In the summer of 1979, I was standing in line to register for SAAC-4 at the Downingtown (Pennsylvania) Inn when someone pointed toward the lobby door and said, "Hey, here comes Tony Branda!"
Even then, Tony Branda was well-known in Mustang and Shelby circles, mainly from his piles of new and used parts at swap meets and his classified ads in Hemmings Motor News, Mustang Monthly, and The Marque from the Shelby American Automobile Club. Like others, Tony caught the rising tide of Mustang/Shelby enthusiasm in the mid 1970s and rode it to a successful business venture, Tony D. Branda Performance. But unlike many who started mail-order businesses back then, Tony resisted the temptation to add parts for late-model Mustangs, instead sticking with the '65-'73 models, primarily '65-'70. Born and raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where he still runs the company with his son, Anthony Jr., Tony has no plans to stop any time soon.
Branda calls his first trailer “the worst thing on wheels” due to its tendency to sway at
Now that he's approaching 40 years in the business of selling Mustang and Shelby parts, we thought we'd chat with Tony about how he got started and how things have changed over the past four decades.
MM:: Were you always into cars?
TB:: Not until I was 13 or 14. I've always been into Fords because my dad always had Fords. I remember walking home from music lessons—every good Italian kid had to take accordion lessons—and I was carrying a little transistor radio. I heard Chris Economaki talking about Cobras during a race report. I remember hearing about how fast they were and how they were beating everything. That's the start of it. I started buying Hot Rod magazine and getting more into it. I had no idea who Carroll Shelby was back then.
MM:: What was your first car?
TB:: A '56 Ford Victoria that my dad got for me but we never got it running. So I ended up with a '57 Chevy painted in metal flake. By 1965, I was working in my dad's restaurant, making about a dollar an hour, so I ended up buying a Comet Cyclone off the Lincoln/Mercury showroom floor. Then I started buying Shelby stuff for it—emblems, valve covers, dual quad intake. Bought so much that I got a free jacket, blue with Cobra lettering on the back, which I still have today.
MM:: What was your first Mustang?
TB:: When I got drafted in 1968, I managed to avoid Viet Nam and ended up with a desk job in Germany. Back then, you could buy a car while you were in the service and get a better deal, so right before I got out in April 1970 I started looking at '69 and '70 Shelbys. Then I decided to buy a Boss 302 from a dealership here in town. I had called them about it and they found a Grabber Orange '70. Didn't have a Shaker but it was a Drag Pack car. I still have that car today. Has 18,000 miles on it.
MM:: So we're talking early 1970s. When did you get into selling parts?
TB:: I had always wanted an early Mustang but it was hard to find them in the early 1970s. Or if you did, the floors were gone. I finally found a '66 for around $1,200. Of course, I needed parts. I was getting Hemmings Motor News with ads from Bill Norton at Valley Ford in California. So I started talking to him. And one day he asked, "How far are you from Hershey?" I told him about 130 miles. And he said, "I can't make it this year. How about I give you my space and you sell some of this stuff for me." So that's how I started. Hershey was my first swap meet.
MM:: Did he send you parts to sell?
TB:: Yeah, but I had to buy them. I got married in 1973 and there was a little bit of money left, around $78, a lot of money back then. I told my wife I was going to use it to get a business started and she said okay. I bought the parts from Valley Ford and that was the start.
My first car show was a little Shelby and Mustang meet in Pittsburgh. I had ordered parts from Valley Ford and put it all in the trunk of the Boss 302. I had decals, maybe a pair of Cobra valve covers, and a few other things. I drove to the show and within 15 minutes, everything was gone. Nobody had ever seen this stuff on the east coast. Right then, I said, "Geez, I think I'm going to start doing more of this." My dad and I had gotten out of the restaurant business and started an Italian food business. So I did that during the day and at night I would fool around with the parts. I had ads in Hemmings simply under Tony Branda.