Auto-Biography: 1956 Ford Customline – My First 90+ MPH Ride, But Under Less Than Ideal Circumstances

posted at the Cohort by MattZ

We all (hopefully) have memories of our first fast car rides. And hopefully good ones. Mine were colored by severely distracting circumstances, but I still remember the thrill of hearing the engine roar and the needle bouncing past 90. It happened in a dusty ’56 Ford sedan quite a lot like this one, in the summer of 1963, but with a Thunderbird V8 badge on its front fender. Driven by a Mennonite farmer, no less. But he had a very good reason to be in such a hurry. Every time he looked over at me in the passenger seat, he sped up a bit faster, and faster.

I was out for my annual few weeks with the Mennonites, in 1963, during haying time. We went to a neighbor’s place, to help with their haying. They didn’t bale; instead they put it up loose in their big dairy barn, using an elevator, something like this, but even bigger. We pulled up in the barn with a load, and I jumped off the wagon or tractor and started to climb up into the elevator, so I could ride it up into the haymow. It was up high, so I grabbed a big steel cable (the drive cable for the elevator), right next to a pulley, in order to pull myself up. Just as I was doing that, it started up, as Mr. Yoder engaged its clutch from the engine that drove it, not knowing where I was. It instantly fed the first few fingers between the pulley and cable. I screamed at the top of my lungs. Mr. Yoder stopped the machine, came and saw my predicament, ran back, and put it into reverse. My little finger of my left hand was mutilated, the ring finger got it scrunched too but not quite as bad, and my middle finger got it too, but lighter, just below the nail. It was an ugly sight when they came out from under that tight cable and pulley groove.

Their farm was about midway between Iowa City and Kalona, a small hamlet to the south. We had driven over in Mr. Yoder’s tired old Studebaker pickup, but the neighbor’s adult son had a ’56 Customline sedan with the memorable Thunderbird V8 badge on the front fender (this one is a six). The’56 Thunderbird V8’s were either a 202/200hp 292 or the 225hp 312. I’m guessing it was the 292 in this one, as I’m pretty sure it was a manual transmission.

He wisely decided to take that, the fastest car at hand. But to the wrong destination: Kalona. That’s where their doctor had his office.

I sat in the front on the passenger side, holding my mangled hand in my other hand. I can still see it in front of me now, as well as every detail of the Ford’s dash, and the low rumble as we headed down the gravel road at 60+ mph towards Hwy 1. Once on that old two lane highway, Mr. Yoder bore down on the foot-feed (as all the Mennonites called the gas pedal). I watched the speedometer work its way up, as his courage worked its way up. It was a bit hard to read inside its covered “safety” hood, but I saw the needle hit 90, and maybe then some. For all I know, it could have been 100.

It was a godsend, Mr. Yoder having access to that Thunderbird-V8 powered Ford, and driving so fast, as it gave me something else to think about, and the speedometer was a good visual distraction form the mangled fingers in front of me.

We rushed into the doctor’s office in downtown Kalona. I remember the looks of the folks sitting in the waiting room. The doctor took a look at my fingers and said: I can amputate them or you can go to Iowa City, to the University Hospital, and see what they say.

Sounds like a plan! He wrapped a big bandage loosely around them, which made riding up the 20 some miles to Iowa City a bit less visually painful. He or Mr. Yoder also called ahead to my father, who worked in the Neurology department. He met us there and I was admitted.

It turned out that the University Hospital was the home of a world-famous hand surgeon, Dr. Adrian Flatt. More like the world’s most famous hand surgeon. Lucky me. Here’s a detailed article about him during his 22 years at the UI.

The accident happened in the morning. it was early afternoon by the time we got there. Fortunately Dr. Flatt was not tied up, and later that afternoon I went into surgery, which took some 4-5 hours repairing my fingers, re-attaching the ligaments and removing hundreds of minute particles of hay. I had to have my arm in a cast for six weeks so as to not place any stretching on it.

By far the most painful part was getting the stitches taken out some six weeks later. They were partially buried in new scar tissue and in tender skin re-growth. A young resident was given the job. He had to dig them out. The pain was absolutely incredible; I screamed and hollered, but had to keep my hand perfectly still. Not an iota of painkiller administered. Old-school…  It was the most painful experience in my life, much more so than the initial injury. I both hated that resident as well as felt sorry for him.

But it all turned out remarkably well. I had to have physical therapy, which involved squeezing Silly Putty and flicking checkers with those fingers, and such. And although the little finger was permanently crooked, I was soon able to play violin again, that hand being the fingering hand. Of course I never practiced. Secretly I wished it could have given me the excuse to drop it. No such luck; Thanks, Dr. Flatt!

This Ford is a six cylinder model, and my ride to Kalona and Iowa City would have been a bit more leisurely if that’s what Mr. Yoder had taken. But it does look like a classic Iowa farm car.

Every time I get together with these Mennonite friends, the first thing they ask is to look at my left hand and the slightly twisted and crooked little finger. It’s become a legend in their extended large family… But the unsung hero (beyond Dr. Flatt), is the ’56 Ford that took me on my first fast ride.