Curbside Classic/Alter-Autobiography: 1961 Ford Starliner 390-375 – Yes Pop, You Can Get A V8 Four-Speed 1961 Ford If You Really Must Have One

(first posted 11/9/2012)      Fathers can be hard to figure out sometimes, and none more so than mine. Now you might be willing to argue that point, but those who knew my father likely wouldn’t. He was a farrago of contradictions, particularly when it came to cars. He could explain the thermodynamic processes of an internal combustion engine with detailed formulas, and rattle off the chemical composition of gasoline. But that didn’t keep him from putting premium gasoline in his slant-six Dodge Dart or being unable to figure out how to open the hood, much less how to check the oil. He had very strong opinions, even when they flew in the face of common sense. Which (sort of) explains how he came to own a limited-production, 375 hp, high-performance 390 cubic inch 1961 Starliner with a four-speed transmission. Of course, I played a little role in that too…

In Austria, my father had taken the very comprehensive mandatory preparation course for a driver’s license but never actually got his license or bought a car there. After we had arrived in Iowa City from Austria in 1960, he bought an elderly 1954 Ford Mainline V8 sedan equipped with the Fordomatic transmission. As it was for so many other immigrants,”Ford” and “V8” were synonymous with the best of what America had to offer. Well into the ’70s, European, and especially Asian immigrants still strongly preferred Fords for that reason. Henry’s legacy was long-lasting, especially overseas.

But having been trained on a four-speed stick while in Austria–and priding himself on having mastered it (in his mind)–he never was happy with the Fordomatic. That seemed especially true in spring 1961, when it finally came time to look for a new car. “Vy don’t American cars come wizz a four-speed stick shift?”  But Pop, they do! You can get a four-speed 1961 Chevy! “A Chevrolet? Nein! Out of the question; I vant a four-speed Ford V8!”

In those days I practically lived at the car dealerships on Saturdays. One April day I was sitting at a salesman’s empty desk, reading brochures, when I came across a one-page notice from Ford to the dealer announcing the limited availability of the T-10 four-speed. I asked the salesman if it was really so, because my father wanted a four-speed V8 Ford. “Well, if your dad wants one, I can get one for him. But he’d better want one really bad.” He had a funny smile on his face as he said that.

I rushed home with the news, which naturally made Pops very excited. “Holy mackerel, Paul; if you’re right, and I can get a four-speed V8 Ford, I vill buy it for sure. You can bet on it!” It was too late to go back that day, so all weekend long he talked about having to have one. And so right after work on Monday, he and I hopped into the old ’54 and drove downtown to the Ford dealer.

My father had looked at the ’61 Fords before, and what he was envisioning when we showed up was a stripper four-door sedan, in black, with the dull 292 Y-block backed by the suddenly magically-available four-speed.  He confidently strode up to a salesman and announced, “I vill buy a black Ford V8 four-speed today!”

Some of my father’s qualities were inherently contradictory; one of them was cheapness punctuated by rare moments of extravagance. You just never knew which way that wind was going to blow. He’d talk about thrift and saving and begrudge you your 25¢ allowance, and the next day hand you a five-dollar bill and insist that you take your friends to go see a movie, have pizza and play mini-golf. What’s more, he also maintained a decidedly stubborn sort of pride, especially once he had committed himself to something.

All this quickly came to the fore when he learned that the only model in which the four-speed was available was the top-of-the-line Starliner hardtop. “Vatt is this Shtarliner?” I could see my father’s lips twitching nervously. “OK, OK–but I don’t vant the fancy wheel covers like in the brochure here.”

And then the salesman explained that the only engine with which the four-speed could be had was the Thunderbird Super V8, a limited-production version of the brand-new 390 cubic inch FE V8. Rated at a whopping 375 hp @6000(!) rpm, and 427 ft.lbs of torque @3400 rpm, it featured a solid-lifter cam, big valve heads,  aluminum high-riser intake manifold topped by a massive Holley four barrel and cast-iron exhaust headers.

The salesman proudly informed him that Car Craft magazine had just tested one and proclaimed it the hottest street engine of 1961 after getting one down the 1/4 mile in 13.24 @107.18 mph; well, at least one with the dealer-installed triple two-barrel intake setup rated at 401 hp. The four-barrel might run just a tad slower, the salesman said apologetically. My father looked at him in confusion, and then looked at me accusingly.

And then the salesman showed us some clippings of Freddy Lorenzen’s ’61 Ford with the very same 375-horse engine that was tearing up the NASCAR strips in the South.

He explained how the Thunderbird Super 390 was replete with forged and high-strength parts that enabled it to sustain such stresses. Somehow, that spoke to my father in a rather abstract way: “Ja, Ja; a very strong motor”. He was trying hard to rationalize the corner into which he’d painted himself.

But one final bit of information almost pushed him over the edge: The four-speed transmission would arrive in the trunk, and the dealer would have to swap out the standard three-speed in order to install it. “Vat is this? How can this be? Ford invented the assembly line, no?”

