New Movie About A Moonshine-Running 1968 Mustang Restoration
Demon on Wheels: A love story about a man and his 1968 Mustang
Few things are as pure Americana as the stories of hot rodders running from the State Police and “revenuers” with trunk-loads of illegal liquor—moonshine—through the woods and on the backroads of the Carolinas in the 1940s. We all know the story of how Bill France corralled these outlaws into a ring to form NASCAR back in the late-’40s and all of the stories and heroes that have come out of that era since. When the image of a ‘shine runner comes to mind however, it’s usually a 1940 Ford coupe or ’57 Plymouth Hemi Belvedere that we envision, not a classic Mustang. But when they made a movie version of Tom Wolfe’s classic short story The Last American Hero, about ‘shine-runner-turned-NASCAR-legend Junior Johnson, in 1974, they cast Jeff Bridges to play Junior and the hot rod chosen as his ‘shine runner was a 1968 Mustang fastback.
As a life-long fan of Wolfe’s story and the movie, I was intrigued when I learned of a new movie about an aging hot rodder who used to be one of those outlaw moonshine runners in a ’68 Mustang fastback. The plot summary to Demon on Wheels is as follows:
“Can love outrun a fast car? A former speed demon and rumrunner, now an aging mechanic in a sleepy Catskill Mountains town, risks it all—his health, his security, even the love of his life—when he vows to restore and race the prized car of his wild youth, a 1968 Ford Mustang that's been hidden away for 35 years. Now a self-described ‘old man in an old car,’ Mike Ondish wants to chase racing glory one last time, hoping to rekindle the spark in his relationship, and rediscover the thrill of a fast car and the wide-open road. But will his quest to restore the car, bolt by bolt, as a tribute to Carroll Shelby (the racing legend who gave the Mustang its muscle) restore him? Or will a love triangle between Mike, his girlfriend Martha and the Demon lead him to crash and burn?”
I got a chance to see an advance copy of Demon on Wheels before its release to the public, and I can unequivocally recommend it to any car guy/girl, and definitely any Mustang fan, especially one that enjoys stories about Rare Finds and Barn Finds. Directed by Christina Eliopoulos, Demon on Wheels is a true love story between a man and his car; a man and his loyal friends; and that man and his life partner, who has not only patiently put up with him for decades but dives in to help him resuscitate his “other woman.”
Pros: The main focus of the movie is Mike Ondish restoring his ’68 Mustang after decades of neglect, and chasing his dream of driving and racing the car one more time. Mike and his pals bench race about their glory days of outlaw hooliganism and running from the State Police officers—the same officers that also appear in the film—while his life partner Martha watches with worry in her eyes, but also helps with the project. Director of Photography George Wieser (who is also a co-producer) deserves considerable praise as almost every single frame of the film is so lushly shot that it makes you want to move to the Catskills of New York for the sole purpose of cruising its two-lanes in a Mustang in the autumn. When Ondish uncovers his Mustang from decades of storage and finally pushes it out of the garage, you can smell the scene, sense the dust falling in your hair, and it makes you feel like you’re really there helping. Scenes of the hidden backwoods liquor stills put the smooth sting of the ‘shine on your palate. And when the car is finally cruising on a backwoods road, leaves exploding in color, the urge to pull on a flannel shirt and join in is almost too much to resist.
The car itself is modified with a G.T. 500 front fascia and some other bits, and shows Ondish meeting Carroll Shelby at an event and shaking his hand. Noted Ford personality John Clor also has a small part in the project and appears in the film, and there was technical help from Summit Racing and Royal Purple, Holley, and Laurel Mountain Mustang. The film follows the restoration, which started in the summer of 2012 and ended in fall 2013, and ends with testing at Lebanon Valley Dragway in upstate New York. Sadly, Mike’s desire to road race the Mustang is thwarted by his doctor, who won’t approve his racing license’s medical terms. Old age sucks.
One of the things I appreciated about the movie is that it portrays the difficulty and frustration that comes with a car project. Unlike so many TV shows that make you believe you can transform a rusty turd into a show car with zero problems, in a week, Demon on Wheels shows Ondish near his breaking point several times, threatening to end the project—and we’ve all been there.
Cons: At an hour and 28 minutes, the film could have been a half-hour shorter in my opinion, as some of the scenes tend to run on a little long. Those scenes helped set the scenes from the past, but as a gearhead I wanted to see less of that and more of the car and restoration process, so that’s just me. The only other thing I can nitpick is that when they test the car at the dragstrip, the scene is cut before you can see the ET and MPH on the scoreboards. Again, that’s the gearhead in me talking but it was irritatingly obvious.
Summary: I recommend Demon on Wheels, and in old Siskel & Ebert fashion, I give it a four-and-a-half out of five stars. As a veteran of watching some truly horrible “car movies” in the past, this one was highly enjoyable and just flat beautiful to watch. The movie’s expected release is October 13, 2015, and you can get it on iTunes.