COAL Getting The Keys

I was 14 or so and my Dad came home from work with some exciting news.   One of his workmates was selling a car for $100.  It had a brand new set of snow tires on the rear.  It ran smooth. Maybe it was time for me to have a car.  I can’t say I was overjoyed when I heard a few more of the details.  And since the snow tires would fit his car I didn’t even get the benefit of those.  Which didn’t turn out to matter in the end as the 1952 Plymouth Cranbrook the tires were attached to never left the yard again under its own power. Despite my best efforts.

Sometime before the arrival of the Cranbrook and after the last run of terrible cars it was a fortunate event when another workmate of my Dad’s was upgrading and so for not much cash our family became the owners of a green 1970 Plymouth Fury 2 with a snazzy white vinyl roof and a 318 under the hood.  It’s funny now but all our cars seemed to come from friends of my dads who had worn out their vehicles.  Or so they thought.  Anyways this was a nice comfortable and quiet car. Most importantly, it was actually capable of both leaving the yard and coming back under it’s own power on the same day.  Something we hadn’t taken for granted over the last few years. Even more importantly to a 12 year old country kid  it was finally time that I was allowed to take the keys and drive around the property.  As long as I was careful and I helped to look after it.

Life was looking up in a few other ways as well. One magical morning a year before the arrival of the Fury I left the shack we had been living in to go to school on the bus.  Looking back at the cars we had up to that it’s pretty lucky there was a school bus or I would learn even less in school than it seems I did.   I didn’t consider it lucky at the time of course as the school bus was a 1960 International conventional we called “the old tin can.”  One of its features was that the rear window was taped in place for some time.  Also to our shame, as we were on a close-to-town route we didn’t get one of the shinier new Carpenters with their cushier seats and diesel rear engines.  One time I remember grinding up the hill in the old Cornbinder and one of the shiny new buses just going around and passing us as the kids on that bus jeered us.  I’m pretty sure looking back that school bus passing techniques for rural two-lane highways isn’t in the bus driver training manual but half of the kids loved it anyways.  Anyways on that fantastic day when I had left for school from the shack at the end of the day, I hopped off the bus and ran home to find my parents had spent the day moving us into the new house. The floors were bare plywood and the front windows were just plastic sheeting with insulation jammed in but we were actually living in relative luxury.  My dad had been working on this house after work for 3 years and so this was a huge event.

Returning to the subject of the Fury My dad really didn’t like working on cars it turned out.  He was skilled enough to fix million-dollar equipment at work but something about fixing cars just wasn’t satisfying to him.  He was pretty tough on me as a 12 year old apprentice. I’ve heard from some of his real apprentices that he was a bit like that with them as well being quick to point out quite forcefully any errors in technique.  If he called for a 1/2 box end wrench I had best not ever give him a 9/16  or hand him a socket wrench that was set to tighten if he was about to loosen something.    Adjustable wrenches were absolutely banned from the house as no good tradesman would ever use something that could damage a nut. Only a hammer was ever used to strike anything as that was not a wrenches job. Might be something a Canadian would do.    Just as certainly as I learned to be a lot more patient with helpers than he was I certainly learned about looking after my tools.  I still use some of the ones he made in tech school in the 1950s.  I didn’t keep all the old Whitworth wrenches but I have a lot of the custom drifts and punches he machined for himself.  Apparently, some of the teaching rubbed off. Since cars back then had points and plugs and fuel filters to change regularly this allowed me to do useful things.  I remember doing the tire changeovers on the smaller vehicles as well.

I was thinking about this a while back and while it seemed normal enough at the time adult me is a bit disturbed by it. I mean I have had teenage children who are bright, talented, and responsible but nothing in me would think it was a sane idea for them as 13 or 14 years olds to maintain a projectile that could and did travel down the road at 80 miles per hour.  Thinking back to how it was back then I guess my dad thought it was normal as he had started trade school at 16 so young people fixing things was just normal.

