Auto-Biography: Getting Paid To Break (In) New 1971 Fords (Including a Mustang Mach 1 HO)

(first published in 2007, revised 12/09/2019. Since I had some memorable wheel time behind a 1971 Mustang HO351 four speed as a seventeen year-old, I thought this might provide a bit of additional commentary to this morning’s Vintage Review)

Having paid penance for my illicit driving, at seventeen I finally joined the ranks of legally sanctioned drivers. I could have taught the drivers ed class by then, including certain advanced techniques well outside the usual curriculum. Speaking of which, as part of this rite of passage, I finally retired the implements I’d used for hot-wiring the family Dodges. And it occurred to me: now that I was legal, why not get a job where I could indulge my love of driving and actually get paid for the pleasure?

I decided that the place to get paid to drive new cars must be at a car dealer. So I walked down to York Road, where the Chevy and Ford stores were. Since I was a Chevy man, I turned left, towards Towson Ford. I figured here was my chance to act out my anti-Ford bias. I walked in the door, and bingo; I was suddenly what’s known in the biz as a “car jockey.” My daily after-school job: shuttle the dealer’s cars to and from various storage lots, to the body shop, and back to mother showroom as well as the occasional new car delivery. On a slow day, I might actually have to help apply a quick polish to sold cars about to be picked up. The scope for unauthorized but paid amusement was only limited by the scope of my imagination and what very little self-restraint a seventeen year-old hoon has.

My first and overarching rule when ferrying brand new Fords was to religiously adhere to the factory’s engine break-in guidelines. Well, only one part, actually. I took Ford’s admonishment to “avoid driving at a steady speed” straight to heart.

In my defense, throttle stomping and brake mashing served an important quality control function. Factory fresh or no, Ford’s “Total Performance” 1971 models rarely ran properly off the truck. Remember: these were the UAW’s and Detroit’s glory years. If the manufacturer could get a vehicle on a transporter under its own power, it was good enough.

In fact, the dealer employed a full-time mechanic in the new car prep department (of which I was a member) to tune-up and carefully look over every car before delivery. Yes, a complete tune-up (ignition timing, carb adjustment, etc.) on every brand new Ford! Now that was a revelation. No wonder one literally had to mash throttles to get them from the truck (the drop off point was a couple of miles away) to the assigned storage lot. Seriously, some of them ran very poorly.

Fortunately for me, all too often brand new cars needed a visit to the body shop. And to add to my good fortune, the body shop was oddly far away, and the route included a tightly-winding road along Jones Falls. Said route was often extended via other windy country roads. But my adrenal adventures were all-too-often thwarted by that notorious Ford side-wall shredding understeer: plowing LTDs through the tight curves was like shooting pool with a crooked tree branch. (’71 Ford CC here).

mustang 1971 -mach-1-poeo5l4x

But! There was a certain red Mustang Mach 1 HO 351 to be dealt with. It belonged to the owner’s son, who got a new Mustang of his choice every fall, licensed as a “demonstrator” with dealer tags. He clearly demonstrated his succession of red Mustangs to many prospective co-eds at his college.

The 1971 version arrived needing some cosmetic body work, and it fell on poor little me to take it to the body shop one afternoon. I took a few long-cuts on that drive, and it was a memorable one indeed: my first time behind the wheel of a genuine American V8 muscle car.

I had driven a number of cars on these same and similar back roads, including my friend’s Datsun 510, my brother’s decrepit MGA, and my father’s ’68 Dart, among others. I had a frame of reference, set by mostly compact and lithe cars. The Mustang crashed right through that frame.

It was a four-speed, and that Cleveland HO 351 motor ran decidedly unlike any other new ’71 Ford I’d been exposed too. It rumbled from its two big pipes when I started it up. I eased out of the lot and to the curb. I had to make a left across two busy lanes of York Road. When I saw a hole in the traffic, I gave it way too much gas and dumped the clutch. My first drag strip start. The inside rear wheel lit up and laid a long black stripe as I crossed the two lanes of traffic to head north. I sincerely hoped the owner wasn’t in the store just then. Actually, he almost never was; probably out at the golf course.

This was not the ideal car to experience a high performance V8 for the first time; well, at least on this particular route. The seating position was cramped, and I felt like I was sitting in a mini-sub, with outward visibility restricted to the periscope. It was impossible to know where the ends of the Mustang actually were.

Surprisingly, the wild stallion had serious understeer…except when it had oversteer. It vacillated between the two depending on how much throttle I was giving it, or stomping on the brakes approaching a tight curve way too fast. And it bounced and bucked and crashed over the endless bumps, waves and crests on the narrow, twisty country road. There was shockingly little suspension travel.

My explorations of its various capabilities and vices almost ended us in the ditch at least once. I quickly learned that the throttle can help steer a powerful car like the Mach 1, but I also learned it takes a bit of finesse to make that happen in the intended direction. Actually, I learned that a bit too late; there was really very little finesse to be observed on that drive. But I made mental notes; next time…


Mustang 1970 Mach 1 CJ

A few weeks later when I showed up for work, a red 1970 Mach 1 was in the prep bay. Odd; a used car in the new car prep bay? Turns out this had been the owner’s son’s previous annual Mustang, which had just completed a hard year and had racked up lots of miles. I remembered it having been sold a few weeks back.

A good-sized electric motor was humming away on the front seat floor, with a flex cable attached to it on one end and the other end snaking up under the dashboard. My boss explained that the Mustang’s new owner became suspicious about his new “demonstrator” when he discovered numerous signs of wear and abuse, despite the negligible mileage on the odometer. He decided to do a little due diligence, and came to the obvious conclusion that the odometer had been rolled way back. Now the electric motor was running in the reverse direction it usually ran in, replacing the many missing thousands of hard miles. Caught red-handed.

