Ever since getting my driver’s license in the summer of 1976, I had been pining for my very own car. Actually, I had been begging for my own car long before I got my license. There was a really rusty but ready ’52 Chevy Styleline 2 door sedan that an uncle had stopped using. “Pleeeezzzzzeeeeee! We can park it in the garage and I can fix it up and love it and pet it.” Bzzzzzzzt – you are not a winner, please play again.
I had no better luck when I got my license. My mother had a job that allowed her to take the bus to work, so her 1974 Luxury LeMans sedan spent lots of time in the garage. “Why would you buy a car when this one is here to use?” “Duh – because I want one around that is there to use whenever I want it and not when it is convenient for you” was the answer that was wisely left unsaid. But my prayers were answered when Mom changed jobs. “Well” she said one day with some resignation in her voice, “I guess you can buy that car.”
In retrospect, I had done alright up to then. The Pontiac was available pretty often, as Mom tended to stay home evenings. When it was not, I had plenty of friends with access to cars so I could easily get a ride where I needed to go. Finally, with a bus route that ran on the street behind us, I could get to my after-school and Saturday job at the (ugh) Fort Wayne Public Library. It’s kind of a long story, but let’s say my mother’s friend worked there and suggested it to Mom, who suggested it to me. At least it was indoors. Dad’s reaction was less enthusiastic. He sensed that the situation was presented to him after it was all but a done deal, but he went along with things.
Anyway, Mom’s change in circumstance was like the Publishers Clearing House van pulling up to the house, as far as I was concerned. I had been saving my money from the time I was a tot. In my mind, every cent of it was car money, and it was burning a hole in my bank passbook. I began to scour the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette’s classified ads. What was I looking for? To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of obscenity, I wasn’t exactly sure but I would know it when I saw it. I was aiming for something built by Ford or Chrysler, but was open to about anything if it was nice enough and for the right price.
My father had suggested that I get a Jeep or a pickup with a plow. Dad was always thinking, and his reasoning was that in our northern Indiana winters, I could make money with it. “People are always getting stuck and would pay good money for someone to pull them out.” But I did not want a Jeep or a pickup. I was ready to become one of the cool people (the teenage mind at work) and that would require a cool car. Neither Jeeps nor pickups were cool in my little world, though they were undoubtedly plenty cool in the worlds of others.
At that time you could buy a rusty, beat up 62 Chevy “mechanic’s special” for under $100 and a car on the (extreme) lower edge of decent for $450 or so. $1000 would get you something quite nice, probably six or seven years old and in great shape. I started looking in that $500-900 range to see what I could see. I still remember them all – there was a 66 Charger, a 67 or 68 Mustang, and two 1967 Galaxie 500 convertibles. My best car friend Lowell and I mapped out our route and appointments were made for a dreary Saturday in late February of 1977.
My mother’s single piece of advice: Don’t buy the first car you see. The first car we saw was the one in the photo above, one that would set the pattern for most of my best used car purchases in the future. It was in an upper middle class neighborhood and a car that was nice but getting some age on it. The lady who had driven it for a long time loved it but said that her husband was making her sell it because it was too old.
There were no rips or split seams inside, the top was watertight (if old and tight) and there was only a little rust in the lower quarters. It had the “390” callouts on the front fenders, which was exciting. The biggest problem was the flattened bumper under the left taillight and the dull paint on the trunk lid and left rear quarter where some body and paint work had been done. And it was painted in one of my very least favorite colors in the history of the world, a light metallic yellow-green that Ford called Lime Gold Metallic. But even at that, I envisioned the kind of life that the Ford advertising people depicted in the brochure.
We drove it. Right after the lady’s husband stood in front of me and asked if I had a driver’s license. When I answered with a “yes”, I had not expected the blunt follow-up: “Can I see it?” I complied, and noted the demeanor that would come in handy in my future roles as lawyer and father. The 390 started right up and it was as smooth and quiet as I remembered Fords of this era to be. My father had owned a 66 Country Squire and a 69 LTD, so I knew how those big Fords were supposed to sound and feel, and this one sounded and felt right. But it was the first car I saw and therefore I could not buy it.
