(first posted 6/16/2013) What is it about our fathers’ cars? Those of us who were car-crazed little boys (and girls) certainly lapped up every car experience we could get our little hands on. But the cars that our Dads drove can hold a special place in our memories.
For the past few years, my sons and I have attended a small Fathers’ Day car show in Noblesville, Indiana. There is always a nice variety there, something for about every taste. I enjoy, of course, looking at the cars, and even more, I enjoy the time spent with my boys who have a better-than-average appreciation of old iron. If things go the way I hope, while you read this, we three will be traipsing around Forest Park again, taking in the sights, with old Dad snapping a few pictures for some future Car Show Classics.
Last year, though, this car made me stop in my tracks and just stare – probably with my mouth wide open – while the sons wondered just what the heck was wrong with their father. Just what would make someone take notice of a ’69 Ford LTD sedan? They would have no way of knowing, but this car is almost the spitting image of the car my father drove during most of 1969. All of a sudden, I was ten years old again.
1969 was a time of transition, in many ways. My parents had been divorced for about two years and Dad had remarried. I would eventually have two brothers, but the oldest was still a year away from birth in 1969, so this marked the last year that it was just my little sister and me. This was also a time that Dad had left the only employer he had ever had since leaving college over ten years earlier, to strike out on his own as a self-employed management consultant.
I should start out by saying that my father was not really a “car guy”. Which was sort of strange, with him having graduated from college with a degree in mechanical engineering. He understood all of the mechanical stuff, but it really held no interest for him. To my Dad, a car accomplished two things: It was a depreciating asset, and its job was to take you where you wanted to go, comfortably and with no drama. More importantly, a car was your calling card – like your clothing and your bearing, a signal to the world around you who you were and what you were about. This was, pretty much 180 degrees away from my own approach, which valued the subjective experience above all else. The upside of Dad’s worldview on cars was that he never brought home a car that embarrassed his young eldest son.
For most of my life up to that time, Dad had driven a company car. The first had been a white ’63 Chevy Bel Air station wagon. Someone else surely picked it out. The color was the only thing that would have agreed with my father. You see, there were two constants in Dad’s life when it came to cars – they were almost all the products of the Ford Motor Company, and they were almost always the best trim level offered in a given model. A low-trim Bel Air with dog dish hubcaps would never, ever have passed the JPC-the-Elder test. It probably made him feel like a house painter.
The second was more his style – a white ’66 Country Squire that pulled into the driveway one cold, snowy evening in late 1965. Although it lacked air conditioning, it was a car in all other ways fitting for a young up-and-coming executive. The Squire was his car for the next three years, which included some wrenching life-changes. Following a divorce, and a Dad’s move to an apartment, the sight of the white painted woody was eagerly anticipated every other Friday evening as its pulling into the driveway signaled the start of a weekend visit with we kids. Dad married again in 1968 and moved to a new home that was the start of a little subdivision way out in the country.
The three-year-old Squire was due for replacement in late 1968. To me, it was the last holdover from an earlier kind of life that I was sorry to see go away. As I have gotten older, however, I realize that he must surely have been ready to be rid of the Squire. It had to have been difficult to spend so many hours in a car that was a daily reminder of an unhappy chapter of life, which he was surely ready to move beyond. In the early fall of 1968, the Squire was traded on a new company car. The Country Squire’s replacement was always a bit of a mystery to me – a gold 1969 Olds Delta 88. I vividly recall the air conditioning and the brocade cloth seats. I also remember that Dad was transitioning to a new career and suspect that his replacement may have been given some choice in the new company car.
Within about three months, the Oldsmobile was gone and on one snowy Friday evening, a new car turned into Mom’s driveway – a robins egg blue 1969 Ford LTD four door hardtop. I was ecstatic. At ten years old, you see, I was my Father’s son. Therefore, it went without saying that I was a dedicated Ford man as well. Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs were fine for the women-folk, but in my little world, a Ford was the appropriate car for the man of the house. And an impressive Ford it was, too. OK, a Mustang Mach I would have been cooler, but that just wasn’t happening.
