he is still often asked why he collects so many?

For one thing, no two are identical, and for another they often represent interesting and rare option combinations. Seeing them all together is a sight to behold, yet making it difficult to appreciate what they represent individually. Difficult, unless George is giving the tour himself, talking about each car’s history, the provenance, the options, the time he had sought out the car until the day he obtained it, how long the previous owner had it . . . and so much more.

Needless to say, anytime somebody tells George Conrad a Shelby Mustang is for sale, it gets his attention! His fascination doesn’t end with the story of the Shelby cars; the story of the man – Carroll Shelby – is to Conrad, the quintessential character of iconic car culture. From his racing pedigree, race team management, specialty automotive production, performance engineering, and everything in between, Carroll was his hero. It is one of Conrad’s greatest regrets that he never had the chance to meet Shelby in person.

We began our private tour by walking down the aisle beginning with the 1965 GT350’s, eventually leading to the 1967 GT350’s, then the GT500s, followed by the 1968 iterations, and also their convertible versions. Next came the 1969 Fastback GT350 and GT500’s, and the unusual re-VIN’d 1970 Shelby’s that were originally built as 1969 cars, but sold as 1970 models after the FBI had legally got involved. Identifying those ’69’s from the ’70’s is made easier by the different chin spoiler, and the stripe options.

Continuing down to the corner of Conrad’s warehouse, we turn back to find a line of Boss Mustangs – everything from pristine 302’s and superb 429’s, along with stories of how many had been found wrecked, rotted, crushed and/or with missing or non-original drivetrains. We soon came upon a Pantera, then a Mercury Panel Wagon, and next to that a stunning Sunbeam Tiger, which by itself, is rich with Shelby heritage.

Over the course of spending years in the local car culture, George got to know a man named Richard who owned that Sunbeam Tiger with an original removable hard top. Every summer, George would ask if he ever wanted to sell it. One day, out of the blue, Richard showed up at George’s office one brisk, October day with the title in his hands, wanting to sell it, saying, “Today’s the day!”

George bought the car right then and there. Even today, some 10 years later, Richard periodically calls him and says, “I never should have sold it!” to which George responds, “Yep –it’s worth a lot more today!” The back-and-forth is regular, and in good fun. It is important to note that while Gorge says that Tiger may never leave his collection, he promises that if he ever considers selling it, he will call up Richard so ask if he wanted it back before it goes up for sale. To George’s point, several cars he has purchased have gone up in value by huge factors – some by twice, others quadruple, and a few even sometimes by factor of 10!

Of course, you don’t build a collection overnight, so virtually every car Conrad has added comes with its own unique story of how it became part of the family. George admits to a certain level of excitement when chasing his next car. On example was a very recent addition of a 1967 Shelby GT350. While the drivetrain isn’t original, this Shelby GT350 features several unique elements that helped it fill a product gap in the wall of Shelby Mustangs that George owns. To begin with, it has only 3,950 original miles. It is an early GT350 side-muffler car, and also features red-light side-markers in the scoops that didn’t stay in production due to DOT regulations in California. (George said that roughly 200 left the factory equipped with the side marker lights.) The car is still shod with the original date-coded tires and the Kelsey-Hayes Magstar wheels.

Another thing that made this purchase special was that it came with a stash of NOS Shelby and Ford parts for the car, all still in boxes – a true treasure trove for any restorer! To top it all off, it is a Charcoal Gray car, making it quite rare as one of just 22 manufactured that year. This particular GT350 had been owned by same man for 43 years, after buying it from the original owner. That first owner had drag raced it, only logging a scant 1,050 miles, mostly a quarter-mile at a time!

Many of the cars George has chased over the past 27 years have been owned by fellow club and show attendees that have become good friends. Sometimes when the car’s owner has fallen into poor health or upon rough times or even passes away, a family approaches George to see if he would like to give the car a good home. So in some ways the Conrad Collection is a living memoriam to many devoted owners who had previously cared for these fine machines.

George said he feels obligated to carry that piece of history forward through his own life, and hopefully even on to the next person to own and enjoy the car. That’s why George has documented the ownership history and lineage of most of the cars in the collection. But his goal is not merely to preserve them. A 1967 Shelby GT350 that he purchased after the car’s second owner had passed away showed a mere 2,900 miles on the odometer. But George plans to give the drivetrain a proper restoration so that this “like new” car can be driven. George asks, “What’s the use of owning of owning them if you don’t get to take them down the road? It’s like a time machine! You’re back in 1967 -- it’s such a thrill!”

Among all the high-dollar, highly collectible and well-documented cars in the Conrad Collection, there are three that would seem to be a bit of a side show to the main event: A Mustang II Cobra II; an SVO Mustang; and an SVT Mustang Cobra Convertible Indy Pace Car edition. George’s history with the ’94 Cobra Indy Pace Car goes back to 1995, when he bought one right off the showroom floor of his local dealer. After owning it for a time, he sold it. A few years ago, a seller had a 42-mile “Wrapper Car” (a term referring to a car that still has pre-delivery plastic covers on the seats and convertible top, along with various factory stickers affixed at the assembly plant that are later removed during the dealer prep process). Conrad and the seller made the deal, but because that low-mile Indy Cobra was a “wrapper car,” George isn’t sure he’d want to drive that one. But he says it’s just a matter of time before the right “driver” SVT Cobra Indy Pace Car crosses his path with the right price, and the right history.

Finally, you simply cannot discuss modern Ford collectible cars with George Conrad without discussing the 2005 and 2006 Ford GT. George is among the few who has assembled a number of GT’s in nearly the entire variety of colors that were offered, with exception of Speed Yellow, and the lone example of Sonic Blue.

Among these cars are a few that have interesting histories, including one that is autographed by the legendary GT40 driver Dan Gurney that had previously belonged to Gurney’s secretary, and another in the Heritage paint scheme that is autographed by Carroll Shelby. There is no mistaking the sight or origins of the signature, so this happens to be the Ford GT that George drives most. It is a point of pride for him, and for his collection, that he fills in any gaps in his vehicle lineups. “I absolutely have to have all eight colors,” George said of his 7-car array of Ford GT’s. “And if I were to be the ultimate all-color owner, I would really have to own that one-off ninth-one, too!

Of course, that would make the next club tour all the more special.

FORD PERFORMANCE PHOTOS / COURTESY ISAAC IRELAND