Lake Forest, Calif. — The garage door flips up at Virgil Pletcher’s house and it’s time to get down with one of the coolest cars ever made.
Two clues about this honey of a machine: Wilson Pickett recorded what song in what year about a man who buys a car for his girlfriend?
OK, one more hint: That girl’s name was Sally.
That’s right, I’m looking at a half-century-old Mustang that is almost exactly like it was the day Pletcher and his wife drove from Southern California to Michigan to buy it hot off the assembly line. I open the maroon door, settle into the black bucket seat, shift the four-on-the-floor stick into neutral, turn the ignition key and squash the gas pedal.
“Oh, Lord,” as Pickett sings, “what I say now.”
At 92, Pletcher is nearly twice as old as his favorite car. He has several.
But don’t think Pletcher has a fancy garage. Far from it. Though he has a few classic cars, including a 1965 VW Beetle in need of tender love, Pletcher stays close to his roots.
Pletcher, born in 1923, grew up on an Indiana farm. By age 7, he fed chickens, gathered eggs and milked cows by hand.
By age 11, he hitched up the family’s four horses and maneuvered a monster mower to cut hay in the back swath of the 118-acre farm.
“I’m an Indiana plowboy,” Pletcher says during a visit at his Lake Forest home.
It was in high school when Pletcher discovered his first love — cars.
Pletcher went from a one-room schoolhouse to a regular high school — graduating class of 50 — but there were no buses to ferry students. Sixteen years old and armed with a driver’s license, Pletcher asked his father if he could borrow the family’s 1935 Ford flathead V-8 to bus kids to school.
Oh, the job paid $1 per student per week. Pop said you bet, and before long Pletcher was making $9 a week.
Yes, the school was just fine squeezing nine teenagers into a car, stacking kids on one another’s laps. And, yes, times have changed.
When World War II broke out, Pletcher and his brother received farm deferments. But by 1944, the deferments expired and Pletcher found himself at the draft office. The clerk asked what military branch he wanted. Army, the plowboy said, anything but the Navy because he didn’t know how to swim.
He was handed a document stamped with a big “N.” Soon, three months of Navy boot camp were squeezed into five weeks and Pletcher found himself on a train to San Francisco.
Next stop: Guadalcanal.
“I’ve lived in two worlds,” Pletcher says. “The farm before I was drafted, and everything after.”
Pletcher spent his tour in the Navy working as a clerk and bouncing around various Pacific islands. Eventually, he wound up at the “Lighter-Than-Air Station,” as it was known then; today it’s the Tustin blimp base.
But what really interested him was roller skating, a mighty big pastime in the 1940s. And — not incidentally — a way to meet girls.
Pletcher hitched up his courage and made his way to the local roller rink. The Navy veteran has no trouble recalling the months he courted Marcheta Teter.
Eventually, Mrs. and Mr. Teter invited the young sailor over for dinner, a landmark event.
But after Pletcher was discharged, he felt duty-bound to head back to the farm to help with the heavy lifting. Soon, though, it was clear there were enough Pletchers to work the land.
The young man borrowed his brother’s Pontiac and drove straight to Santa Ana. Pletcher found a job mixing and maintaining wet plaster. It was a job he held for 42 years. The couple married and bought a home. Three daughters followed.
All the while, Pletcher remained a car guy at heart. He bought a Studebaker Champion nearly straight from the factory in South Bend, Ind. It cost him $1,500, and he figures the Studebaker worker he got it from paid half that.
After arriving in California, Pletcher and his wife cruised in a 1949 Ford convertible. Later, Pletcher bought a 1954 Studebaker for its sloped racing hood.
But when the 1966 Ford Mustang came out, well, as Pickett sings, “H’uh, oh, yeah.”
As luck would have it, Pletcher’s brother knew a car dealer in Dowagiac, Mich., that offered rock-bottom prices.
More luck: Pletcher’s brother was a trucker for a company that shipped cars. Both husband and wife loved the Mustang so much they drove it at least four times to visit relatives in Indiana.
Today, the Mustang, original parts intact and chrome gleaming, still hums — just as it has for 50 years.
Though Pletcher’s wife has been hit by age, her husband remains nimble and drives a minivan to barbershop quartet practices.
But every once in awhile, the plowboy slides into the maroon cocoon, turns the key, punches the clutch and the engine comes to life with a rumble and a roar.
“Ride, Sally, ride.”