One of my favorite things in life is the chance to drive an unfamiliar car. Our motto at CC is that Every Car Has A Story, and it’s true. It is also true that every car has its own personality, both for a given model and as a single, unique example. So, when CC’s Jason Shafer offered me the chance to drive his 1963 Galaxie 500, I jumped at the chance. Jason’t Galaxie is fast becoming the most written-about car on CC, but an in-depth driving impression by someone other than Jason might be worthwhile.
The cars of the 1960s might be my favorites as drivers. To me, they represent a combination of performance and driveability that was not reached again until the 1990s, at least for American cars on the bigger end of the spectrum. But to drive an original vehicle of the Kennedy era immediately brings home the advances in design that we have all become used to in the intervening decades.
I have a lot of wheel time in American iron from the 60s. However, much of it was a long time ago (in a Galaxie far, far away?), and very little of it has been since the mid 1990s. Also, while most of my driving was in the class of car that this one represents, most of that driving was in those that were more typically equipped. And what was a typically equipped car back then? It had a base V8, an automatic transmission, power steering and brakes, and a radio.
This Galaxie is unusual. It was the Galaxie 500, which was the nicest trim level short of the seldom-seen XL model, with all of the normal high-trim stuff found on one of these, like full wheel covers, thick carpeting and even a clock. So far so good. But, this car also also comes with manual steering, manual brakes and a three-speed column shift transmission with overdrive. Let’s just say that those last three features were usually found in black low-trim stippo sedans typically bought by your bib-overall-wearing Uncle Clem. So this is, what, two cars in one?
Enough about what it is. What is it like to actually drive? First, Fords of this vintage have a really wide rocker panel/door sill area, so that the seat is several inches in from the open door, necessitating a little more effort than usual to slide in and buckle up. The lap belts take a little more effort than normal to figure out. Front seat belts were not mandatory equipment until 1964 (as I recall) so these appear to be aftermarket units, but ones that clearly were installed long ago. Their dainty little buckles require some attention to connect correctly, but once in we are ready to go.
Modern stick shift cars require a guy to depress and hold the clutch pedal down in order to complete the starter circuit. None of that nonsense here, which was a good thing. The car was on an incline and I did not have enough feet to hold the clutch down, hold the brake down and pump the gas pedal the way Jason told me was necessary. So with the old girl in neutral and a left foot on the brake and right on the gas, it was time to turn the key and make the magic happen. A quick turn of my right wrist and . . . I have just twisted the knob for the cigarette lighter. The ignition key was still on the left side of the dash in 1963, which would be the last year for this feature that had been common on Fords since the beginning of key start ignitions.
I had also kind of forgotten how fuel injection has taken all of the skill out of starting cars. Once upon a time, a guy needed to really be “one with the car” in working the key and the throttle in a bit of choreography that would hopefully result in a brief roar, followed by a nice smooth idle. I was clearly out of practice, or perhaps the Galaxie was still a little sleepy. Several times I got that little isolated cough that would disengage the starter, only to watch the red “GEN” light glow as the big starter motor wound back down. Well, at least it wants to start. A few more of those little near-starts and the old 352 finally caught. Yes, a carburetor (even one with an automatic choke) is still a thing that teaches hard lessons in humility.
This steering wheel is big. And thin. And close. I had a ’61 Thunderbird many years ago, which is probably the one car I have owned which is most closely related to this one. I recall the steering wheel being smaller, and it may well have been with its standard power steering. We were on a little incline, so I never really needed reverse gear. I did need some decent arm strength to work that big wheel around and a like amount of leg strength to stop the car before backing into a car parked behind me. A downward pull on that long shift lever into first gear, and we were off. Off, that is, after one or two stalls and restarts. Hey, that carb was still cold, so don’t judge. This ain’t no Miata.
A nice first gear cruise through the parking lot brought me to our first real street. Another stall. In my defense, I underestimated the reluctance of a cold carbureted engine to go from a loafing idle to the motivating force of a nearly two-ton conveyance. I was also a little reluctant to go into a newby-style 3,500 rpm clutch engagement, which would surely have made this car’s owner wonder if his offer of a drive was such a good idea. But as we got to the main road, the Galaxie and I came to an understanding.
