When we left off, I had just bought my first-ever car – a 1967 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible in splendiforous (or maybe putrilicious) Lime Gold Metallic. My own car! If this was not Heaven, it was surely close. And it wasn’t a boring old Oldsmobile or Pontiac like the women of my family favored. It was a Ford that felt and smelled and sounded a lot like my father’s 66 Country Squire, of which I had been so fond. So, what does a guy with a brand new car do on a school morning? I mean a new car without a license plate. The only answer was to take a completely illegal drive to school. The “complete” kind of illegal adds the lack of a school parking pass to the lack of a license plate. Mom had already left for work, so everything was fine. Until it wasn’t.
I opened the door and slid in across the cold, stiff black vinyl seat. I inserted the key into the ignition, which was as close to the center of the dash as any car I had ever seen. I had dutifully read the manual and had pressed the gas to the floor, let up and then touched it lightly. I turned the key – “reh REH reh Vroooommm sputter die.” Hmm, didn’t do that yesterday. Well, it’s cold.
I turned the key again = “reh REH reh reh reh Reh reh reh reh REH reh reh reh Reh reh reh reh REH reh reh” Hmmm. I stabbed the gas a couple of times. reh REH reh reh reh Reh reh reh reh REH reh reh reh Reh reh reh. Shit. reh REH reh reh reh Reh reh reh reh REH reh reh reh Reh reh reh.
True, it had given no sign of an intent to fire after the first sputter, but I was an optimist. Right up until the battery gave out. The only thing stopping me from being an optimist with the battery from my mother’s Pontiac was those Delco side terminals in her car. So I walked to school, and not in a good mood at all. That evening I walked down to see my neighbor/mentor Bill after he came home from work and
asked begged pleaded for help.
I must digress to add a word about my early influences when it came to learning about cars. Throughout my extended family, people were only interested in cars for how they looked, what they represented, or whether they were reliable. My father had been schooled as a mechanical engineer, and if anyone had the ability to be a car guy it would have been him. Unfortunately, cars didn’t really interest him other than in the ways just mentioned.
Down the street was a neighbor, Bill Colchin. Bill’s older son and I met in a kindergarten car pool when we were both excited over our parents’ new cars – ours was the dark green 64 Olds Cutlass and theirs was the red 64 Studebaker Avanti – and we were best friends for years. Bill had a well-equipped garage and both an interest in and an aptitude for mechanical things. He was an outlier in our white collar neighborhood, as a guy who worked at the parts counter of a local auto parts company. He was also a Studebaker man who kept a handful of them in his extended family running for years, in addition to working on race cars, go karts, and anything else with an engine. He was a quiet and patient man who never seemed to tire of answering my incessant questions as I watched him do tune-ups, replace brakes, or make other repairs. As I got older Bill’s son and I (who had never attended the same schools beyond kindergarten) grew apart, but Bill was always there with tools, advice, and most of all, discounts on parts whenever I was lucky enough to catch him on duty.
My school system went from grade school to Jr. High school at 7th grade, which brought kids from multiple grade schools together. Dan was one of those kids, and he became my new best friend for years and years. Dan’s father, Howard Shideler, was another car guy. Howard had owned something like 50 cars before Dan and I started high school. Howard worked in industrial sales and was not as much into doing his own repairs as he gained the ability to pay other people to do them. But then his cars were rarely old enough to need much. Howard was more inclined than Bill to give unsolicited advice, but it always came with a knowing grin that said “I know what will happen if you ignore me, and prepare for a good ribbing when things go wrong.” I think both of these men enjoyed the attention from a kid who loved cars as much as they did.
