AutoBiography - Cars In My Life: Learning To Drive (posted 10/31/11)
New Ford: By early 1956, my dad had enough of my aunt's old gutless '49 Chevy, so he traded it for our family's first new car - a 1956 Ford Mainline Tudor. This vehicle had no options except a heater and overdrive. Although he had planed to buy a stick-shift V-8, he got a deal on a model with a straight six-cylinder, 137 horsepower overhead-valve engine.
He bought the car from Alvin A. Swenson Ford, which claimed to be the 'Largest Ford Dealer in the Northeast' (the slogan vaguely hinted at the largest in the NE United States, although the boast probably referred to the Northeast section of Philadelphia). Swenson had been around for a long time, a 1922 ad noted that the firm also sold "Lincoln Motor Cars and Fordson tractors." Base price of the Mainline was $1,850; curb weight was 3,143 pounds.
The Mainline was equipped with overdrive and came with a 4.11 rear axle ratio which made it quite peppy. I found that it could beat most automatic-transmission V-8 cars to 60 miles per hour during stoplight-to-stoplight drags. I once timed it - it took just under 12 seconds to go from a dead stop to 60 miles-per hour - not bad for six cylinders.
Over 164,000 Mainlines were sold that year. Many to fleets. Philadelphia's police cars were all Ford Mainlines - red ones for the regular cops, navy blue for the Fairmount Park Police and unmarked Aquatone Blue ones - just like ours - for the city's Detective Squad.
I had lots of adventures in that '56 - too many to enumerate here. I learned to drive in this car; my mom let me get behind the wheel when I was only 13 years old.
After I got my driver's license, I personally blew the clutch out of it speed-shifting from first overdrive to straight second at 55 mph or so. My dad was not pleased. He was also unhappy that I put Port-O-Walls on the tires and Pep Boys fake Thunderbird emblems (signifying that the car had a hot 312 cu. in. V8 motor under the hood) on the front flanks.
We spent our summers at the New Jersey shore. A local friend and I (our dads worked together), decided - after some debate - to prove once and for all which family car was quickest. With George and I drag racing down a long straight dirt road on the way to the Brigantine dump, my dad's '56 blue Ford smoked his dad's '60 pink Rambler (6-cylinder, overdrive) Later, George and I were in the same room with our parents when our two fathers were arguing about which of their cars was faster. We had to leave because we were laughing so hard - little did they know that the matter had already been settled.
In October of 1960, a friend and I fastened a Kennedy-for-President poster to the front of my dad's '56 Ford and we drove up Frankford Avenue (in Northeast Philadelphia) about 500 yards ahead of the convertible (a Buick, I think) in which candidate JFK was riding. Try breaking into a Presidential candidate's motorcade today. You'll be quickly shot with Uzis wielded by the Secret Service.
The Ford gradually dissolved over the five and one-half years my dad owned it. Exposed to the shore's salt air in the summer and Philadelphia's salt-covered roads in winter, it rusted and rusted until the lower A-frame on the left front suspension arm pulled away from the chassis which was by then full of holes. (This happened on Philadelphia's Roosevelt Boulevard Underpass at Oxford Circle, when I was speeding along at 65 miles per hour. The traffic light changed and, when I hit the brakes, the steering wheel almost tore our of my hands. The car shot across three lanes and almost jumped the curb.) Luckily, I didn't wipe out.
Fords of that era were notorious rust buckets. With a little over 60,000 miles on it, the car was done for. A quick inspection on the local gas station's lift identified the A-frame problem and showed serious rust-through in many places on the chassis. And, yes, my father had paid extra to have his new car undercoated.
My dad was pretty upset that a new car would fall apart so quickly. Especially a Ford, since he was a Ford man at heart. The Ford Mainline - the first new car he had ever purchased - was replaced by a new 1962 Volkswagen Beetle. We had to wait six weeks for it because demand for VWs was so strong. Since the Ford was undriveable, we walked or took public transit for over a month.
When the Volkswagen finally arrived, it was the first furrin' car in our neighborhood. My dad never bought another American-made car. (permalink)
Old Plymouth: In April 1959, my dad bought a second car - for my mom to use and for me to practice driving. He paid $25 for a 1939 Plymouth P8 Deluxe business coupe.
The Plymouth and me - May 1959
This car was definitely at the end of its useful life; according to the title, we were the 15th owner. The car was a light blue, but much of the paint was peeling off. It burned a lot of oil - a quart every 70 miles. The floorboards were so full of rust holes that, when it rained, you had to wear galoshes to keep the road spray from getting your feet soaking wet. During the summer, I painted the car (with a brush) black with red wheels. I also bought Port-A-Wall whitewalls for it.
Unfortunately, I was hit by another car in November, 1959 and the estimated repair cost of $150 far exceeded the value of the old Plymouth. So it went to the junkyard. Our family was back to one car again.
In 1994, I bought another '39 Plymouth coupe. It's in much better condition that the one we had in '59.
For what it's worth, most of my teenage friends - even my car-centric ones - drove crappy cars in those days as well. As I've related here. (permalink)
Tractor Training: At age 14, I took a summer job at the Brigantine Country Club at the New Jersey shore town of the same name. At first, I was just a caddy but soon got promoted to groundskeeper and got to drive the tractors around the golf course. This was great practice for the day when I'd get a license and be able to drive legally on roads. Most of my driving was on the course itself, although I had to cross and sometimes drive on public roads to get around the 18-hole course during the several summers I worked there.
The club had two small Fergusons in its fleet. These little beige tractors had four-cylinder overhead-valve engines but were geared so low that - even with the speed governor disconnected - they couldn't go much faster than 30-35 miles per hour.
|Operating a Ferguson with front-end loader - Summer, 1961
The third tractor was a Toro Grounds Master. It was much bigger than the Fergusons and had a dump box in the back. The Toro was powered by an ohv six-cylinder engine - it looked like a Ford engine to me. It was fast and powerful, with a four-speed truck transmission and heavy duty rear end with dualies. It was powerful enough to easily pull the heavy gaggle of gang-mowers used for keeping the fairways well-trimmed.
One time I was driving the Toro on one of the dirt roads near the golf course, taking a short cut between fairways when some jerk in a 1957 Oldsmobile came roaring up behind me and blew the horn, wanting to pass. I pulled over and as he pulled out I shifted down to third, floored the Toro and left him in the dust. Zoooom. At 25 mph, the lightweight tractor with the big motor and low gearing was unbeatable for acceleration.
When no one was around, my friend George and I also used to race each other. (George also worked at the club.) Since there was usually only one tractor available, we used to run 'time trials' (race against the clock) around a dirt oval course. George once lost control of the Toro, hit a curb and toppled the battery from the machine and ran over it with the dualies. We towed the Toro into the garage with another tractor, patched up the battery with rubber cement and threw a lot of lumpy mud on it. No one ever figured out how the battery was destroyed.
Looking back, I'm amazed that one of us wasn't killed. In the 1980s, Arnold Palmer used to do Pennzoil commercials featuring a red Toro tractor. It was just like the one I used to drive. But Arnie probably never raced his. (permalink)
A chronological list of AutoBiography chapters can be found here.
copyright 2011-15 - Joseph M. Sherlock - All applicable rights reserved
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