The mighty ’56

My dad died in 1996. He was an unrelenting Ford man his whole life, from back in the days when such things really mattered; back when you could tell a Ford from a (shudder) Chevy from a (gack) Chrysler with a mere second’s glance. Nowadays it’s all anonymous plastic ellipsoid egg-mobiles or SUV’s, and the difference between a Ford and a Chevy amounts to nothing more than who you made the check out to. Just to illustrate the importance of the point, back in the early 70’s my grandfather (mom’s side) was interested in buying a car from my dad, which of course was a Ford. My dad strongly advised him against it, and when I asked why, he told me, “Your grandfather’s a Chevy man. He won’t be happy with the car.” Sure enough, my granddad eventually persuaded my dad to sell him the car, and he grumbled about it the whole 8 months he kept the thing before selling it – even though there was never anything quantifiably wrong with the car at all.

All this is to tell you I’m a Ford man myself. My first car was a ’66 Mustang that my dad bought for me when I turned sixteen, from our local high-school’s auto-mechanics teacher. I ran that thing into the ground – it was light and fast and I went out almost every night, drag-racing that little 289 against a whole army of 350 Chevys and winning more often than not. In a year’s time I had transformed that car from a nice, valuable vintage car into a dented ruin. There was a cotton mill near my house that had a grass-covered hill situated in a curve across from the employee parking lot and was perfectly placed so that you could take the turn a little too fast to stay on the pavement, run off the road and waay up onto the bank, then shoot back down onto the street just like Bobby Allison tire-smoking off the banks at Talladega. I never failed to do just that on my way home from just about anywhere, until the people who worked at the mill decided to throw a bunch of nails onto the hill to keep us punk kid hotrodders from doing it anymore. First time I crunched back down onto the pavement on two flats and barely got to a stop at the busy highway intersection about 100 feet away cured me for good.

Anway, after my pop died I decided to take some of the insurance money I got and buy an old Fairlane. I’d owned a ’61 Galaxy (for a much better Galaxy pic, click here) a few years before that my dad sort of disapproved of. He thought it was a bad buy for the money; most of the old Galaxies were long gone, turned into stock cars because of the engine they had in ’em (first a 352, then a 390, both of which were the hottest things going at the time) and beaten to death, then scrapped. They weren’t really desirable for collectors and he figured the car would never really appreciate in value. I didn’t care; I thought the damn thing looked cool, I had the cash, and we were both right in the end. Funny thing, though: every time I went up to my dad’s house he’d insist on us getting out into the backyard and washing and polishing that old Galaxy he swore he didn’t like much until it shone like the Hope diamond. That thing had a bigger back seat than most other cars, even then, had front seats. A real battleship. Three-on-the-tree, fat whitewalls, and my God, that sucker would fly. You really had to be careful with that car in a turn – tap the gas a little too hard coming out of the hole and you were sideways in a hummingbird’s heartbeat. I had Kim Wilson (from the Fabulous Thunderbirds) autograph the dash for me – he wrote “To Mike: Spend it all!” which is advice a man can readily take to heart. Or I did, anyway. At that time my dad was driving a black ’65 T-Bird with leather interior and hydraulic everything, which was always his dream car. I’d wanted a mid-Fifties Fairlane for a good while by then and getting one seemed like a fitting thing to do with the money my dad left me.

So I scoured the Old Car Trader for a month or more and found one down in Georgia for what seemed a reasonable price. My girlfriend and I had just moved back to Charlotte from NYC (she’s from there and is why I moved to NY in the first place) and we jumped into my van and headed for Carrollton, Ga, off I-20 not far from Alabama. The car was at a garage run by a nice young guy who had driven the ’56 for a while, then parked it for more than a year. When we got there and checked out the car, it was axle-deep in a field of weeds and something of a wreck: the back bumper was so rusty the guy had painted it flat black (“Mexican chrome,” an old-timer Ford guy later told me), and it drove like a tank with a busted track; it had about 20 degrees of slop in the steering and wandered all over the dirt road I test-drove it down. Because it had been sitting for a while, all the seals were dried out and ruined and the car leaked oil from every available orifice. The guy had yanked the fuel tank and put a cell in the trunk because the stock tank leaked from a zillion tiny pinholes. But it ran really well and just felt right, so I haggled him down to 3500 bucks, shook the guy’s hand, and jumped in for the 5-hour ride back to Charlotte. Completely idiotic, I know; anybody with any sense would have brought a truck or at least a towbar and hauled it back. But now and then a certain blind-faith optimism pokes its head up from the black pit of my usual cynical despair, and the car didn’t disappoint me either – it purred like a newborn kitten all the way home. A couple of redneck punks in South Carolina someplace pulled up next to me in their crappy little hopped-up Honda Accord fartmobile and raced their engine, wanting to light the fires and race up I-85, and I gave ’em what must have been the shock of their young lives when I hit the gas and left ’em like they were running in reverse. They got off the highway at the next exit. Punks.

