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17 years later, a man and his Mustang are reunited

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Wesley Ryan sold his 1993 Mustang GT 17 years ago to pay for his wife's cancer treatment. On Thursday, with wife, Laura in the passenger seat, he started up the engine of that very car in front of Ford World Headquarters and started to cry.

"I thought she was gone," Ryan, a 57-year-old San Antonio resident, said of the car. "I let her go."

Wesley Ryan of San Antonio, right, along with his family, from left, son Jacob Ryan, daughter Jeni Ryan and wife Laura, check out his 1993 Mustang GT, which he had sold 17 years ago to pay for his wife's cancer treatment. Ford restored the long-lost car after Jacob and Jeni tracked it down.

Ryan's son and daughter, Jake, 26, and Jeni, 22, had tracked the car down an hour north of San Antonio, Texas, two years ago. Jake haggled with the seller before they finally agreed on a price in September. The title of the car their father let go 17 years ago was still in their parents' name, Jake said. It seemed like fate, even if the car needed thousands of dollars in repairs.

Jake had been ready to work on the car himself. He and his dad thought it would take about five years to do all the work.

That's when Ford stepped in. 

People at Ford, including Executive Chairman Bill Ford, had seen national press coverage last fall when Ryan's kids first gave him the car. The automaker contacted the family late last year and told the Ryans that it wanted to help fix the car.

Ford donated a 5.0-liter V-8 engine, a new transmission and paid an undisclosed amount to have the car fully restored by Texas-based Hennessey Performance. Jake Ryan said he had expected to spend at least $6,000 on the engine alone.

The work took nearly nine months. Jerry Dellaportas, a technician at Hennessey, said the team stripped the pony car "down to nothing." They sand-blasted it, restored the exterior that had been covered in dings and and had taken a rear-end hit, and painted it the original white. The interior was trashed, Dellaportas said, and whoever had the car since Ryan first sold it has tried to turn it into a rally car and messed with engine components. 

When it was ready, Ford shipped the car up to Dearborn, and flew the family up from Texas, too. Wesley Ryan had known Ford was working on his beloved Mustang since late last year, but he didn't know what to expect. Thursday, he clutched his daughter's hand as the family walked out of the front doors of Ford's Glass House toward the silk sheet-covered car.

"We heard a lot about you," Henry Ford III, Ford's director of corporate strategy and great-great-grandson of Ford founder Henry Ford, told the family. Then the wind blew the cover off the car, and Wesley Ryan covered his face with his hands.

"C'mon, pop," Jake said, ushering his father toward the car he sold nearly two decades ago.

"Can I touch it?" Wesley asked no one in particular.

"Yeah, it's yours," Henry Ford III said. "It's yours."

John Hennessey, right, founder and CEO of  Hennessey Performance comforts Wesley Ryan after he became emotional after seeing his 1983 Mustang for the first time after being restored by Hennessey's company.

When the car fired up, Wesley Ryan's eyes went wide. When he sat in his car, which the family 17 years ago had jokingly named "Christine" after the murderous vehicle in a Stephen King novel, it took him right back to when he and his wife, Laura, now 45, first got it.

"I was feeling like I was 30 years old again," he said, after his hands had stopped shaking some 25 minutes later. "I felt like a young parent again. I kept thinking 'Do I deserve this?'"

His family thinks so.

After 17 years apart, the roar of the new engine brought memories back for the entire family, each of whom took turns sitting inside. Jake sat hunched in the driver's seat, nudging the gas pedal; tears welled up and he shook his head each time the Mustang sang.

Jake and his sister remember taking rides in the Mustang. And their dad remembers that, as much as he loved the car, he loved his wife and his children more.

"It was an emotional time for us when we found out she had cancer," he said. "And I told my wife 'She's gonna go...'. At the time, it was about her and my children. That car was gone."

Wesley plans to give the restored car to Jake. He has an old Ford F-100 pickup he'd been working on to give to his daughter. He bleeds Ford blue, he said. 

"You guys created a family heirloom," Wesley told Henry Ford III and the others Thursday in front of Ford World Headquarters. "You guys did more than you had to."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau