By Darrel Burnette, Executive Director – The Automobile Gallery & Event Center
originally published in “The Steering Column – Aug, 2023”
Cover stories are common. What you are about to read is an undercover story.
A 34- year dossier of detective work began as far away from the pristine environment of The Automobile Gallery & Event Center as your imagination dares to venture. The year was 1989, and a young, successful architect named Henry Isaksen coaxed open the weathered doors of an old barn in Door County, Wisconsin.
Acting on a tip from his friend, local building inspector Roger Strege, Henry was on the trail of a 1968 Shelby GT350 that he heard was for sale. Clearing away the cobwebs, not even a cloak of dust could disguise the fact that it wasn’t a Shelby GT at all. Closer inspection revealed the corpse of a 1969 Mustang GT.
Before revealing the treasure Henry Isaksen really discovered that day in 1989, allow me to put the year 1969 in context. It was a time of triumph, turmoil, and transition in America. With 650 million people across the globe transfixed to their television sets, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step foot on the moon. Less than a month later, exactly 54 years ago today as a matter of fact, on August 15th, 1969, another out-of-this world event occurred on a small farm in upstate New York. More than 400,000 festival goers made Woodstock world famous overnight and changed rock music and pop culture forever.
Given that 1969 was one of the most dramatic benchmarks of the 20th century, imagine the bravado it took for Ford’s Marketing Department to plaster billboards with the proclamation – Hottest Thing Going! 1969 Mustang.
Ford was merely surfing off the success of 1968 when stoic Steve McQueen cemented his image as the King of Cool flying through the streets of San Francisco in a Dark Highland Green Mustang GT. With McQueen behind the wheel and a menacing Dodge Charger behind McQueen, the Mustang was number 1 with a Bullitt at the box office in 1968! Warner Brothers thought it was releasing an action movie, but in reality Bullitt turned out to be a love story for Pony Car lovers fueling the sale of 317,404 Mustangs.
Given the romance surrounding 1968 Mustangs, you can imagine Henry Isaksen’s disappointment when the 1968 Shelby GT350 he was expecting to see that day in 1989 appeared to be a nondescript 1969 Mustang instead. That is, until he wiped away the dust on the VIN revealing the “find of a lifetime.” Amid the 11-digit VIN was the letter ‘R’. Suddenly it didn’t matter that the hood was on a nearby hay bale or that the car was missing its engine. What mattered was that the “R” in the VIN was proof that this 1969 Mustang was born with a 428 Cobra Jet engine with Ram Air. Henry completed the purchase March 12th, 1989, beginning a 27-year scavenger hunt for parts and answers.
A deep dive into its history revealed an unparalleled pedigree. Henry Isaksen’s R-code 1969 Mustang GT was a documented “Test Model” ordered by Ford engineer Chet Jones in Car Vehicle Development at Ford’s Dearborn Proving Grounds. Test Models played a critical role throughout the entire production cycle as a way of verifying that Mustangs met performance standards and Ford’s Acceptance Specifications. In plain English, Henry Isaksen was the owner of a One of ONE Mustang that stood apart from the 299,821 Mustangs built in 1969!
Perfection didn’t come without patience. A 27-year pursuit of parts and provenance forged a bond between Henry Isaksen and expert Jim Cowles at Shelby Parts and Restoration who took on the challenge of a ground up restoration in 2016.
Along the way, Henry connected with the original owner who purchased the Mustang GT at Van Driesse Ford in Green Bay, WI as an “Executive Driven” car March 30th, 1970, with a scant 6800 miles on the odometer. Sadly, Jim Cowles passed away before his masterpiece was completed. Restoration expert Troy Kuyoth in Stratford, Wisconsin stepped in to finish the restoration in May of 2022.
Bred for the racetrack with its factory R-Code 428 Cobra Jet engine, half a century later Henry Isaksen’s perfectly restored 1969 Mustang GT settles for making hearts race at The Automobile Gallery & Event Center! I invite you to stop in and witness an amazing transformation from “Barn Find” to “Gold Mine”!