by Annette Hinkle
Ask Sam Hamilton to name his passions and you’ll soon learn that cars are at the top of the list.
Hamilton, a Sag Harbor resident, attends the Ross School — and last spring when it came time to decide on a senior project to compete his final year at Ross, he knew exactly what he wanted to do….
Restore a classic car.
“Before he could speak he had a word for ‘truck,’” recalls dad, Stephen Hamilton, who is hardly surprised that his son picked a project in the automotive realm. “I thought it was so cool. Then I had the second thought — will they really allow a grease monkey to graduate at Ross? I also thought instantly I would be willingly sucked into it.”
That’s because Stephen Hamilton came of age in the era when fixing up old cars was a rite of passage for most teenage boys in this country (and the occasional girl).
But times and technology changed all that. Computers, digital sensors and power assist everything has greatly improved the way cars drive, making them far more dependable and responsive than they were even just a few decades ago. With that reliability has come a disconnect and, let’s face it, the intimate relationship we once enjoyed (or just as often, didn’t) with our cars is gone.
Those well known ticks, purrs and rumbles that indicated when she was happy, indifferent or cold were sounds we knew well and we adjusted our demands accordingly. But those noises are absent in today’s high performance machines, which we gladly hand over to professionals at the requisite mileage for tunes ups or computer analysis.
For Sam Hamilton, the differences between today’s cars and those produced in the mid-20th century have become abundantly clear in the last seven months as he has worked to restore a 1966 Mustang coupe (ivy green, white vinyl top) which he bough on Craig’s list for $6,000.
“It was important that it was first generation — preferably before the ‘67 redesign,” he says adding that the car has a 200 cubic inch, straight six engine, which was the base model. “The car first came out late in ’64 and a half year later, they added fastbacks. In ’67, they got longer and became a true fastback, but it was not until ‘74 they had a complete overhaul.”
“The whole draw to something of the ‘60s era was there’s no fancy electronics or controls. It’s mechanical, simple and pure,” says Hamilton. “That seemed like the easiest and how could you go wrong with an icon?”
It turns out, this is a great time to take on this kind of project, since 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Mustang’s debut.
“In April 1964, it was unveiled by Lee Iacocca at the New York World’s Fair,” notes Hamilton. “I saw a video made at the time, this guy said the car would never be a classic because they were making too many of them. He said the production numbers were preposterous and asked how a car like this could ever have value.”
“It was marketed as the first car for the masses,” says Hamilton. “You could take a road trip and cruise into the sunset or drive the kids to school.”
In 1966, a million Mustangs rolled off the assembly line, yet despite the large numbers, the car did become a classic — and because of the large numbers, parts are readily available for aficionados like Hamilton.
“Another fantastic thing I learned after I bought this car is everybody has a story about a Mustang,” he says. “There’s two degrees of separation with these cars.”
Last Saturday, with a fresh paint job and new carpeting, Hamilton and his dad were busy working on reupholstering and installing the seats. But the new chrome bumpers have yet to arrive, a worry since the restored vehicle goes on view tonight from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Ross School when Hamilton presents his senior project.
If they don’t show up in time, the old bumpers will have to be put back on in yet another wrinkle indicative of the complications Hamilton has had to contend with in recent months. Though he initially proposed a total overhaul of a classic car — including engine work and paint job, Matthew Aldredge, Hamilton’s advisor at Ross, thought it was too much given the Hamilton’s limited experience with engines.
“He felt the scope of the project was just too big for the time frame that we had,” recalls Hamilton. “So the project was narrowed down, with the outsourcing of the mechanical and paint work to local professionals.”
Hamilton took on all the interior work himself, including installation of a new sound system, and developed a marketing campaign on Indigogo to raise funds for the restoration as well as a website on which he blogs and posts images and videos documenting the process.
“All in all, we raised about $9,000,” says Hamilton. “Running a budget is still something I struggle with — saving the receipts, entering it all in. A major part of the project is managing the money.”
The dual scope of the restoration project has also played nicely into Hamilton’s experience as a kid with a foot in two centuries.
“I know a good deal more about computers than cars and it’s really been an amazing experience to see this is how they did it back then,” he says. “There are so many things that I can understand in modern times, and I come back here and see it in a mechanical way.”
“You don’t have a relationship with a modern car,” he says. “It’s a means for getting from point A to B. But this, you form a bond with.”
If working on the Mustang has offered one lesson for a young man who came of age in the 21st century, then driving it has been another.
“This car rumbles to life, smoke shoots out the back as the carburetor gets running, you set the choke, pull out the light switch, roll down the window and it clunks into gear,” says Hamilton. “There’s no power brakes, so you have to really use your foot. The steering isn’t self correcting — it doesn’t turn back on it’s own. This car was built to go and the engine is yelling at you.”
“You’re a partner in the experience – it gets personal.”
“That’s where you build a bond with a car.”
While it is quite a driving experience, with only lap belts, no airbags and side view mirrors (which incidentally were an option in 1966), Hamilton has no plans to drive the car beyond Southampton or over 50 mph.
“I don’t want to go faster than that,” he says. “It’s a cruising car.”
So this summer be sure to look for Hamilton — or possibly his mom or dad — behind the wheel of a beautifully restored ivy green ’66 Mustang rolling through the parking lot at Long Beach.
And be sure to give a thumbs up and take the time to share your own Mustang memories.
To read more about the restoration process, visit Hamilton’s blog mustangsam.net.