In the end he was too deeply committed, and I couldn’t believe how it all had transpired. It was something beyond my imagination: My father actually buying the hottest car of 1961? He drove like a nun–well, more like a tipsy nun. I was torn by alternating waves of excitement and dread. How would all this play out? If only I had a different father…

On a sunny Saturday morning four weeks later, we went to pick up the shiny black Starliner. The engine made wonderful noises from beneath the long, black hood, courtesy of that solid lifter cam, the low-restriction air cleaner, and the dual exhausts: rumpety-rumpety-rumpety…

Granted, twenty years earlier my father had taken driving lessons in a stick-shift car, specifically a 25-hp VW that one had to give plenty of gas before letting out the clutch. Well, that’s exactly what my father did now for our initial takeoff, and the results were highly memorable. He left a smoldering, half-block-long layer of rubber before he got his terror enough under control to back off. And then came second gear…and more rubber. My ham-footed father simply couldn’t get used to feathering the throttle and clutch for a proper take-off, and so became the terror of Iowa City that summer.

Riding with him was a potent blend of terror, embarrassment and headiness unlike anything I had ever experienced as a kid. Not only did he pop the clutch endlessly (and with predictable results– he wore out the first set of those little 14″ tires by July), but he also stuck to the admonition he had learned about not lugging the engine and keeping the revs up on an air-cooled VW. Thus, he roared about town in first gear to avoid any more shifts than were necessary. You could hear him coming from a half-mile. Or more, if he was having an off day.

His driving technique did impress the young local hot-rodders, and word quickly spread around that my father had the hottest car in the county, if not the whole state. Soon, all manner of hot cars started circling our house on Holt Avenue on Saturday nights, their drivers hoping to goad my father out of his philosophy books and into some grudge racing. No such luck. But at least I was kept busy opening the hood to show off the bad-ass 390 and four-speed. I should have charged 25¢ admission.

That year, our annual summer vacation trip to Colorado was highly memorable. The sluggish acceleration of our ’54 Ford always made passing on two-lane Hwy 6 terrifying, but now the tables had been turned. Despite being essentially a race car, the Starliner had no tachometer, so my father calculated the various maximum speeds-per-gear in his head and followed that matrix religiously. That meant downshifting into second for passing–except below 45 mph, which called for first gear (in which top speed was well over sixty). The results were paradigm-shattering, even with all six Niedermeyers and their luggage aboard. I’m not even going to try to describe the drive up Pike’s Peak; my mother just closed her eyes and prayed fervently. My sister also threw up a lot, and refused to get back inside the car after we’d reached the top.

Had my father possessed even a shred of natural driving ability, these could have been peak experiences for a kid like me. But everything was so forced, cerebral, harsh and herky-jerky, and my father’s countenance while gripping the wheel with both hands (no power steering with the Thunderbird Super 390) was a peculiar mixture of determination and horror, especially the time he passed a long line of trucks on a two lane highway at 120 mph. In the mountains. In third gear. The scream of a solid-lifter FE at redline is permanently enmeshed in my mind with the screaming of women and children. What should have been every kid’s dream was instead a nightmare. I regretted ever having told him about the four-speed Ford.

Somehow, we survived those first six months in the Starliner only slightly better than did its rear tires. Then came the fateful December day that brought the first minor snowfall of the year. We wondered about its effect as he got into the car to drive to work, and we all went to the front window to watch. The Starliner was parked out front, since he had long ago given up trying to get it into reverse. After a couple of minutes of warming up, the usual roar arose, followed by the Ford flailing around like a fish just pulled from the water.

The Starliner’s fins pointed this way, than that, and then did several one-eightys before one of the rear wheels crunched against the curb and popped a tire. My father got out, slammed the door and trudged off to the hospital, never again to set foot in that car.

Later that day, a salesman from the Ford dealership came by to put on the spare. He drove off in the Starliner, and that evening my father eased gently into the driveway in a brand new 1962 Ford Fairlane–a stripper four-door with the smallest 145 hp, 221 cube V8 and…the two-speed Fordomatic.

After that, we were not permitted to speak of the Starliner incident under the threat of great peril; it simply faded into one of the better-suppressed chapters of my family’s colorful life. But now that my father has passed on, I consider it my duty to tell my family and younger brothers and about this almost-forgotten  chapter in the Niedermeyer story. Indeed, the truth must come out at last, for you all know how important to me it is to always tell the truth.

PS: My apologies to Mel Parks, the owner of this splendid and rare 1961 High-Performance Starliner, for my unorthodox write-up. He bought it in very poor condition some ten years ago, and despite its missing engine and transmission, code numbers confirmed that it was the real deal. He spent four years carefully restoring it all by himself, and even did his own repainting. The engine is fully authentic, (right down to its wonderful noises) but the four-speed is not. Only about a hundred four-speed ’61s were ever delivered, all with the T-10 in the trunk. So no, this is not my Father’s former Starliner 🙂

I saw Mel’s Starliner in front of me while on the road the other day; when he pulled into a restaurant parking lot, naturally I followed him. Thanks for the tour, Mel, and enjoy your baby. You drive it so nice and gently…