Wanted: Fountain of Youth with a V8 under the hood

In the end, it might have been $3,950 that sent Bud Runion on his doomed trip in search of his dream car.

That was the difference between Runion driving home a candy-apple red, 1966 Ford Mustang with a white rag top and black interior and it staying in the showroom of a Roswell dealership.

For years, that elusive model was the focus of Runion’s desire, a young man’s fondly remembered ride that was, in his retirement, now within his power to reclaim.

Last week, the Marietta man and his wife, June, traveled 200 miles south to Telfair County to look at buying such a car. But there was no car, just someone with a gun. They were both shot in the head in what police believe was a plot to rob them. A local guy from the small town of McRae, Ronnie “Jay” Towns, 28, is charged with armed robbery and murder.

The sad details of the Runions’ disappearance and deaths have gripped Atlantans the past week: They were an all-American, salt-of-the-earth, generous couple in pursuit of some fun and happiness in their remaining years. Part of Runion’s quest was to recapture the power, fun and excitement of being young. And to many Americans, the perfect symbol of that is a Ford Mustang.

Bud Runion was still a teen when the Mustang was unveiled by Henry Ford II at the World’s Fair in New York in April, 1964. Ford heralded the new vehicle as the “working man’s Thunderbird,” rolling it out in time to catch the wave of Baby Boomers who were just coming of driving age.

Designers mixed a splash of European sports car panache with a solid dose of American practicality, putting in a back seat that accommodated a family of four at a base price of $2,368.

The guttural roar of the new “pony car” tapped into the rebellious streak of youth. But it also captured many of their elders who weren’t ready to slide quietly into middle age. Steve McQueen, one of the coolest middle-age guys ever, drove a Mustang GT in the memorable chase scene in the 1968 movie “Bullitt.” McQueen’s Mustang obviously represented good versus the hired killers’ evil machine, a Dodge Charger.

The Mustang sold 1 million cars by March, 1966, wildly outpacing Ford’s most optimistic expectations. It has remained in production since, and more than 9 million have been sold.

“It was as if the Mustang designers tapped into the American psyche,” historian Douglas Brinkley wrote.

And Time magazine expounded: “The Mustang is an American icon, with more movie cameos, hot-rod clubs and fanzines than any other vehicle.”

Jeff Mays, 55, a construction contractor who lives in Gwinnett County and is the new president of the Mustang Club of America, once owned 18 Mustangs but has since “downsized” to nine. All his vehicles were manufactured before 1973.

Many aging Boomers, he said, are now scratching that long-suppressed itch and putting down some impressive cash for vintage Mustangs.

“Now people say, ‘The kids are out of college.’ They now can go out and get the car they always wanted,” said Mays. “We’re getting up in age. It’s a question of ‘If not now, when?’”

Bud Runion fell into that demographic. Retired and given to charitable acts like rebuilding bicycles for poor kids, Bud, a Vietnam vet, wanted to get a car just like the one he had when he returned from the war.

“You can’t take money with you,” he told a daughter. “You might as well spend it and enjoy it.”

That idea brought Runion several times to Fraser Dante Classic Cars, a candy factory for gear heads in Roswell whose showroom features about 50 jaw-dropping classic autos, 19 of them Mustangs.

Co-owner Tevie Dante Fraser said people of the Runions’ age often come in search of the Fountain of Youth.

“People say, ‘We had one but had to sell it because of life,’ ” Dante Fraser said. “It was sold when they went to college, when they went to Vietnam; when they had kids.”

“We sell memories; we try to make their dream a reality,” she said. “It brings their youth back to them. It brings a smile to their face.”

The business sells gleaming high-end vehicles sporting $10,000 paint jobs and tricked out with modern amenities, often making them better than when they came off the showroom floor. And dreams aren’t cheap. Mustangs from 1965 and 1966 often are north of $40,000. One, a 1965 Mustang Shelby GT, sold for $984,500.

A couple weeks ago, Bud Runion test drove a red 1966 Mustang rag top with Fraser Dante mechanic Chris Trusty. Mrs. Runion chose to remain in the back seat, despite Trusty’s urging.

“He said he had one when he was stationed at Fort Benning,” Trusty said.

Runion liked the feel of the six-cylinder vehicle, Trusty said, but called back after the weekend, saying he had conferred with some friends and had changed his mind. Instead, he wanted a V8.

The V8 were more popular back in the day because they felt more muscular. The dealership had a model that fit Runion’s specifications. It was listed at $42,950, said Trusty. “But we offered it to Bud at $38,950.”

The retired telecom worker told the dealers he had a $35,000 budget cap for his new toy.

That was Wednesday a week ago. He told the dealers he’d call them with a decision a couple days later.

The next day, the Runions left for Telfair County.

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