Her heart never really had been in the real estate business anyhow. So after the 2008 housing crash, Courtney Barber listened to her instincts.
She flew to Kansas to pick up a classic 1965 Mustang she had bought virtually sight unseen on eBay.
That was the start of a long, strange trip that has found her with a huge bag of tools and a singular reputation as the mechanic with the pink engine.
Today, Barber, 32, works at Stono Body Works. She is “Mustang Sally” to the ogling parking lot workers on Folly Beach where she lives. And she is happy as a grease monkey can be.
“I like working with my hands,” she said. “I like seeing the end result.”
Barber is one of those people who combine an “aw, shucks” friendliness with a steely resolve when there’s a task at hand. She doesn’t take herself as seriously as the hard-core car show purists who scoff at the non-authenticity of the 351 (cubic inch) Windsor V-8 she installed in an engine compartment designed for a six-cylinder, 200-cubic-inch motor.
She had always loved the classic Mustangs: the beautiful lines, the fins on the back. She had always wanted one. But when she hopped into the driver’s seat in Kansas, she had never driven a car without power steering or power brakes. She rolled right through the first stop sign.
The window broke at the first toll booth. And she was off.
By the time she made it home to Folly, she knew a car without air conditioning wasn’t going to cut it. She didn’t have the money to get it installed, so she decided to do it herself.
“I got it all torn apart, the radiator hose cut, and the instructions said, ‘Drill into the engine,’ ” she said.
Um, that was a little too close to heart surgery for an amateur to try on a car she loved. She took the dissembled pieces to Dave Mahan of Stono Body Works, and did some talking to get him to take it on — while she assisted.
As he worked, she hovered, asking questions, getting her hands in on the job, following directions to the turn of the nut.
“She wasn’t afraid of anything,” Mahan said.
He had mechanics who weren’t that good. So by the time the job was done, he hired her.
She didn’t take long to make her rep. Mahan knows workers who’ll go straight to the cleaning gel when they get grease under their fingernails. One day, Barber was outside with smudged hands when he called her over to join a few of them headed for lunch. She washed her hands in a puddle and did.
The body shop, like a lot of them, has bikini posters on the wall and workers who tend to have a pretty ribald sense of humor. Barber holds her own. “She makes the guys blush,” Mahan said.
“You’ve got to have a sense of humor. Everything that’s car-related has a sexual connotation,” she said.
And the 351 Windsor. She had wanted one of those deep-rumbling muscle car motors and jumped at the chance to pick up the engine when she heard about a good price. Sure, the fit was tight. She had to move the battery to the rear trunk, then bounce on the motor to get it to sit in the frame.
They fired it up for the first time with the Mustang still up on the lift. A ball of flame burst out the back, the exhaust throbbed and the motor settled into a deep purr.
“Ahh,” she said.
Even her dad, Walter Barber, a lifelong car show enthusiast, didn’t like it when she painted the Windsor pink.
Then she added touches like the glass decanter with the pink flamingo emblem, taking the place of an ugly plastic radiator overflow tank.
She gets mixed reactions when she opens the hood at car shows or out on cross-country car rallies. The purists do a double take and frown.
But this car, she likes to point out, is hers, not theirs. “I like being different,” she said.
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