The Mitchell Mustang Mystery

An autobiographical sketch by Henry H. Mitchell.

Mitchells with their first 1968 Mustang

Henry and Patricia Mitchell, their Angora cat Snow Puff, and their cherished first 1968 Mustang, in September 1969.

For those who have asked, I'll try to explain our Mustang story!

Love at First Sight

Patricia and I eloped in 1968, when we were both students at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. I was graduated in June of 1969, simultaneously receiving a 2nd Lt. commission in the USAF through the cadet corps and ROTC program there. But active duty was delayed through a string of events including Hurricane Camille's hitting Biloxi, Mississippi, the location of my first assignment. We were running out of money, but my military status was in day-to-day confusion, with orders being alternately cut and canceled, so I could not take a civilian job. My parents were helping to tide us over in the interim. We did not own an automobile (we were borrowing a red Volvo 544 from my sister and brother-in-law Joan and Jim Keith), so we were car-shopping.

We really liked the little Mustangs 65-66-67-68, and were scouring used-car lots and classified ads for a suitable one. Nothing panned out, though, until late one Saturday afternoon, after looking all over the Roanoke area, we were driving through the town of Salem. The Hart Oldsmobile dealership there had just put “our” beautiful maroon 68 model up on a rack out front to show it off. It was one year old, and had just been traded in on an Olds Cutlass Supreme. My father was involved in our car search as well, but he wanted us to get something more practical and actually had found us a low-mileage, low-priced, fairly late-model Chrysler Imperial that he wanted us to buy.

But we were set on the maroon Mustang, and I went to our banker. He gave us a loan for the car, based on my impending employment with the USAF. I called Dad to tell him about it, and he just laughed, and said that since we were sure this was what we wanted, to forget about the loan, and he would send a check for the purchase price, and we could pay it back $100 a month without interest. (Much better terms than the bank's!)

A Chariot for Adventure

So we made the deal, and soon were on our way to hurricane-devastated Biloxi, Mississippi (the photo above was taken just minutes before we drove off from my parents' home in Spring Garden, a few miles east of Chatham, Virginia). In fact, due to a mixup of orders, Patricia wasn't supposed to go with me to storm-torn Keesler Air Force Base, but when we got there, the mixup was corrected, and she, the only “disobedient” spouse, turned out to be the only one under that group of orders to get paid for travel! Anyway, the maroon Mustang was our chariot for all the adventures of our early married life. We explored the Gulf Coast in it. We were assigned then to Ohio, and we then explored some of the Midwest. I took an early out in '72, and we took the car with us to New Orleans.

In New Orleans we lived in the French Quarter, so while we started our art gallery / local magazine businesses there, we had to rent the 'Stang an “apartment,” too (about as expensive as ours, in a guarded, lighted parking lot).

Going Once

But one morning we found it had been stolen, in spite of the guards, lights, barricades, etc. (an inside job, we are certain). I called the police. The dispatcher snorted. (“We've got homicides to worry about, not stolen cars.”) I had a strong hunch to take a walk down by the River in the warehouse area. Sure enough, there was our “Penelope” (that's what we called her) with her windshield shot out and two men unloading stuff into a warehouse. The car had been used in a holdup. I ducked into a store, and called the police again. Again the dispatcher laughed at me. So I waited until both guys were in the warehouse at the same time, and raced across the street, jumped into the car, and drove off.

New Orleans parking lot

The French Quarter parking lot from which the Mustang was stolen (July 2005 photo).

I took the car straight to a mechanic I knew and left it with him to get the windshield put back in. Later that day I picked it up, and drove back to the parking lot (talk about a suprised attendant!). In the meantime I had called our friend Aubrey Jenkins, who lived out in the suburbs (Metairie) and he agreed to come in and get the car before nightfall and take it to his house. When he arrived, he said he'd just like to have me transfer the title to him, so he would be free to use it, insure it, and make any repairs, etc., while it was at his house. He promised to keep track of his expenses, and not sell the car except back to us. We agreed, and he gave us $400 out of his pocket just as a token.

Going Twice

Well, Aubrey took Penelope home, but almost immediately, through a misunderstanding involving several peculiar coincidences and a birthday, the car was traded on a new Bronco by another family member. By the time Aubrey found out about the mixup and went to the Ford dealer, the Mustang had been sold again and was gone, never to be seen again by us!