Every other car that day got worse and worse. The red Charger had a pair of mismatched doors of a different color and was really reluctant to start and not all that happy after it did. The Mustang had been wrung out like every Mustang of that age in those days, and might have had one completely straight panel below the roof. The other ’67 Ford that was my last car of the day was that pale robin’s egg blue. It looked very much like a robin’s egg because of the little rusty speckles all over the finish. It was in worse shape in every way compared with the green one from the morning, and reaffirmed in my mind that the light green Galaxie was still the one to beat. I wonder if this was where I got my other car-buying rule, which is never buy a car that is parked in an alley.
I came home and told Mom that I thought I had found a winner, but she insisted that I call our neighbor Bill to look it over. I did, and he agreed. Bill was the guy who knew more about cars than anyone I knew at that time. I made arrangements to drive it to Bill’s house and got there at maybe 5 pm. Bill took the wheel and gave it a try, and pronounced it quite nice. Other than the feather-light steering and the ultra touchy power brakes that were not to his taste, as he was more of a performance car guy. I took it back to the seller’s house and made a deal. The princely sum of $700 changed hands and I was officially a Ford man.
Another friend went with me to pick it up after school the next day. I had cash and the seller had a title, which we swapped, then I was really there. I actually owned my own car. The plan was the I would go back to my friend’s house, and then home. But I had to do something first.
I got around the corner and stopped. I had to get out of sight of the seller’s house because I was in no mood to be judged. But I owned a convertible, and I was damned if I was going to drive it with the top up. Down went the power top and down cranked all the windows. It was a blustery late February day, with a temperature in the mid 40s. All at once I felt like both an idiot and the luckiest guy in the world. At least the heat worked. Because when I got to my buddy’s house the top would not go back up. Oops. So, two milestones in one day: My first car and my first broken thing on a car.
While I sat panic-stricken in my friend’s driveway, I asked him to call my mother and explain that there would be a short delay. She was excited to see the car and asked if he could run over and bring her to me for the ride home. He did not mention the stuck top, but fortunately Mom was dressed for the chill. I had no idea what was wrong and knew of nothing to do but keep working the toggle switch on the dash. Sure, it wasn’t doing anything, but maybe if I try one more time. We started out on my second top-down drive of the day, feeling a lot more like an idiot and a lot less like the luckiest guy in the world. We drove a mile or two, than I decided to pull over and try again. The angels sang as the hydraulic pump began to whirr and the top jumped out of its well and unfolded to meet the windshield.
That was a recurring problem for a few months, until the top stopped working in front of my father. He poked around under the hood then said “Try it.” With my finger on the switch the top began to alternately start and stop. Dad had located a loose connection at the solenoid on the inner fender, which was apparently the place from which the power top drew its current. I don’t know why I should have been so surprised, as my father had a college degree in mechanical engineering. But surprised I was (and a little impressed.) And I learned one of my first car-lessons: If something isn’t working right, take a look and maybe you will see something wrong.
I didn’t really like the color. Actually, I hated it. I don’t know quite why, except that it had been on a lot of cars in the late 60s, and it just wasn’t a shade that did anything for me. But this was the beginning of another long pattern with my cars – when the right car comes along and you don’t like the color – too bad, suck it up, dude.
But boy-oh-boy was I excited about that 390! I didn’t really know what a 390 was, but knew that it was on badges on a lot of Fords, and if Ford was that proud of it, well so was I. The forward thrust of those numerals just oozed of the horsepower I was going to unleash. “Listen to that power!” I thought to myself as I revved the engine and listened to the my very own Power by Ford V8 (which I now know was struggling mightily for breath). I was less proud when my insurance agent said he would have to rate me on horsepower. Ouch. But wow, I had a car with over 300 horsepower! But then I discovered that my 2 bbl/single exhaust version was only 270 bhp and not the 315 of the 4 bbl/duals, which had been in the agent’s rate book. That was, to me, the one time this was good news. Oh well, it was the slow 390, but at least it was a 390.
After it became too cold and dark for me to remain in the driver’s seat soaking in every little detail of MY new car, I went in and plowed through the owners manual. I read that booklet from cover to cover and probably neglected more than one homework assignment. I am not sure how I managed to get any sleep.
The first morning I owned the car I made a decision: I was going to drive to my high school. Understand that my high school was a ten minute walk from my house cutting through yards, and the longer route taking streets would make the drive probably seven minutes. Plus I would have to figure out the illegal parking thing. And the lack of a license plate – surely that wouldn’t be a problem just going a few blocks. Insurance was the important thing. But it didn’t matter – I had a car and I was a gonna drive it to school.
It didn’t quite work out as planned.