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Claire Lankford was a bubbly child and full of joy. “She liked mystery cartoons,” her father, Kevin Lankford of Santa Fe, fondly recalls. “And she loved cars, just like me.” At age 3, Claire was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, or RMS—an extremely rare form of children’s cancer.
The family immediately began weekly chemotherapy and radiation treatments at Texas Children’s Hospital—a wonderful institution, except for the fact that its parking garage couldn’t quite accommodate Kevin’s tall Ford F-350 4x4. With Claire so sick, Kevin wasn’t willing to waste precious time searching for parking spots, so he sold his truck and looked for something smaller.
“I’m a Ford man, and I happened upon this ’96 Ford Mystic Cobra,” he says. “I've always been a fan, and I was telling my daughter about this car, which changes colors.” The Mystic features special color-shifting paint. “She was like, ‘Oh, get that one!’”
Once the Cobra arrived, Claire was transfixed. “It turns mainly from green to purple, but it has blue hues and some bronze—or as the original brochure called it, root beer—as well,” Kevin details. “Depending on if it's a sunny day or evening, or sunset, you can really see the colors. Her favorite was probably the purple.”
When Claire was at home between treatments, she loved to play inside the car while her father washed it, and even gave the Mystic a name: Missy. “I would squirt water from the hose on the windows,” Kevin says.
“She liked to walk around it and watch the colors shift. She just thought it was the coolest thing. She even put her car seat in the driver seat to pretend to drive, saying, ‘Daddy, I think I can drive this car in my car seat!’” he says with a laugh*. “She was very full of life and energetic; never once complained about her illness.”
After 13 months of chemo and radiation, Claire was given a clean bill of health, and the family was overjoyed to have their little girl back at home full time. But in January 2014, the cancer returned with an aggression beyond help, and Kevin was told by the doctors that there was nothing more that they could do.
Shortly after receiving the heartbreaking news, he took Claire outside to sit in the Mystic. “She was sitting in her car seat in the front and said, ‘Daddy, can I have this car when I get big? Can this be my car?’ I knew that she was terminal, and there would be no getting big and driving the car. My plan had always been to save it for her. So I told her, ‘You can have the car today. This is your car.’”
As Claire grew sicker, it became increasingly difficult for her to leave the house. “But she would always ask me, ‘Is my car clean? Is it shiny? Can I see it?’ So I’d back it out of the garage, and she could see it out the window from inside.”
Claire passed away in May 2014, and Kevin has found a way to help keep the memory of his child alive and raise awareness for RMS at the same time. “I decided no matter what, I’ve got to keep this car and tell her story and how she loved the vehicle so much,” he affirms. “I’m never getting rid of it.”
He now takes the vehicle to car shows to help spread the word about the disease. “I have a little sign with her picture that goes in the window,” he explains. “It says, ‘If you have the means, think about donating to children's cancer research, or the Make-A-Wish foundation.’” (The latter sponsored a joyous family trip to Disney World before Claire passed.)
The vintage Mystic Cobra is still in such pristine condition that it often receives show trophies. But for Kevin, of course, that isn’t the point. “Really it's always a win,” he says, “because when people look at the sign, I think, ‘Hey, if they donate, then we won.’”
*Always wear your safety belt and secure children in the rear seat.