This is the “after” picture
This summer I embarked on a project to fix up a 1978 Ford truck I own. It got me thinking that it had been 26 years since the last time I tackled an old Ford in a driveway in the summertime. The sights and sounds and smells of the project brought back memories from my teenage years. As a longtime Curbside Classic reader, I thought I might try my hand at sharing the story.
There are numerous clichés about spring and the hope of new beginnings, fresh starts and what young men fancy. In the late spring of 1991 I was looking forward to my 16th birthday in August and fancying a vehicle of my own. Although I didn’t know what I was looking for – exactly – I wanted it to be a truck, and most certainly knew it would be a Ford.
Being part of a family that had a strong and long time brand loyalty to anything with a blue oval on the front made it a foregone conclusion that I would develop the same loyalty. Although by the mid 80’s we had added a Hyundai Stellar to the family fleet, whatever truck was in the driveway was a Ford. Even when my Dad started his own trucking business, his first rig was a 1981 Ford CL9000 COE.
May of 1985 with the 1979 Fairmont wagon, (in Canadian National Railways orange) in the foreground, 1978 F150 Super Cab, and new-to-us 1981 Ford CL9000 COE – idling to build up air to lift the air ride cab off its bumpers no doubt.
I was drawn to having a truck. Like many families in our smallish city, we had a car, and a truck. Mom drove the car, dad drove the truck in our family and many others. Our truck was used for hauling a camper, hauling a snowmobile, towing the boat to the lake and general truck duties. The first one I recall was a 1978 F150 Supercab 4X4. Red and white with a 400 and an automatic, it was the vehicle that first got me attached to Ford trucks. As a younger teenager I had acquired use of my dad’s 1979 Polaris 340 Snowmobile and envisioned hauling my sled around all winter, and camping in the summer with whatever truck I eventually got my hands on.
This is what I had in mind, initially anyway
After discussing it with my Dad the verdict was a truck, but not a 4X4. Too many extra parts to maintain and too much money up front were the reasons given. Although at the time I didn’t see the value in it, learning to drive in the snow in a 2 wheel drive truck made me a much more confident, and resourceful driver in the years to come. With the question of the “what” settled it only came down to the “when”. I eagerly scanned the classifieds in our thrice weekly newspaper for something that met the loose criteria: Ford, ideally half ton, 2WD, and not a big engine. Pickings were slim and while we looked at a few there was nothing that was exactly right.
In July, with school out and summer (and my birthday coming) I was getting impatient. I wanted a job, and a truck in no particular order. In early July the Sunday Classifieds yielded a promising find. 1972 F100, 2 wheel drive long box, blue with a white roof and a 302 automatic. It was local and we had a look at it that day. While we had set out to buy a vehicle that needed a little work, as I wouldn’t be driving it right away, this one needed more than a little work. The bed floor had some holes, there was serious rust on both front fenders and the box sides were somewhat beyond economical repair. However, it started up right away and ran well. It was plain as plain could be, with the AM radio and the automatic the only options. Manual steering and brakes, vinyl seat and that was pretty much it. The transfer of ownership and registration paper left in the glove box showed it was sold in my hometown, on Dec 31 1971 and spent its entire 19 year life there.
The price was right and we were fairly confident we could replace some body parts, clean it up a bit and be driving it in a few months. We had recently repainted and then sold the 1978 F150. Ten years of road salt and sitting in the driveway Monday to Friday while my Dad was away trucking all week had resulted in some body rust. It was economical to replace the fenders and some body panels when it was repainted. We assumed the 1972 parts would be similar in price so we weren’t worried – more on this later. Rust was and to a degree still is a fact of life in our part of the country (The 1985 F250 Diesel 4X4 that replaced the 1978 was already starting to rust by 1991) and every vehicle in the budget was rusty so it was really a matter of the degree of rustiness. It certainly didn’t deter me, at the time.
A deal was struck for $400 and it was ours (mine). My Mom and I brought it home that week while Dad was on the road with his 1989 T600 Kenworth and it arrived in the driveway on July 9th, 1991 – my Mom’s birthday as a matter of fact. My friend up the street who was similarly infatuated with getting a set of wheels abandoned his 1965 F100 project long enough to come down the hill and go over it in minute detail with me. We pronounced it a good find and while it needed a little work, it wouldn’t take long.
July 9th, 1991: The 1985 F250 Diesel donated one of its batteries to keep it running. Note the can of WD-40 to help remove rusty fasteners, which was only all of them
The truck became essentially my full time job. After a more detailed look, it needed fenders, door bottoms, cab floors, box sides and side floors on the box. But the hood was in good shape, at least until it blew over in a windstorm and sustained some dents. We set about to dismantle it in the driveway and get to work on the restoration.
