Just east of Kester, on the north side of Bessemer, Mustangs, Etc. has been servicing, restoring and selling that model of Ford since 1976.
They occupy three buildings. Two are rented, and one is owned.
There are 20,000 square feet, in total, of vintage parts stacked high and piled thick, inside cavernous, narrow, metal-shelved rooms with wood-framed ceilings, some punched out with skylights. Dusty light pours down through decades of spider webs to illuminate every small, medium and heavy part that might go into any Ford Mustang built since 1964 1/2.
Garrett Marks, 37; musician son of the founder, Arnold, 76; lead me on a tour of their facility. Thoughtful, quiet, bearded, limping somewhat from a two-year old accident, he wears his red hair long and speaks softly and knowledgeably about his family business.
“I feel like a historian, an archaeologist, and an investigator,” he said, as we walked past rows of steel tire rims, drive shafts, 14″ Spun Aluminum Air Cleaners, spark plug cables, brake pads, fuel pumps, stainless hood hinges, ’67 Mustang air conditioning vents,auto lamps, hydraulic hose lines, Bendix Radios, and stacks of vintage dashboards with fuel, oil and speedometer instrument panels.
We passed those extra-large, circular Mustang gas covers from the early 1970s.
Mary Tyler Moore, are you still on that highway to Minneapolis?
Inside the parts office there was a straight-haired young woman who sat in front of a computer screen. Her digital device seemed out-of-place in a fluorescent lit, wall-paneled room overflowing with volumes of instruction manuals: 1969,70, 71, 72, 73 Wiring and Vacuum Diagrams, 1959 Edsel Maintenance, and a glass case with headlights, key chains and other ephemera seemingly mixed up and tossed about by mischievous ghosts.
A few buildings down the block I toured the service garage.
It is expansive, bright and light filled. Jocular young men in dark blue uniforms with retro names (Scooter, Steve, Mike, and Gil) worked on vintage Mustangs and mocked one another in friendly terms.
It was like a scene out of old Kansas somewhere in a small town. I thought the boys might get a lickin’ if Auntie Em or Uncle Arnold came onto the floor. It could play out like “The Wizard of Oz.”
Here, here, what’s all this jabber-wapping when there’s work to be done? I know three shiftless farm hands that’ll be out of a job before they know it!
Well, Garrett was walking along the —
I saw you tinkering with that contraption, Scooter. Now, you and Steve get back to that wagon!
All right, Mrs. Gale. But some day they’re going to erect a statue to me in this town, and —
Well, don’t start posing for it now. Here, here — can’t work on an empty stomach. Have some crullers.
A few jaunty, groovy autos were positioned high, held up on hydraulic vehicle hoists. Each mouth-watering, metallic Mustang body was a different color: deep red, orange, blue, and misty green. Each evoked a sensory flood of memories, for me, that fast time, 50 years ago, when people drove fast and unbelted, and every car you passed in Malibu had women in short skirts with long hair and big sunglasses smoking. Everyone you saw was 18, smooth-faced and sat in the sun and went to the beach every chance they got.
Those Mustang Dreams were getting renewed in present day Van Nuys. Their exteriors polished, their engines tuned up, their interiors sewn and repaired and given a yearly dose of immortality denied to their owners. A freshly restored Mustang gallops like an unbridled pony. It embodies youth, fury, energy, and a temporary escape from any debt, duty or obligation.
Just outside the garage, out on the black top, Ray was demonstrating a 1967 Lincoln Convertible Sedan whose top unfurled electronically and was stored in a giant steel trunk that opened to receive it and seemed ominously capable of holding five dead gangsters comfortably.
I met Arnold, the founder, and we sat in his office as he spoke.
He was born in Detroit in 1941. His father was a skilled auto mechanic. They came to South LA after the war, and Arnold came of age during Kennedy’s New Frontier when the Presidency was still profound and its occupant quotably inspiring.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
The young idealist Arnold wanted to teach. He got his certification, and he went down to South Central where he encountered disheartening road blocks: a disdain for education, broken families, poverty, and children who passed around bullets in class for amusement. In those schools, at that time, before busing, there was no order, no discipline, no respect, so he soon went to find another way to work.
He got smart and retrained as an auto mechanic. By luck, he found another spot near Kester, and began his operation in 1976. His rent was $900 a month so he had to hustle. He found that his specialty in Ford Mustangs was dear to many, including celebrities such as Jay Leno, and Miley Cyrus among others.
Like all business owners in Los Angeles, he found that he had to fight, not only for customers, but against appalling social conditions in the neighborhood. There was illegal dumping, homeless encampments, drug dealers, drug addicts, thefts, and murders.
The expansion and landscaping of the Orange Line (2005), with its lush trees, bike trail and dedicated bus route also ironically hampered the operations of Mustangs, Etc. For now Bessemer Street was narrower, there was no room for tow trucks to drive. The leaves from the many shade trees blew into the property, creating a fire hazard, necessitating removal.
Arnold does not believe “Option A”, the plan to destroy his business and hundreds of others for a Metro Light Rail Service Yard, will happen. “If we are evicted where will we go? There are no other affordable, convenient places for a small business. Many of our customers come from Hollywood or over the hill, so they aren’t going to drive to Pacoima.”
General Manager Mike thinks the plan to demolish 33 acres of industrial Van Nuys will create some huge environmental problems as decades of discarded oil, poisons, liquid metals and other bio-hazards, once willfully dumped, buried into the soil, are released back into the air. Adjacent homes will see clouds of dust blow over them as bulldozers, jack hammers and shovels unbury deadly toxins entombed in dirt since the 1940s.
If Mustangs, Etc. and other businesses survive this threat, a piece of historic but still functioning, producing, contributing, industrial Van Nuys will have had a small triumph. These family owned companies, mostly employing locals , walking to work, or living nearby, these places of quiet accomplishment and enduring fortitude shall not perish from this Earth.