Taylorsville man who founded state’s first Mustang club earns rare honor (2023)

By Lonnie Hembree’s count, he’s bought, sold or salvaged more than 300 Ford Mustangs. These days, though, there’s only one classic gem remaining in the longtime local mechanic and auto parts dealer’s collection.

It’s a vintage, dark green 1965 GT convertible, a head-turning classic from the first full production year that began America’s enduring love affair with the “pony car.”

This lone Mustang Hembree keeps is the one he toiled over for his own love. It’s the one that still bears a bronze plaque on the dash that reads, “Built specially for Sharon Hembree.”

Lonnie proudly presented the car to his wife many years ago, after building it up to his painstakingly high standards — the cherry on top being that personalized plaque. He chuckles at the memory now. “She drove that car four or five times before she ever noticed it,” he said.

Hembree, 84, of Taylorsville, last month received one of the highest honors a Mustang fan can receive. He was selected as the 2023 Mustang Club Hall of Fame Museum inductee, presented at the Halderman Museum in Tipp City, Ohio, named for the late Mustang designer Gene Halderman.

Hembree is one of only five people who have been so honored, largely in recognition of his founding of the Hoosier Mustang Club in 1978. It was the first such club in Indiana, based in Columbus and covering the portion of the state south of Interstate 70.

Hembree jokes that because he’s 84, the museum must have figured they had better honor him soon. But no joke, Hembree is one of the earliest people in America to recognize the Mustang mystique.

“My son’s good at keeping secrets,” Hembree said of son Kenny, who, along with Frank Bayles of the Hoosier Mustang Club, nominated Hembree for the Mustang Club Hall of Fame.

“This took over a year to get done through Ford Motor Co., and the museum and the club, and I never did know a thing about it,” Hembree said.

That is, not until Hembree was sitting at the Halderman Museum a few weeks ago with other Mustang fans listening to an emcee who, Hembree noticed, began repeating his name an awful lot. Lonnie said he turned and cast a suspicious gaze at son Kenny. “He kind of shrugged his shoulders,” Lonnie said.

It was fitting that Kenny and Hembree’s daughter, Delores, of Toledo, Ohio, were at the museum to witness Lonnie’s honor. Mustangs long have been a family tradition, Kenny said.

“I grew up in the club, and I’ve actually still got my very first Mustang I bought when I was 14,” said Kenny, who owns and operates the Nashville Vintage and Repair musical instrument store in North Vernon. “For many years, he was at every meeting,” Kenny said of his dad’s involvement in the Hoosier Mustang Club.

Lonnie’s days as a local mechanic date back to the 1960s, when for a few years he operated Lonnie’s Standard service station at State Street and McKinley Avenue in Columbus. He later went to work as a service and parts pro at local Lincoln/Mercury and Ford dealerships before starting an auto parts business he operated for about 20 years.

“I’ve still got part numbers memorized in my head,” he said. “If I could delete them, I’d put something else in there.”

Back in 1964, a couple of things happened that would shape Hembree’s future. Here at home, he married Sharon (Ping) Hembree. And in Detroit, the first Mustang rolled off the assembly line. Hembree might not have known at the time, but before long, those cars would become a family tradition.

There was always something about Mustangs, but for Lonnie, he said it boiled down to this: “They’re sporty, and I just like the looks of them.”

So did America. Nearly 3 million Mustangs were sold in the U.S. during what collectors consider the car’s classic first generation, from 1964-1973. In 1966 alone, Ford sold an astonishing 607,500 Mustangs in the U.S. Today, Ford says the Mustang remains the world’s top-selling sports car over the past 10 years combined.

The original Mustang’s styling was revolutionary, famously causing traffic accidents and a consumer frenzy at showrooms after the car’s meticulously crafted public introduction in 1964. At a base price of about $2,400 (roughly $22,900 today, adjusted for inflation), the cars were a sensation with the coming-of-age baby boomer generation.

Models from those original years remain in high demand. At auction today, a model like the one Hembree specialized for his wife might fetch upwards of $35,000. But back in the 1970s, he recalled, you could pick up old Mustangs from junkyards or barns for next to nothing. Or, in some cases, actually nothing.

Once, he said, a local woman called to ask if he would haul away a Mustang she didn’t want sitting in her yard anymore. She had the title, yet she wanted nothing for it. As Hembree began to pull the car with a wrecker, he noticed the car’s brakes were locked, and pulling the car was tearing up her yard. When he told the woman this, he remembers she told him, “I don’t care about the yard, I want it gone!”

Yet it also was during the ‘70s that the car was beginning to achieve its status as a cultural icon. The Mustang Club of America formed, shows and swap meets started popping up around the country, and the Hembree family was there for it.

Weekends, Lonnie said, he and Sharon and sons Kenny and Timothy would pack up a van (or two) full of Mustang parts and hit the road. The family sold at shows from Dearborn, Michigan, to Ormond Beach, Florida, Lonnie recalls.

“It was fun, and we saw a lot of the country,” he said. Along the way, he got to be pretty well known in Mustang circles nationwide.

In 1978, Hembree was registering to set up at the first Mustang Club of America car show and swap meet in Kingsport, Tennessee, when he was approached by club president Jim Osborne and told he’d need to become a member to be a vendor at the show. That’s when Hembree became member No. 385 of the national club.

That’s also when the seeds of the Hoosier Mustang Club were planted. Osborne mentioned to Hembree there was no Mustang club in Indiana at the time, so Hembree and his friend, the late Larry Westmier, figured maybe they could pull that off. They came back to Columbus, and after gathering some local Model A club members and other Ford fans, the Hoosier Mustang Club soon was born.

The Columbus-based club now is in its 45th year. Its approximately 100 members attend area events and stage a Mustang show every September, which raises funds for Love Chapel Food Pantry. But its members do more than that.

The club in 2018 honored Lonnie and Sharon Hembree as charter 40-year members — an honor Lonnie is proud to mention when talking about his more recent national accolade.

After Sharon died in May 2021, Lonnie said her funeral procession included 22 Mustangs driven by club members.

“It’s just weird how Mustangs kind of bring people together,” said Bayles, the club’s public relations representative and an Elizabethtown resident who has known Lonnie since joining the club in 2007.

“Lonnie is a very neat person, he’s got a lot of knowledge, and he’s kind of a quiet person, but to talk with him, he is just a joy to be around,” Bayles said.

“We’re excited to be able to honor him,” he said. “He did so much for the club and the area.”

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