COAL: 1951 Ford F1 Pickup -“Bonus Blunder”

1951 F-1

She’s a beauty.

My young family (still) needed reliable transportation.

When we last left our hero, he’d just traded up and gotten rid of the Ultimate MiniVan Driving Machine™ the lime green 77’ VW Westphalia.  What had I traded it for, you ask.  Was it a nice tidy 89’ Toyota Corolla?  Perhaps a clean, late-model Honda Civic with four doors and a little blue velour seating?  Or even, feeling risky now, an ’87 Chevy Celebrity with taupe paint, “Euro” stickers on the fenders and AC?

Nah.  Those cars are BORING!

And our hero doesn’t drive boring.  He has to be different.  Special.  Marching to his own drummer, running outside the pack, keeping his own tempo etc, etc, blah blah blah.  Now that you understand our gestalt, let’s get back to our tale.

The ad for selling the Westy, which was essentially unregisterable in California due to my hacking off all the smog gear in Texas, had run for a few weeks and nothing was happening.  It was darn depressing that no one seemed to realize that I was offering the greatest minivan ever created for sale, I guess Central Californians were just not sophisticated enough to know that they should be in a mob screaming out higher and higher bids for my VW bus.  Now sure, perhaps cutting a little into the sales potential was the minor fact that I was selling a seriously oddball vehicle that was probably never going to be able to legally wear California plates. But still, people should have been calling!

Finally one afternoon the phone rang and it was a guy who was excited about my van!  Yay!  He wanted to see it right away, like now, but said he wanted to know if I’d trade for it.  Uh, hmm, uh.

“What you got to trade?” I quizzed,  determined to hold my ground if it was something stupid like a sensible, reliable, reasonable, safe and comfortable Camry or Accord, no way was I gonna drive one of those things.  

“I got a ’51 Ford pickup,” he drawled out. “It’s all restored.”  

Introduced in 48', it was a Big Deal.

Introduced in 48′, it was a Big Deal.

I felt the adrenaline rush through my body like quicksilver.  Oh man!  I’d always loved those “Bonus Built” post-war Fords, this guy was good, he’d found my exact weakness and applied serious Vulcan neck pinch pressure.  I actually started to sweat a little, and felt a little dizzy. “Calm down, McClure,” I said to my inner child, “it’s probably a rusted out POS.”

“When can I come by?” he asked.  “How about now?”  “OK.”

At this point I should note that my wife says I’m “cheap and easy.”  I, of course, disagree.

It took the dude about half an hour to show up, and I was looking out the windows the whole time.  Then he rolled up and Holy Cow Batman, what a great looking truck!  When he said restored he wasn’t kidding, it was so darn clean it looked like it’d just popped out of the factory.  No dents, no rust, not on the frame, not inside the fenders, not anywhere, just a cherry body that was “rock solid”.  The interior was so neat and tidy it looked as if my mom had lived in there her whole life, even the steering wheel was perfect, no cracks, and seat looked and felt great.  

Ain't got many pictures of the F-1. It was sure fine.

Ain’t got many pictures of the F-1. It was sure fine.

The color was what Ford called “Birch Gray,” which I call “leftover WW2 battleship paint gray.”  But it was a handsome enough color, complemented by the black bumpers and trim and the chrome grille.  Love, love, love the grille on the ’51 Ford, it was a Dagmarian delight, clearly the designer was a giant among men.  The much hyped “million dollar cab” didn’t really look like more than $150 to me, all steel, no armrests, no passenger sun visor and a seat that reminded me of a church pew covered in thin black vinyl, but hey, it was great for the day.  This one had the optional heater, the “New Ford Recirculating Heater-Defroster” which worked a thousand times better than the one in the Westy.  Amazing what hot water can do for heat eh?  Under the hood lurked the “I Am Legend” 239 cubic inch flathead V-8.  How many ponies that engine porked out is subject to some debate, period ads claim anything from 100 to 103 to even 106.  Let’s call it 100, shall we?  

