One Man Finds His Holy Grail

by Rick Kopec (9/29/10)

Mark Hovander has been a SAAC member for almost as long as there has been a SAAC. At some point in his early existence he became fascinated with GT350s—especially 1965s—and that fascination acquired a life of its own. I recall receiving letters from him back when the club was only a few years old. He was a high school student back then, living in the Seattle area, and when I would slice open the envelope it would contain six or eight pages from a yellow legal pad, written in small script (I would say “scribbled” but that would border on being unkind). He used one of those Bic accountant’s fine pens and the pages were filled, from the first line to the last, on both sides.

The letters contained questions of the most trivial nature, about observations he had made while pouring over road tests and introductory articles about Shelbys in period magazines. He would often cite miniscule “discrepancies” between photos and captions, and ask about the most obscure details. Sometimes I felt as if I was being tested and other times it seemed like he was just aiming a stream-of-consciousness fire hose in my direction. I would read paragraph after paragraph, wondering where he was going and when he would get there.

Overall, the letters were both respectful and serious, and rather than attempt to make a value judgment on whether they were worthy of an answer, I always responded. And usually at length. I had the sense I was bringing along a young enthusiast and the last thing I wanted was to be the one to sour him. In those early days, we were at the point where we still had a lot to learn about these cars, but we were on the leading edge—primarily because we were totally immersed in the subject. The more we learned, the more we discovered what kind of questions to ask and who to ask them of. The club was all about sharing: sharing information and knowledge, and sharing friendship and enthusiasm. If someone was going to pour cold water on this kid’s campfire it sure wasn’t going to be me.

Our long distance correspondence continued when Mark went off to college. The longhand letters, written small in fine ballpoint, continued. Mark noted that he was going to pursue a career in medicine. I recall a fleeting thought entering my mind: instead of four years of these letters— ending when he finally graduated, got a job, and no longer had this kind of time to devote to his pen pals (Howard Pardee also being on the receiving end of these lengthy missives, which he also dutifully answered, often conferring with me on questions, the answers to which neither of us were totally sure of)—a medical degree would take the better part of eight years. Surely he would run out of questions by then.

One day in 1989 I got a letter from Mark telling me that he was finally graduating as an optometrist. I thought that was somehow fitting, in a Zen sort of way, because I was convinced that his fine script letters had definitely contributed to my diminishing eyesight.

The letters continued, although with less frequency. Through them I was able to follow Mark’s life: his first GT350, 6S099, purchased in September 1985 (while he was still in school, which was something of an accomplishment in itself); his marriage to Elizabeth in 1991; the arrival of his kids—Nicole in 1992, Peter Brock Hovander in 1993 and twin boys Daniel Gurney Hovander and William Shelby Hovander, in 1995. One can only imagine the convincing it took when they browsed through the book of baby names. Elizabeth must surely occupy a special spot in the Hall of Saints.

Mark was also feverishly gathering original GT350 literature, obscure Shelby aftermarket parts, and horse-trading for cars which would ultimately bring him the ownership of the first 1965 GT350 street car, 5S003. The age of computers replaced the yellow legal pads. We had e-mails now, and it was a good thing because my eyesight had deteriorated to the point where I would have had to get someone to read longhand letters to me or suffer through starburst-producing headaches like those described by people trying to read the old registries with the footnotes in 6-point type.

1965 GT350Mark’s enthusiasm for the cars was contagious. He had grandiose ideas—such as photographing 5S284, his first ’65, just after sun-up on the Bonneville Salt Flats prior to SAAC-32… and then getting it on the cover of the Shelby American (the first on-line issue, #76, Winter 2009). He had the desire and the drive to make things like this happen. Not everyone can make their dreams become reality.

His ’65 GT350, 5S284, was one of four cars sold through the Salt Lake City Shelby dealer, Bennett Motor Company. Mark tracked down the other three cars and convinced the owners of two of them to join him in a “reunion” at SAAC-32. The original dealership had occupied a spot across the street from the convention hotel, which was now the parking lot used by its guests. He also invited several former Bennett employees as well as the original owner of his GT350, who was 92 years old (his son had been the actual owner but was too young to put his name on the title).

New York Times articleThe restoration of this car was barely completed by the time the convention rolled around. thumb_hovander-2a.jpgIn fact, he was still putting those infinitesimal touches on it the morning of the car show. You know—the ones nobody else will ever notice. The car was displayed on jackstands, with two wheels pulled to expose the immaculately detailed brakes. Rare Shelby catalog aftermarket parts were also part of the display.