The box came off first with some help from an angle grinder and a hammer. I was surprised at how easily the whole front end came off – fenders, hood, inner fenders and doors took an afternoon or so. We perched it up on some stands, bought a supply of wire wheels and Tremclad rust paint and I went to work. The smell of grinding rusty metal still reminds me of that hot summer. I spent a lot of days grinding the frame down, grinding rust out of body panels and learning elementary body work. By August I had found a part time job to help finance this project, which was looking a little more long term than initially envisioned. I also turned 16, and exactly 30 days from receiving my learner’s permit (the minimum allowed by law) I took my road test and was ready to drive. I just needed to finish this truck . . . .
Fall of 1991: Wrapped up during the week while I was back at school. Post windstorm damage to the hood is visible now
I managed to work one weekend day each week, sometimes two, during the school year. Evenings and the other weekend day were spent with my Dad and I cutting, welding and painting. We didn’t have much in the way of shop equipment so all the welding was done with a gas torch by my Dad, something that I can’t imagine trying now despite being proficient with a MIG welder. Slowly, it started coming together.
Winter 1991/1992: Bodywork in progress
In the fall we realized that some of the parts, like the box, were beyond repair. In a nearby small town the local wrecking yard had a 1971 F250 in Ranger trim. We bought the box, fenders, and inner fenders and found it all in much better shape. Our plan to purchase aftermarket fenders and doors as we had done with the 1978 was not to be. Parts for the 1967 to 1972 were more than double the price of the 1973-1979 trucks, and not in the budget. The parts we got were in decent shape, and repairs progressed over the winter, which was fortunately one of the mildest winters on record in our part of BC with very little snow.
And more bodywork in progress. I learned a lot about body filler that year.
An early spring, and the desire to get the truck on the road got me moving. I had a vision, and a plan. I would get the interior sort of finished, get it driveable and get it to my high school shop class where I could spend some time on it during the day. My vision didn’t match with my Dad’s exactly. Specifically, in the area of the black paint job I had in my vision. Having owned a black vehicle as a young man, he knew the downfalls of the color especially given the amount of body work we did. Several other people gave me the same opinion. Being a 16 year old male with zero experience in body work, I immediately decided I knew better and quit listening.
Through March and April of 1992 Dad and I worked hard on it and I enlisted the help of some buddies at home and in Auto Mechanics class. We completed the dual exhaust with the cherry bomb glass packs, and discovered a blown head gasket when we got it running. A new set of gaskets and it was good as new. I completed the important parts, like the stereo and the interior. Dad and I managed to install a custom carpet with some cutting and sewing, and a new saddle blanket seat cover finished it off nicely.
In May we found a body shop to spray it for $500.00 and got the truck up there. It was a $500 paint job for sure, but shiny, black and as predicted, the sub par body work was somewhat “visible”. Did I care? Not one bit. I got Dad to bring the remainder of the parts down to the high school one Friday morning and with permission from a couple of teachers we spent the day reassembling the truck after retrieving it from the body shop. We managed to get it pieced together, lights working, and the new wheels installed and it was ready for a Friday night out disturbing quiet neighborhoods with loud dual exhaust.
May of 1992: All done, and ready to go after some frantic days of work
In the end, we ended up doing a full frame off restoration but on a budget. New cab mounts, repaired floor pans, new door hinges, windshield, new (used) Radiator support, inner and outer fenders, and box. We added the sliding rear window, dual exhaust, low rise mirrors, new stereo, dash cap, aftermarket gauges, and approximately 195 spray cans worth of paint on the frame, engine, cab interior and engine.
Mechanically we did all new brakes including all new hardware, hoses, shoes and wheel cylinders. It also got new king pins, head gaskets, u joints, and all the remaining fluids replaced. The 285/65/15 tires and chrome wheels were a custom touch that made the truck stand out. A close family friend who was a European trained carpenter built a custom wood box liner for it. His skill was evident; 3 minutes with a tape measure and when I returned a few weeks later the box liner fit in with a paper’s width of clearance, and three years later still held water when parked downhill.
The truck was everything I hoped. Subtle, clean looks and a loud rumble that made the anemic, smog choked 302 sound a whole lot better than it was. It was my constant companion through the summer, through the rest of high school and beyond. The 4 wheel drum brakes, terrible handling and Armstrong steering didn’t matter. It was mine and I loved it. It hauled the boat, my snowmobile, camping gear and at some point I helped to move virtually everyone from my part time restaurant job with the truck.
Later modifications included a louder stereo, blue lights in and around the truck, a wood snowmobile deck in winter, and when I graduated from high school, power steering which necessitated a small Grant steering wheel, of course.
It was everything I hoped, except for one thing it wasn’t, which was a four wheel drive. That’s what eventually caused us to part ways and perhaps the next Ford truck will be the subject of another story.