I remember a couple of peaceful years with the Fury.  A permanent truck had arrived to handle the off-road duties which greatly relieved some of the pressure on the Plymouth.  I can’t ever remember the Plymouth stranding us anywhere.   Though I do recall its last long trip.  It had started to age and was beginning to smoke a little blue on liftoff. But that was just what a lot of cars did back then. Since the truck didn’t have a hitch the trusty Fury was taken to a city 5 hours away to pick up a travel trailer that my dad had purchased for family trips. It was over 90 degrees out when we left the city on the freeway.   The heat, high speed, and heavyweight 1970s trailer soon proved too much for the car.  Multiple cycles of overheating, radiator refills with water, and eventually a bit more blue smoke than usual spelled the end of the line for the Fury. This was a shame really,  as it had been a pleasant few years looking at the world over this broad 1970s hood.

Going on another sidetrack, there just seems to be no good pictures of it.  One thing I blame is the malaise era that plagued cheap cameras in the 1970s.  I have plenty of black and whites from the 50s that are sharp, well exposed and beautiful.  Completely the opposite of the 110 pictures from the 1970s which are bordering unusable especially if they had that terrible textured finish that was popular at the time.  All this happened despite the great 35mm cameras that were becoming available.  When we get to a later chapter the same thing will repeat with the first digital pics.  For those who don’t remember the look of pictures that arrived a week after being dropped off at the drugstore to be developed, here’s a bonus 110 picture of the old Valiant and IH on a snowy day.  I also don’t know what was going on with always taking the picture from the kitchen window. There are plenty like that over the years.

Returning to the introductory paragraph and the blue 1952  as can be seen in the photo above we lived in a winter climate.  And it seems that snow tires from a 1952 Plymouth also fit a 1970 Plymouth.  Hence the arrival of the aforementioned Cranbrook and its new snow tires.  When it arrived in the yard I guess I was interested in my first car. It turned over well enough with its big 6-volt battery.  There were some very cool badges with ships on them. The body was the definition of solid and the big chair-like seats left me with about a foot of headroom.  The very best feature was the cool old radio. It must have been a tube affair as it took a minute to warm up and start playing.  I’m obviously remembering it with more tonal quality than it actually had, but in the middle of the afternoon, it would bring in faraway AM stations that no other radio around would bring in. Sometimes I would just take a bottle of Pop Shoppe Lime Rickey and go sit in it and listen to the New Wave hits of the late 1970s when they were current.  Sadly I had to sometimes had to put up with a bit of Disco or what is now called Yacht Rock while I waited for Blondie or The Cars to come on. Kind of the nature of some of the rural AM stations of the time. The Fun Loving Sun Loving EK Radio jingle is still in my head as clear as can be this morning as I type this. Though I kind of wish it wasn’t.

There was a big old flathead 6 under the hood with a one-barrel carb. There was ample room to work.  Everything was accessible.   It kind of looked like an oversized version of the Briggs and Stratton stationary engines we took apart in shop class.  However, after leaving it over the winter I went out to fire it up in the spring and the old flathead was not willing to start.  It spun smoothly but just wouldn’t fire. I tried everything that worked with the lawnmower. I poured gas down the carb.  I regapped all six plugs.  Tried every combination of choke and gas pedal position possible. Nothing.   There was a mysterious piece of garden hose attached to the intake.  I tried putting fuel down that.  Nothing.  Being a teenager,  perseverance through adversity wasn’t my strong suit so I lost interest for a while.

I really wasn’t a car fan at that point. My dad had brought me home an issue of Vanning. I wasn’t that interested in vans either though soon other magazines caught my eye. Initially Pickup, Van and 4WD, and Four Wheeler, and then a subscription to Car and Driver for my birthday.  Everything in those magazines was way more interesting automotively than a frumpy non-running early 1950s sedan.  As much technical info as I was now absorbing through all the magazines, none of it made me any smarter about how to get the old lump fired up.   Looking back you think I would have just asked for help. But for reasons I can’t fathom I just didn’t.  Grown up me knows the issue must have been ignition timing.  So the Plymouth just sat for a couple of years.

