KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Expectations were high when one of the most feared street machines of the 1970s went up for bids at Mecum’s Kissimmee 2018 auction on Thursday, January 11, 2018. The Mecum catalog listing for “Lot T79” tried to tell the story of this oh-so potent Pony Car:
1975 Ford Mustang
Engine: 505 cid
--- Built by Wayne Gapp and Jack Roush for Detroit street racer Joe Ruggirello
--- Purchased new in May of 1975 for sole purpose of creating one of the fastest street cars in the country at that time
--- Car retains the same 505 CID engine built by Gapp and Roush
--- Car retains the same C6 Automatic transmission built by Gapp and Roush
--- Gapp and Roush-built rear end still in car
--- Exterior trim is either restored or replaced with NOS Ford parts
--- Interior remains as it was in 1977 with the exception of the carpet and headliner
--- Featured in multiple magazines over the last 40 years, including Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, Car and Driver, and multiple times in Hot Rod Magazine, Modified Mustangs & Fast Fords and Mustang Monthly
--- The most famous article written on the car was ‘Sudden Death’ by Gary Baskerville, giving the car the nickname it would be known by for decades since
--- Featured in Hot Rod magazine multiple times with Jack Roush driving or standing next to it
--- Jack Roush has been photographed with the car many times in magazines over the years
--- The January 2008 issue of Hot Rod magazine called Sudden Death No. 97 of ‘The 100 Most Influential Hot Rods of All Time’
--- Featured on the ‘My Classic Car’ television show
--- Publication documentation
But knowledgeable Mustang fans know well the story of this monster-motored Mustang II that roared its way onto the covers of many a magazine after it hit the streets. Yes, a Mustang II. If you call yourself a Mustang fan and have never heard of this car called “Sudden Death,” then you don’t know Jack. Jack Roush and fellow racer Wayne Gapp were running quite the Ford street machine-building operation out of their suburban Detroit shop in Livonia, Michigan, at the time. That’s why well-known Detroit-area street racer Joe Ruggirello, a dyed-in-the-wool Ford guy (who had passed away just a few years ago), went to them to build a street-legal car capable of beating everyone that dared go up against it at a stoplight.
Word on the street was that Ruggirello’s 429-powered Torino was only achieving about a 75-percent kill ratio during street races, and he wanted a better death rate for the competition. He figured his high-powered Torino’s biggest issue was just the sheer weight of the vehicle, so he went out to buy the lightest, smallest, most plane-Jane looking Ford he could find. He wound up buying a new silver 1975 Mustang “Deuce” hatchback and drove it to the Gapp and Roush shop to have them turn it into the ultimate expression of what a ‘70’s-era Mustang could ever be, and where would matter most – on the street.
After Gapp & Roush worked their magic on the car, it descended upon the streets of Detroit with a vengeance. In a matter of only a few weeks, it shot down a series of big-name Bow-Tie boys running various 396-, 454- and Rat-Motor Chevys. All that was left were two Mopars: Steve Lisk’s 1971 Hemi Dodge Challenger and Jimmy Addison’s 1967 Hemi Plymouth Belvedere GTX (which, ironically, was known as the “Silver Bullet.”). As the Woodward Avenue street racing wars were waning in the ’70s, there were but these three cars known to be the Kings of the street in and around Detroit. The “Silver Bullet” Belvedere was a true 10-second street car, but Lisk’s Challenger and Ruggirello’s “Sudden Death” Mustang II were among the first documented street-legal cars in the 9’s, and as such are credited with starting the trend that would later become known as “Pro Street.” Ruggirello’s “Sudden Death” Mustang II was powered by a Roush 505-cubic inch Lincoln motor capable of catapulting the compact hatchback to runs of 9.40 @ 140-plus through the mufflers!
We had last heard about Sudden Death back in January of 2016 when Mustang Monthly’s Rob Kinnan wrote a piece that appeared on the Mustang 360 website announcing “That Infamous Ruggirello-Roush Mustang II, Sudden Death, is Probably the Most Famous Mustang II of All Time – and it Has Just Been Restored!”
With Rob’s permission, here’s what he wrote about the effort that brought the rediscovered “Sudden Death” Mustang II back to life:
“Readers of Mustang Monthly are well aware of Jack Roush. Today he’s best known for his partnership in the Roush Fenway NASCAR team, but Cactus Jack has been a hardcore Ford racer for his entire career, first gaining fame in the early NHRA Pro Stock ranks with his partner Wayne Gapp. The two campaigned a bunch of Gapp & Roush (G&R) Pro Stockers back in the day, including a four-door Maverick (the Tijuana Taxi) to take advantage of the rulebook. However, Roush had his hands in all kinds of stuff through the years, including building privateer race and street cars. One of those cars was a wicked street racer for Detroit-area Joe Ruggirello, a then-new Mustang II with a huge (for the day) 505cid big-block shoehorned under the hood and into the firewall.