Surprisingly, a bare-bones 1971 Pinto could be very entertaining to drive, especially on those same roads that had sent the Mustang into delirium tremens. The Pinto’s underpinnings were heavily based on the European Ford Cortina, with a goofy body on top. Equipped with the rev-happy German 2.0-liter SOHC engine, the UK-sourced slick four-speed and light and accurate rack and pinion steering, it was light, squirtable and tossable. This was genuinely fun; the Mustang was more like terrifying.

Smog controls, five mph bumpers, slush-boxes and dead power steering quickly turned the Pinto into another mid-70’s joke.

The Maverick – that recycled old Falcon disguised in bell-bottoms – now that was the punchline. With its feeble six and the typical slush-box, throttle stomping was a given. Taking delivery of a plain-Jane coupe from the transporter one day, I got in and as usual, floored it. One of the skinny little tires went up in a cloud of smoke. Whoa!

A look under the hood revealed a surprise: a 302 V8. Even I, the supreme auto know-it-all, was caught off guard; the V8 option hadn’t actually been announced yet in the magazines (I read about it a week or so later). It took me totally by surprise; I thought maybe it was just an assembly-line mistake, an extreme example of a Monday or Friday car – Hey guys; let’s throw a V8 into this one and see if anyone down the line notices. Oddly, it didn’t sell and sat around for months. I took it on myself to keep it exercised.

On slow days I burned time (and tires) pulling donuts in a distant parking lot. Ironically, an old lady eventually bought it, oblivious to the chewed-up rear tires.  Or maybe she didn’t care.

I drove the full range of Fords that year, including trucks, as in pickups and vans. But one day I noticed a big red F-600 cab-chassis when I came to work after school. A salesman walked in and asked if anyone knew how to drive a truck. Without hesitation, I said Yes! The cab looked just like an F-100. How hard could it be?

The salesman imparted his minimalist directions: “follow me”. I had no idea where we were going or what I was doing. Man, everything sure looked small from way up there. I found the first of ten gears (a five speed and two speed axle), and released the heavy clutch as I pulled into York Road again, but no rubber peeled this time. The first order of business: keep the big rig in my lane while sorting out the gears. Once I figured out how to stop locking the unloaded rear wheels with the grabby brakes, people stopped staring at me.

The dealership was just a few blocks off the Beltway, and our route included that and the very curvy Jones Falls Expressway, which dumped us in the heart of downtown Baltimore, to where its future bed or body awaited it at an industrial building. I sweated bullets keeping up with him. I had no idea where we were supposed to be going. Just stay on his ’71 LTD tail, but don’t compress it. It was another righteous, riotous rite of passage.

For a while, I also worked as a car jockey in the service department. My oddest encounter was a customer’s plushed-out ’69 LTD sedan. It had the optional 390 V8, but a three-on-the-tree column-shift(!), and manual steering(!!) and un-assisted drum brakes(!!!). I thought for sure he was in for a new power steering pump. The burly owner obviously wasn’t thinking about resale value when he custom-ordered it. It was all I could do to get it up the narrow ramp with two very tight turns to the roof-top parking lot, built in the 1920s or so for Model A’s.

Well, I had always assumed he must have put in a special order for it. Turns out that in 1968, Ford de-contented the LTD, and the automatic and power steering were optional. The proof is in these snips from the ’69 brochure. But he still must have ordered it, since no dealer would ever have taken delivery of one equipped like that. When I brought it back down to the customer at the end of the day, he unsurprisingly looked like the stereotype of a retired Marine drill Sargent. That explains it…

A metallic-brown ‘70 LTD two-door hardtop was my repeated summer ride, though not exactly through legitimate means. The service department kept a couple of year-old loaners. I pocketed the key before I left work on Friday afternoon, grabbed a Coke next door, and came back for it after everyone was gone.

I unhooked the speedometer cable (I was an expert by then), and took it home for the night or the weekend. My boss was always happy to see me at work in the morning early, before he or anyone else arrived. He knew a highly motivated employee when he saw one.

I spent that summer cruising around and hunting skinny-dipping swimming holes with three girls from my neighborhood. The four of us always sat up front, across that wide front bench seat. Ford’s designers must have had us in mind when they made the LTD so wide.

Summer fun gave way to winter bleakness. I still worked at the Ford dealer after school. The problem was that I didn’t go to school very often. Baltimore had (finally) cultivated a hip street scene that was much more compelling than algebra. I spent fewer days at school than hanging out down on Read Street or at the Pratt library reading endless Popular Mechanix from the 1940s. .

I wasn’t going to graduate that spring anyway, having skipped so many classes, so one February morning shortly after my eighteenth birthday I walked down to Towson Ford, picked up my paycheck, put on my backpack, and walked that same quarter mile to the Beltway that I had driven ’71 Fords so many times, and hitchhiked west– without a goodbye to anyone. Not exactly a shining moment. And no axe for me; I’m not convinced it helps.

I had briefly entertained the thought of grabbing some keys from the cabinet, to my pick of the back lot at Towson Ford. And of all the cars in the storage lots, what would that car have been had I acted on it? A Mustang Mach1? No way. It would have been for a certain Econoline van with the six and three-speed manual that I’d eyed out in the back lot; my first camper van.  Good thing I didn’t, in retrospect.

I had no particular destination; just to get away. Like lots of kids then, I was California dreamin’ on a winter’s day. It would take a year before I finally got there.