My first car or the most important stuff my dad taught me.
When I was fourteen years old my father gave me and my fifteen year old sister a car. It was a surprise no one expected it. He didn’t consult my mother on this one. It was a 1964 Ford Fairlane 500 sport coupe. It wasn’t pretty and it hardly ran. It had a bad engine, bad brakes, bad paint and bad interior. Before he even got into sight we heard him coming. The valves were knocking and the engine was backfiring. Black smoke trailed behind him as he pulled into the drive. He turned off the ignition, the car spouted a few more clunks and died. The driver door creaked on its hinges when he opened it to get out. He smiled sheepishly at my mother and said, “I bought the girls a car.” My mother wasn’t impressed with the car, but knew the capabilities of my father. He had golden hands, whatever he touched he could fix. She knew the car wouldn’t stay in that condition for long. She didn’t have to worry about her girls driving a car that wasn’t safe, her husband would fix it, and that is exactly what he did, with my help.
I don’t remember where the car came from, but it had been driven hard. The 1964 Ford Fairlane 500 was the first midsize sport coupe with a mono-frame body, a 271-horsepower 289 V8 engine with a dual carburetor. The prior Fairlane models were bigger and heavier requiring a bigger engine to produce the same results as the 289. The car was built to run and someone had run it into the ground. It had been abused. If it had been a horse it would have been put down, but machines are different from horses, they can be rebuilt.
My father and I spent a good part of the next two years rebuilding that car. I was his helper. I didn’t mind getting a little grease on my hands. My sister on the other hand, not wanting to mess up her fingernails, helped in her own way by keeping us supplied with fresh-baked cookies, ice tea and lemon-aid. The first thing my father did was pull the engine out of the car. He rigged a winch to a wooden beam in the roof of the garage and lifted the engine out. The beam strained under the weight but held. We pushed the car back and then lowered the engine to the ground. Dad handed me a wrench and we started loosening bolts and removing pieces. Dad laid all the pieces on the floor in an orderly fashion to be reassembled later. My first job was to clean all the pieces. The engine block was full of think black gook. I remember sitting on the floor digging out the gunk with a spoon, hopefully not one of my mother’s good spoons. After all the parts were cleaned, my father bored out the cylinders and fitted the pistons with new rings. He replaced worn valves, bought new gaskets, and reassembled the engine.
I mostly held a flashlight and handed him tools. As he was working we talked. He explained the working parts of the engine, the function of each, and the necessity to maintain and care for a car. We also had time to talk about school, work, life, hopes and dreams. Next we rebuilt the carburetor, I cleaned and dad reassembled. Then we got under the car and pulled out the transmission. We decided to replace the original transmission with a Hurst four on the floor. It was the top of the line in transmissions. We went on to do body work, and repaint it. Finally, it was time to drop the engine back in the car. The beam groaned under the load as we lifted the motor off the floor and slowly lowered it in place. We attached a new distributor to new spark plugs, hooked up the fuel lines, and attached all the other stuff. It was time to try it out. My father put the transmission in neutral, applied the safety brake, then handed me the keys and told me to crank it up. On the first attempt the engine didn’t start. My father made a small adjustment to the carburetor and said to try again. The second time it started. I was thrilled! It purred like a kitten after my dad adjusted the timing and fine tuned the collaborator.
We cleaned and repaired the interior by replacing the carpet and mending the upholstery. We modified the suspensions, jacking up the rear a bit. We installed new brakes, put on a set of Mag wheels and replaced the back tires with extra wides. It dawned on me that we were building a hot rod. This was a car that I could be proud of. A far cry from the clunker my father had driven home over a year ago. The final modification was a dual chrome exhaust system. As we laid on our backs under the jacked up rear, my dad attaching one side of the exhaust while I simultaneously attached the other, we tightened the last nuts. The car was finally finished.
Just before my sixteenth birthday my dad taught me how to drive the Fairlane at an old abandoned airport. I returned to that same airport several times to drag race in my Fairlane and even won a few races, but that is another story. What this story is all about is what my father taught me while we were rebuilding my first car. Yes, he taught me a lot about cars, engines, mechanics and tools, those skills have served me well over the years, but what was really important is he taught me that we are only limited by the way we perceive ourselves. We are not really limited by our sex, financial status, or background. We are only limited by disbelief in our heart. My father empowered me by teaching me that I could do anything I set my mind to do. He taught me to be confident when approaching a new challenge, to ask for help when I needed it, to always be open to learn something new, and to never say I can’t when there is still a minute possibility of success.
My sister and I have great memories of our first car, but I think the car was more special to me. That car was my baby. My father knew if I spent hours rebuilding the car, I would be careful driving it. I had put a lot of my own sweat and time into it. It was a part of who I was. I changed the oil, checked the fluids and tire pressure. I washed and waxed it. After all, I had seen first hand the result of not maintaining a car. The Fairlane was my pride and joy. My sister got another car shortly after she turned seventeen. When I graduated from high school my parents bought me a Chevrolet Camaro. However, my father kept the Fairlane for years. I think he would have liked to have had a hot rod when he was a boy, but he grew up in the 30’s, a time when some things just weren’t possible.
One day a young man stopped to ask my father if he would sell the Fairlane. My father said no, but the boy continued to come by from time to time asking if he would reconsider. The boy wouldn’t take no for an answer, he believed that there was still a minute possibility that he could buy the car. He believed he could talk my dad into selling him the Fairlane one day. And you know what? He was right. My father liked the boy’s attitude.