If you polled the majority of my friends and other kids at the time, the first car of the Midwest teenager during the mid-nineties was anything but memorable. I was the lucky exception. My first car became not only memorable, but the thing of legends during the thirteen years that I owned it. It is a car that probably should have killed me; instead it helped to change the course of my life. It set the bar high right from the get-go, one has been hard to get back to (but did eventually). But most importantly, it taught me to appreciate my Dad during a time when I thought I knew everything. Yes, I truly was the lucky exception.
My old man is an old hot rodder at heart, having had some pretty cool vehicles prior to offspring, like the red Mach 1 that he bought brand new right before he and Mom got married. As a kid, I heard a lot about that car as it seems to have been one of his favorites. While during the 80’s and beginning of the 90’s we had some terribly uninspiring vehicles, Dad didn’t hesitate in sharing his love and knowledge of horsepower with me. While I was a kid I had a Hot Wheels collection to rival the factory itself, and by eight or nine could identify most vehicles on the road. It was just natural that my car search began at, well, age twelve. About the time I was fifteen I realized they didn’t just fall off trees and that I wouldn’t just be given one.
Shortly after I got my license the bargaining began. I was struggling in school and Dad didn’t want me getting a job to pay for a car because of said grades. On top of that, they were getting tired of loaning out their vehicles, and were buying new ones while I also was tired of driving around in a minivan. So a deal was hatched, my grades improved, and I’d get a car whose value was not to exceed $2,000.
After proposing many vehicles that I thought were cool (Dad thankfully saw right through them – think late ‘80s turbo Daytonas and late ‘70s/early 80’s Trans Ams), one night a couple days before moving into our new acreage we saw an ad in the local Thrifty Nickel. “1968 Galaxie 500 Fastback, 390, PS PB, AT, $2500”. Dad was more than interested, so the call was made and the appointment scheduled for the next afternoon.
After a day of barely being able to focus in school, we traveled out to a farm outside of town and met an older farmer outside a large outbuilding. It’s there when the grueling interrogation began, but not by us. This was our first clue the car was something special to him, as he asked question after question while slowly walking around to the garage door. It was pretty clear he wasn’t going to open it up until he was convinced we were really interested, and going to enjoy the car.
From the first second we walked into the Quonset hut that housed the car, I could see why. It was staggeringly beautiful to the point where I was speechless and Dad was pretty floored too. Her maroon paint glistened along the sleek lines of the big car, the slotted mag wheels shone, and the white walls were.. white. Opening the door, the interior was just as phenomenal as the exterior. Clad in all black, the twin bucket seats seemed to call to me to grab the console-mounted shifter and rock the 390 into outer space. As the old farmer pulled the car out Dad simply said “Do you like it?” “Uhh.. yeah” was all I could struggle out.
“Good, because I’m buying it.”
After a seemingly endless thirty hours of waiting, that involved a school lock in prior to moving into our new house, finally Dad and I loaded up in my Uncle Richard’s mid ‘80s Ford F-150 for the ride to pick the car up. Finally we arrived, and after filling the old truck up with the mountain of spare parts the old farmer had I was handed the keys.
Most know there is a fine line between fear and anticipation. Pulling out onto the highway with even moderate throttle input, I realized the 390 was in a different ballpark than the minivan or Mazda 626 that I’d been driving. Stopped at a light about 5 miles from home in front of Lincoln’s legendary Hi-Way Diner I decided it was time to find out. I ratcheted the shifter down to “1” and my left foot went on the brake while my right touched the throttle. I pressed in just enough to get the big FE rumbling like a lion, then the second the light turned green one went out and the other to the floor, just like I had played over and over in my head the previous thirty one hours. As it had in my dreams, my face erupted in a smile as I counter steered a bit while the right side whitewall erupted, then rocketed me past the speed limit, and past the minivan next to me.