“Hot Rod magazine’s Gray Baskerville visited Roush’s shop often to see what was up, photographing the Ruggirello-Roush Mustang II as it came to life and finally running the feature in the April 1977 issue of the magazine, naming the car ‘Sudden Death’ because that’s the impact it had on any car that faced off against it. The car quickly became the most famous Mustang II of the day and has remained that way ever since, including being named in 2009 to Hot Rod’s list of Top 100 Hot Rods That Changed the World. It had also been featured multiple times in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated and Car & Driver magazines, adding to its fame.
“Ruggirello was reported to have spent $12,000 to have G&R build the car – huge money in 1975 – and true to the build he street-raced it around Detroit before sending the car back to G&R a year later for more power and reduced weight. In 1980 or 1981, he sent it back again for the installation of twin turbochargers, again making it a rare bird for the time. Then the car kind of fell off the radar and out of sight, though it remained solidly in the minds of many hot-rodders around the world, including the author.
“One of those who remembered the car and Baskerville’s article fondly was Tom Tate, who first saw Sudden Death in person in 1995 during a Fun Ford Weekend show at Gainesville Raceway. It was then white with blue stripes and had the twin turbos on the big-block, looking nothing like the 1977 version of Sudden Death, but Tate realized that it was the same car.
“He says, ‘The thing that gave it away was the notched cowl. Gapp & Roush moved the engine back 10 inches and built an entire new firewall and torque boxes.’ He left to see the rest of the show and by the time he came back the car was gone, prompting a 15-year online search to find out who owned it.
“Tate says, ‘After almost 15 years, in January 2010 I found a couple of guys talking on a Ford forum about having seen it on eBay for sale. The auction listing had already closed with the reserve not having been met, but eBay had not yet closed the listing, so I was able to contact the owner to see if the car was still for sale. The car had been sitting in a storage lot in New Jersey for almost 10 years. Turns out it was still for sale, with a couple of others also trying to buy it. We reached an agreement on a sale and he delivered the car to me the following week.’
“After sitting outside in Jersey for a decade, the car was in pretty bad shape when Tate got it. It sort of ran, but not well, and needed a lot of work. Tate says, ‘I spent the first six months doing research, doing work needed to get the car safe to drive, and thinking about how to go about the restoration. Even though the turbo work was done by Roush, I made the decision to remove them to take the car back to its original configuration in that April 1977 issue of Hot Rod. This is how everyone remembers the car, so that was the goal for the restoration.’
“He removed the turbos, had new headers built, and fixed some other small things to make the car drivable again, and then began to work on the wiring and researching the details, including the rear suspension. Originally, Roush had tubbed the car to fit fat tires and moved the leaf springs inboard for room, but somewhere along the line the car got ladder bars and coilovers. Photos dug out of the Hot Rod/TEN archives and a few conversations with Wayne Gapp (through his son Jeff Gapp) helped Tate take the rear suspension back to 1977 specs.
“The body required quite a bit of work, especially the cowl, quarter-panels, and engine compartment. Tate says, ‘The cowl had been cut to clear a large air bonnet for the turbos. I sourced another cowl section that provided repair pieces for the damaged area. Portions of the inner aprons had been cut away for turbo downpipes and exhaust manifolds, so all of that had to be fabricated and repaired. The rear floor area had been hammered in to clear the ladder bars until the metal ripped open, so I sourced a rear floor section that provided repair pieces for those areas.’
“The rear hatch was rusty and needed to be replaced, but Tate transferred the original glass to the new part. He also had a lot of work to do on the opened-up wheel wells. Once the body was all done, he sprayed it the original 1975 Mustang silver and the repaired G&R fiberglass bumpers were painted in a gray closely simulating the original gel-coat finish when originally installed.
“The engine retains the flavor of 1977 and some of the original parts, but has been updated to more modern internals in some cases. Tate installed a more modern Comp Cams solid roller cam and had Powered by Ford in Orlando, Florida, port the Blue Thunder heads – otherwise it is the same as it was in 1977. ‘I think Joe, Wayne, and Jack would approve!’ says Tate.
“He goes on to say, ‘The more I got into this car the more I realized what was done in the original build. Just the engine installation, chassis setback, firewall fabrication, new trans tunnel, back halving of the chassis . . . Lots of work in 1975 for a street car!’
“Tate is the fifth owner of the car since it was first built. He has a copy of the original Ford Motor Credit title in Joe Ruggirello’s Mother’s name (Josephine Ruggirello, just as Baskerville’s ‘Sudden Death’ article stated), and the other owners were Russell Hobson, William Thayer, Peter Magner, and then Tate. But even though he says the car has been the toughest restoration he has done to date, with all the studying, research, digging, and labor Tate doesn’t feel like he owns Sudden Death. He says, ‘I’m happy to be its caretaker until he next owner is found.’
Apparently, the way Tate decided to try and find the next owner was to consign the car for Mecum’s Kissimmee 2018 auction this past January. A reserve was set and the car rolled onto the block, where Sudden Death was bid up to $47,000 -- but at that price it failed to meet reserve.
What happens next is anyone’s guess, but whether the car changes ownership in the near future or not, one thing is for certain: Whenever enthusiasts gather for some good old-fashioned storytelling about the muscle car days of street racing, the name of one fearsome Ford is sure to keep the discussion from going into overtime: Sudden Death.