When I was young my mom would send me from our home in California to Montana to stay with my aunt and uncle. They lived in Great Falls for many years, but when I was fifteen they had decided on a change of lifestyle and had gone into the general store and service station business south of Darby, Montana. It was 1977 and I spent the summer with my aunt and uncle running Traveler's Village, a small general store, a service station, a restaurant, a campground, and a small repair garage in the Bitterroot Valley. The gas station was still called a service station because when a customer pulled up to the gas pumps we filled the gas, checked the oil, and we washed all the windows while the gas was filling. Most cars and gas tanks were still large through the 1970's and there was time to do all that while twenty to thirty gallons of gas was being dispensed.
That summer was fun and memorable. Being in the Bitterroot Valley right by the river and among the mountains I would spend any free time I could get riding my motorcycle on forest roads and swimming in the cool waters of the Bitterroot River. I also met a cute girl and tried to spend as much time with her as her dad would allow. My aunt and uncle both spent some time teaching me to drive on four wheels that summer. In Montana being fifteen meant getting your drivers license. I learned to drive with a clutch and stick shift from my uncle in his 1966 Ford Bronco Roadster, usually off road or on the forest roads. My aunt taught me to drive on the highway by putting me behind the wheel of a 1974 Ford Econoline with three on the tree and telling me, "Drive to Missoula." I had never driven a car on the road, but that was as good a time as any I suppose, we made it back in one piece.
When summer wound down I expected to have a pile of money, after all I had worked almost non-stop for three months at $2.50 an hour! I figured I would have at least a grand. Well, my uncle decided I needed to pay my room and board, so $500 came off the top of the paycheck. Then there was a very small dent in the front of the Bronco. I swear it was purely accidental and there was no horseplay involved. I was using the Bronco to pull out a tree stump in the campground below the general store; the rope snapped and the Bronco lunged forward into a large rock. That bent the bumper back just slightly, tapping the right front fender where it wraps back toward the front tire. I was able to straighten the bumper so it wasn't noticeable, but the dent remained and eventually my uncle did notice it. That cost me another $100. So how much did I get after pumping gas all summer, maintaining the campground, and keeping the highway clean for a mile in each direction? $500 and a ride back to California before I started high school.
Living in California and being in high school as a sophomore with a shiny new drivers license meant one thing- time to get a car! When I got home after school I began to scour the newspaper classifieds for used cars, cars in my budget of $500. Well, even in 1977 cars for $500 meant few options. Especially when I was living on the Monterey Peninsula. Monterey has always had the impact of wealth from nearby Pebble beach and Carmel. Having the Fort Ord Army base and the Naval Postgraduate School next door also meant plenty of military personnel with cash to blow on weekends. There were plenty of cars to choose from, but most were out of my budget.
Finally, one night a car caught my eye. It was old so I could work on it myself. It was unique, so I would stand out from the crowd. It was a one owner car, so I assumed it had been taken care of and the owner knew all about it. I called and spoke to the owner. He was a genuine travelling salesman. He sold shoes out of his back seat and trunk. In fact when I went to look at the car it was still half full of new shoes in the boxes, shoe catalogs, and leather samples. He explained to me that the travelling shoe business was no longer doing it for him. After a few decades of it, he was throwing in the towel to retire and selling the car he had purchased new in 1959. As mentioned before my aunt and uncle had taught me to drive in Fords. I developed an affinity to the Ford marque and had grown familiar with them thanks to their influence. So the first car I bought with my own money was a 1959 Ford Thunderbird two door coupe.
1959 was the second year of the larger "Square Bird". It sat very low, with the roof line low enough that I could lean over it and rest my arms on the roof well below my shoulders. It was big, low and long. It had a 300 HP 352 V8 with a four barrel carburetor. The interior had two bucket seats in the front separated by a center console that wrapped down from the dash all the way to the back seat. The dash had two deep recessed cowls, the passenger side featuring a huge grooved chrome glove box, the driver's side housing three round gauges with smooth chrome bezels. It had few frills- no power windows, no air conditioning, just an AM radio and a single speaker in the console.