As the year went on, things on the car needed replacing for various reasons as they do on cars such as this. As I knew nothing about auto repairs, Dad and I would always begin repairs together, with his knowledge of older vehicles not lost in the years of malaise-era family hauler ownership. We would take backpacks on a weekend and hit up the local boneyard to scour for parts. And then we worked on the car more. Most of all, we did all of this together during the time where I was previously a loud rebellious teenager who obviously knew more than him (yeah, right!).
So with every trip through the fields of Walkie’s in Malcom, Nebraska and every time under the car handing parts and wrenches to each other, I realized my old man really did know something. During those trips and all that work we did on the car I really began to appreciate my old man, and tried to stop thinking with teenage idiocy.
As for the car itself, it quite simply became a legend with my friends. While the 390 was saddled with a Motorcraft 2 barrel carb, it definitely had no problems in the power department as the old farmer had removed the A/C long ago and given her a “healthy” rebuild. Soon after purchase Dad “borrowed” it one day and had the single glasspack replaced with a true dual exhaust of Super Turbo mufflers dumping out the rear. Many other small performance upgrades added up to a car that was definitely not lacking in power.
Not only that, but it was equipped somewhat oddly, for a non-XL model. It was pretty loaded with front disc brakes, bucket seats, that awesome shifter (that I can still hear the “CLINK” of in my head), a ridiculously awesome rear defroster (fan + heater element), and all other kinds of awesome 60s vintage add-ons that made it not only rare, but endearing.
Legendary status was earned through many a teenage adventure that was done with good friends during good times, which is where this car really shone. It introduced me to the road trip on the rural highway or back roads, that it ate up with aplomb and comfort. Many a weekend were spent filling the trunk full of camping gear and firewood while hitching up the fourteen-foot aluminum fishing boat to entertain five or six teenagers seated comfortably inside. It had so many adventures that any of my old friends can tell a dozen tales that have the car at the center.
Of course all good things come to an end. At nineteen years old, I chose to go to college at a school about 35 miles from home and still live at home to save money, so another vehicle was purchased that would take me to and fro with a little more economy. So the old gal was retired to date nights, weekends, nice days and occasional use. After almost three years of daily service to a teenage driver, I’m sure she didn’t mind.
Yet the age caught up to her eventually. Or rather, the Midwest weather combined with Nebraska’s penchant for salty roads caught up to her. On one evening, when I was twenty two an, between jobs and cars, the frame gave way at one of the rear torque boxes. Her last act was delivering me to my best friend’s apartment where I promptly finished off a twelve pack of Coors Light before I could stomach calling the tow truck. As we sat around telling stories before the tow was called, it was almost like a funeral for a friend. In a way it was.
I held on to her for another eight years, during which time she moved between the garage at my parents’ home, to a storage shed, and finally back to the garage. I always had the best intentions of a full restoration, or at least simply fixing the frame, but the money to do so never happened. Come 2007, my life and my priorities had changed and I realized that the old Gal would forever live in my parents’ garage were I to be her steward, and that wasn’t exactly the life I promised the old farmer I’d give her.
Agonizing over the decision for a bit I realized that the changes the car made in my life were permanent. Regardless of if I had the car or not, my Dad and I had gone from oil and water back to Father and Son. It had instilled in me the freedom that is the open road, and a love for working on vehicles. It had solidified friendships that last to this day.
She sold quickly to a pair of true gearheads who realized the deal they were getting and were anxious to rebuild her. So for one last time before they arrived, I sat down in her and flicked the key on. Just as always the “cold” light illuminated in the cold February air. Even that light was a cool feature, one that my best friend made for his Trans Am when he was building it late in our teenage years. Just like every time I needed her to, after pumping three times and holding the gas in about a quarter of the way, the 390 fired to life.
I let her idle for a bit as I thought of all the places I’d gone since the last time I drove her. I thought about the afternoon before, when Dad and I spent a couple hours in his garage together getting all the parts ready for the new owner. I also thought about my fiancée and the new house we’d be moving in to in the next couple of weeks.
When I shut her off and closed the door for the last time I was fully at peace with selling the old Gal and ready to continue the adventure and life she had started.