Sometime around this time a rather jarring life event happened.  I, my siblings, and my dad were out helping one of his friends cut firewood.   My dad was holding onto a log while it was being cut and in one of those horrific but sadly common rural moments the big old Homelite saw kicked back, jumped and roughly amputated four of his fingers.  We were out in the woods of course.  He had already lost of couple of fingers 10 years before in an industrial accident so it wasn’t that new an experience to him. Dad was a trained industrial first aider and was calm enough to elevate, apply direct pressure and have my brother gather up his severed fingers for the trip to the hospital.  I can oddly enough remember the soundtrack to the frantic high-speed F-250 trip along a rough track to the highway with Hot Rod Hearts by Robbie Dupree on the radio since everybody was too preoccupied to turn off the radio.  Anyways, unlike the last time he lost fingers, surgical techniques had improved enough that with an air medevac to a major centre his fingers were reattached in a fashion with a few borrowed parts from his feet.   There were two immediate problems this injury caused. The first relatively minor one is that neither of the vehicles that will make an appearance in later installments in this series were suitable for a man with effectively one arm to drive.  The second and more serious was that a tradesman earns a living with his hands.  All of a sudden, the household income was cut considerably.  The union and the company both helped out.  A kind co-worker had bought a new car and offered my dad a drive now, pay when you can afford it deal on a 1971 Dodge Polara.    Pretty darn similar to the Fury except the 360 ran quite a bit stronger.  Despite the odd overheating issue on high mountain passes it got the family around through dad’s rehabilitation and a bit more after that.  The other issue that manifested itself was rust. There was a gallon of white marine enamel in the shed and every few months a new coat of paint would be applied to the lower body.  Until it got damp and the rust made its reappearance.  I was getting to be a better car fixer by that time and I kept it fairly well-tuned.

It was around long enough that I turned 16 while it was with us.  My first ever trip driving on a paved road was taken in that car.  As will be learned in an upcoming story I should have kept driving it.  I remember driving my friends around in it a few times in high school as it had pretty good winter traction and would start in the cold.  No complete pictures of it have survived though the partial shots of the roof and back provide hints of its more interesting stablemates. It wasn’t my favourite thing to drive as it sucked a fair bit of fuel. It wasn’t in any way cool and it had a tinny sounding AM radio.  It was eventually retired when my dad threw a tire iron in the trunk which just went through the rusted metal and landed on the ground.

A few years later I took another try at getting the old Cranbrook running.  It was looking a bit worse for wear as can be seen in the opening shot taken with a nice Minolta X700. I was back from college and knew a lot more about cars.  The engine was no longer turning freely. I put oil down each cylinder, left it for a while.  I gently pulled it around the yard in gear with the truck and it freed up the engine but the 6-volt battery would need replacing and that was money I wouldn’t spend. I sold the metal window visor to someone for more than the car was worth when we bought it.

The old Cranbrook ended up at the scrapyard in a yard purge. I don’t remember where the Fury went. The Polara actually was donated back to its original owner as it had been replaced by a Volare or Aspen which sure were not going to run with a 71 Polara.  My dad’s hand worked OK for the rest of his life. I spent a lot of time with chainsaws, always modern  Stihl and Huskys, and to this day never will fire one up if there is anyone in anyone within 20 feet of me. The local hardware store seems to be selling Pop Shoppe Lime Rickey again in case I want to go sit in the car and play some old Blondie music.

As will be seen in most of the next chapters I got a bit better with mechanical skills.   Here are some of my dad’s tools. The calipers were made by him at the ICI trade school in Billingham England.  The sockets are Gordon made of Sheffield steel and this one has the W for Whitworth stamped on it.  He was afflicted with dementia in his last days and while he was in the early stages we were cleaning out his shop and house.   Most of his stuff was just things to him, He really didn’t care where it went. But these first tools were special and until I agreed to take them and put them in my toolbox he was pretty agitated.  Tools are meant to be looked after and used correctly is a lesson I learned.  Next chapter I will be using a few standard tools but there is certainly a switch to metric upcoming.