The tranny was a rare beast, a factory four-speed floor shifter.  See, I told you this was an exciting truck, and you doubted me.  I don’t know what the rear-end gearing was, more on that later, but it was a stump puller with that granny first gear.  

Oh and it had a radio!  The “powerful superheterodyne receiver” with seven, count em, tubes.

Million Dollar Cab eh? If I was Ford I'd a wanted to see the receipts.

Million Dollar Cab eh? If I was Ford I’d a wanted to see the receipts.


Did I mention that it was still a 6-volt system?  Who needs 12 volts anyway!  That’s for the Accord-driving set, just wasting those extra volts, geesh.

Within five minutes of looking over the F-1 I knew in my heart of hearts it was for me.  Luckily the dude liked my Westy just as much, he was crowing about all the features and coolness.  He was a bit of an odd duck this guy, maybe 60-ish, seemed kinda rough around the edges, if you know what I mean.  This suspicion was enhanced when I was thumbing through the curiously long F-1 owner manual that he had in the glove box (more about that later) when I came upon a full color snapshot of him and two “friends” in, uh, significant compromise.  

“Whoa,” I muttered, looking at the significant compromisingness.  “Oh, uh, I’ll take that,” he said, and he did.  We spoke no more of it.

Now for the deal.  I told him of the registration woes with the Bus, how the Great and Powerful California was not really going to look kindly on the missing smog parts, and how I did not have them, and how finding them would be similar to King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, etc.  No big deal, he said, he was planning to leave the state anyway, probably like right now, and heading east.  “I’m probably heading to Texas,” he claimed.  I’m not making this up and I didn’t ask questions, as my wife says it was not my circus, not my monkey.   

This neatly and in one quick snip solved the registration problem.  California would never get involved, it’d be Texas title in and Texas title out as the Westy, like the Children of Israel, only did a sojourn among the Egyptians before heading back to the promised land.

Options for every taste and need.

Options for every taste and need, if you need more than this you are clearly spoiled by modernity.

“How about straight across?” he asked. 


Looking back now, in the cold dim light of a declining middle age, when the flaws of youth are so glaring, it’s easy to see that I got snookered on this deal.  The Westfalia was worth far, far more than this F-1.  But losing my shirt on all my car deals is how I roll, and I certainly wasn’t done.  

So now we were the proud owners of the F-1 and it was time to take some stock.  As usual the first duty was an oil change and then a polish/wax.  The paint was purdy but it was kinda thick in places, and there was some bondo here and there.  (Maybe more here than there if you know what I mean)  No rust on the body or frame to be found after poking about deeply, that was good and is typical of vehicles that have lived their lives in Central Calif.  The engine fired right up and did not smoke, smooth idle, and pulled as well as it could I guess. But while it was quicker than the Westfalia it wasn’t a speed demon.  In fact its top speed was something on the order of 55 mph, flat out, foot on the floor.  Must be the gearing I figured, and hey, most of our driving was around town anyway, who needs freeways?  It was sorta like driving a Conestoga wagon with a very weak engine in front instead of a team of responsive horses, and brakes possibly made of wood, if you need a mental picture of what piloting a 51’ Ford is like.   

Overall it was a GREAT truck!

My son enjoying that cab. Note the much later added turn signals.

My son enjoying that cab. Note the much later added turn signals. Floor shift baby!!

But how did it measure up to its intended duty, namely a family car for a young couple with a 3-year-old?  It was fine!  No problems here, bub.  See, it even has seat belts, and it had one in the middle for the kiddo’s car seat to strap in, so nothing to see here, back to your lives, citizens.  The “million dollar cab” was on the small size, and there was no storage behind the seat with that gas tank, and the bed had no lockable storage of any kind either, so getting groceries was a bit of a challenge.  

But we live for a challenge.  Right?

So how was the AC you ask? (since that was on my list of must haves)  Fine. Fine.  A little weak, needed a can of Freon or two.  Oh, and it needed inventing and installing since AC was not on the options list in 1951.  Oh and did I mention that Fresno, California, (which, back in that time period had a minor campaign running for its inhabitants called “FresYes,” since that’s so much more positive than FresNo) has as its main claim to fame a darn near endless summer than starts in March and runs some years into early November. (they say the best thing about California is the weather, hahaha, cue hysterical movie villain laughter)  It was a little warm in that million buck cab.

