In the early fall of 1986 I was living the life I thought I wanted. I was a young lawyer in a small law firm, I had a nearly-new car (the VW GTI), an apartment all by myself in a 1920’s era building with the most fabulous black and white subway tile bathroom in the world, and a steady girlfriend. Everything was going well except for that last part.
I had not dated a lot, because, well, I don’t really know. Or maybe I do. I had grown up in a zone of
fairly intense conflict between my parents (a zone which perpetuated long after their divorce). And however unlikely it may seem for a lawyer who engages in fights with, for or against people all day every day, I try to avoid conflict in my personal life. But when I was introduced to a girl from my hometown (a set-up by our mothers, actually) we were both pleasantly surprised that our mothers’ enterprise could turn out so nicely for both of us. It was pretty good at first – she was an attractive nurse with a good sense of humor and was fun to be with. I remember her car very well, of course – a 1978 Cutlass fastback sedan in that awful pale yellow and light brown trim combination so popular on GM cars of the time. I hated it. But as time went on, things started to stagnate – as they often do. She had “tight specs” as a friend of mine used to say, and I never really felt like I could truly relax around her, and just be the real me instead of the me I had been trying to project as a young professional. When things finally ended early that fall, I wasn’t really happy about it – but I wasn’t really sad about it either.
When we don’t have to answer to anyone, we tend to go back to our defaults when it comes to behavior. My default was buying cars – something made worse because it was fall. Spring and fall still bring out something in me akin to that state in pets that people call “heat”. Only I go into heat over cars. It was right then that I heard that the brother of a law school classmate was selling his truck. I had seen it before – it was a worn-but-straight 1963 Ford F-100 Flairside. No, it was not a “Stepside” – those are Chevrolets. I called the guy and went go have a look. It was a six with a granny-low-4 speed, and painted the color I still call “park bench green”. The truck no longer fit his life but I decided that it would surely fit mine.
Pickup trucks had always been one of those things that I never took seriously. I saw them around and liked many of them. But when it came to regular transportation, I knew that the ones I liked were crude things with few creature comforts. Nobody I had known growing up in the suburbs had a pickup until my neighbor and mentor Bill came upon a dull, faded red Studebaker Champ sometime in the mid-to-late 1970’s. But a truck of that general sort would be a fabulous counterpoint to the civilized, respectable and sporting car I drove most of the time.
I had it all worked out in my mind. I could drive an old pickup on those glorious fall days, to smell the leaves and stop at places to buy big things that needed to be moved home – scenes implanted in my imagination from so many light truck brochures. The GTI was plenty engaging, but old pickups were the kind of things a guy really DROVE. This old F-100 was a piece of machinery that would require some effort and elbow grease, just the thing to shake off the mental grind of air conditioning, computers and telephones that accompanied day-to-day lawyering. And maybe the real trigger was that the ratty old F-100 was exactly the kind of purchase that would have generated one of those disapproving looks from my recently-former girlfriend. But I no longer had to suffer her reaction, and could do what I wanted do with no consequences. And I wanted a pickup truck. This pickup truck.
I never knew the truck’s full history, but the seller told me that he had bought it from a fireman. It had certainly spent some time around a welder, because there were two of the most intense bumpers I had ever seen on a vehicle. It had apparently been used for some heavy work, because there were extra leaves in the springs so that bumps in the road only caused the truck to skitter around on the surface rather than undulate in any way. With the right tires it could have probably kept up with a stock F-350 in its ability to haul loads.
The steering was of the classic Ford truck kind. The free-play in the steering was perhaps 1/3 of the turn of the wheel, so that the process of driving was more herding a blind cow than steering a motor vehicle. This was still a couple of years before the Twin I Beam independent front suspension that Ford trucks would become known for, so it used the old I beam straight axle with two (ungodly stiff) leaf springs. Then there was the shifter. Something in the shifter mechanism had broken so that the long shift lever would swing in a wide arc from side to side in any gear, with nothing that resembled anything like a shifting gate. The trick, as it was explained to me, was not to chase that lever halfway across the cab for gear changes, but to do it with a mere flick of the wrist: Twist left and push either up for 1st (on those rare occasions it would be needed) or back for 2nd, then twist the wrist right and straight forward for 3 and straight back for high. With about three minutes of practice, that method worked really well.
The little 223 cid six was the one part of the truck that needed absolutely nothing. It never failed to start quickly and never gave me a moment of trouble. I adjusted the tappets once (They may or may not have needed it, but it had surely been awhile and it was a fun way to spend some time) and sprayed the carb linkages, but that was it. I have owned a few vehicles that have had engines of legendary durability, and that little Ford truck six was one of them. Actually, I don’t think that truck ever required anything but a tune-up (mostly because I wanted to do one), a used tire (because I ran over something) and a battery (because one got stolen). That old Ford truck made me a fan.
The flat tire happened the one day I decided to drive the truck downtown for a court appearance. I don’t know what I ran over, but one tire was definitely flat when I came back. Another tire was laying in the bed but it was then I discovered that I lacked a jack. Did you know that most tow trucks cannot get into a parking garage? I do now. Fortunately, a service guy with a jack and a lug wrench was all I needed.
Other than the flat surfaces (that had succumbed to surface rust) the green paint was decent outside and fabulous inside. A blanket on the seat covered the torn vinyl and it was good to go. The blanket fit really well because there were no seat belts to get in the way. It may seem odd that a guy who spent his days immersed in the after-effects of auto accidents would be so sanguine about a truck wherein the only restraint system consisted of gravity, but not everything in life makes sense. I did not buy this truck for lots of driving, but for short hops or deserted country roads (never mind that finding them required traversing a lot of congested city streets). But I know, I know – they call them “accidents” for a reason. Fortunately, I never experienced a situation where the seat belts would have made anything better.
