Cars Of A Lifetime: 1979 Ford F150 – Unforgettable Driving Lessons

Figuring out how to operate a motor vehicle and actually knowing how to drive one are two quite different things. Yes, I had somehow taught myself how to operate my old Volvo, without ever having had a lesson or a driver’s license. But I learned to drive in a 1979 F150. And the lessons it taught me were the kind you never forget.

It was Ford blue, had a 351 Windsor motor, a three-on-the-tree manual transmission, and no frills. It belonged to my close friend Brent who had come up to Oregon from College in Oklahoma on a religious mission: to continue his pursuit of our Pastor’s oldest daughter Missy. For a little music to accompany this post you might like this.

At some point Brent decided I should learn to drive the Ford. The first thing I noticed was the astoundingly different driving experience compared with the Volvo. The clutch was so hard that if one held it in for long, ones leg would start to tremble, and the steering was more like remote control.  Also the brakes were incredibly touchy, which made my first driving experience with it a bit touchy as well.

We were both heading to college in Oklahoma and I was invited to help Brent drive back with a truck and trailer load of Missy’s stuff. But first we needed to replace the rear main seal which was leaking oil like the Valdez.

We used a friend’s shop to fix it one warm spring evening. However we had forgotten to bring clothes to get grubby in and only had our nice clothes. Since we were alone we decided to just strip down to our skivvies.  We got the seal replaced, as well as covering ourselves in oil and grime. But what we had not figured on was how were we going to keep the black goo off of our clothes when we put them back on?  So we decided that we had to drive back in our skivvies as well. We got a few looks on the way home.

After a few camping trips going where no 2 wheel drive truck should go and some naked mountain biking (don’t ask) it was time to leave for Oklahoma. I had obtained a driving permit and we were all loaded up. Brent drove the first bit up to the Idaho border. There we made our dinner of beans and bread on the tailgate over an old Coleman stove next to the great Snake River canyon. I felt that there was nothing better in life than that (and I still think that by the way). We drove in shifts, never even considered staying in a hotel, or stopping for anything other that to fill up the tank or to empty our own.

We got a couple of cigars out and it was my turn to drive. It was not much different with the trailer and load than it was without it. Except that being a Ford with the Twin I Beam suspension front it wondered all over when full.  The vague and overpowered steering didn’t help matters any either. But I learned to drive with one finger on the wheel hurtling through space and time at 11 miles per gallon.

We ran out of gas on our way through Wyoming. We were running low on gas and Brent was dozing in the passenger seat. I woke him enough to let him know that we were low and that there was no other gas stations until Laramie. Brent languidly assured me that all would be fine and fell back to sleep. Being the apprentice driver, I continued on. The needle got lower and lower until it was below the red line. As I crested a big long hill it sputtered and finally died.  But as we coasted downhill around a bend, just at the bottom of the big grade, was a gas station!  I coasted in to the pumps and Brent acted as if it was all meant to be.

We got into Oklahoma 48 hours from when we left Oregon. Old Blue never had a hiccup and I now considered myself to be a fully qualified driver.

The next time I was tasked to drive that F150 was for a trip up from Oklahoma, stopping in Kansas, South Dakota, Portland, and arriving in Salem Oregon. At Brent’s home in Rapid City South Dakota, we were to pick up an old teardrop trailer and take it to Portland for Brent’s dad to restore.

Old Blue was as dependable as one could ever hope an old truck to be, but it did have it’s quirks. Like losing all lighting intermittently, usually while coming down the Columbia River Gorge at night, or on a twisty dark passage of some sort. Didn’t slow us down. A young person’s eyes work better at night for a reason: to slightly improve the odds of surviving their stupidity.

And the transmission was a bit finicky. One of the first things I learned on her was that if you did things wrong in first gear, it would pop out of gear and grind. In which case one would have to crawl underneath the truck and mess with it to get it back right again. Through the course of driving Old Blue, I had gotten so used to this that I almost never let it pop out. However, on our way to Rapid City we had decided to stop in Mitchell. Brent insisted we see the Corn Palace (apparently a palace made entirely of corn). As we turned the corner to the Corn Palace, it suddenly popped out of gear and started grinding. It had never done that in second gear. So we crawled under it and got it back right, but now second gear was almost unusable. I only got to see a fleeting glimpse of the Corn Palace, boy was I disappointed.

From then on it was a pattern of, start in first, rev it all the way to near red line, jam it into third and lug it up to speed. Eventually we got used to driving it like that.

When we left Rapid City with the trailer we took off towards Wyoming. The ground was adrift in beautiful white snow, but the roads were well salted and plowed.

I was driving and we were coming downhill on a long sweeping curve towards Tall Grass Wyoming when I spotted a sign that said “Entering Wyoming Roads Unmaintained”(sic). As I was trying to comprehend that, we rounded the curve and just in front of us was the place where apparently the South Dakota snow plows stopped plowing and Wyoming began. It was literally a line in the road. On our side it was salted and plowed, on the Wyoming side it was several inches of sheet ice covered in snow. We were travelling at 70 mph and there was no time to slow down.

Brent said “don’t brake” but not knowing any better I was already on them. The trailer jackknifed and we went sideways. Brent held onto the dash and I steered with no effect. A huge wave of snow was raised on our leading side as we slid sideways down into the median at 70 mph. It was the trailer that seemed to keep us from rolling over as we went down the grassy snow covered bank and came to rest between the lanes in a shallow little valley.

As it turned out, the only damage was that the trailer tongue had been bent slightly and the teardrop trailer hatch had opened to let in a bunch of snow. We dug the snow out of the trailer and shut it back up. Brent drove it back up to the highway without a hitch and then he pulled over and got out, “drive” he said. I told him that there was no way I would drive again on those roads. He said “if you fall off the saddle, you gotta get back on and ride”.  Brent also insisted we drive at at least 60mph. So for the rest  of Wyoming it was listen and feel for wheel slip, let up gently on the gas, keep her strait, ease back on the gas. We made it to Portland and delivered the trailer without another incident.

I didn’t drive old Blue back as Brent was taking Missy back with him. But he told me latter that the transmission had popped out of third in Arizona in the middle of nowhere just when he was cresting a hill and as he rolled down the hill in neutral there was a little junk yard at the bottom. And as luck always had it for him there was a Ford three speed transmission waiting for him to install.

I never drove that truck again. But we did fill the heater vents with Limburger cheese when Brent got married to Missy. And eventually Brent’s brother in law bought the truck for his roofing business. Where as far as I know it served faithfully. I don’t know where the truck is now and I am afraid to ask. To anyone else, it might look like a junky old no frills Ford pickup. But to me and Brent it was a faithful companion over many miles and several formative years of our lives. I just hope that it’s still out there smelling like dirty socks and hauling more than it should for someone.