This car says “You need to go somewhere and get home. I’ll take you there and bring you back. I’ll even do most of the work, but I ain’t gonna do all of it. You are gonna have to do your share. If you are OK with that, I’m ready, so let’s go.” And so we did.
This car is nothing like anything modern, short of maybe an F-600 truck. All of the inputs are slow, and many of them (I’m looking at you, steering and brakes) require a significant effort. This car requires movement. The unassisted steering has a slow ratio that requires a lot of turning, and is really heavy under about 10 mph. The column shifter, though nearly effortless, has a really long throw, and the clutch pedal has the longest travel of anything I have driven in a long while. But when you do these things the way the car wants you to do them, it all works just fine.
The 352 (once warmed up, at least) has a lot of torque. But this was, after all, a “Super-Torque Ford”, as the ads used to say. A shift into second and some road ahead of us gave me a chance to explore the overdrive. Paul has written about the Borg Warner Overdrive system before, but I had never personally experienced one. As set up on this car, it will shift into overdrive once, and you can do that in either second or in high simply by lifting off the accelerator for a moment. I had watched Jason use second-OD for a good strong entrance onto a freeway the day before and could see that OD gave second some really long legs. Second OD seemed fairly comfy on this 50 mph stretch of road near the Nashville airport, but a cruiser like this just needs to be in third for a guy to really settle in.
Third OD proved no problem as we hit an unexpected grade, and the old 352 pulled us up that hill without any complaint. Frankly this was always one of my favorite traits of that FE series of Ford big blocks. Even in one of its smaller displacements, it was more about grunt than about revving, although the exhaust note was quite exhilarating while going through the gears.
By the time we stopped and turned onto a main road, I felt like I was at home in this old Galaxie. With the parking and low speed maneuvers behind us, the car settled into the cruise-mode that you just know it was built for. The steering was tight, it went right where it was pointed and with modern radial tires, it rode as smoothly as just about anything could, with no vibrations at all. “This”, I thought, “is why I have always loved big ’60s cars.” The car never lets you forget its age, but it also shows you just how capable it still is when it gets into its element.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and I knew that Jason had a long (and hot) drive home, so I looked for a place to pull in so that Paul could have a turn behind the wheel. My last little bit of embarrassment was when I underestimated the low ground clearance and soft springing when I came a little hot into a parking lot entrance that contained a bit more of a dip than I first perceived. There was a bit of asphalt/steel transfer as the bottom of the front bumper scraped the pavement. Dammit. Jason may have been wondering why he let this damnfool behind the wheel, but it was all over now, so there was nothing else to be done. It was almost as if this grizzled old Galaxie chuckled at me, saying “you did OK junior, but don’t think you have me all figured out just yet.” And it was right, but we were out of time.
I got in the back seat for Paul’s drive back to the hotel, and was swept back to a childhood that had contained so many hours of riding in backseats much like this one, including the ’64 Galaxie 500 with this exact color of interior and my Uncle Bob at the wheel. As I looked around at the cracked and sun-baked surfaces of the interior, something hit me. In the couple of prior rides I had in the car, I had been thinking about all of the improvements that could be made. A repop dash pad, a headliner, seat upholstery, all of these must be readily available for a car like this. But then it wouldn’t be this car. Time and the elements have done their work here, but those also make this the very same car that came into Jason’s family all those years ago. If a guy wants a perfect Galaxie, the kind that he can take to car shows and compete for a prize, they are out there. But this one isn’t one of them, nor should it be. This car carries quite a few battle scars, and carries them proudly. It is a veteran. And veterans deserve respect instead of some snot-nosed youngster trying to turn it into something that it isn’t.
Some final thoughts. I don’t think I would want to drive this car in city traffic every day. In an environment of close quarters and stop and go, this is a high-effort machine. A man’s car, if you will. For the kinds of driving that I do most often, something that is easier to maneuver is what I prefer. A car of this size could fit the bill, but power steering would be a minimum requirement. However, if I lived in the country where it was ten miles of straight road to anywhere and if my in-town parking were at a gentle angle on a courthouse square, something like this could suit me just fine. If you are in a mood for an isolation cocoon, this is not the car for you. But if you want to really drive a car (and not just steer and daintily tap on pedals), this old Galaxie 500 might just the thing. I know that I had a blast!