The story of the Ford LTD has been covered here before, and in the second half of the 1960s, it was a very, very important car. Each year following its 1965 birth, it gained in power, influence, and prestige, taking an ever-larger share of big-Ford sales. The 1969 model was a significant leap. There was a longer wheelbase, a wider track, and a completely new body with styling that may have been one of the best looking large sedans of the late ’60s. Ford had been on a quality roll through the ’60s, and its cars were seen as appealing propositions. The competition from GM seemed a bit stale, and the new fuselage Mopars were just not that appealing. The LTD seemed to be a new wave of quality. The structure was tight and quiet, and the materials used seemed to be a notch above those used in the competition. It was certainly a lot nicer than the ’69 Catalina my grandma bought that year, which seemed cheap, plain and dull in comparison.
The LTD suited my father perfectly. It was handsome, big and well-built. The new LTD gave a pretty credible impersonation of a luxury car. Although Dad did not spring for a lot of options (we still cranked our windows and listened to AM radio), the car was awash in luxurious upholstery cloth, woodgrain trim and a smooth, quiet ride that would impress anyone. Ford called the front passenger seat “the Front Room” because of the unique dash design that clustered everything around the driver and swept the rest of the panel back away from the passenger for what seemed like acres of room.
On family outings, the huge back seat was like a quiet, comfortable cocoon. I don’t recall many fights with my sister back there, perhaps in all that roomy, air conditioned comfort, it was just an air of serenity that was hard to break out of, even at age ten. (I supposed we saved the fights for the scorching hot vinyl seats in the closer quarters of Mom’s ’64 Cutlass.) Try as I might, I have very few really vivid memories of the LTD. Instead, they are just a couple of dozen snippets with a common theme – a kid getting to spend time with his Dad, and the LTD was often the place where that happened.
Then, as suddenly as it had appeared in our lives, it was gone, replaced in the late fall of 1969 with a light yellow Continental Mark III. Self employment seemed to be working out well for Dad, and he was ready to move beyond luxury with an asterisk to the real thing. My father was quite excited to score a Lincoln. I can’t say that I blame him, it was quite an accomplishment for a man at thirty-five to own one of the most prestigious cars built. Me? I missed the LTD. I don’t know why. I didn’t like the Lincoln’s color and I didn’t like climbing into the back seat of a 2 door. Real Lincolns had suicide doors, didn’t they? But on a deeper level, I think that the loss of the LTD highlighted one of the biggest differences between me and my father – he always appreciated the finer things, while I was more comfortable in a simpler lifestyle.
Beyond Dad’s light blue LTD, ’69 Fords seemed to be all around me in those years. Uncle Mervin had a navy blue Galaxie 500 coupe, and our insurance agent had another LTD 4 door. A family friend had a bright turquoise Galaxie 500 convertible, and several years later, a boss bought a silver blue LTD sedan from an elderly man, which I got to drive and spent the day detailing for him.
For most of those people (and almost anyone else who ever owned one of these), the bloom came off the rose fairly quickly. In the salty north, these cars turned into major-league rusters. I’m talking gaping holes in the lower doors at 5 years old. As I watched these cars fall into early decrepitude all around me, I was saddened at how Ford could take one of the most appealing new cars made and build it in a way that would become a major disappointment to its owners down the road. Alas, it would not be the last. As I think about it, the ’69 Ford paralleled my father in another way, too. Like the car, Dad aged poorly. Within a decade, he would have his first heart attack and would lose a lung to cancer before age 50.
It has taken some thought, but I think I have finally put my finger on why this car appeals to me so. Almost always, a car that comes into our lives and lives with us is there for quite awhile, certainly long enough to develop the scars and failings of age, mileage and general family wear and tear. Dad’s LTD, though, never got old or dented or rusted, but has remained forever new in my memory, looking for all the world like this car. And when I think of that beautiful new ’69 Ford, I remember my father at his mid-30s peak – young, strong and handsome, at a time in his life when there was nothing he could not accomplish so long as he had a fresh pack of Tareytons at the ready.
So, this Aztec Aqua 1969 LTD was sort of the perfect, though unanticipated, Father’s Day gift for me. If there was a single car from my early life that would bring almost nothing but good memories, this would be it. Sadly, my father passed away over ten years ago, after a twenty year battle with ill health. But for just an instant on a sunny Father’s Day last June, it was as though Dad stepped out of the crowd to say hello and give his ten year old kid a hug. I guess sometimes a car can be more than just the mechanical stuff for me too.
Happy Fathers Day, everyone.