When Aubrey (by the way, still a very good friend of ours nearly 30 years later) apologetically called us with the wacky story of what had happened, we were somewhat unhappy about it, but on the other hand could definitely see humorous elements of it. And we really didn't need a car anyway, living in the Quarter with fairly easy access to public transportation and to car rental agencies. So life went on for a few months, while the Lord was working on us in other ways (that's a whole 'nother story), and we ended up moving back to Virginia, where car ownership was again a necessity of life.

Gone, but Not Forgotten

Mitchells with their second 1968 Mustang

Henry, Patricia, and Sarah Mitchell, with their second 1968 Mustang, a fastback, in 1982.

Out of habit and sentiment, we tried to “replace” our dear departed Penelope. By this time Dad was into the spirit of our Mustang preferences, and tried to arrange the purchase from friends of a cream-puff blue 68 GT loaded with performance and comfort options. But the deal fell through, and we found instead a more basic but very nice 68 yellow fastback, which we drove for another 100,000 miles, and eventually a 65 coupe, which we drove for about 30,000 miles. They were fun, and relatively inexpensive to operate, but we never “bonded” with them as we had with Penelope! Then when Jonathan was on the way, we decided that a family of five (David came along somewhere in there) no longer fit Mustangs, so we sold both and bought a Chrysler 5th Avenue (which we still have 15 years later).

In the meantime, all through the years, both Tricia and I had recurring dreams of “finding” our old friend Penelope. The dreams always involved discovering the maroon Mustang on a gravel parking lot during an excursion to nearby Danville, Virginia, 850 miles from New Orleans, where she was “lost” so many years ago! Our dreams seemed to always involve my father as well, and the dreams came at a time when something was happening with him, or in our relationship with him, so we agreed that the dreams were probably actually about him, rather than actually having anything to do with the maroon Mustang. After all, he had been very involved with our purchase of it, and had facilitated it. The transaction had epitomized and symbolized the various tugs and tussles he and I had as I matured and sought independence (and his mentorship). We also had abandoned the idea of ever owning another classic Mustang, because by now rust has taken its toll on nearly all of them, and the prices are sky-high. Plus, we have three just-about-grown kids, so why would we want an old Mustang anyway?!

Like a Dream

Well, on October 15, 2001, all five of us were headed into Danville on our other vehicle, a 93 Chevy Astro van, when Jonathan shouted, “There's your Mustang!” I put on the brakes and we all ogled to the right and saw what looked like an exact twin to Penelope. Out of curiosity we did a u-turn and pulled into the gravel parking lot. The car appeared to be in perfect condition. It did not have a for sale sign on it, but in the floor of the back seat was a card which looked like a sale sign turned face down. So we started knocking on doors of the nearby buildings. We found a young man who said it was his dad's car, but he didn't know anything about it, so gave us his dad's cellphone number. I called him, and he said the car was there because he had just sold it, and had taken it to that spot to transfer it to the buyer in a couple of hours. He said that he had bought the car in eastern Virginia several years earlier, and had warehoused it with others in his collection since then. He was now selling it to make room for the possible purchase of a Shelby Cobra. I asked him to let us know if the buyer did not show up.

Penelope's twin

The third 1968 Mustang, as seen on the gravel parking lot near Danville, Virginia, on October 15, 2001.

Later that day, he called to say the buyer had not appeared. He gave us a take-it-or-leave-it price. After an agreed-upon delay of a few days (see end of story), we took it to our mechanic friend Richard Meadows, who went over it and could find no rust at all, and no problems other than related to long storage. So we took a deep breath and bought it.

Its physical relationship to the long-lost Penelope? It is from the same series, the same factory, almost the same serial number. It was made after Jan. 1, 1968, so has shoulder harness, which Penelope did not. The “new” 68 has factory air, Penelope had after-factory air. Penelope had special edition rose medallions on the wheel covers, this one does not. Those are the only differences. Everything else is the same: 289 V-8, automatic transmission, power steering, and exterior and interior color.

What about the fact that we had decided the dreams were about Dad? Well, the car appeared on the morning of October 15. Dad passed away on October 14. We were on the way to Danville to get dressier clothes for the boys for Dad's funeral.

Someday we'll find out the rest of the story!

Mitchells with their third 1968 Mustang

Henry, Patricia, Jonathan, Sarah, and David Mitchell, their cat Marshmellow, and their third 1968 Mustang, in December 2001.


This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.