The Stoneman’s AC Cobra Sports Car ‘Stolen,’ Returned, Ready for Its Closeup

By VICTORIA FORD | Aug 29, 2018
Photo by: Margot Miller

Mike “The Stoneman” Locasale loves his toys. Those who drive past his shop on Route 9 in Mayetta may notice parked outside the various cars and trucks he fixes up for joyrides around town.

One of those vehicles in particular has extra special meaning to Locasale and a hell of a story to warm the heart: the AC Cobra 1966 replica, newly painted “Mustang blue” with white racing stripes.

The car, originally green and yellow, has been in his life for about 10 years. Gradually he rebuilt the engine, re-did the clutch and brakes, did some fine tuning. The final piece was the paint job, which he put on hold indefinitely when he got some startling news about his health that kept him preoccupied for months.

While he focused on medical issues, his brother Steve Locasale of Medford and close family friend Cliff Hagaman of Manahawkin conspired to make his life a little brighter. They hatched a scheme to “steal” the Cobra and take it to a fiberglass specialist named Steve Russ of Russ Corvette Restorations out in Hainesport. Hagaman and Stafford Township Police Ptl. Chris Fritz are longtime friends, so Hagaman enlisted Fritz’s help in the – wink, wink – auto theft investigation.

It was about a month before Locasale noticed the car was missing. A friend had come over to The Stoneman’s shop asking to see the Cobra, and when Locasale found the bay empty, confusion overwhelmed him. Had he forgotten where he left it? How could anyone have taken it without his knowledge? The car isn’t exactly easy to drive, or even to maneuver out of the garage. “Somebody really knew what they were doing,” he said.

Meanwhile, around April 1, Hagaman had taken the car from its garage “in broad daylight,” stripped it at his house in Ocean Acres in preparation to get painted, and then trailered it to Hainesport.

By the time Locasale called local police, Fritz had already let the entire police force in on it, so that, if and when the call from a distraught Locasale came, everyone would know to play along. Fritz assured Locasale he was on the case, that he had filed a report, and that he was specially qualified to investigate auto theft. (It wasn’t totally a lie, Fritz said. Back in the ’90s he did work in the detective bureau and had auto theft training.) He told Locasale these cases take time and call for patience – “of which he has zero,” he joked, and Locasale laughingly confirmed it.

After a couple of months without any leads, Locasale was just about “having a meltdown,” according to Fritz, so, to buy more time, Fritz invented a story: The Cobra had been positively located by police surveillance in a massive auto theft sting operation outside Baltimore. When the hammer fell, Locasale’s car would be returned. Locasale bought the story because Fritz identified the car’s rare green-and-yellow color combo. “He had me,” Locasale said.

Still, Russ’s paint job was “more meticulous than anticipated,” as Fritz put it. And one day when Locasale called the police hoping for an update, he reached the one dispatcher who wasn’t aware of the scheme because she had been on leave at the time Fritz sent around the email. Innocently, she told Locasale she couldn’t find anything about an investigation into his stolen car. No police report had been filed.

Exasperated and outraged by what he misunderstood to be ineptitude, Locasale told his brother he was going to get the State Police involved. At that point, his well-meaning brother had no choice but to come clean.

“I started crying like a baby,” Locasale said. Partly he was flooded with relief, but mostly he was overcome with emotion and “a great warm feeling,” he said.

The car was finished being painted and delivered to him by July.

Locasale knew he would eventually own a Cobra since the day in 1971 when he first saw one, rip-roaring out on the Pacific Coast Highway. He was 17.

He sees himself in the car: loud and a little rough around the edges, but genuine and straightforward – a true classic. He calls it “the original muscle car.” The original Cobra was manufactured only from 1965 to ’67.

His kit car contains Ford Mustang GT drivetrain, including a 351 Winsor V-8 motor, bored out to 393, that produces 401 horsepower. It’s a lot of bang for the buck, he said.

While the Cobra is his “baby” in a manner of speaking, he doesn’t baby it. He owns cars in order to drive them, to enjoy them, and to spark cheer and nostalgia in passersby. With it parked outside The Mainland Kitchen and Pub at the Holiday Inn in Manahawkin – where Locasale can regularly be found with his crossword puzzle and his club-soda-no-ice-wedge-of-lemon – everyone who walked past the car stopped and took notice. Some pointed and smiled, or took pictures. Some complimented Locasale on its beauty. Some shared their own stories of beloved old cars.

In his lifetime, he said, “I’ve had a s***load of cars.” His favorite was his 1987 Porsche 930 Turbo; he’s also had a 1971 Pantera, a Dodge “Lil Red Express” pickup truck, a BMW M6, MGs, Austin-Healeys, and a ’63 B Model Mack he’s currently restoring.

Hagaman was compelled to help Locasale finish the Cobra project because he feared it might not get done otherwise. Locasale is like a dad to him, he said. Afraid their time together might be running out, Hagaman wanted to see him enjoy the car to its fullest. “We thought we were going to lose him,” Hagaman said.

Now, with an improved prognosis and an enhanced outlook on life, everyone involved is happy with how it all came together.

“As you get older, the number of people you really care about gets smaller,” Locasale said.

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