COAL – 1986 Ford Escort Pony – First Car Four Speed Fun (Part 2)

In the Petrified Forest, AZ. May 1996.

It was winter of 1995-96 and I was well into my first year at Corning Community College. I was deeply unhappy at my post-high school choices (or lack thereof). Most of my close friends had gone off to undergraduate schools and appeared to be having a blast. My Escort and I frequently visited several of my friends, including K. who had gone off to Colgate University. Colgate was a short two-hour drive from Horseheads and even with roads in winter conditions, I didn’t mind making the drive to visit her. While I had cut my road-going driving teeth on rear-wheel-drive cars, my Escort had forever sold me on the virtues of front-wheel-drive for everyday driving, especially in snow and ice.

By this time my Escort had well over 120,000 miles on it and the original engine was getting a little tired. It also needed a water pump, new clutch and most importantly a new timing belt. As luck would have it (at least on my part), one of my father’s co-worker’s son recently been in a minor accident in his ’87 Escort wagon. The car was totaled as a result of a hit to the rear end, but the engine and transmission were in perfect shape. Did I mention that it was a five-speed transmission?

After driving my girlfriend’s ’88 Escort with a five-speed I firmly believed that the extra gear would enhance the driving experience of my Escort. After my blistering top-speed run from earlier in the year attested speed wasn’t the real issue, but the engine felt busy at highway speeds with only four gears. My father was more than game to yank the engine out of the ’87 and do all the work needed (water pump, timing belt, etc) and just swap the engine and transmission. This was made much easier by the fact that my father had a single-post hydraulic lift in his garage.

Years later when scrap metal was at an all-time high we dug the engine out from the weeds and scrapped it.

Simultaneously with the engine swap, K. and I were hatching a plan to drive cross country together once our Freshman year of college was over. Our friendship had started to drift apart by this time and I was deeply saddened by this turn of events. It was natural of course, as she was making new friends from all over the country and I was stuck in our hometown. A road trip seemed to be a great idea to rekindle our friendship.

We both diligently saved our money and plotted our trip. This would be my first solo cross-country trip and I was excited beyond belief. With the extra cog in the gearbox, I was sure to be able to run at high-speeds as Western highways demanded with ease! Our departure date was set for May 10, 1996. K. was unable to drive a standard transmission car so I was left to do 95% of the driving, but I didn’t mind. We packed the hatch of the car with all of the necessary camping gear, including a green canvas umbrella tent that my parents had used 20 years prior on a cross country road trip of their own.

The first day saw us make it from Horseheads to Columbus, OH where we stayed with K’s grandparents. This would be the last time we would sleep indoors until Oakland, CA 11 days on. New York State was just exiting the dark days of a strict 55 mph limit, so with every state westward the speed limit gradually inched higher. By the time we hit Missouri I had found out that my extra gear didn’t really do much to enhance my high-speed driving. In fact, it seemed like the final drive of the five-speed transmission was lower, thereby making the engine rev even higher at 70 mph. This could all be in my head as the memories are approaching 25 years old, but I recall feeling like I was all done at 80 mph, which was a shame once we got out to Texas and Oklahoma where the wide open expanses called for 85+ mph cruising.

My first time legally driving 75 mph!

As we made our way westward on I-40 I noticed that one of the red idiot lights on the dashboard started glowing ominously. All of these years later I can’t remember exactly which one it was, but I knew enough to stop the car and call my mechanic (i.e. my father). While we had a 90’s style “bag phone” with us, since the bill for using the phone was outrageous I found a pay phone to make the call. After some verbal diagnosis and a quick check of the fluids in the car, my dad decided that it was a “winter” thermostat that he had put in the car to help it warm up faster in the cold NY winter months. He declared I wasn’t in any danger of destroying my engine, but that I should take it easy and stop when the light came on for a bit to see if that helped.

A few minutes in the baking sun ought to cool the car down, right? You can also see the primer on the car that covered the rust that had already started to take hold of the Escort at this point. One afternoon I came out to the garage to see my father’s proud handiwork – sandblasting the rust and painting it with primer. He swore that he would follow up with a coat of white…can you guess if that ever happened?

In addition to stopping whenever the light came on, I also removed the grille to increase the airflow to the radiator every so slightly. There were a few occasions in New Mexico and Arizona where it was so blisteringly hot that I also turned the heat on full blast. The air was so hot that it really didn’t make a difference to the passengers in the car, but I like to think it helped the car run a little cooler. It was on one of these road-side stops that we were almost run over by a house, a story I never tire of telling. Half of a double-wide trailer was being towed in the westbound lane of the highway. As the truck and house crested the small hill that we were also stopped on, I happened to look into my rear-view mirror to see the wind pushing the house over to the median. I just managed to start the car and move a few feet more to the side of the road. K. saw the house fly by my open window and said to me, in astonishment, “Did you see that? We almost got hit by a house!”

You can see how the hood was bent ever so slightly in this photo.

We stopped at the Continental Divide, Petrified Forest, and Meteor Crater along the way before eventually making it to our first real stopping point, the Grand Canyon. It had taken us five and a half days to get this far and I was happy for the pause. We spent a day and a half resting and wandering around the southern rim of the Canyon, and the KOA we were staying at had a hot tub that we enjoyed under the clear starry night skies. We also connected with two other friends (from Illinois) who were also on a cross country road trip. They were going to be in the San Fransisco bay area the same time we were, so we made plans to meet up a few days later.

This is what happens when you forget to close the drain plug on the cooler. Thankfully the air was so dry and arid that the car and camping equipment dried out in a matter of minutes.

