(first published in 2007) Having paid penance for my illicit driving, at seventeen I finally joined the ranks of legally sanctioned drivers. I could have taught the drivers-ed class by then, including certain advanced techniques well outside the usual curriculum. Speaking of which, as part of this rite of passage, I finally retired the implements I’d used for hot-wiring the family Dodges. And it occurred to me: now that I was legal, why not get a job where I could indulge my love of driving and actually get paid for the pleasure?
I decided that the place to get paid to drive new cars must be at a car dealer. So I walked down to York Road, where the Chevy and Ford stores were. Since I was a Chevy man, I turned left, towards Towson Ford. I figured here was my chance to act out my anti-Ford bias. I walked in the door, and bingo; I was suddenly what’s known in the biz as a “car jockey.” My daily after-school job: shuttle the dealer’s cars to and from various storage lots, to the body shop, and back to mother showroom as well as the occasional new car delivery. On a slow day, I might actually have to help apply a quick polish to sold cars about to be picked up. The scope for unauthorized but paid amusement was only limited by the scope of my imagination and what very little self-restraint a seventeen year-old hoon has.
My first and overarching rule when ferrying brand new Fords was to religiously adhere to the factory’s engine break-in guidelines. Well, only one part, actually. I took Ford’s admonishment to “avoid driving at a steady speed” straight to heart.
In my defense, throttle stomping and brake mashing served an important quality control function. Factory fresh or no, Ford’s “Total Performance” 1971 models rarely ran properly off the truck. Remember: these were the UAW and Detroit’s glory years. If the manufacturer could get a vehicle on a transporter under its own power, it was good enough.
In fact, the dealer employed a full-time mechanic in the new car prep department (of which I was a member) to tune-up and carefully look over every car before delivery. Yes, a complete tune-up (ignition timing, carb adjustment, etc.) on every brand new car! Now that was a revelation. No wonder one literally had to mash throttles to get them from the truck (the drop off point was a couple of miles away) to the assigned storage lot.
Fortunately all too often, brand new cars needed a visit to the body shop. Lucky for me, the body shop was miles away, and the route included a tightly-winding road along Jones Falls. But my adrenal adventures were all-too-often thwarted by that notorious Ford side-wall shredding understeer. Plowing LTDs through the tight curves was like shooting pool with a 2 x 4. (’71 Ford CC here).
But there was a Mustang Mach 1 351 to be dealt with. It was a 1971, and the owner’s son, who got a new one every fall. It needed some cosmetic body work, and it fell on poor little me to take it to the body shop. I took a few long-cuts on that drive, and it was a memorable one indeed; my first time behind the wheel of a performance car.
It was a four-speed, and the motor ran better than any other new ’71 Ford I’d been exposed too. My explorations of its various capabilities and vices almost ended us in the ditch at least once. Yes, the throttle can help steer a powerful car like the Mach 1, but I learned it takes a bit of finesse to make that happen in the right direction.
A few weeks later when I showed up for work, a red 1970 Mach 1 was in the prep bay. Odd; a used car in the new car prep bay? It had been the owner’s son’s previous annual Mustang. The owner’s son had driven it hard and racked lots of miles on it. I understood it had been sold. A good-sized electric motor was humming away on the front seat floor, with a cable attached to it on one end and the other end snaking up under the dashboard. My boss explained that the Mustang’s new owner became suspicious about his new “demonstrator” when he discovered numerous signs of wear and abuse, despite the negligible mileage on the odometer. He decided to do a little due diligence, and found that the odometer had been rolled way back. Now the electric motor was running in the reverse direction it usually ran in, replacing the many missing thousands of miles. Caught red-handed.
Surprisingly, a bare-bones 1971 Pinto could be very entertaining to drive, especially in the curves, as long as it was equipped the right way. The Pinto’s underpinnings were heavily based on the a European Ford Cortina, with a goofy body on top. The German 2.0-liter SOHC engine pulled, the English four-speed was slick, and the rack and pinion steering was tight. It was light, squirtable and tossable– as long as the road was fairly smooth. Smog controls, five mph bumpers, slush-boxes and dead power steering quickly turned the Pinto into another mid-70’s joke.
The Maverick– that recycled old Falcon disguised in bell-bottoms– now that was the punchline. With its feeble six and the typical slush-box, throttle stomping was a given. Taking delivery of a plain-Jane coupe from the transporter, I got in and as usual, floored it. One of the skinny little tires went up in a cloud of smoke. Whoa!
A look under the hood revealed a surprise: a 302 V8. Even I, the supreme auto know-it-all, was caught off guard; the V8 option hadn’t actually been announced yet in the magazines (I read about it a week later). It took me totally by surprise; I thought maybe it was just an assembly-line mistake, an extreme example of a Monday or Friday car – Hey guys; let’s throw a V8 into this one and see if anyone down the line notices. Oddly, it didn’t sell, and sat around for months. I took it on myself to keep it exercised.
On slow days I burned time (and tires) pulling doughnuts in a distant parking lot. Ironically, an old lady eventually bought it, oblivious to the chewed-up rear tires. Or maybe she didn’t care.
For a while, I also worked as a car jockey in the service department. My oddest encounter was a customer’s plushed-out ’69 LTD sedan. It had the optional 390 V8, but a three-on-the-tree column-shift(!), and manual steering(!!) and un-assisted drum brakes (!!!) . I thought for sure he was in for a new power steering pump. The burly owner obviously wasn’t thinking about resale value when he custom-ordered it.
Well, I had always assumed he must have put in a special order for it. Turns out that in 1968, Ford de-contented the LTD, and the automatic and power steering were optional. The proof is in these snips from the ’69 brochure. But he still must have ordered it, since no dealer would ever have taken delivery of one equipped like that.
A metallic-brown ‘70 LTD two-door hardtop was my summer ride, though not exactly through legitimate means. The service department kept a couple of year-old loaners. I pocketed the key before I left work on Friday afternoon, grabbed a Coke next door, and came back for it after everyone was gone.
I unhooked the speedometer cable (I was an expert by then), and took it home for the night or the weekend. My boss was always happy to see me at work in the morning early, before he or anyone else arrived. He knew a highly motivated employee when he saw one.
I spent that summer cruising around and hunting skinny-dipping swimming holes with three girls from my neighborhood. All four of us always sat up front, across that wide front bench seat. Ford’s designers must have had us in mind when they made the LTD so wide.
Summer fun gave way to winter bleakness. I still worked at the Ford dealer after school. The problem was that I didn’t go to school very often. Baltimore had (finally) cultivated a hip street scene that was much more compelling than algebra. I spent fewer days at school than hanging out down on Read Street or at the Pratt library reading endless Popular Mechanix from the 1940s. .
I wasn’t going to graduate that spring anyway, so one February morning shortly after my eighteenth birthday, I walked down to Towson Ford, picked up my paycheck, put on my backpack, walked out to the Beltway and hitchhiked west– without a proper goodbye to anyone. Not a shining moment. And no axe for me; I’m not convinced it helps.
I even briefly entertained the thought of grabbing some keys to my pick of the back lot. And of all the cars in the storage lots, what would that car have been had I acted on it? A new Econoline van with the six and three-speed manual, of course. Good thing I didn’t, in retrospect.
I had no particular destination; just to get away. Like lots of kids then, I was California dreamin’ on a winter’s day.