The car that Mark Hovander really had his eye on was SFM5S003. He was intrigued by the historical aspect of its being the very first GT350 completed, and by the connection to it by some of the more well known names, notably Chuck Cantwell and Peter Brock. When the opportunity presented itself to purchase the car, which was owned by a friend who lived a short distance away, there was no question what Mark would do. It was only a matter of how quickly he could do it. It required selling 5S284 and his sons, now at an age where they understood the meaning of indentured servitude, were briefly considered chattel which could be sold, with the proceeds applied towards the car’s purchase. Fortunately (for them) it didn’t come to that.

5S003’s history is now well documented. Early on, there had been some confusion about its original configuration, mostly due to its having had “SFM5002” marked on the firewall. To this day that is something that cannot be explained. An earlier owner was convinced that the car was originally configured as a competition car, and in 1980 that’s the way he restored it. He was happily vintage racing it and blissfully ignorant of its actual history. By the time it landed in the Hovander garage, everything was known about every nut and bolt on the car. Mark’s long term goal was a restoration to its day-one specifications—right down to the hand-lettered “GT350” designations on the front fenders and the fact that it had two steel wheels on the driver’s side and two Shelby/Cragar wheels on the passenger side during early publicity photo shoots.

Right now the car is a driver and that’s exactly what Mark is doing with it, savoring each mile because he knows that once the restoration begins, he will not be driving it for years. So the behind-the-wheel memories he is collecting today will have to last for a while.

With an eye to the beginning of its disassembly and what promises to be a painfully slow restoration, Mark is completing a series of “final drives” before the car gets parked. He sent out the following email to a handful of his friends and fellow enthusiasts, which documents his feelings for this car.

“A bittersweet day today. The weather was beautiful here, mid-70's, perfect driving weather. The local forecast for Sunday is rain. Spent the day with a couple other Shelby club members driving the back roads of Northern Washington. The total mileage on 003 this summer is now at 2,217, which may not be a lot, but for those who have spent a little time around 003 know, it is just on the shy side of being a full vintage race car. I suppose I have some loss of hearing to show for that, never have used earplugs, but for some reason, I don't care.

New York Times article“It has been a full summer, going on a "Cobra" drive Southeast of Seattle, thumb_hovander-3a.jpgin the mountains near Mt. Rainier. The car was driven at The Quail by Cantwell; it won an award handed to me by Shelby. I drove around Monterey with Cantwell at night with taped headlights, which included a blast through the tunnel near the Fisherman's Terminal at 4,500 rpm, getting lost in the process, and loosing the car keys at Russo and Steele—only to find them. Driving 003 out to The Historics with Cantwell in the passenger seat and then driving the car hard from Monterey to Big Sur and back—twice. Drove the car six hours from Hollister, CA back to Monterey then back to Big Sur for the third time, just to show my oldest son a great stretch of road in California in a historical car built in California.

“Drove from there up to SAAC-35 where the car participated in the Cantwell GT350 Drive the day before the convention, going out to the Redwoods and a local winery. 003 was reunited with Don Day, who raced the car for 5 years. Its home track was the location of SAAC-35, Sears Point or Infinion Raceway (I 'll always remember it as Sears). 003 won People’s Choice for the '65 GT350 class, probably due to so many Nor Cal members remembering the car from 30 years ago.

“003 was part of The Kirkland Concours two weeks later in which Peter Brock was a judge. Peter Miles was there as well. 5R002 and 5S003 sat next to each other that day, no doubt catching up on lost time since they rolled down the San Jose Ford line right next to each other. Various other drives in 003 occurred throughout Washington; a couple at night, three times in rain showers with no side windows and no wipers. She never missed a beat and always got me home.

“003 is due to be taken apart this winter for a long, detailed restoration to how she was in 1964. Today was most likely 003's last full day drive. Attached is a photo of the car taken today. Hope all is well with everyone and that you had as much fun as I did today.” —Mark

New York Times articleI don’t think that anyone at Shelby American ever dreamed that the cars they were making would have so profound an affect on their owners forty-five years later. Mark Hovander is only one example; there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of others.

If current manufacturers could identify what makes the original GT350 what it is today in the hearts of its owners, they would be able to manufacture an instant classic—which is the Holy Grail of the car industry.

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