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Sonny & Cher (1)

DEARBRON, Mich. - Sonny and Cher really rocked it in the ’60’s. This groovy husband-and-wife duo had charm, a knack for writing or choosing the right songs to perform and record, and legit musical talent. It helps that they were attractive too: Sonny, a compact guy, had the hair, the ‘stache, and the bellbottoms and Cher brought her own smoky brand of sexuality to the team. They were so popular that they ended up with their own television show in the early ’70’s, and even after divorcing, outlasted their legal parting to still get TV and concert audiences rocking in the isles throughout that decade and beyond. And they sure drove a cool pair of custom Mustangs.

Carmakers have long courted Hollywood and other celebrity types into driving their products. Clark Gable driving his Jaguar XK120 and Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing certainly helped sell a fair number of those premium sports cars in the 1950s. Cars have been part of movie and TV scripts since their beginnings, but the art, science and business of product placement really crystalized in the 1960s by putting James Bond behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger and Thunderball, and of course with the casting of a Highland Green Metallic ’68 Mustang GT390 fastback in Steve McQueen’s Bullitt.

It isn’t abundantly clear how a pair of San Jose-built 1966 Mustang convertibles got earmarked for Sonny and Cher, but they did, and were handed over to the self-proclaimed “King of Kustomizers” George Barris for his own brand of remodel. Sonny’s car was designed around a gold-and-brown color palette, with Cher’s a dazzling, and much more feminine pink motif.

The late Barris had commented that “Sonny and Cher go back a long way with me. They were the hippest young couple I can remember. They dressed way out and wild, and Cher was the most beautiful young woman imaginable.”  Barris’ wife, Shirley, helped them each choose colors and design their Mustangs. Ford was definitely a willing participant in this sure-fire public relations-hit stunt, as the cars, over time, have been photographed wearing California state black-and-gold manufacturer’s license plates, although for show and photoshoots, the cars wore dummy plates with their stars’ names on them.

Both cars are 289 V-8 convertibles, with automatic transmissions. Sonny’s Mustang is a 289 A-Code four-barrel car with 225 horsepower; Cher’s a slightly less-aggressive 200-horse two-barrel carbureted car. Both have power steering and power brakes but no air conditioning, and floor-shifted 3-speed automatic transmissions, faux wood-trimmed steering wheels, and full-length center consoles. These were pretty much bread-and-butter convertibles, which was to Barris a blank canvas.

Barris’ body mods for both cars were quite similar, including full repaints. The main color for Cher’s car is called Hot Candy Pink, and Sonny’s is Murano Gold. Barris and company reconfigured both cars’ front ends, giving them silver-mesh twin grilles and a bit of a “beak” in the middle – about where the standard running horse and corrals would normally rest; the stock headlights were also swapped out for Lucas European-style rectangular units, each in their own chrome bezels. Barris must have really favored these headlight units, as they ended up on a number of his creations over time. The front end redesign is handsome enough, but oddly, resembles an early ‘60s Pontiac Tempest, something Ford surely never had in mind.

The rest of the mods were typical of Barris at the time. Each Mustang’s hood wears a pair of bright metal “grilles” intended to look like some sort of hood air extractors, but they more closely resemble ventwork that you might find at an industrial heating and air conditioning supply outlet. Barris was famous for this type of mod; not in any way functional, and often found at the hardware store or home improvement center. He once customized the grille of his Model T hot rod using knobs from his family’s kitchen’s cabinets, about which he said his mother wasn’t abundantly thrilled. Each car got deluxe Mustang rocker panel trim and faux side pipes, although it appears the cars wear small functional notched dual exhaust outlets in the lower rear fascias. The taillight treatments are completely custom, with their origin unknown – they somewhat resemble the wide, rear lights on a mid-‘60s T-Bird or a ’68 GT/CS, but are not divided into three sections as they are on those Fords, nor are they sequential.  Sonny’s car wears brown paint in its “coves” along the stock door and fenderlines, while the Cher car’s coved panels are painted a more distinct red to contrast the rest of the body’s Hot Pink.

The interiors of both cars are really over the top, so typical of Barris, and of the era. The seats of Cher’s car are stitched of genuine Ermine fur, contrasted by black leather. And Sonny’s cabin is done up in a wild combo of bobcat fur, saddle leather and suede; both cars are trimmed in very shaggy faux fur carpeting – you might think of it as “ultrashag.” At the moment, Cher’s steering column wears a Ford accessory Rally Pak gauge cluster; it isn’t clear if Sonny’s car also did in period, and perhaps that now valuable bolt-on disappeared along the way -- or never was there. Barris also equipped each car with what passed for high-end audio back in the day in the form of a separate 8-track tape player boxed in at the leading edge of each floor console. And the driver’s seat in both His and Hers has been modified to swivel; something Ford didn’t offer in a Mustang. Each car wears a small, engraved brass plate and Barris Kustoms’ very royal looking logo. Sonny’s has a tan convertible top and tonneau cover, while both elements on Cher’s are black. And of course AMT produced a plastic model kit containing both cars, which is today highly prized and costs several hundred bucks on eBay.

It wouldn’t be a custom car without custom wheels, and this is where the story of these cars appears to have evolved over time, as at least one of them wears different wheels in varying photos, taken at different times. In many early photos, Cher’s car wears aluminum “wire mag” style wheels running whitewall tires, while Sonny’s Mustang is nearly always shown wearing a set of very period retro looking Radir mags.

George went on to personalize a pair of Yamaha motorcycles for them not long after the Mustang were done, and Barris remained friendly with Sonny and Cher, even after their divorce and careers that also went their separate ways. Further automotive exploits for Cher include several Mercedes-Benzes and a pair of Ferraris as her recording and Oscar-winning acting career continued to flourish.

The Mustangs’ ownership situation has ebbed and flowed over the decades, and the cars have been sold and resold several times since they were built built in 1966 – most recently by Barrett-Jackson, at its Scottsdale, Arizona auction in January of 2018. These two cars were logically sold as a pair, and purchased for $146,700 by Manhattan, Kansas, enthusiast and businessman Ward Morgan; incidentally for less than they had sold for previously. Some would say they either had depreciated over the years, or that Mr. Morgan made a very good buy this time out.

Why own this pair of Pop Culture Ponies?  Mr. Morgan has a substantial car collection, and loves TV, movie, and rock ‘n’ roll cars. Plus he’s well under way on plans for turning his collection into a car museum, which will be open to the public, not hidden and locked away in some giant warehouse gathering dust. He favors custom cars and particularly appreciates and enjoys George Barris’ works.

Morgan’s collection, and the new yet-unnamed museum planned for opening in the fall of 2018, is loosely configured around the notions of cars through time and culture, of the “Past, Present, and Future.” Fords and Ford-related hardware among his fleet include a 1907 Model R Ford, several Ford Model A’s, a few Lincolns, a ’69 Mach I, and a 2006 Ford GT. And now, of course, these famed Sonny and Cher Barris Mustangs. Nasayers may call them a bit tacky, but those who were there and or dig the looks of the times will love every over-the-top touch. Rock On!