On the afternoon of the second day at the Grand Canyon, we departed for Las Vegas. Our plan was to stop in Vegas for dinner and then head up to San Fransisco via Death Valley under the cover (and coolness) of night. Since we were both only 19 years old we could go into the casinos but only to the restaurants. We wandered around for a while, gawking at the glitz and glamour of the casinos and then had dinner. By this time we heard warnings of flash-floods in Death Valley, so we opted to take US 95 through Tonopah up to Reno and then cross over the Sierra Nevadas at Donner Pass. It was not until years later when I drove on the same route that I found out just how beautiful that part of Nevada was. In 1996 all I knew was that I had to work the Escort hard on the long uphill route coming out of Vegas. We made it as far as a dirt pull off north of Reno at around 4 AM before I had to stop and rest. We slept in the car for a few hours and then pressed on over the mountains and down into the Bay Area.

By the time we made it to San Fransisco proper, I was exhausted in a way I had never been before. I would come to know this feeling many times over the course of road trips since then, but at the time the fatigue from driving for so long was new to me. We were staying with K’s second cousin and his family in San Fransisco, so I immediately crashed on the couch while K. got a tour of San Fransisco. While I was asleep my Escort received a parking ticket (which to this day I have never paid), and I missed out on seeing most of San Fransisco. I had been there once before in 1984 but I was sad that I didn’t get a chance to wander around much myself. The very next day, May 21st, we were to meet up with our new friends from the Grand Canyon. As is typical for Bay Area weather, the 21st dawned damp, foggy and rainy. We were staying at the Fireside Inn (and as of 2018 this motel was still there, but fortunately closed). Regardless of the weather the four of us had a fun evening getting into shenanigans in Oakland, CA.

After bidding our friends goodbye and agreeing to meet up in their hometown of Chicago, we headed north on I-5 to Eugene OR to visit a friend of K’s from Colgate. This drive was uneventful and unmemorable as we were on the interstate and missing most of the beautiful scenery of Northern California. Eugene would be the turning point for our trip, as every mile from here on out would be bringing us closer to home. By this time we had covered almost 4,200 miles and I thought it was a good idea to stop for an oil change at a quick change store. The shop efficiently did an L-O-F and I had only mild reservations that the kid under the car that was no older than me remembered to tighten everything and fill everything properly.

The Escort resting in Eugene OR before our turn eastward.

We headed east into Idaho and up into mountainous terrain. We saw our second snow (the first was crossing the Sierra Nevadas) and stopped to have a snowball fight. By the time we stopped in Twin Falls ID the weather had warmed up enough that we weren’t freezing cold, but we would hit snow again the next day while crossing into Wyoming.

Bumper stickers include Ron Jon’s Surf Shop, WINK 106 radio station, Legoland, and a few more I can’t recall.

While buzzing through Wyoming, K. and I were confronted with something you never see on the East Coast: a cattle drive. On the very road we were driving on. I quickly stomped on the brakes and sat motionless in the middle of the road as a small herd of cows surrounded the Escort and continued on their way westward. Of everyone involved, the cows were far more unfazed than K. and I were.

This was no loose herd of cows, you can clearly see the cowboys on either side driving them along the road.

After a quick stop at Devils Tower, we continued on through South Dakota. An obligatory stop at Wall Drug was the only interesting thing that happened between Wyoming and Chicago, were we met back up for the third (and final) time with our Grand Canyon friends. We all went into Chicago for the day and had a nice time wandering around Navy Pier. By this time, K. and I were tired and cranky from driving almost every day for the previous 14 days. It was on the fifteen day of the trip that we had our first major fight, a fight that would sadly lead us to end our friendship shortly after we returned from the trip. One last nights stay with another college friend of K’s saw us wake up on the morning of May 27th and decide we wanted to be done with the trip and get home. I drove straight through the 27th and on into the 28th, arriving back in Horseheads mid-day on the final day.


We had traveled 7,114 miles in 27 days. The Escort consumed 238 gallons of gas at a total cost of $323.37, and averaged 29.8 mpg. The highest price for gas we paid was $1.72 in Tonopah, NV and the cheapest was in Cuba, MO at $1.11. My little Escort held up remarkably well with no major faults or flaws. The overheating issue had gone away once we reached cooler temperatures and it never faltered or failed to start.

This would be the swan song for my Escort. I had applied to four different state schools that spring and had been accepted by all four. I picked SUNY Oswego, and after a summer of working to save some money headed off to “real” college and dorm living. The Escort would go with me and would ferry me the 2 hours many times in winter weather but the car’s days were numbered. Winter road salt had eaten away the rear shock towers (and repairs with fiberglass were only going to last so long). By the summer of 1997, I was finished with the Escort. My father kept it on the road for his winter beater for another year and a half, and the last time I ever drove that car was on the turn of the Millenium (’99 to ’00). I estimate that I put around 60,000 miles on it during my 5 years ownership which is pretty good for a high school kid that didn’t really go anywhere.

By that time I had moved on to my next beater car, but Walter didn’t disappear on a boat bound for China to be made into razor blades.

Winter, 2003.

Fall, 2006

Summer, 2018.

Walter still rests behind one of my father’s barns in Upstate NY. There is most likely nothing left of the car today, but I can’t bring myself to shift it to the scrapyard. Part of me thinks of all the I  amazing memories I made in this car that it seems a shame to let it go, and part of me likes to be able to say “Yes! I still have my first car!”. I have visions of rescuing it, but with each passing year I realize just how futile that effort would be. Now I’m thinking that I will rescue whatever parts I can as mementos and maybe use them on a clean ’86 Escort. But for now, my Escort patiently waits to be reclaimed by someone, or something. Keeping my old cars would become a dangerous habit for me, as you will see in future entries on my COAL.