The original enamel paint was aged but not terribly dull; the color was Hickory Tan. It had matched leather seats and vinyl interior. The windshield had a dogleg, miserably painful to get in and out of until you got used to it, it wrapped in above the doors and worked great for hitting your knees. Once I got into the car I was sold. I was almost sitting on the ground, at least that's what it felt like compared to my moms '74 Cougar. The engine and exhaust had a nice rumble. It was big and solid. I paid for it with $500 in cash and drove off in pure bliss. I went to show off and pick up a few friends so we could cruise around town. It was a good time.
The following summer Tim and Ron, two of my best friends from grade school, came out to visit. Their dad had moved their family to the southern end of Utah, known there as Dixie, to run a body shop. I had seen a few of his custom paint jobs when they lived on the Peninsula and I wanted him to put a paint job on my T-bird. We jumped in the T-bird and headed south and east, from the central coast to the central valley, south to Bakersfield, and up Tahachapi Pass toward Las Vegas. That's where the journey started to get interesting. It was late June and hot. The Mojave was like an oven. The temperature gauge was maxing out where it said HOT. Even though we were driving at night, going 85 MPH up Tehachapi Pass proved to be too much for that old 'bird. A loud Ka-Pow came from under the hood followed immediately by a completely blinding flush of steam and the familiar smell of hot rusty water. We had blown the bottom hose on the radiator. Somehow we sealed it partially with duct tape and poured what fluids we had with us into the reservoir atop the engine.
We drove back down the mountain the same way we had gone up to the nearest town, Tehachapi. There we bought a flexible radiator hose and put it on. We filled the radiator back up, this time adding real Prestone to the mix. We headed back up hill and just as we crested the top- KA-POW! The upper hose blew out. (Insert expletive here). We shut the car off to let it cool. We kept rolling down the hill and coasted down as far as we could. We did another patch job, this time with rags and an old hanger wrapped around the old hose. We had been smart enough to buy extra jugs of water so we poured them in. We eased up on the gas pedal and stopped every few miles to add water to the reservoir. It got us to the next gas station where we bought another flexible hose, installed it, added water and anti-freeze, and went on our way. We were sure that was the end of hoses bursting. It wasn't.
Even though we were driving at night, it was still over 90 that night. The old T-bird kept blowing hoses all the way to Barstow where we stalked up on radiator hoses, jugs of water and anti-freeze and a couple pairs of gloves. The rest of the trip we drove slower, and slowed way down when the temperature gauge indicated anything near hot. It took a couple more hoses to get to our destination in Utah.
I started working for my friends' dad in his body shop to help pay for my paint job. I worked there for over a month before he even looked at my car. I was able to work on it during off hours and between other jobs. Eventually it was ready for paint. Nothing fancy or custom, just the original color so I could restore the car. The paint was ordered from a local supplier. Enamel just like the original and it was supposed to be 1959 Thunderbird Hickory Tan. It wasn't. When the car was rolled out of the paint booth it was light pink. I was baffled and shocked. My friends immediately made fun of it and called proceeded to attach all kinds of names to it and me. I was really disappointed and heartbroken after all that time, effort and money. I was ready to go home.
I called my mom and told here I was coming home that night. I packed up my spare jeans and the t-shirts I brought, filled with gas and left. On the way home my car blew three more hoses. The second time I was stuck at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere so I slept on a picnic bench under the stars. When I woke up there was a rattlesnake under the table. I made some noise and the snake rattled before wiggling off into the desert. I asked someone that stopped to take some cash and send back a hose so I could get going again. An hour or so later another stranger stopped and gave me my hose. I installed it and drove on. It took another hose to make it home, I think the third one ruptured someplace around Caliente, California; for those that don't speak Spanish, caliente' means "hot". It was a long miserable trip home.
I've still got the Thunderbird. Though it's been taken apart, labeled, bagged, and in boxes since I got back from Utah, waiting for the next guy to fix it. Any takers?