Sunday, April 28, 2013

"We Drove That Car As Far As We Could, Abandoned It Out West"

In 1993 I moved back to America from Europe to get married. I had been living there for three years with my girlfriend, but she had tired of Europe and wanted to come back.  If I'd had my druthers, I would have stayed there. But I was in love and so I came back too.

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 lighternot a cigarette lighterthe 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. 


  1. Today you could rebuild it and join a car club and you'd be very cool. (not that you're not already cool)

    1. Thunderbird clubs sort members accordingly"

      '55-'57 "Classic"
      '58-'60 and '61-'63 are "vintage." Collectability falls off rapidly afterwards.

      The Thunderbird was the Lexus of its day. There were very few imports then. The car featured power steering, power windows, A/C, power seats and other things most cars of that era lacked. The front seat belts were like on an airliner and the rear lacked them completely. I had to install seat belts in the back to strap the modern baby car seats in with.

      But man could that thing accelerate. 390 ci and a 4 barrel carburetor. You could almost watch the gas gauge move.

  2. Good story El Pollo. My first car was a white Ford Galaxy 500 with a 390 engine. Gas was 25 cents a gallon and I owned the road. It had been previously owned by a salesman so it came with all the luxuries you described and 150,000 miles on it. Unfortunately, I was rear ended and the car was totaled. To this day I cringe when I hear squealing brakes.

    1. We retired the Bird when my wife had to slam on the brakes once with the kids the aboard and the thing fishtailed. "Stops on a dollar" was the mantra. Then there was the time we got stuck in a snowstorm up in mountains. All that power in the front did nothing for traction. There's an analogy there somewhere I'm sure--like a buffed out athlete who can't help protect when needed.

  3. Enjoyed the story. Sort of a hetereo Route 66 w/ a T-Bird instead of a Vette. Ford v Chevy, the big debate my greaser buddies had daily.

    1. Yeah, Ford vs. Chevy -- like The Beatles vs. The Stones. Now we miss them both. Today it's Twitter vs. Facebook.

    2. Or Apple vs. whatever (used to be PC).

  4. When I was teaching and the class was too timid to speak, I would throw out the topic, "Coke or Pepsi." A lively, passionate debate always ensued.

  5. Bruce, I never knew you were a car guy. I have many stories about the many cars I have owned over the years, including a Saab 96 that I drove from Maryland to Fort Collins. I sold it there, then bought a '65 Rambler Classic which I drove to the Bay Area. Kept it floored while driving by the Great Salt Lake and Salt Flats - that seemed appropriate - the speedo indicated 120 mph, but I doubt we were going that fast.

    Got caught in a blizzard in the Sierras, but got out before any cannibalism was required.

    I used to drive real fast, all the time - including passing a CHP officer at an indicated 115 in a friend's Datsun Fairlady. Didn't get a ticket as I had slowed to the legal speed limit by the time he started pacing me.

    Good times.

    Going 175 around Daytona speedway cured me of my need for speed. Now I don't break the speed limit except in Durham.

    1. Sixty, I'm really not a car guy or at least I wasn't growing up. My older brother was. When I came back from Europe, I wanted to change that, reasoning that I could teach myself on an older one.

      I think I will continue this as a series talking about the rebuild because there's a story there.

  6. Deftly changing the subject, my son just messaged me from Kreuzberg that tonight is Walpurgisnacht and the rioting is already underway. I told him to lock and load.

    Sadly, he is like Troop - a far up north non-gun owning, non-driving Y*nkee, so he is sheltering in place. Nice. Krauts are well trained in following orders.

    1. Kreuzberg, despite its tough-sounding name, was commie Zentral during the Cold War. Young Germans went there to denounce Kapitalismus, usw. and to avoid the draft. I spent a besotted week there a year after the Wall came down--before East and West had really commingled--unforgettable, er, mostly never remembered.

      Berlin is my favorite German city.

      Tell him to have a döner kebap for me.

    2. Now Pankow, that was hard core East Berlin. There's a Soviet war memorial there constructed from granite and marble recovered from the Hitler's chancellery.

    3. That same son also lived in Leipzig for a while. I have mixed feelings about all this - one the one hand, Northern German portraiture is some of my all time favorite painting, he is spending too much time among leftists. He already has a masters degree, which puts him somewhere to the left of Trotsky, and now he is living amongst hard core socialists and other Eurotrash.

      I really don't like losing my sons to an ideology that is so foreign to me - I am already resistant to visiting him in NJ due to my dislike of traveling abroad, but now he is modeling his life after those goose-steppin' fucks we had to kill by the millions not too long ago.

      My favorite German city is Dresden on February 16th, 1945.

      What, too soon?

    4. I thought the Brits bombed Dresden.

      I've never been there. Many people seem to love it and its history. History happened in Dresden; Berlin made it.


  7. Yeah, I really need to get back to work and resume radio silence - my comments are way out of line.

    1. That Dresden comment seems a bit harsh, just sayin'. I'm really a pretty mild mannered guy, but I can sure carry on about Germans.

      Anyway, WRT cars, I have owned a few German cars - Audis and a VW that was built in Brazil. I rebuilt the CV joint on one Audi while lying upon a sheet of ice in my driveway - had to get to work the next day, and you do what you have to do in order to get by. The Brazilian Veedub was the first new car I ever bought - it fell apart within months. I started buying Toyotas and 23 years and 4 vehicles later I am still a Toyota guy.

      I owned 4 Swedish cars, too. Three Volvos, or Vulvas as my lesbian colleague calls hers, and the aforementioned Saab. I think I am over Swedish cars, too.

      Here in NC we only have one license plate, so I took the old black tag from my CA original '57 GMC pickup and put that on the front of my Tundra. Oh yeah, keep hope alive!

    2. We're into VW diesels now. Two of them.

  8. Here in NC we only have one license plate, so I took the old black tag from my CA original '57 GMC pickup and put that on the front of my Tundra.

    When I had the bird, I wanted to get those classic black plates too. No go. I would have paid extra too for them and they could easily issue them as vanity plates. The old plates only had six characters not seven (CA ran out of six digit combos in early 70s). The reissues could have seven digits and so not cause duplicity.