It’s been a long time coming. After a two-year hiatus, I’m back on track to CC it up for all y’all. So without any further ado: My very first car was “The Nightbird”, a ‘66 Ford Galaxie convertible, black over red with a white top, with the 2 bbl 390. (Note all pictures are from the Interwebs, or CC herself as I have nary one pic of this Gal.)
I bought this car for $500 from my friend “Marilyn”, who’d bought it from an old couple when living in Greenwich Village in the early eighties. She worked in my hometown pharmacy/candy store where my parents had a house credit account (remember those?) and over ten years, became family friends. Her Gal was well known around my hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey; always parked behind the movie theater in merchant parking. I passed it many times going downtown after school. Then one day it disappeared, replaced by a gray ‘85 Chevy Celebrity.
It was 1995: I’m newly permitted, and wanting a car, a classic car. I’m in Advanced Auto Shop, a program that would disappear three years later along with any other voc-tech at our formerly award-winning comprehensive public high school, wrenching on friends’ 1967 Camaros (there were TWO, a genny RS vert with the 327 2 bbl and a Powerglide, and a heavily customized god-knows-what-it-started-as with custom candy-blue paint and lake pipes), learning how to tune and diagnose carbs, lifters, etc., and all generally in awe and respect of our teacher, Bill Parker, an ASE-certified mechanic who never failed to set us in line or play classic rock all day. Being New Jersey, many of our cars had lots of rust; we got very used to using angle grinders to replace exhaust systems. Mostly we reground brake drums, did other brake work, oil changes, tire mounting/balancing and such. The best was we had privileges–our own parking spots on campus, and the freedom to hop on down to Napa (where we got a discount) during school hours.
My dad had offered me his NUMMI-built Chevy Nova, but I wanted something special. And I don’t remember how it happened, but Marilyn offered me her Galaxie, caveat being it had been parked for a year as it had stopped running right. But it had a brand-new exhaust, she said, and halfway decent tires.
I went to see it, covered in a season’s worth of leaves in a backyard of her friend’s house and immediately fell in love. Black with a red vinyl interior, a white top, raised white letter Goodrich T/As mounted to Torino GT wheels. And a cracked windshield.
This was definitely a New York car, as the trunk was completely rusted-out, and one rust hole under the passenger footwell. No matter. It was my betrothed. I struck a deal, and had my mom’s AAA tow it to our house.
My buddy Andy, who restored GTOs and had taught me night driving on his 318-equipped 84 Dodge Ram (with granny gear first!), came over to help me get it started. I’d gone to Buy Wise Auto Parts and bought jack stands and a trolley jack, a new battery, new sparkplugs, various other things you need to get a car going. We drained the oil, black as could be–and noticed the crankcase was holding about five quarts that shouldn’t have been there. Then we noticed there was nothing attached to the exhaust headers.
I called Marilyn from the wall-mounted Western Electric rotary on the basement phone jack. (Remember how you had to let the tension twirl off those cords by letting the receiver dangle? Anyway…) Was she sure there was an exhaust mounted? Yes, she said, she had the receipt. We were puzzled. It was gone. How? We didn’t know.
I went back out to the driveway, where Andy had gotten the oil filter on; we filled the crankcase with 10w30 and put the new battery in, along with some fresh gas. The accessory lights came on; everything seemed to work. I sat back and admired the dash. (And yes, I had fuzzy dice on it my entire time of ownership.)
We had fuel and spark. But she wouldn’t start. Andy took a look and decided the starter’s Bendix had failed. Back to the auto parts store we went, and got a rebuilt starter. The sun was going down fast (it was November), but we got the unit in, and lowered the car to the ground. I got behind the wheel, primed the carb, and….nothing. Turned out the neutral safety switch had broken. No matter. We got a new one and….
ROAR! There’s no way to describe an unmuffled FE engine. That big-block had a kick and the nosy neighbor (who loved to call the cops on my band when we rehearsed; we’ll just say his first name was Richard, yes?), came outside with his head scratching as we set the timing using the vintage Sears light Mr. Parker had given me.
All seemed copacetic (as Mr. Parker always said), aside from the loud but beautiful (to me) sound coming from those manifolds.We let her warm up a bit, then checked all the other parts. Replaced a few fuses. Proud of ourselves, we sat in the car, put the heater on, and smoked a joint.
I did some more wrenching, but the car needed more work to get it on the road proper. My mom called it “the planter” as it just sat there all winter. My friends and I would go out to the Gal and get high and run it for a while to keep things moving, talk about the stuff kids talk about. And there, I got the name from my favorite song by Jimi Hendrix at the time, “Night Bird Flying”, and my love of Alison Steele, “The Nightbird”, on 102.7 WNEW-FM. She was a legendary NYC overnight broadcaster. It was only a few months ago I learned that, apocryphally, Jimi wrote the song for her. And with the classic taillights shaped like jet exhausts, newly squared off in ’66, it sure looked like something flying though the night, even when parked.
I started doing some automotive archaeology; found a bunch of receipts from the original garage in New York City and other ephemera. My Gal was pretty stripped down, but had a power top, power brakes, and steering, and a front and rear speaker for the radio. Everything else was bottom-end, according to the catalog. I used to sit and look at the original ’66 brochure Marilyn had, and imagine how I would have equipped her if she’d been mine originally…
When the snow melted, I went to the DMV and got it registered, plus a fifteen-day permit to get the ol’ Gal street legal. Then I shopped around for a place that would make me an exhaust system, as I couldn’t find anything in stock in every order manual Mr. Parker had. The local Meineke had a great price for me on custom true duals, though, and I had her towed there. The job was great, and I picked up the car. God, did it look sweet.
But when I started her up, a racket like you wouldn’t believe came from the top end of the engine.