The heat worked, as did the lights and wipers. The only real issue was the classic Ford front cab mounts that were getting a little soft with rust (really the only rusty part of the truck). This was easily recognized by the front of the cab that had settled down a bit, which caused the front sheet metal to look like it was pointed ever-so-slightly slightly uphill. I had seen far worse, and was OK with it. The unanticipated side effect of this body misalignment was that it caused the steering column to poke out a bit so that the turn signals would not self-cancel. It also put a bit of pressure on the choke cable so that there was a periodic need to punch the choke knob back into the dash after it had slowly migrated towards the driver’s knee. As I think about it, there was also the speedometer with the wildly gyrating needle that never came close to indicating an actual speed.
I made several friends with the truck, as everyone who has ever owned a pickup truck has learned. In fact that was how I first saw the truck, when its prior owner had been asked to help one of my roommates move. The only mishap in moving came from the wooden bed. It was in generally good shape, but there was a gap between the front of the bed floor and the front panel behind the cab. One day I smelled something burning. I pulled over and looked underneath to answer a question that had been asked the day before – what had happened to one of the arm covers on a friend’s couch after we moved it into his new house. “Hey Tim, remember that missing arm cover? I found it. Burning on top of my muffler. I don’t think your wife wants it back.”
The only real problem I had driving the truck was that it was physically exhausting. All week long I would look forward to a weekend of errands or a place for a scenic drive. It was a thrill to leave the world of 1980’s plastic and slide into the pickup where everything you touched was metal or Bakelite. Someone had fitted radial tires to the wheels, which may or may not have been the cause of the highest effort steering of anything I have owned to this day. Parking was really unpleasant and required the kind of upper arm strength I wished I had more of. A co-worker borrowed it and upon returning told me that he was now a graduate from the Charles Atlas School of Truck Driving. This may have been a sign of kingpin woes, but I had no intention of trying to improve this truck the way I had tried to improve some (or perhaps all) of my previous old vehicles. Trying to wrestle with that wheel during a shifting maneuver was always a fight, and it became clear that my city life was not what my truck was made for. By the time I would return home from any errands that involved parking, I would be wiped out with no urge to go near the truck for the next several days.
I parked it in my spot in the building garage (which I had not used since the GTI had been vandalized). That worked until the battery got stolen. Then I rigged a chain and padlock to keep the hood closed to unauthorized access. I was actually a little amazed that the truck itself never got stolen, because there was something wrong with the door lock cylinders so that the cab would not lock. The reason it was amazing was because my apartment building, just south of 38th and Meridian Streets in Indianapolis, was in one of those areas that was on the ragged edge of either the beginnings of some gentrification or a continuation of a long slide into the kind of place a person who could afford better would not want to live. After some early indications that the area was in the first category, it sort of shifted gears into the second. Which was OK, because I had reached the point where all of my friends were buying houses and it seemed like the thing for me to do as well.
The truck was a great help in moving once I bought a house. Remember all of those Truck Friends I had made? The good part about having Truck Friends is that most all of them were happy to return the favor when my own moving day came. The only place it failed me was in moving the television.
My family got its first color television in 1970, with the aid of a discount obtained through my Uncle Bob, who worked for Magnavox. When Mom finally replaced it, I adopted the elderly-but-operable TV. It survived a move to my law school apartment, and then to my first solo adult place. It would have fit in the GTI for its third move, had I removed the legs, but I decided that it would be simpler to just heft it into the truck. The F-100’s suspension system that was so well suited to hauling things like anvils and wet sod weighted down by wrecking balls did a poor job of cushioning geriatric electronics. The sorry result was that my Magnavox color television expired somewhere during the short trip, at the age of 17. Which, of course, I discovered when the cable guy arrived for the hookup.
Happily, my little 1920’s bungalow had a 2 car garage out back, so I had plenty of room for my truck. After the move I took the F-100 on its one and only road trip – a trek to Fort Wayne to remove my big toolbox, workbench and other accumulated possessions from my mother’s garage, so that I could resume my life of recreational wrenching. I stuck to less-traveled roads and the old truck got me there and back just fine (though I had to punch the choke knob about every fifteen minutes). I expected that the pickup would give me a great outlet for my need to tinker and futz with things mechanical – something my still-under-warranty GTI did not really encourage.
I would have happily kept the truck in its semi-retired, occasional use state for years to come, but for a funny quirk in the car-hunting excursion through which I expected to replace my GTI. I found my next car about a year into ownership of the truck, and the seller was really interested in making my pickup truck part of a trade. He got my F-100 (with some instruction in the operation of the shift lever) and some cash and I had my next car. It is difficult to value things that make up a trade, but I certainly didn’t lose any money on the pickup and may have even made a little.
One side-effect of writing this series is that re-living my experiences with these cars has dredged up some fairly intense feelings about them – mostly good ones. It hits me that I never really developed much of a relationship with this truck. Is it because I was (finally) starting to develop the kinds of personal relationships that I had previously avoided for one reason or another? Or because I really didn’t drive it that much? I remember deciding at the time that maybe I liked the idea of this truck more than I liked the truck itself. Would I have liked an F-100 with stock suspension and better steering? Maybe. Or maybe I am just not a truck guy – or at least not an old truck guy. In any case, it seems the truck did three significant things during the year I had it: It got me past my first real breakup, it got me into my first house, and it got me into my next car. Things far more valuable than the old TV it cost me.