My parents had few things to complain about during my teenage years. I stayed out of trouble, got good grades, and faithfully manned the drive-thru of the local McDonald’s for ten or twenty hours every week. Aside from my shaggy mullet and the drone of Metallica vibrating through my closed bedroom door, there wasn’t a lot to require even a cautious glance.
The moment we pulled up to that weed-filled lawn in Southeast Oklahoma City in 1989, hindsight tells me I cashed in a (quite literal) truckload of that parental approval. There’s no other explanation for Dad stopping the car in front of the sad, brown Ford F100 he knew was coming home with us. The laminate on my driver’s license was still cooling, and wheels meant freedom. No doubt he could see in my eyes on the trip over that no matter what we drove up on in that yard, I was taking it home.
Trapped behind chain link in the overgrown side yard was a 1964 F100 Styleside that was on the tail end of a hard life. The front bumper had a few wrinkles, one corner of the hood had been bashed in and thoughtlessly slathered with bondo, and all the trim was missing (except for the “Custom Cab” script on the passenger door). Around back, things weren’t any better. The tailgate had rusted through its entire bottom edge and the bed was a swiss-cheese mesh of steel and rust.
Opening the door revealed that the cab was shockingly sparse and unsurprisingly rusty, yet still had all of it’s knobs, dials, and pedals intact (we’ll call that the first tiny glimmer of hope). After sliding behind the giant three-spoke wheel and giving the brake pedal a gentle stab, it slammed to the floor with no resistance…we’d definitely be dragging my new Ford home. The seller produced a battery from somewhere in the weeds and, without much fuss at all, the 292ci V8 came to life, smoothly and quietly ticking along in the engine bay. And with that, we welcomed Big Ugly to the family.
“Heat that sucker up red hot and bend ‘er right back into shape.”
I have no memory of the negotiations – probably because of the thick joy-fog in which I was currently swimming – but we somehow paid only $250 and got a tow all the way across the city. After adding a couple of the seller’s friends, another truck, an 8-ft length of steel pipe, and a hefty chain, the Whiskey Tango express crawled and banged its way clear across the OKC metro. Last stop was our two-car garage in the cozy suburbs, where I handed over the entire contents of my money jar, including at least 5 bucks in quarters. The seller and friends surveyed my new ride one last time as they headed out, giving me well-intentioned advice on how to smooth out some of the Ford’s rough edges. The only comment I remember, to this day, was one old boy pointing to the frowning bumper and saying, “Heat that sucker up red hot and bend ‘er right back into shape.” I appreciated his enthusiasm, but one look around our tool-free garage and it was abundantly clear that unless I could get that kind of heat out of my sister’s blow dryer, that sucker wasn’t getting anywhere near red hot.
The truck was indeed “not tagged” as the ad said, but it also wasn’t titled to the seller, either. To my dad’s credit – and in no small part thanks to the people skills he developed through decades as a Lutheran pastor – he smoothly and kindly negotiated the signing of the title by the cranky retired painter who was the rightful owner. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just say there was some kind of sour relationship between the owner and the seller, who, apparently, was a “blankity-blank fireman…and you can’t trust those firemen.”
So here’s a belated nod of gratitude, dad. And I’m sorry about breaking the couch when I was in the 8th grade.
“I’m shocked that it’s even doing what it’s doing.”
The father of my best friend and truck rehab partner, Kenny, offered to come by and give our new project a quick diagnosis. I bought a battery, changed the oil, and topped off the rest of the fluids so Kenny’s dad could take the first cautious test drive. The F100 idled smoothly, but that’s really the only thing it did smoothly. Its three-speed transmission could barely be forced into gear, it shuddered off the line, and when he eased it slowly back into the garage, we discovered the truck was leaking nearly every fluid it had. “I’m shocked,” he said, “that it’s even doing what it’s doing.” What might have seemed like a dire prognosis to some sounded like optimism to me. It felt like the truck wanted to run, and in spite of the toxic mess collecting on the garage floor and my utter lack of any mechanical experience, my enthusiasm was never higher.
The right fool for the job
Gas lines and radiator hoses were easy to replace, even for a novice, but I had no idea about pretty much anything else – like why coolant was leaking from a hole in the bottom of the water pump. Even when asking questions like that, the guys at the parts desks at the local Pep Boys and Ford Dealership were infinitely helpful, talking me through the problems I couldn’t solve by reading my Haynes Repair Manual. After the water pump and new spark plugs, the truck went up on blocks to tackle the brakes, shifting problems, and replace the throwout bearing.
Now, we had no idea what a throwout bearing was, only that Kenny’s dad said that’s why the truck would shimmy as the clutch came out. The Haynes Manual was a great tool for understanding how things generally work, but there’s some gaps in the details that the pre-Internet car repair novice has to figure out on the fly. And thankfully, there’s not a lot of extra hardware under a 1964 truck. As we poked around, we pretty quickly found the reason why it was so hard to jam the 3-speed into gear. The clutch linkage rod had been replaced with a couple nuts, a couple washers, and a threaded rod skinny enough to be slowly bending itself into a “C” shape. Given more time to think and a little more experience, I probably would have headed to a junkyard and picked a rod from what was surely a large selection of old Fords laying around. But instead, I bought bigger nuts, bigger washers, and the thickest threaded rod that would fit. In my teenaged brain, it seemed like a perfect upgrade.