I’ve driven that car just about every day since then, except for just a couple of hiatuses. I’ve driven it on the highway, in the city, and through the countryside. The only major repair I’ve had to do is replacing the front crossmember, which is not unexpected on those cars – due to a design flaw, the 54-55-56 model years come in two flavors: those whose crossmembers have rusted completely out, and those whose crossmembers are about to rust completely out. Other than that, it’s been routine maintenance, tuneups (needs one now, in fact), and regular oil changes. That’s it. It still leaks like the Titanic, or as the old-time Harley guys always say, it doesn’t leak at all, it merely marks its spot. I have a 351 Windsor motor sitting in a garage waiting to replace the old 292 Y-block; I’m going to hotrod the thing one of these days, but the fact is that I just can’t justify replacing the 292 as long as it keeps chugging along the way it does. It’s dead reliable and a stone gas to drive. The car has cherry bombs instead of regular mufflers, which makes it growl like a horny pitbull, and every damn time I start it up my heart thumps just a little bit faster. I’ve made some cosmetic improvements, like replacing that flat-black bumper with a nice newly-chromed one (400 bucks, due to the environmentally incorrect status of chrome-plating shops these days). I’ve had about a billion and one requests to buy the thing and once or twice I’ve even considered selling, but somehow I always back out. It’s almost a nuisance sometimes – I can’t go to the grocery store or gas station without some old-timer coming up and striking up a conversation, reminiscing about how “I used to have one just like her, son” just like in the old George Jones song. I’ve even had ’em follow me home, and you know what? I said just now that it’s a nuisance, but really, it ain’t at all – I love every minute of it, and talking to these guys is always a pleasure. Assuming that I survive some of my lifestyle choices (no odds offered or taken), I’ll be one of those old-timers myself in the not-so-distant future.

So, to the part about the ’57 Nomad. A few of us were heading off for dinner last Saturday night and saw this amazing Nomad going down the highway in the opposite direction. Talk about a rod – this thing was tricked out to the absolute max. A big blower peeking out of the middle of the hood, tires in the back so fat they almost touched, and wheelie bars. Wheelie bars, on a street car! No way was that thing legal; it was a moving violation in every state in the Union, no doubt about it. I’d never seen this guy before and didn’t expect to see him again. But then, on the way home from work Friday, there the guy is again. He leaned all the way out the window and gave me a wave, and I did the same, while the pasty yuppie geeks in their egg-mobiles whizzed by, no doubt annoyed by all those fossil fuels we were wasting and the pollution we were befouling their precious air with. But the old-timers all know how we felt, and I’ll guarantee you there were at least a few out on the road that day that saw us and smiled a little in their underpowered plastic cocoons. And I’ll tell you something else: Al Gore made an enemy of me for life with his dopey little Captain Planet book a few years ago. You remember the book, the one in which he calls for the abolition of all internal-combustion engines? Of course, there are plenty of other equally-valid reasons to despise Gore, but this time it’s personal. Or to quote Charlton Heston from the NRA convention a few years ago: “From my cold, dead hands, Mr. Gore!”

Just thought of something else: one of my favorite stories from my dad’s teen years was the one about an old Ford he had, known locally as “the Dirt Cloud.” He rigged it with flamethrowers, which are essentially spark plugs mounted in the exhaust pipes. Hit a switch on the dash and a big flame blasts out the pipes in back. My dad and his buddies used to cruise around Mt Holly looking for oldsters sitting out on the porch enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon, maybe gossiping about the outlandish hat Flossie Mae wore to church that morning or something equally important. My dad would hit the flamethrowers and the whole crew would pile out of the car into the street, yelling things like “She’s gonna blow!” in an absolute panic. Naturally the old folks would run screaming back indoors every time. Pretty funny.

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