I did not see my father on a daily basis, and I guess I had a real craving for good adult male guidance wherever I could find it. These guys, who were the only ones I knew with anywhere near their level of knowledge and experience about cars, had a couple of things in common. Bill loved his Studebakers, but he was also pretty happy with things from Ford and Chrysler (and even the right AMC, as was proved when he picked out a red Javelin AMX to replace his wife’s Lark VIII in 1972). Howard was a diehard (but realistic) Mopar guy who was OK with Fords as a backup. The one thing they held in common was an unambiguous disdain for GM-built cars. Bill didn’t like the way they drove, and neither of them liked that the company was usually too eager to skimp on things that they considered important in a car. Right or wrong on those points, these guys were my influences and are probably the two people outside of my family most responsible for who and what I have become. I came to owe each of them large debts that can never be repaid.
I also need to mention my friend Lowell. Lowell’s family was not so well off and his father did car repairs more out of need than out of any desire, and among the kids my age it was Lowell who had the most hands-on wrenching experience. Lowell and I became great friends too. He had been with me when I bought the convertible and we were always there for each other whenever either of us needed brakes, exhaust, or something else. There was plenty of that because he had two cars – a well-worn 68 Cougar and a 69 or 70 Jeep Dispatcher (a/k/a Mail Jeep).
Anyway, Bill came down to our house that first evening (in response to my anguished pleading) and looked at the FODD (Found on Driveway Dead). Really, this was sort of Bill’s thing, to help out clueless neighborhood kids with their cars. Actually, he kind of had to help, since he had given the thing his stamp of approval a couple of days earlier. He knew it couldn’t be that serious as nicely as the car ran when he test drove it for me. His immediate guess was an accelerator pump diaphragm, something known to fail on Ford carbs, which proved right. Although that proof came after nearly a week of evenings under my hood because the diaphragm had looked fine when he eyeballed it and went on to trying other things before going back to square one because there was nothing else to do – a situation familiar to many of us. The man was a saint.
From that time the car and I were inseparable and thus began the slow, constant improvement. Every spare penny I had went into the car. I bought a re-chromed back bumper (when that was the kind of thing you could commonly buy) and a junkyard taillight. A better plastic panel for the dash face. A better wheel cover than the one that was partially caved in.
My first dissatisfaction was the wheels. There was nothing wrong with the normal Ford wheelcovers that came with the car. Except that they were on almost every single 67 Ford on the road (and there were still quite a few of them.) The answer was in the Ford brochure – the “styled steel” wheel covers with the holes for exposed lug nuts. A dedicated search of multiple junkyards got me four decent ones, but I struck out on the two-inch deep chromed lug nuts, because all of the ones in the yards looked terrible. I gave up and made my first trip to the Ford dealer parts department, which resulted in a special order for twenty brand new chrome lug nuts, at a mere $1.20 apiece (plus tax). “Mere” was not the word I said at the time, because $24 was a lot of money for fasteners in 1977. But I liked the look so much better, so the cost was worth it.
My non car time was spent in school or after school in the high school bands (marching, pep, concert), where I was a not-great trombone player. Though I was not really dating then, I had a group of friends (male and female) I was close with. To the outside world I may have looked like a real player, given the way the girls in the band and the flag squad liked riding in a convertible when we had to drive our own cars to events. The outside world had no idea that, nerd that I was, my chances of getting to first base with any of those girls was close to zero. But I was OK with that because that Ford was my best friend of all.
I should have treated the car better than I did. I pushed the poor thing close to its handling limits as Lowell and I did things with our cars that nobody should ever do. Everyone says they want fairness in life, but in a completely fair world both Lowell and I would have ended up either dead or in jail from our stupidity behind the wheel. Many say that guardian angels do not exist. I disproved that idea multiple times in 1977 and 1978.
It was during one of our exploits that I got to experience brake fade. I had read about it, but had no idea that what it really was. It turned out to be where you stood on the brake pedal with both feet and your butt six inches off the seat while the vacationing drum brakes brought the car to a stop only slightly faster than if I had just put it into neutral and coasted. Well, that was scary as shit. I mean when you have to run a red light in the process because you know you have no choice.
