ZEPHYRHILLS — It was love at first sight, when he finally got that 1996 Mustang Cobra. Lipstick red, it came with mag wheels. A high performance engine purred inside.
Jerry Sterner had dreamed of owning one since Ford introduced the sleek pony car in April 1964. Now, after two years in Vietnam, marriage, two babies and six years of missionary work in Kenya, he finally had his dream car.
For three years, Sterner cherished that Mustang. He hand-washed it every week. "It was like his baby," recalled his daughter, Tanya Sterner-Wilkinson, 33.
Then, in 1999, Sterner needed money to keep his son, John, in college. He knew what he needed to do. While his son was away at school, Sterner put his wife and daughter into the Mustang, drove it to Tampa Hondaland and traded it for a sensible Accord with fewer expenses.
"We all cried," he said.
Eleven years later, and John Sterner has graduated from Southern Adventist University and makes his living as a financial planner. The 30-year-old lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., with his wife, Liz, a preschool teacher.
On Jan. 29, John and Liz flew to Tampa for Jerry's 65th birthday celebration. They all went out to dinner at Bern's Steak House, only the second time Jerry had been there.
After the meal, Jerry presented his ticket to the valet and waited for his Honda. But what pulled up to the front of the restaurant was no Honda.
It was a brand new, black 2010 black Mustang GT convertible.
"Happy birthday, Dad."
"They said I turned white," Jerry said.
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The son had been planning this for seven years. Buying his dad a Mustang was on the to-do list he made after college.
"I put this goal in my plan because of your selfless move to sell your beloved Cobra to help send me to school," John wrote in a birthday note to his father. "Because of your and mom's unwavering support and always believing in me, I've enjoyed some success that I am now able to share with you."
The scheme began in earnest about five months before Jerry turned 65 on Feb. 2.
John enlisted car dealer Cliff Martin, a Rotary Club pal of his dad's, after watching Jerry test drive a black GT during a promotion at Jarrett Ford Lincoln-Mercury.
"I've had lots of parents buying cars for a child graduating from high school or college," Martin said. He was the one who drove the Mustang from his Dade City dealership to the South Tampa steak house, where a valet hid it in the back. "Can you imagine driving that car thinking of what your son did for you?"
But John downplays what he did for his dad. "It wasn't something I felt I owed him or needed to do at the time," he said. "I thought it would be fun."
The new ride has a 315-horsepower engine, five-speed manual transmission, heated leather seats, a system that allows Jerry to talk on his cell phone through the radio, and rear view mirror camera.
The paint job is so shiny you can see the overhead palm branches reflected in the hood. Sticker price is $37,825, but John says Martin cut him a deal.
It can go from 0 to 80 mph in about six seconds.
"But I don't squeal the tires," said Jerry, who acts like a kid showing off his new toy.
He said he always longed to get another Mustang but figured the dream car would always remain a dream. He retired last year as community relations director of Florida Hospital Zephyrhills. Like nearly everyone else, he's working with a much smaller nest egg.
"My 401(k) is now a 201(k)," he joked.
He says he never regretted letting the car go.
"Other people invest in stock," he said. "We always invested in our children."
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.