08 February 2013

Gillette's Sunliner

Thanx to Mr Alvin at The Last Days for sending in this story and photos of his first car. Fun story and great pictures of a cool car. Interesting blog too; history and insight from one who was there.
Ya gotta wonder though... Did maybe the car 'know something' and actually keep them all out of trouble?      :)

Tale of a Red Hot Motor

In 1959 I had saved enough money to buy my first car. Working afternoons and weekends, I had two jobs most of my high school years. Against my parents advice and concerns, I forged ahead and found a 1954 Ford Sunliner, (convertible.) Most of the “coolest” cars parked in the student driver’s area of the high school parking lot were convertibles. I fell in love and really wanted that car! 

Being a minor, my father had to sign for me to buy the car. Although he thought me too young, a lot of pressure and conniving eventually wore him down. When I took him to the small car lot to see the car, he hesitatingly agreed to sign the paperwork. I still have that first registration card, now, after all these years.

I drove the car for the summer of 1959. Looking back, that was one of my best summers! A teenager in his own convertible on Cape Cod was, and probably still is, the closest to the perfect life. Of course, the cost of the car was provided by a summer job, but even that was fine. I loved my job as a delivery boy for a local market, (those were the days when small markets delivered groceries!) and still remember the excitement of getting off work and driving my car. Dating, riding around with my pals, or off on jaunts by myself that first summer are still some of my best memories. . .

On a chilly fall evening, after a few beers each, three of my pals from high school and I decided, on a whim, to go up to Boston, (a two hour ride,) to take in a show at one of the strip clubs in the old “Combat Zone,” a known seedy side of the city. The fact that none of us were old enough to drink legally, none of us had any “fake” ID, and we had maybe $8 between us didn’t once come into the hyped up, slightly high on Bud conversation. Ah, the bliss of being 17 and stupid!

We quickly decided on my car. Wayne’s ’51 Mercury being laid up while he engineered a ’56 Buick motor transplant, David’s parents Karman Ghia in use by his mom, and Court’s ’51 Ford’s tired flathead’s inability to make the trip, left the choice obvious. The clock on the dash read after 8:00 by the time we headed north up Rt. 3.

Route 3 from the Cape Cod bridge to Boston, in those days, was a fairly new road, and there were stretches of downright desolation, especially after the summer tourists stopped using it to get to the Cape for vacation. Empty miles stretched between Podunk exits. Not too much traffic ran in the off season, especially on a cold fall evening in the middle of the week.

Driving at 60 mph, about 20 miles up Rt. 3, my car began to slow no matter how hard I pressed on the gas pedal. When we got to a little under 30 mph, and as I steered off the road onto the shoulder, the motor made a screeching noise, and the rear wheels locked up, dragging the tires off the pavement onto the sand and grass of the side. A small puff of smoke slipped out of the back of the hood at the cowl. The four of us piled out. I pulled on the outside latch and opened the hood.

The 239" overhead Fords had an exhaust pipe that exited the manifold on the driver’s side and ran around the top of the engine to the passenger side, where it met the manifold and ran down to connect to the muffler. All of the pipe, as well as both exhaust manifolds were bright cherry red. Any one of us could have easily lit a cigarette from the pipe.

“Wow!” Wayne whistled. 

“A real ‘hot’ motor!” quipped David, ever the comedian.

“You are porked,” managed Court.

Unable to comment, I starred at the mess under the hood. For several minutes the pipes remained red. The motor crackled and snapped as it cooled. Wayne got a rag from the side of the road, and pulled the dipstick.

“Bone dry,” he said. “What’s the matter, can’t you afford oil for this thing?”

Embarrassment now joining with my already down mood made it harder to speak. I had checked the oil recently and it read “full” on the stick. Lamely I tried to confirm this, but I knew no one would believe me.

Not a car had passed as we stood hunched and shivering assessing our situation. The starter refused to even spin the motor. The wind had picked up, and our thin summer jackets and kaki pants didn’t provide much comfort. Wayne, older than any of the other three of us, and an excellent mechanic seemed to take charge. I felt hopeful about this, as I had no idea of what to do.

