COAL: 1968 Falcon Club Coupe – Ford Has a Better Idea

(Another new COALer begins his journey)     I’ll begin my COAL with the first car that I actually held title to, and the first one I have much photographic documentation of. In the mid-1980s, I was partway through college at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I’d been keeping an eye open for cheap, reliable, and interesting 4-wheeled transportation (or at least something cheap with at least one of the other attributes), and scanning the local paper, I came across an intriguing candidate in the form of a 1968 Ford Falcon 2-door with a 289 V8. The asking price, if I recall correctly, was $350.00. I was definitely intrigued.

My roommate gave me a lift in his Dart to check it out – the Falcon was in Felton, a community in the hills near Santa Cruz. Defying conventional wisdom that had been passed down to me, I went to look at it at night since the seller worked days and we weren’t able to coordinate a meeting on the weekend.

The Falcon and my roommate Arthur who gave me a lift to get the car.

The Falcon was covered in pine needles and had dents and creases on almost every body panel, and there were spots of red oxide primer all over the car, as well as spots of surface rust. Most notably, there was a just single bucket seat on the driver’s side. The seller explained that the bench seat was completely shot and he’d pulled out the bench and put in a bucket seat from a Ford Fiesta. He had been using it to commute and had never bothered putting in a passenger seat. It started up, ran, and drove well, and the brakes seemed surprisingly good for a 60s American car – as it turned out, it had factory disc brakes, which were very unusual on cars of that vintage, especially budget leaders such as Falcons. Looking the car over and talking with the seller, it seemed like he’d kept up on basic maintenance – it had recent belts & hoses, a fairly new battery, and the tires were good. And despite the somewhat dinged and dented body, I saw no serious rust or major collision damage when I examined it under the lights of a gas station canopy. I had a Consumer’s Guide used Car book and it passed the basic mechanical checks in their buying guide. It also had a cheap Kraco cassette deck which was a definite bonus for the then 20-year old me. After some back & forth, I bought it for $300 and drove it home.

At the time in California, cars of 1966 and later needed smog checks when they were sold. You needed to provide a smog certificate when you transferred the registration at the DMV, and though the seller was technically supposed to provide a smog certificate on sale of the car, in practice, buyers generally took care of this, at least on cars like this at the lower end of the price range. This was not as much of a problem as it seemed, as California at the time had a glaring loophole in the smog laws for older vehicles. They would be considered compliant if an aftermarket setup called a “KAR Kit” was installed. These sold for around $15.00 and consisted of a pair of stickers and a pair of vacuum caps to block off the vacuum advance. One sticker went under the hood indicating that the kit had been installed, and the other sticker was stuck to the speedometer warning not to operate at sustained speeds above 60mph. If I recall, you were supposed to retard the timing but nobody really bothered. The Falcon already had the stickers installed from an earlier check, so I picked up a pair of vacuum caps, blocked off the vacuum advance, drove to a local gas station to get my certificate, and then reattached the vacuum line a block from the station, which was the usual practice at the time. To this day, I wonder if anyone ever actually drove a car with one of these kits installed farther than to and from a smog check station.

I drove it for a few weeks with just the driver’s seat and the rear bench but the lack of a passenger seat made it a bit awkward carrying a passenger, so I scouted the local junkyards for a Fiesta that could donate a passenger seat to match the bucket on the driver’s side, but finding none, and having a hard time even finding a pair of buckets that weren’t trashed on the driver’s side, I settled for a passenger bucket from a Mustang II, in blue brocade which somewhat matched the blue vinyl upholstery of the rest of my Falcon’s interior. The driver’s seat from the Fiesta was saddle tan, and though it didn’t match the rest of the interior, it was surprisingly comfortable.

I did some basic maintenance like an oil change and dropped the transmission pan to put in new trans fluid and a new screen filter – getting AT fluid all over my hair in the process.
The car proved reliable and managed duty as my daily driver around town as well as trips of 50-100 mile drives to destinations such as Oakland, San Francisco, and Monterey without a hitch.

The 1968 owners manual (which I still have) seemed to use updated illustrations from the 1967 manual. Note the decorative vent stamping on the front fender, which the 1968 didn’t have.

