Don Antilla still remembers the smell. Penned up in a barn in Indiana for 16 years, the remarkably well-conditioned 1966 Ford Fairlane 500 carried its own pungent vapor trail when Antilla had it trucked to Southbury, Conn., in 1988.
"The mice had decided that it would be a nice place to live," says the retired engineer, who 20 years earlier declared that someday he would purchase a '66 Fairlane because he liked its "simplicity."
A painstakingly detailed cleaning, stripping and restoration followed, and after two years, the once-stench-ridden muscle machine was ready for its first road test, which it passed.
Antilla has never been coy about showing off the white beauty in his garage. A reader of the industry publication Hemmings Muscle Machines, he entered the Fairlane in the magazine's Muscle Machine of the Year contest last year, and was voted the runaway winner in an online readers' poll.
He remembers when the editors called to deliver the news.
"They said, 'We just want to let you know you won by a landslide,'" Antilla says. "I jumped out of the chair."
It was the first time a Ford has won the contest, which featured a dozen or so machines rebuilt by people, like Antilla, whose passion for restoring old cars runs deep.
Antilla's other passions — his wife, Linda, their children and his job — commanded most of his attention over the years, but he never forgot about the Fairlane.
On trips to the Carolinas to visit Linda's family, he scoured junkyards looking for the elusive car — Ford built only 57 Fairlanes in the 1966 model year — and put the word out to friends that he was in the market.
So fastidious and detailed was his search that he compiled five 140-page memo books of his visits to junkyards and parts shops, and of phone conversations with friends and people in the business.
"This was all before computers," he says with a wry smile, holding one of the cellphone-sized books in his hand.
Antilla eventually found his car in Fort Wayne, Ind. The owner was doing some home improvements and needed cash.
The car had a few rust spots, and its original engine had been swapped out because it blew up on the drag strip. But Antilla became smitten, especially after his brother — who does auto-body work — pronounced it fit for restoration.
Working on nights and weekends, "and any other time I could find," Antilla slowly brought the Fairlane back to life in his garage and driveway.
He vowed to use only parts that would have been in the car when it came off the assembly line, so he cased junkyards and auto shops to find what he needed.
He rebuilt the suspension, touched up the body, cleaned the bench seats and found the proper glass for the windows. That task was made more challenging because the roof had been replaced when the car rolled over early in its life, altering the alignment just slightly.
One of his biggest challenges was locating a new dashboard without a cut-out for a radio, since the '66 Fairlane didn't have one.
Another stroke of luck: While on a road trip, he and Linda found the dashboard they were looking for in a car parked alongside the road. For $50, it was all theirs.
With a new engine under the hood just begging to be turned over, Antilla was finally ready to fire up the car for the first time.
"You check, you check, you check, and you say, 'OK, here we go,' " he says. "You say, 'What could go wrong?' And nothing went wrong. It started right up."
Antilla likes to hear the engine of the old car rumble to life. He takes it out four or five times a year — only in good weather — and always marvels at its power.
"It's just a clean car," he says. "And a lot of fun to drive."