“Me and another guy will hitch up to the next exit and see if we can find some oil. Two will have to stay with the car. David, why don’t you come with me? You and Court stay here,” he directed.

As soon as he stuck his thumb out, an ancient pickup slowed and stopped a few feet ahead of my broken car. Before we knew it, Wayne had scrambled into the cab and David had vaulted into the bed of the truck. In the dim glow cast by the truck’s lights, I saw David hunkered down against the cab. The old truck gained speed, and soon the tail lights disappeared into the dark. Dark and the cold closed around us, only the stars showing a hint of light.

Court, normally not a talker, seemed sullen and silent. We crawled back into the now cold car, him in the back seat, me at the wheel, and tried to settle into our indefinite wait. We smoked cigarettes and sat without much conversation. I felt badly.

We sat in the car for the better part of an hour. Only an occasional car sped past. Suddenly one slowed, then came to a stop. The driver had to back up on the grass. When close, he hopped out. Court and I were both out of my car, by the time the other driver got to us.

“Problems?” said the young driver.

We explained our predicament.

“How are your pals going to know where the car is when they get back?” asked our new found friend. “The trees in the median may block their view as they come south. They could go right past you without seeing across to where you are!”

Struck with this new truth my depression increased.

“Damn,” muttered Curt.

“Look,” the other driver said, “there is a crossover just ahead!”

Sure enough a few yards up the road, lit by his headlights, there appeared a sandy dirt crossover running between two stands of trees.

“The road is pretty level, here,” he said. “We should be able to push your car over onto the other side. That way they’ll see you when they’re coming back.”

If they come back I thought.

Without even using his car to help us push, the three of us were able to move my injured Ford over to the other side. Although I’d worried about moving across the two north bound lanes of travel, and the two south bound lanes to the opposite roadside, I needed not. No traffic interrupted our progress. 

By now it was 9:45. Our cheerful helper crossed back over to his car, and soon Court and I were again shivering on the cold vinyl. Down to our last two cigarettes, we somehow found a few things to laugh about. My mood got a little brighter, and while still feeling like a jackass, I also felt some hope.

At a little after 10:00, an old flathead Ford wheezed to a stop behind us. The driver had picked David and Wayne up at the gas station and agreed to drop them back at the car, but had to get home and could not stay to help. As the tail lights on the old southbound coupe disappeared into the night, depression crept back into me.

“How’d ya get over here?” said David.

As we explained our good fortune, Wayne opened the hood and poured 4 of the 5 quarts of oil into the filler neck.

“Try to start it,” he commanded.

Somehow the starter began to turn as I twisted the key. Squeaks and loud rubbing sounds emitted from the engine. It didn’t sound promising. Wayne pulled the dip stick and lit his cigarette lighter as he peered at the oil level. 

Satisfied, he returned the stick into the block. Then he said, “Try it again!”

This time the motor made some more odd sounds, but abruptly coughed to life. The clatter of the lifters and the scraping of the pistons combined with the rumble of the bearings made sounds unheard by any of us before, (and me since!) Wayne quickly poured the last quart into the filler.

“Let’s get the Hell out of here,” he said, slamming the hood down.

Everyone quickly got into their places. Nervously at the wheel, I found first gear and eased out the clutch. The sounds from the motor were nearly deafening, but the old Ford seemed to search for, and find, an achy cruising speed. Barely making any power, she settled in around 30 mph. We limped the 40 or so miles back home.

By the time I crept into my folks’ house, leaving the tired Ford out in the side yard, it was nearing midnight. Even as I crawled between the sheets my frazzled brain struggled with “what to do.” The effects of the earlier beers having long since worn off, I drifted into a deep sleep. In the morning I’d go to school with a new adventure to share. That winter I learned about the inner workings of the Ford 239” overhead. . . but that is another tale.

1 comment:

  1. What a story! I had a friend who stranded us 60 miles from nowhere in western Oklahoma by running out of oil.