The ’68 Falcon was the third generation of Falcons, coming after the 1960-63 round body and the 64-65 square body. Unlike the first two generations, the 66-70 Falcon shared the same basic platform with the intermediate Fairlane and was substantially larger than the previous generation. This was in keeping with other US compact platforms – the Dart grew larger in 1967, and the Nova did the same in 1968. My car was a base (“Falcon”) model in what Ford called the Club Coupe body style, which was essentially a 2-door sedan with a B-pillar rather than a true hardtop. 4 door sedan and wagon body styles were also offered that year, and the higher-trimmed Futura also offered a Sport Coupe version, which was the club coupe with a vinyl top and some additional chrome geegaws.
The 68 was the last Falcon restyle and can be distinguished by the introduction of square taillights in place of the round “rocket exhaust” taillights that had been a Falcon styling cue since 1960 (and had appeared on other Fords since the 1950s).

The manual called out a 302 4-barrel V8 and 4-speed transmission as an available powertrain option. I wondered then (and still do) how many Falcons were built with that combo. The 289 with factory disc brakes on mine had seemed a rare enough configuration.

Living with the car, a few other unique features became evident. Both shock towers had small, square holes about the size of a postage stamp that looked to have been neatly cut with an acetylene torch. These allowed easy access to the grease nipples on the upper control arms. I subsequently owned another 60s Falcon and I’ve learned that right-angle grease nipples can solve this problem in a far neater and less invasive fashion.

Pulling the air cleaner early on, I was surprised to find a rock holding the choke butterfly open. I pulled out the rock, adjusted the electric choke per the manual, and benefitted from easier starts from that point on.

The car had an unusual rear window defroster. Rather than an electrical element in the glass as on current vehicles, a small blower was located under the parcel shelf which blew slightly warmed air onto the rear window. It worked fairly well, although it seems to have been a dead end as far as defroster technology went.

While the car drove well, it was far from pretty with all the dents and primer spots on it, and the appearance bothered me the more I drove it. This was likely a California car since new, and cars here rust differently than in parts of the country that have serious winters. Here, parking a car outside will rust it from the top down – rain accumulates on the roof, trunk, and hood and slowly eats them away. The trunk, floorpans, and lower parts of the doors generally stay blessedly intact.

I’d watched friends do crude bondo and primer bodywork on cars in high school, and decided to tackle the bodywork myself. I picked up a slide hammer and a sanding disc for my power drill at the local flea market, as well as some bondo & primer at the Grand Auto in town, and went to work on my unsuspecting car. The car had quite a lot of low-speed dents and patches of surface rust & primer, but no serious damage or rust-through.

Partway through some amateur bodywork. I’d removed the grille to facilitate working on the fenders.

Bodywork is easy to do poorly and hard to do well and looking back I wince at how many “wrong” things I did. Nonetheless, after some work and several cans of Bondo filler and a few tubes of glazing putty, the bodylines of the car were relatively smooth, or at least not as irregular. I drove it for a while in a patchwork of primer before deciding to spray it entirely in rattlecan black. I found that while it’s easy to lay down a square foot or so of spray paint and have it look good, getting an even coat on a large surface like a hood or trunk lid is a little trickier and there was a lot of sanding and respraying. I worked at it a few hours here and there in my spare time, eventually, the car was resplendent in a coat of satin black. Looking back, I’m not sure all my work was actually an improvement but I was happy with it at the time.

(As a side note, one of my roommates was taking an art elective in college and incorporated Bondo as a medium in one of his projects)

When I had purchased the car, the seller warned me that the hood needed a firm push down for it to latch all of the way. I had apparently forgotten to do so at one point and on a trip back from Oakland, the hood popped up as I was tooling along in the fast lane of Interstate 580. It was unsettling to have the hood fly up, but I remembered from driver’s ed class to look through the gap between the hood and the cowl, and I steered to the side of the freeway and unbolted the crumpled hood. I briefly wondered if I could fit it in the back seat but it was clear it was way too big, and I left it leaning against the median barrier and drove back to Santa Cruz sans hood.

Fully primered, but now missing the hood.

I drove it without a hood for a month or more – at one point, I was due for a smog check, and I plugged the vacuum advance and drove it to a gas station to see if smogging it without a hood was possible. I told the smog guy that it had a KAR kit, though was missing the hood sticker since it was missing a hood. He shrugged, took my money, and 20 minutes later I drove away with a smog certificate.