But just kick open the wing vents and cruise baby!  

Everywhere we went in the F-1 we were the center of attention.  Pull up at a light and all the goobers in their beige Toyonda Camccord LXiGS 350s dropped open their mouths in sheer total envy at the hip, handsome and saucy young family sitting pretty in their like-new, hulking American steel beast of an ancient  pickup, with a massive chrome V-8 jutting from the center of the hood like a defiant raised fist from the glorious past, where all the women were strong, the men were good looking and the children were above average.

They really were rather small pickups.

They really were rather small pickups.

At least that’s how I wanted to look.  We were the center of attention, but perhaps we looked a little less triumphantly cool, and a little more weary and worn as we slowly melted into the black vinyl seat under the merciless heat of 103 degrees of The Golden (Baked) State.  Freeway trips were a little hairy, since you couldn’t go over 55, and that flathead was screaming in protest to do even that.  Ever driven on bias ply tires at high speed in a Conestoga wagon?  Try it, you’ll like it.  Oh and downshifting?  Non-synchro 1st gear baby!  Can’t find ’em? Grind em’!

OK, OK, even I had to admit that the F-1 was a bit of a mistake, given the life station at which we were currently docked (poor, 20-something, students with a toddler living in a crappy apartment complex on the wrong side of the wrong town, working part-time jobs).  Maybe, just maybe, the duffers in the beige Chevordazda OldsmoBeemers STXE 410i’s, with their AC, fully synchronized transmissions, cartridge spin on oil filters and self-adjusting brakes were onto something.  Perhaps there was something to driving a normal car, one where the owners manual did not have 18 pages of important and critical regular maintenance items to perform every 500 miles, or else, including more grease zerks than the USS Lexington, but instead was crisply modern and filled with a calming 18 pages of pastel colored legal liability disclaimers, waivers, and big cartoonish pictures of how to connect the seat belts.  


So I put the F-1 up for sale.  Ran ads in the Thrifty Nickel.  Printed out signs for the windows filled with endless detail about how wonderful it was.  Not. A. Single. Bite.

See how hip and cool we looked in that F-1?

See how hip and cool we looked in that F-1? Ignore my white puffy shoes.

Then one day a dude called, he was very interested and wanted to see the truck right away.  He was old, about 45ish, wore a pair of cargo shorts, white puffy shoes, a ball cap with Ford on it and was clean shaven.  Ah, this was the guy for the truck, I thought, now to land the deal.  He drove it, poked it over, talked about camshafts and rear-end ratios and bondo and how unusual the various options were on it, and then offered me a whomping 2,500 bucks.  Cash.

“You know they really aren’t worth much in stock condition,” he assured me.


“Sold,” I muttered.  Like I said, losing money is my spiritual gift.

As the F-1 drove away I felt a pang of regret.  Stupid to sell it.  Stupid to sell it for so little.  You’re gonna be sorry and rue this day for the rest of your miserable smelly little life, ya know, McClure.  Another regret receipt, I keep it pinned on the board of failed potentials and utter mediocrity right next to the Westy’s picture.  

But now it was time to get my family some proper wheels.  A solid, reliable, family car, that was dependable, cheap to run, modern, safe and did I mention reliable?  Yes, an actual car, no more weirdo goofball vehicles that normal humans wouldn’t touch with an eighty-nine and a half foot pole.  So, what did I go out and buy, given this set of lofty and noble priorities?  

An ’84’ Volkswagen diesel Rabbit with 185,000 miles for $700 bucks, where none of the door handles worked, of course.  Because diesel VW baby, oh yeah!  

The deeply reliable Rabbit getting its engine replaced soon after buying it.

The deeply reliable Rabbit getting its engine replaced soon after buying it. You usually have to replace the engines on cars you just bought, right??