I brought her down to Shop and Mr. Parker took a good look. The hydraulic lifters were all out of whack, and through conversations with Marilyn and Andy we figured out her ex had vengefully overfilled the car with oil, blowing the lifters, and, we assumed, had stolen the new exhaust system before I bought the car — a theory proven when I ran into him at a party and he offered to sell me a “slightly used” dual exhaust that (ahem) coincidentally was juuuust right for the Gal!
Really, the engine needed a proper teardown. But it still ran well, despite the racket. Mr. Parker hooked it up to the sniffer, and played with the carb jets and timing, got it to run nice and clean. I got it down to the Montclair inspection station to get a red “Rejected” sticker, as it still needed a windshield, but that sticker gave me a bunch more days to sort it out.
I remember that day well as I had just turned on the AM radio and slipping past the sports and Christian channels, heard “Incense and Peppermints” come through on a normally right-wing talk station, 770 AM.
For a second thought I’d just slipped through a time portal. Then the voice of radio host Curtis Sliwa–a founder of the Guardian Angels and a real New York character–came on, saying that Timothy Leary had just passed, giving a sarcastic eulogy for him. I turned it off. I just wished he’d played more music.
I had a street-legal car! I was so excited. I drove all around that day, feeling out the power steering (not bad at all; I still miss the road feel of that car), and learning the hard way how quickly power drum brakes with no proportioning valve will lock up a car. I dropped the top, rolled the windows up, and put on the heater, filled it up with 99¢/gallon Clinton-era gas, and just…cruised. All night. I was the happiest I’d ever been.
The brakes were weird. They were self-adjusting, but I wound up putting it on the lift and adjusting them often. The shoes would often stick and I’d have to pull up the pedal to release them. We tried a new master cylinder, resurfacing the drums, and replaced the shoes, did everything you need to do to make this antiquated, foolish system work. I got it working for a long stretch, but if I left the car alone for more than a couple of days, it’d start up again, and I learned after my first massive fishtail into a lightpole to (ahem) tread lightly.
The car ran this way for a week or so, then something started to clunk badly and she wouldn’t start. I got a referral to the garage in the area that still worked on cars as old as mine; a pair of crusty old bearded brothers who were pretty much the New Jersey version of Click and Clack.
They looked into it and it seemed the drivers’ side rocker arm had split in two and the cheapo rebuilt starter I’d put in was just not good. They took pity on me, and didn’t charge me a lot, but definitely gave me an earful about driving around in a car with the jankiness of the Nightbird. They fixed it up, I got it back, went to Safelite and got my windshield installed. (They had it in stock; who’da thunk?) Then to the inspection station, where she passed with flying colors.
The next day, on my way to work, I was barely down the hill before smoke came from the hood. I stopped the car, freaked out, and a neighbor called the FD. They opened the hood and laughed at the burnt spaghetti underneath. I ignorantly hadn’t changed out the spark plug wires or any of the other electrical system consumables. Seems now that I had a starter that actually worked and reasonably modern plugs, the old plug wiring just couldn’t handle it. But the starter, battery, and distributor/points were fine.
The next day, I went to the auto parts store and this time bought a genuine Motorcraft ignition wire set and all the little parts I needed. There’s something else I did, but I cannot remember. After that, it ran really well, albeit noisy. But there’s nothing like piling 6 friends in your big-block convertible and cruising down two-lanes all over Essex County, New Jersey. I had a little boom box and a pile of tapes, and kept it tuned to the classic rock station.
I wanted to take a road trip, so I went out to Bethlehem, PA, to visit a pal. The car pulled to the left incredibly but I could get it to track true. At 70 there was a thumping from the right front wheel, later diagnosed as a bent rim. Nothing I could do about that.
Driving home after the weekend, right after the gorgeous sunset that paints the Lehigh Valley pink and orange as you pass into New Jersey, a bad snow hit. The Nightbird was steady; I remember hitting the brights and that making the snow visibility worse. But I got home, averaging 12 mpg or so.
I kept working on the car and kept it mostly local, with dreams of restoring it. After the trip I tried to get it aligned and found out the ball joints were shot. At the time it exceeded my budget to fix it right, more than I’d paid for the car. So I just bought a set of cheap front tires and let them wear out.
That summer was so much fun. I polished what lacquer was left on the car and took her to prom, opening the passenger door for my sweetie like ya do.
My buddy Gardner had a 77 T-Bird and we’d drag race at night (guess who won?). We all went camping. Top down cruising all summer long. But by fall, the front tires had worn down to the steel, the dash lights wouldn’t work, the engine had developed some sort of other lifter issue, the brakes got worse, and I didn’t have any more cash to fix it. My mechanics said it was just a lost cause. But I still drove it: I kept the car local, rotated the tires, picked up mismatched tires from the free pile at auto shop, just did that over and over. Until it became obvious that I was driving a money pit I loved but couldn’t afford to fix properly.
I drove it til early spring, then reluctantly put an ad in the Newark Star-Ledger, saying I would only sell it to someone who would restore it. Two brothers who claimed to own an auto restoration shop came by, they gave me a thousand in cash, and I watched my first love roll down the street. They gave me their number and told me to get in touch, they’d restore it over the winter. I gave them the NOS carpet, vinyl, and other parts I collected. I do believe they made something out of it, but I never wrote the VIN down, and as such, while I often search for it on registries and such (as I mentioned it was definitely a custom order, typical of Ford in the 60s, and I’d recognize it in a second), I’ve never found it. All I have left of it are the blue plates she was issued in 1987: GBF-27E, Great Big Ford. And a Ford catalog from 1966.
I hope she’s out there somewhere making some other teenager happy, cruising at 45 with the top down, windows up, heater on, a sweetie close on the split bench seat, on a two-lane New Jersey night. It’s what she was meant to do.