The very first car I ever purchased was a 1961 Ford Fairlane 500 two door sedan. There are a surprisingly large number of photos available online for 1961 Fords but most of them are of convertibles or two door hardtops, or cars that have been customized. These photos are the best representation of my car that I could locate. I purchased the Ford for 75 dollars in the early summer of 1968. Now this was not much money for a car even back then; as purchased the Ford would move under its own power but just barely. Thus began my saga.
It was equipped with the 223 CID inline six and a three speed manual transmission. The clutch was pretty shot; you could ease it out with the car in gear and it wouldn’t stall, just slip. This was unimportant to me as I had another engine and transmission to swap into it. A few weeks before this I had wrecked my father’s 1960 Ford; this car had a recently rebuilt 223 and a good Fordomatic and these could easily be swapped into the 1961.
One of my father’s co-workers, Mr. Keach, owned a small repair garage that he operated as a sideline and he agreed to perform the engine/transmission swap for us. Mr. Keach is good people and, while I don’t remember how much he charged us for doing this, I’m sure it wasn’t very much. What little I know about working on cars I learned from Mr. Keach; his standard response to any automotive problem was “aw, tell you what, bring it on out to the shop and we’ll take a look at it”. He certainly went out of his way to help me keep my well used cars on the road. The only downside to him doing the work was that it took a while to get things done. In the overall scheme of things it wasn’t that long a wait but the sixteen year old me was not very patient, especially not when it involved having to wait for my wheels.
Eventually the day arrived and my “new” 1961 Ford was returned to me, just in time for my senior year of high school. Mr. Keach did a good job, he swapped in the new engine and transmission, fixed several electrical issues and even patched some of the rust holes. He also painted the car in a light blue color, similar to the car pictured above, with paint that he had left over from another job; this was great as the original paint job had started to oxidize to the point where it could be rubbed off with minimal effort.
The car really looked good; it probably looked better than it really was as it was still a ’61 Ford with little power and the interior was pretty ratty. I didn’t care, I had wheels, and wheels meant freedom. I grew up in a small town in western Kentucky and if you didn’t go somewhere by car, chances are you stayed home. Now that I had a car I was free to go where I wanted and do what I pleased. The irony is that I don’t think I ever drove the Ford more than the 10-12 miles it took to get to Evansville, Indiana, a larger community that was just across the river from my hometown.
Many of our younger readers have no real idea how much effort was involved in keeping even an 8-9 year old car on the road back in the sixties. Now, you can buy a 12-15 year old Toyondasan and feel confident that even if it has well over 100,000 miles, the car still has quite a bit of life left. Cars from fifty years ago would wear out much quicker than that, and they required frequent maintenance just to keep them mobile. I ended up owning the ’61 Ford for only 8-9 months and during that time I replaced the starter and the generator. The generator was fairly easy to swap out; as an adjunct to his repair shop Mr. Keach had a junkyard in the field behind his garage and he let me pull a generator from a suitable donor.
The starter was more problematic; for one thing it was late December when it failed and the only place I had to work on the car was the unheated garage behind the family home. I was out of the wind but that concrete floor was really, really cold. The real problem with changing the starter was getting the old one loose. As I recall the starter was held on with three bolts; two of them came off easily but the third gave us lots of trouble. We used copious amounts of WD40, penetrating oil and everything else we could think of, that puppy was rusted solid and it is still a mystery how we didn’t break the bolt head off. We finally did get the bolt loose by heating it with a torch and banging on it with a hammer. I’m sure that my younger siblings learned some new words that day. If the people who designed cars had to work on them they would do a lot better job of locating the components for easier removal.
Another difference between cars of 50 years ago and cars of today is that cars from the past tended to have more individuality (read quirks) than do new cars. One of these quirks, as you can tell from the picture above, is the total disregard of anything related to safety. The instrument panel is covered by nothing more than a thin layer of FoMoCo paint and systems such as lights and wipers are operated by knobs sticking out several inches from the panel. It might not be obvious from this photo but the Ford, like all Fords thru the mid-sixties, had the ignition key on the far left side of the panel. There are many theories as to why this is, my favorite is that it allows you to start the car with your left hand while using the right hand to hold the shift lever up firmly up in Park.
My favorite Ford quirk was the vacuum operated windshield wipers; I’m sure this saved Ford a few cents per car but it was a real annoyance. At idle there would be lots of vacuum in the intake manifold and the wipers would go “flopflopflop” at a good, quick pace. However, at wide open throttle, which was how I tended to drive then, there is little or no vacuum available and the wipers would sometimes come to a dead stop. This is not very reassuring when driving in stop and go traffic in the rain.
In any event the Ford served its purpose, to get me on the road and widen my horizons. Would I have liked my first car to have been a new Mustang or a new Camaro, sure, but it wasn’t and I managed to deal with the disappointment. I acquired my next car shortly after graduating from high school and sold the Ford, for $150 dollars I think.
(click on the author’s name at the top to see the rest of his COAL series)