When we married, her parents gave us $2000 and we decided to buy our first car together. We had each owned cars before, but we had sold them before moving to Europe where we didn't need them. We needed one in America. Since we couldn't afford reliability, we decided on promise instead. Older restored American cars had caught my eye but they were still out of our price range and we knew we'd have to compromise. And compromise we did. A newspaper ad (this was 1994--no craigslist) offered a 1963 Ford Thunderbird in Greeley, CO. We made an appointment and went to see it.
The car was over 30 years old then but had only had two owners. It had been stored in a barn for years, but showed lots of sun damage. I didn't care. That's what project cars are for. Thinking back, what must have been going through my head was that I could blend ingenuity and curiosity with need. Plus I carried the absurd notion that I was helping fix-up a part of America's past.
The seller got the car started and that was enough proof for me that it still had life. Prophetically, the car made it home the 30 miles or so--but just an hour later it had two flat tires. We took it to a local shop the next day and got four new tires all around--the tire guy saved us the best looking old one as a spare. We figured new tires on a 30-year old car was a reasonable investment.
Now the 1963 Thunderbird was a nice design. Here is what ours might have looked like new:
Detroit stylists had conceived the design as a convertible. Of course ours was a hardtop. but I didn't mind so much. Colorado wasn't exactly convertible weather much of the year. The one thing I was wary of was rust. Thankfully, Colorado doesn't salt their roads and the car checked out free of rust.
After the tires, the next item I deemed essential was the windshield washer reservoir (later, I found that virtually all the plastic parts--moving or not--had deteriorated and need replacing. In those days, the washer reservoir was essentially a bladder under the hood off to the side. A small "aquarium pump" sent fluid to the nozzles which squirted the windshield. Those were the early days of Internet marketing and I was pleased when I found a vendor in Arizona who sold remakes of the vinyl originals. I ended up sending them quite a bit of money over the years. The new bag looked like this:
That shiny new accessory on the dirty old Bird looked like a Fendi bag on a bag lady. Of course I also had to replace the little electric pump as well. I spent that spring and summer fixing all kinds of little things throughout the car. I bought the wiring diagram (a factory schematic) and later on -- a shop manual. I replaced a power window motor and its switch, the cigar lighter—not a cigarette lighter—the 1963 Thunderbird was a gentleman's car afterall. I even bought a replica owner's manual to keep in the glove box. I was stylin'.
My wife suggested that we make a cross-country road trip in the Bird and I had been invited to give a talk at the Berkeley Chemistry Department. I didn't think the front suspension was roadworthy and so I took it in for its first "big repair" which amounted to a front suspension overhaul: idler arms, ball joints--the whole works. My mom and dad visited early that summer from Wisconsin--my dad wanted to see what I had foolishly bought into. I remember him chuckling and telling me that he too had fallen for such a Thunderbird but had returned it to the dealer when he realized just how bad it was on gas mileage. There was something else weird about that visit. My dad was showing symptoms of what seem like a constant sinus infection--like a cold that wouldn't go away--except that it was summertime.
My folks had been to our wedding in Denver the previous fall but they wanted to see more of Colorado and so we went on a road trip further west to Mesa Verde, Four Corners, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon--all places very close geographically but separated by chasms of culture and epochs. My wife didn't come along because she had recently started a new job and wanted to save her time off for our California road trip later on. We took my dad's car because my T-Bird was still entirely too unreliable. For me, that vacation reprised the family road trips I knew and loved as a child. I may have suspected, but I didn't know then--that it would be our last.
Later that summer my wife and I hit the road in the 'Bird. She dolled it up with makeshift seat covers and a boom box stereo. The car only came with an AM radio which still worked and actually out-performed the boom box--for AM reception--in the desert. We took I-80 from north of Fort Collins, CO to Berkeley. That old car could move at a jaunty clip! We made it to the coast with no problems. I gave my talk--a triumph for me because I met the author of a famous 1950's paper on equilibrium isotope effects. I came to challenge his dogma, preaching my own brand of their causality. He listened politely and said he enjoyed my talk. Afterwards, we cruised the Bird up and down University Avenue before heading down to L.A.
From Berkeley, we headed back over to I-5 to get to Los Angeles. We had previously done the scenic route down the coast and we were kind of in a hurry. I had noticed that the car was using oil but there was no visible smoke in the exhaust. The car made it fine down the "Big Valley," consuming a quart or two of oil. By the time we got to the The Grapevine--the relentless climb over the mountains from the San Joaquin Valley into the L.A. basin, the Bird began to falter. We barely made it up that long steep grade. The Bird began seriously consuming oil. Going uphill, exhaust leaked through the heating duct into the interior. We could see and smell it. Slowly and surely, we made it up and over that mountain. The car was fine on the other side, going downhill just fine.
In L.A., we stayed with friends and took the car to a shop in Long Beach. The mechanic laughed when he gave the verdict: "blow-by." That is a mechanic's term for a motor whose pistons are so worn that they no longer hold compression. The gases just vent around the piston rings, sometimes leading to ring failure. That explained the oil consumption because the oil gets blown through too. But still no blue smoke.
We went camping on Catalina (I wrote about it a bit back here) where they don't even allow cars and I was happy to be rid of it for a while. After Catalina, we visited my wife's sister who lived in Costa Mesa in Orange County. We were all sitting there in the living room when my mother telephoned from Wisconsin. Her voice was nervous but steady as she said "Bruce, your father's tumor has come back. You need to come home now."
So we left the Bird in Costa Mesa and flew back to face reality. Months later, after he died, I paid to have the car trailered back to Colorado. I wasn't going to give up that easily. I ended up rebuilding the motor and got the thing running well again. We used that car for years--our kids even remember it, though I sold it several years ago--for $2000.
Here it is, where it sat in California for several months, waiting for me to get back to it:
|The '63 T-Bird was wider and lower-slung than today's cars.|