But the Galaxie could come through in a pinch, like the time when Dan and I were driving to a favorite junkyard in Howard’s 73 Dodge Royal Sportsman. I don’t know why we had Howard’s van that day, but we did. It had just gotten a new water pump at the Dodge dealer, but it was the 70’s and it was a part that came through the Chrysler parts system, so, yeah. That was all we could think about when the van began to loudly and violently shudder like a jackhammer – for about 10 seconds until the new water pump committed a dramatic suicide and blasted steam and antifreeze everywhere. I called home for my sister to bring the Galaxie and my big, thick tow strap, and we hauled the dead Dodge across nearly the entire span of Allen County (including downtown Fort Wayne) to get it back to Dan’s house. Howard was there when we arrived, and he seemed pleased at our resourcefulness. Funny, decades later my own kids’ first thought was to always call me. But then again, they had a “me” around to call.
It (which never really had a name, other than “my car” or “the Ford” or “the convertible”) was not a fast car but it got amazingly good gas mileage with the tall rear axle (2:75, if memory serves) – I could top 19 mpg on the road if I kept the top up and my speed reasonable, and could easily hit 16-17 with more normal speeds. Neither the sluggish acceleration nor the 10-12 mpg around town was great, but I was a realist and dealt with it.
The car gave me very little actual trouble. I did shocks, U joints, brakes, tune ups, but not a lot else in 12,000 miles over two years. I kind of wanted a little more open exhaust system (a Hush Thrush seemed like just the thing) but the system was so good that I couldn’t justify pitching a perfectly good exhaust system to make the change. I had helped with exhaust work on Lowell’s Cougar and hated it, so I dealt with the adult-level exhaust note – which was extra pleasant from a Ford 390.
I did have to replace the hood, grille and right side headlight door when I slid on a slick street and rear-ended another car. Good old Garmater’s Auto Salvage came to the rescue with a Lime Gold 67 Galaxie 500 sedan that had just been given its death sentence despite its beautifully shiny paint. The result was a completely bolt-on repair (and a lesson on how not every mass-produced body panel fits the same way as the one that was originally on the car). The only place my car was rusty was in the rear quarters, and I tried to stay ahead of it with window screen, Bondo and spray cans of Dupli-Color. My repairs were workmanlike but would not be confused with professional bodywork. I tried coax a shine out of the decklid, but no matter how much I polished or what product I used (up to and including red rubbing compound) any faint imitation of a shine would disappear after a couple of days.
It never occurred to me that I would not own this car forever, so I got the old-but-not-yet-leaking convertible top replaced that next fall and by the end of my senior year of high school had decided that I was going to take the car to a body shop to professionally fix the rust on the rear quarters and paint the car. I still hated the color but didn’t want to have one of those cars a different color inside the trunk. And I will admit that thoughts about changing the color made me feel unfaithful to the car.
The body shop was one of the good ones, and I did what I could to ensure minimum cost and maximum quality, by undressing the car before taking it in. Every piece of brightwork or trim below the beltline came off so they would not have to mask. They had the car for maybe two months, which seemed like an eternity. The guy knew I had high expectations and they took their time, probably not making a lot of money on the job. When I picked it up I was stunned – it literally looked like new – most of my photos were taken after that major upgrade.
I put it back together and for the rest of the summer of 1978 I had the most beautiful 1967 Ford in northern Indiana. People would compliment me on it and I would smile and say thank you. Summer evenings with the top down were a joy as the burbly 390 hummed away under the hood.
I was preparing to start college in the fall of 1978 and knew that freshmen were not allowed cars where I was going. I knew that the car would be sitting out in my mother’s driveway. I also knew how many drops of blood-tinged sweat I had put into the body of that car and could not bear to splash through the salt puddles or worse, have some yahoo in an uninsured ’61 Biscayne slide through a stop sign into me.
Most people might have started thinking about a garage. But not me – the thoughts went in the direction of Garage +. Clearly, a second car was what I was going to need – a sacrificial everyday
driver parker in the drivewayer for winter weather that would keep my beautiful convertible all safe and warm for the following spring. I found both the garage and the car, but things didn’t go exactly as I had hoped.