LONG ISLAND, NY – Out for a birthday celebration with a friend in the fall about five years ago, I took my 1970 Mustang Boss 302 to tour Long Island’s North Fork wineries, ending at a posh restaurant that was taking part in the region’s Octoberfest weekend. The Grabber Blue Boss couldn’t have looked better, as I had just completed detailing the body and engine bay for the car-show season the following spring, and it was on its last cruise before heading into winter storage. I’m quite proud of my Boss, and have been known to strike up a conversation about it with anyone in a heartbeat.
After dinner, while walking out to the parking lot in the late afternoon sun, I noticed that there were two young men looking at my Boss with great interest. I walked over and opened the hood before launching into a great conversation with them about the Boss 302, Mustangs from the 1960’s and ’70s, and muscle car restoration in general. The two men – let’s call them Tom and Mark – were brothers, and I discovered they were 21- and 18-years-old, respectively.
Mark recently graduated high school and was just starting at a local community college; Tom had already done two years at a community college and was interested in engineering, but took the past year off. I didn’t know the term “millennials” back then, but I surely realized I was talking to the next generation of car enthusiasts, the future of the hobby.
Our conversation took me back to when I was a young engineering student in college, driving a ’68 Mustang, and eyeing beautiful muscle cars almost everywhere as I struggled through that stage of my life. Pointing to the Boss, I threw in my standard line: “This is why I went to college.” I say that because I believe in education, and that young people should get all the incentive they need to see it through and get their degree. I was not prepared for what happened next.
While Mark used words like “awesome” and “bad ass,” Tom was more reflective about the Boss. In a reserved, choppy sentence, he asked, “How did you . . . you know – find it, and the time . . . and make it all happen?”
I explained to Tom, “I just told myself when I was in college that if I earned my degree, and got a good job, all my dreams would come true.” He asked if restoring classic cars was also part of that dream, and I said, “Well, I didn’t envision it exactly that way, but when I started finding, restoring and showing cars as a hobby, there was a sense of satisfaction I got that I really enjoyed.” After a brief silence, I then added, “It really brings me close to, and reminds me of, an America I am proud of.”
Not knowing I just hit a chord, I watched Tom stare at my car, nodding as he slowly said, “I wish there was an America I could be proud of.”
I quickly realized an opportunity that I rarely get: A momentary mentorship.
“Tom, that’s your job”, I said. “You have to help make an America that you can be proud of.” You can learn from what my generation has done for itself, but you have to work to make your future what you want it to be.”
The lesson was clear: Young people today need older, experienced “mentors” to show them the way in life; my Boss 302 was the bridge across the generation gap that enabled the dialogue. Tom clearly saw the value in the result of my efforts during my youth; he just didn’t know how to get there for himself. I know there’s lots of distractions along the way. Maybe it was easier back before cell phones, social media, outsourcing of all kinds of jobs, escalating education costs and all the debt that’s associated with it. Millennials entered the job market when our economy was in a steep decline, so financial success may seem a long way off. But I wanted him to dream big and strive to succeed.
So I took a chance, put my hand on his shoulder and said, “You know, Tom, America has been here before. My parents grew up in the Great Depression, and somehow despite all they had to endure, they made a better world for my generation.”
He looked at me, newly focused on what I was saying, and replied, “Yeah, I guess they did.”
I gave him my business card, told him I am an IT executive, was once an aspiring engineer – just like him – and that he should go back to school, get that degree and call me when he’s looking for a job.
“Then you, too, can find a cool car you’d be proud to own and talk about.” I assured him.
If the story ended there, I would have been satisfied to know that once again my Mustang lifestyle had presented the opportunity to make yet another positive impact on someone. But about two years later, I got an email from Tom. He referenced that day in the restaurant parking lot with my Boss 302 and thanked me for talking to him.
Turns out that Tom went back to school, graduated with an engineering degree, and had accepted a position with a company that is rebuilding bridges and roads. His brief but poignant note stated that he day we talked had changed his views on life, and helping rebuild America’s infrastructure was the way he wanted to “make an America he could be proud of.” I was moved by the email and was actually flushed with pride.
While there’s so many things I could take from this story, I know that without my Mustang, I wouldn’t have been cruising that day. Which means it wouldn’t have been in that lot and got the attention of those young brothers. I would not have met Tom, and would not have had the chance to see life through the eyes of a Millennial. I would not have had the opportunity to mentor . . . nor to eventually get the email that made me so proud.
It’s not only the Mustang that made this happen, but more likely my whole Mustang ownership experience: restoring, rebuilding or enhancing the cars, accessing the enthusiast community for help, then helping someone who’s asking for advice – and enjoying the new friends made all along the way. That’s why my being a Mustang enthusiast is not just a hobby – it’s a lifestyle!
FORD PERFORMANCE PHOTOS / COURTSEY JOHN DETTORI