On This Ranch, Old Mustangs Get New Life

The first Mustang Thunder Hawk that Delonzo Rhyne created. i i

hide captionDelonzo Rhyne's custom Mustang creation, the Thunder Hawk, features his own styling and trim. This Thunder Hawk, now privately owned, is the first Rhyne ever produced.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR
The first Mustang Thunder Hawk that Delonzo Rhyne created.

Delonzo Rhyne's custom Mustang creation, the Thunder Hawk, features his own styling and trim. This Thunder Hawk, now privately owned, is the first Rhyne ever produced.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR
Rhyne at the wheel of the first Mustang Thunder Hawk that he completed. i i

hide captionRhyne, 68, sits behind the wheel of his first Mustang Thunder Hawk. He hopes to produce 10 Thunder Hawks before he retires.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR
Rhyne at the wheel of the first Mustang Thunder Hawk that he completed.

Rhyne, 68, sits behind the wheel of his first Mustang Thunder Hawk. He hopes to produce 10 Thunder Hawks before he retires.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR
DeLonzo Rhyne uses rusted, broken Mustang frames to create his custom Thunder Hawks. i i

hide captionHe uses rusted-out, broken Mustang frames to create his Thunder Hawks at the RRR Mustang Ranch.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR
DeLonzo Rhyne uses rusted, broken Mustang frames to create his custom Thunder Hawks.

He uses rusted-out, broken Mustang frames to create his Thunder Hawks at the RRR Mustang Ranch.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR

Tucked near a highway overpass on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and 30th streets in north Indianapolis, an old man picks up trash by what appears to be a junky car lot scattered with dozens of wrecked, rusting cars.

But for visitors who walk up to the lot's fence and peer through the chain links, a different picture comes into view. The hulking shells have straight lines darting down the sides of their bodies, clean swoops on their tops and cocky tails.

Each wreck is the skeleton of a classic Mustang, and the man picking up trash is Delonzo Rhyne, owner and operator of the RRR Mustang Ranch. Rhyne, 68, lovingly restores the rusted hulks to their original forms, right down to their sleek leather interiors.

"I take the body, and I fully restore it back to its original form," Rhyne explains. "I don't change a thing. The body itself remains exactly as it came out of the factory."

The big change is under the hood. Rhyne uses specially built engines with electronic ignition and other features that pump up the car's power and speed. When he's done, it's not just a Mustang anymore, it's a Thunder Hawk. Rhyne has made two of his special custom Thunder Hawks so far, and he hopes to finish eight more more before he retires. His shiny, jet-black vehicle comes with gold stripes up the hood and over the back.

"I see a hawk, spread his wings and attacking … when he raises, underneath his feathers are gold," Rhyne says of his creation.

The RRR Mustang Ranch is Rhyne's lifelong dream. Born in Tennessee, Rhyne spent much of his early years traveling the Midwest in a succession of cars to drool over, including a 1949 Chevy, a 1953 Plymouth and then his first Ford, a black 1955 Crown Victoria with pink trim. In Columbus, Ohio, he was cruising around in a 1957 convertible when he spotted the car of his dreams — a red 1965 Mustang — sitting on a used rental car lot.

Eventually, Rhyne opened his own garage and body shop in Indianapolis, parked two Mustangs outside and began buying up older models. Gradually his lot became a "dumping ground" for more than 40 old Mustangs, and he got to work restoring the metal and piecing cars together.

His first Thunder Hawk sold for $125,000, and his second and third models carry $150,000 price tags. Although Rhyne hand-fits each custom car with 1,500 nuts, bolts and screws, he sees himself as an artist who copies original works.

"It's like the Mona Lisa sitting there; all I have to do is copy it … and put a little bit of me into it," Rhyne says.

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