This rare 1967 Mustang GTA braved the high seas for a Thelma-and-Louise life in Aotearoa


When a rare Mustang, based in Florida, catches the eye of an Auckland woman, she moves heaven and earth to park up the pony at home.

Words: Jane Warwick  Photos: Tessa Chrisp

Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1998. Rita and Shaun Eastell and their three children, Owen, Beth and Veronica, were at the tail end of an epic overseas trip. Their final destination was to visit extended family in the United States’ southeasternmost state. They had a lot of fun and made some great memories, but Rita was about to buy a souvenir to eclipse all souvenirs bought then or since.

Enter Jeff, an uncle of Shaun’s cousin’s wife. He lamented that he had to sell the prized 1967 Mustang GTA 390 convertible he had had for several years to make way for a new obsession. “She’s a beauty,” he said. “You should look at her before you go home. See what I’m going to be missing.”

So, on their way to the airport for the flight back to Aotearoa, the Eastells stopped by Uncle Jeff’s garage to check out the pale blue — officially Clearwater Aqua — white-topped convertible sitting by the palm trees in the Florida sunshine, and Rita said, “I’ll buy it!” Right there and then. Because she could. Because she had some inheritance in her pocket. Because it was love at first sight. It isn’t remembered, now, whether the respective jaws of Uncle Jeff and Shaun dropped open in surprise or if Shaun even managed to choke out a squeak.

Did Uncle Jeff let out a “Wha.. wha.. what?” Did Shaun turn to him and ask, “What happened? Did something just happen?” because in the years since, the car has become such an integral and much-loved part of the Eastells’ life that the immediate details concerning the spontaneous purchase have been lost.

What is remembered is that Uncle Jeff missed it before it even left his garage and has insisted ever since that should Rita get tired of the Mustang and want to sell (fat chance!), he should be given the first option, and it should be shipped back across the oceans to that space under the palm trees.

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Back in Kumeu in north Auckland, Rita spent the next week trying to arrange shipping. To her astonishment, although she could easily find a truck for hire that would take the vehicle to a Miami port, there wasn’t such a thing as a truck with a swing lift available — in those days at least. She understood it was a union thing, something about such tomfoolery disadvantaging small-business truck drivers.

Uncle Jeff helped organize a flat-bed tow truck to transport the vehicle to the container depot, but how to get the Mustang up the big lip of the already stacked container and into its shelter was another matter. Uncle Jeff even contemplated buying a bushel or two of earth to make a ramp up to the container floor.

Eventually, the car was driven as normal up the loading ramp of a flat-bed tow and taken to the port, where the truck was backed up and then jacked up to reach the container door. Planks were used to span the gap, and Rita’s impulse buy was at last en route to Auckland. She was glad she wasn’t there to see it loaded because it all sounded a bit fraught and, well, Mickey Mouse, to use a final allusion to Florida, home of Disney World.

Rita had left orders with Uncle Jeff to despatch the vehicle in pristine condition. But when it arrived in Aotearoa three weeks later, there was the expected contingent of seasick arachnids and nearly enough leaves for an autumn bonfire. Despite Florida’s balmy temperatures and seemingly endless summer, the state has its share of deciduous trees.

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After the MAF fumigation, the seatbelts had to be swapped out for ones deemed more acceptable for New Zealand, and the battery tray needed rust repair. Still, everything else was original — the left-hand drive, the push-button radio with just one speaker on the dash that crackles sometimes, heating but no air-conditioning, teal bucket seats, and headlights that switch to high beam via a foot-controlled button on the floor. The only things that don’t reflect the original vehicle are the tyres — Rita would like white-walled ones again but has not yet been able to find them in the size needed — and the exhaust, which was custom-built to leave no doubt that there is a big block V8 under the hood.

So now Rita had the keys firmly in her grip. Her previous car was a pink Fairmont Ghia with the number plate “Ze Fab 1”, alluding to Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward’s pink Rolls-Royce for those old enough to remember TV’s Thunderbirds, and the sentiment was just as appropriate for the new ride, if not more.

She and her good friend Beryl would take to the roads like Thelma and Louise, without the sad ending. They didn’t care that when the roof was up in inclement weather, it left a gap at the top of the windscreen, where rain gusting at a certain angle meant they had to drive with plastic bags on their laps.

Ford sold the model as a family fun car, and the Eastells took Ford at its word. They loaded the kids and cruised, had picnics at Muriwai, drives in the country, and trips to the Bay of Islands, Manganui, Napier, Taupō. As the owners of the nature-based early childhood centre, Country Bears, Rita and Shaun are used to finding the basis for adventure at every turn. Power steering and the big V8’s easy balance on the road make it an excellent drive. They haven’t been to the South Island yet because, well, they haven’t needed to — there are drives enough closer to home.

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But one day, they will cross the Strait.

From 1998 to 2020, they didn’t touch a thing, nor needed to for a WoF, as Uncle Jeff had maintained it in such good condition that nothing needed to be done.

Until 2020. Then the exhaust was starting to get a bit smoky, so Rita took it off the road for a bit of an overhaul. The job was expected to take weeks, but it turned into a couple of years of body-off restoration. It was nothing major, just tweaking here and there. “The team working on it wanted everything just right, so that — and waiting on parts and Covid-related delays — meant the project saw the months keep rolling by,” sighs Rita. But now her ride is back where it is supposed to be, parked alongside Shaun’s equally treasured 1957 Buick Roadmaster.

It doesn’t look as if Shaun’s cousin’s wife’s uncle Jeff will ever get his wish for first dibs.

THE HISTORY BEHIND THE ‘STANG

Ford produced 4848 of Mustang 390 convertibles with a luxury interior package and buckets seats, according to Rita. These were both the GTs and GTAs — ‘A’ designating automatic.

“I understand there were more GTs than GTAs. There were apparently 28 body colour choices and 20 interior trim choices. Most seem to have been red, blue and white, but I imagine there were not hundreds of aqua ones,” she says. “There are many variables but breaking down the options regarding our car — Clearwater Aqua exterior, Aqua luxury bucket seat, 320hp 390 Thunderbird Special V8 engine, a 3.25:1 ratio nine-inch locking diff rear axle, and a C-6 automatic transmission — we know this is a rare car as it stands.”

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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