With similar reckless enthusiasm and a 1/4″-drive socket set, we pulled the transmission and found the wobbly throwout bearing. Since we had the transmission off, why not replace the clutch? (You might ask why, since I bought a new throwout bearing and clutch, I didn’t also ask about a clutch linkage rod. And that would be a great question to ask). I’m sure that there were alignment tolerances to be followed when putting the clutch assembly back together, and I’m equally sure we followed none of them. Precision was our least concern, as I remember Kenny bench-pressed the transmission into place as I tightened bolts as fast as possible. 80s-era GM would have nodded with approval at our build quality, but for better or worse, stuff was getting done.
We made repairs and replaced parts as my meager income allowed. The brake lines, from about the firewall all the way back, had rusted through. At least one large section sat within the frame’s cross members and spent its life swimming in whatever mud and water easily found its way there. Not knowing anything about tubing benders or flaring ends, I bought pre-made lengths of brake line with the flares and connectors already in place and simply hand-bent the tubing. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.
Next were the brakes themselves, replacing wheel cylinders and shoes, and managing to turn the adjuster screw the wrong way on one of the back wheels just far enough that we had to use a wheel puller to rip it all apart. That was, without a doubt, the most frightening moment of the entire project – cranking the wheel puller hard enough to overcome the friction of the brake shoes…still gives me shivers thinking about how far that brake drum bowed before everything broke loose.
Mostly matte black
A quick Google Images search tells me this F100 was probably 2-tone white on beige when it left the dealership. But when it rolled out of weeds in 1989, it had been painted brown – with a brush – which definitely would not help my street cred. After much sanding and many, many cans of matte black spray paint, everything in the garage was covered in a fine mist of black paint, though most of it ended up covering the previously brown truck. It was an improvement, no doubt.
But when we turned a bright light onto the passenger side after the paint dried, we realized at least two of those cans of paint had been gloss, and not matte, and we had created several patches of “blacker” black. A few attempts were made to blend in the glossy patches with what was left of the matte paint, but budgets, time, and our current standards for automotive excellence moved us on to the next project. Actual driving was too close to let the details get in the way.
The interior required the least amount of attention. Outside of a thorough cleaning and replacing a light bulb or two, the only visible work in the cab was to tape the dangling horn button to the side of the steering column. I have no clue where that button came from, or why the old one was gone, but the horn blew when you pushed it, and that’s all it needed to do (no matter how hard it was to reach). On the dash, the lights worked, the blower moved air, the temp gauge seemed to indicate engine temp, and the signals and brake lights worked. There wasn’t much that was electrical, but what was there was doing its job.
We also didn’t spend much time under the hood. New hoses, water pump, plugs, fan belt, and a rewound generator were just window dressing for the happy little 292ci V8 that idled as quietly as I’ve ever heard an engine idle. While we’re on the subject of that engine, while Googling for this post it appears that the 292 V8 couldn’t have been a “later model V8 rebuilt motor” as the ad said, since that flavor of Y-block was only used in the trucks until 1964. I supposed something else could have been dropped in, but I never saw any evidence that suggested there was anything but stock engine under the hood. Sadly, I don’t have any pics to share so more experienced eyes could confirm my suspicions. I guess I’ll take that free tow in exchange for a little exaggeration in the ad.
Off and driving, straight into the laundry room
The spoiler is right there in bold letters. By the time the F100 was road-worthy, I had about a year’s worth of driving experience, but no experience driving a manual. The three-on-the-tree was forgiving and easy to learn, once we got it out of the garage. For my very first lesson, I followed every step given to me by my father in the passenger seat, but one of us missed the critical step of taking the truck out of gear before turning the key. The HUGE lurch the truck took before I flipped the key off was enough to launch us straight into the workbench in the garage, which in turn pushed a couple wall studs a few inches into the laundry room.
Dad and I exchanged wide-eyed glances between each other and the wall, before surveying the damage. We cautiously carried on with the driving lesson afterwards, and you can be damn sure I never again forgot to hit the clutch before flipping the ignition switch.
Once I had mastered the clutch, the F100 was my daily driver to work and school. It cruised just fine around town, though I paid the price for not properly adjusting the clutch. It took full force on the pedal to change gears, which made stop and go traffic an endurance sport. Kenny also discovered that when riding along you can rest an arm across the top of the bench seat, but wrapping your fingers over the back of the seat meant having them crushed every time I made a gear change. He learned that lesson almost as quickly as I learned to not start up in gear. Pain and destruction are master teachers.
Finding comfort in our faults
Big Ugly and I made a lot of memories in a short amount of time. I loved it for it’s faults – and there were plenty to love. I kept a pair of Channellock pliers on the dash, since the passenger door handle was gone and the teeth were stripped clean. The solenoid occasionally needed percussion maintenance to start up on cold days (pliers serving a second purpose here). One of the hood hinges was sheared in half, so working on the engine required a broomstick prop. The rear tires squealed as they rubbed against the wheel wells when cornering too hard. A towel was mandatory in cold or wet weather to dry up leaks and wipe condensation off the windshield. And my then girlfriend got splashed with the contents of a pothole on her first ride because she didn’t know to put a shoe over the rust hole in the foot well.
Looking back, I like to think the old Ford and I were grateful for each other. I was a kid with more time and enthusiasm than money who desperately needed wheels, and that tired truck just wanted to run a little while longer. We proudly drove everywhere – from taking my grandmother to church when she would visit, to parking every day in a high school lot full of Mustangs, Rangers, and Camaros. The F100 ran right up until I went off to college, when my dad gave it to some poor soul who was down on his luck and needed transportation. And I’m guessing it continued to rumble faithfully ahead, as long as he kept air in the tires and gas in the tank.