During this time, I’d been continually checking junkyards for a new hood. Finally, I found one from a maroon Futura at a yard in the nearby town of Capitola. The lot was just a fenced-off yard full of junked cars, and I recall the guy who seemed in charge of the yard was cutting up an axle housing with a torch, using an old pair of sunglasses for eye protection rather than goggles. He offered to help me pull and put on the hood if I’d buy him a pack of cigarettes at the nearby store – I took him up on his offer and I drove away with a maroon hood on my black primer Falcon. Gun-shy from the hood blowing off, I quickly put on a set of chrome hood pins from Grand Auto.

With the amateur black paint job, hood pins, and the dog dish hubcaps it had come with from the factory, the car now had a low-rent musclecar/hot rod vibe, at least in my youthful eyes, even if the low-compression 2-barrel couldn’t cash the checks the appearance wrote. Out of youthful enthusiasm, I decided to push up the vibe a notch and flame the hood.

A couple of cans of spray paint, a roll of narrow masking tape, and the Sunday edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel later, the deed was done. I taped off flames on the hood, laid down a base coat of orange, and then fogged a layer of red around the edges of the flames. I let the paint set up and gingerly peeled the tape and newspaper away. It didn’t look bad to me, though later in my ownership of the car, a neighbor asked that I not park it in front of their house – they didn’t like seeing it when they looked out their front window.

Who wouldn’t want to see this out their front window?

The biggest repair I recall doing was replacing one of the rear axle bearings. I’d noticed the car had started making a disconcerting growling/whirring sound that increased with speed. A friend I was giving a lift to diagnosed it from the back seat – a car in her family had apparently had an identical problem in the recent past. She even suggested driving the car in an S-pattern to figure out which side the bearing was going bad on. The car had come with a S=shop manual – “Fix Your Ford”, and I still remember the whimsical cover illustration of tiny, elf-like men in mechanics’ coveralls clambering over a full-sized Ford. The manual outlined how to pull an axle shaft and replace the bearing, which seemed involved but not all that difficult. I borrowed a floor jack and jack stands from a neighbor, rented a slide hammer axle puller from a local auto parts shop, and set to work pulling the axle– when it came out, the bearing was clearly disintegrated, with the cage falling apart. I rode to a local auto parts shop on my motorcycle with the axle wrapped in newspaper and jammed in a backpack to have a new bearing pressed on, and then reinstalled the axle. As the drums were off, I also installed an emergency brake cable that had been missing when I bought the car. The car was missing some of the parking brake hardware, and I improvised an equalizer out of part of a muffler clamp.

It continued to deliver reliable transportation for some time until I noticed the front tires were wearing alarmingly on the inside. I took it to a local alignment shop and was told I’d need several hundred worth of front-end work. Reading the cautions in the shop manual about compressing and removing coil springs, I decided working on the front suspension wasn’t something I could tackle on my own, and at the time, the idea of spending more on repairs than I’d spent on the car seemed foolish (there would be numerous future instances where I’d reverse my thinking here)

I took out an ad in the paper, got a number of calls but ultimately sold it to the young woman I mentioned earlier who had diagnosed the rear axle issue. Her family was, to put it mildly, into cars, and didn’t seem put off by something that needed some front-end work. I recall her dad test driving it and saying it was nowhere near as loose as the Econoline he drove to work. I had dinner at their house a few times afterward and was a little sad when the car disappeared from the motor pool in their driveway and was replaced by a very rough sportsroof Mustang – they mentioned that they had part-traded the Falcon for it.

I had thought that was it for the car, but a year or so later, I received a lien sale notice from a tow company in San Jose alerting me it was going to be sold – I’m guessing that the car had changed hands a few times with my signed-off pink slip but nobody had ever bothered to re-register the car. At the time that wasn’t uncommon and I would later purchase cars of my own that came with signed-off pink slips from several owners ago.

I’d be interested to hear if anyone else smogged a car with a Kar-Kit – I recall them being common years ago but there’s very little info online, and when California moved the smog cutoff year to 1975, the loophole ceased to exist.