My First Car
I was thumbing through a copy of Reminisce Magazine when I came across a 1954 Customline Ford automobile. It reminded me of my first car, a 1952 Custom Ford four-door sedan.
This is the same car I wrote about in my blog post entitled: My First Long Road trip. I told of how I came by the car in that post, so I won’t bore you with those details again, but there is a bit more to the story about this car.
Being of somewhat a conservative nature, I opted for a four-door sedan, instead of a sportier model such as a convertible or two-door hardtop. Dealerships in small towns during those days didn’t carry a large inventory of cars. The dealers drove what they referred to as their demonstrator. They sold new cares using that demonstrator, and the customers added their desired options. The cars were then ordered. We placed the order for my care in the late Fall of 1951(the 1952 models were introduced in October of 1951).
That was the same winter John L. Lewis ordered a coal miners’ strike that lasted for several weeks—maybe months—causing a domino effect throughout the entire economy. What should have been a 60-day wait for delivery of my new car turned into a much longer ordeal. Without coal, steel mills couldn’t produce steel. They shut down. Car manufacturers were shut down because of a shortage of steel.
By the time the coal miners’ strike ended, there was a ripple effect throughout the entire economy that took several months to clear away. To a 16-year old kid, that seemed like half a lifetime. I think it was because of that coal miners’ strike that Ford Motor Company started producing its own steel so as not to get caught short again in the future.
Well, after a four month wait, the big day finally arrived. Most new cars shipped into Soda Springs and Grace, Idaho, during the late 1940s and all through most of the ‘50s, came in railroad boxcars. One Saturday morning in early spring, I received a phone call from the Ford dealer stating that the railroad car containing my new auto had just been placed next to the loading ramp, and would I like to come down and help off-load my car. It was still too early in the season for much activity out on the farm, so I said, “Boy, would I!”
The boxcars were about three to four feet away from the unloading ramp. This space was bridged with steel plates. After removing the autos from the restraints inside the rail car, they were maneuvered out onto the ramp and down into the yard. This part always made me nervous for fear one of these plates would slip and drop the auto down between the rail car and the loading ramp creating one of those, “oh no!” moments. But good luck prevailed and our mission that day succeeded with no mishap. In all the subsequent times I helped unload cars, no such disaster ever happened, but I still worried about it. As the old saying goes, “there’s always a first time for everything.” Pre-delivery service and money exchange completed, I finally took possession of my new car.
Now one might get the idea that I was a pretty level headed teenager, but I did have my lapses in judgment (a couple of which I have already mentioned in previous posts). During the 1940s and ‘50s, it was considered “cool” to lower the rear end of a car. Autos in those days were equipped with rear leaf springs instead of the traditional coil springs we see today, and “lowering” a car’s rear end was a simple task done by slipping a steel block between the spring and the underside of the auto’s rear axle. These lowering kits were available at any auto parts distributor. Depending on the extent to which one wanted to lower his car, the kits were available with blocks two, four, or six inches thick. Extended U-bolts for securing the spring and block to the car’s rear axle were also included in these kits.
I wanted the lowered look, but didn’t necessarily want to alter the original factory design, (lowering blocks made the cars ride rough) so I came up with an idea that I thought would accomplish the same thing and enhance the car’s ride capabilities as well. A friend rustled up four used steel blocks from a hammer mill at a phosphate mine and gave them to me. They were very compact and weighed about 50 lbs. each. I placed these blocks in the trunk of my car right up next to the rear seat where they would ride pretty much out of the way of anything I wanted to carry in the trunk. I accomplished my intended goal with an added bonus. I gained extra traction in the wintertime from the additional 200 lbs. over the rear wheels.
However, I didn’t do anything to secure those weights. Hence, the lack of judgment I spoke of earlier. As luck would have it, I never did have occasion for an abrupt stop, the result of which might have catapulted these weights into the cabin possibly causing untold damage to car and passengers therein.
Another of my judgment lapses came when I decided to alter the compression ratio of the car’s engine. In those days it was a popular notion that one could gain extra horsepower, and perhaps even increased gas mileage by having the heads of the engines planed. Yes, believe it or not, folks, gasoline had actually reached 28 cents per gallon, and might even go as high as 30 cents, so we were trying to improve our gas mileage. All I ever gained out of that endeavor, however, was the need to burn a higher-octane gasoline due to the increased compression ratio. I also came close to causing expensive damage to my car’s engine.
I discussed this head shaving project with the mechanic at the Ford garage. He thought 35 thousandths was about as far as we dared go. I, being a know-it-all teenager, thought 50 thousandths would be better. So against his better judgment, we went the extra 15 thousandths. We put the heads back on the engine, and hit the starter. After about half, to three-quarters of a revolution, we heard a clunk, and the engine was locked up. I looked at him. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He looked at me with a knowing grin.
He had been right; 50 thousandths was too much. Something was hitting the heads. I don’t remember if it was a piston or a valve (those flat head Ford V-8s had the valves in the block). My thoughts immediately turned to an expensive set of new heads, and Dad’s admonishment of my foolishness—neither of which provided me with any comfort. Fortunately, my mechanic friend saved the day for me. He happened to have some head gaskets of varying degrees of thickness. We experimented until we found the thickness that would let everything clear and bolted the heads back down. Because of the added compression, however, the engine pinged on regular gas, so I had to burn Ethyl after that. And as I recall, I don’t think my mileage improved either, nor did my top end speed, which was one reason why we were doing all this in the first place. Ah…the follies of youth. I did, however, drive the car for another three years with no engine problems.
Speaking of Ethyl gasoline, there were only two grades of gasoline in those days; Ethyl and regular? They looked like orange and cherry flavored Kool-Aid—good enough to drink. I forget, now, which was which. I think Ethyl might have been the red cherry looking stuff.
Now while we’re on the subject of the exploits of youth, why not jump up to upper right of this page and click on the free download button and receive a free copy of Buddy…His Trials and Treasures, a book of adventures in the life of a young boy growing up in rural America during the 1940s.