This writing business gets my brain going at odd times. My mind is racing with a story from my long lost youth. Oh, yeah, I am up at 3AM anyway but that is for another reason. Before, I would go back to sleep right away. Now my brain has other ideas. And Hemingway did not have to contend with a typewriter that insists on changing his words as he typed!
So here I am at 3:30 am deep in the fuzzy backroads of the early 1960s. My first car, the ’50 Merc, is old hat and gone already. Hey! That was last year’s thing. An ominous portend of my life to be. My shiny, new-to-me, ’53 Ford, a sexy CONVERTIBLE no less, has my attention now. Well, to be honest, it is a faded, rusted, OLD Ford with a leaky semi-rotted cloth top. How could it be so rusted and rotted so soon? Iowa road salt, that’s how, and cars just did that back then.
Thank goodness for JC Whitney, my then lifeline to automotive possibilities. A quick order, wait two or three weeks, and, like magic, I have a quart of black goopy top dressing to make the top like new again. Nice idea but at least it does not leak, as much, and is blacker. A cheap fix.
Some previous owner has jazzed the car up with ’56 Ford Victoria chrome trim along the sides swooping up over the top of the front fenders. I thought it was cool (we didn’t use that word back then but it WAS cool). After some rust control (body filler), this led to an episode in a narrow dark, single car garage, with me, a bandana tied around my mouth, a trouble light in one hand, and a paint sprayer in the other. Once I recovered from the fumes, the paint job did not look too bad — if you didn’t get too close. Hey, it was my first time.
The swoopy (is that a word?) chrome trim, had screamed for a two-tone paint job. Why did I pick black and white? Why did I put black on the bottom and white down the middle? No clue but I do know that one day, driving along, the realization hit my brain like a lightning bolt — I had painted my sexy Ford convertible in the motif of a skunk! I tried but just could not get that image out of my mind. That must be the reason girls were not flagging me down wanting a ride! No, I did not think that – just a bit of writer-induced drama. But it is true I could not get the skunk idea out of my head. I scanned people along the road to see if they were pointing and laughing. That is true. Anyway, I gotta get moving here – the car ended up RED, soon enough as you will see later.
The next order of business was power. Like all teenage boys, and the old car guys they became, I needed, NEEDED, more power. Besides, the oil smoke smelled bad. I had no sources of information in those days. Little Iowa farm town, no role models, no slicked-back-hair guys with cigarette packs rolled up in their sleeves roaring around in “hopped” up cars. Another funny old word. However, an Olds OHV engine, 303.7 cubic inches of raw power,135 horses no less, donated by a willing old semi-retired 49 Olds 4 door beckoned. After spending some time on the shop floor ( I can’t work down there anymore!) for a cheap “overhaul” (remember “nuralized” pistons?), the engine ended up in the Ford with the attached HydraMatic tranny. Shoehorned in is a better word because convertibles havé big X shaped cross members in the frame to make up for the missing top. Boy that caused problems! Took awhile to find ALL the problems, turned out.
Surprisingly, cops were noise sensitive in Iowa at the time. Of course, I just HAD to include muﬄer bypasses while building the dual exhaust. A gas tank filler tube and cap welded into the pipes just behind each front wheel did the trick. Remove the caps, and let the noise begin.
As soon as I got it running, I was hit with a starting problem. 6 Volt just did not cut it for reliable starting. Best solution: convert the whole car to 12V but that took some bucks. My solution: install a 2nd 6V battery and rig up a nest of solenoids and dash switches so I could switch the batteries between series and parallel hook ups. 12V for the starter then switch back to parallel for battery charging. It worked and I had little problem remembering to run the switches as needed. I did get some smelly wires if I forgot. This part of the project is when I discovered the engine had to come out to replace the starter. Fortunately, a friendly starter repair guy advised me that the 6V starter would work just fine on 12V and it did. This and the starter removal situation would come back to bite me later, however.
That automatic tranny worked just fine and I left it alone for awhile. Probably quicker to 60 than with me shifting. BUT, it just was not cool. It had to go. It took a while because, as it turned out, manual trannies in Olds back then were rare. At least in the one junkyard I had to pick from. But I finally found almost all the Olds parts for the conversion to a 3 speed manual. At least the Ford had a clutch pedal already. Problem was, it was winter. I was in Iowa. They had lots of snow back then. I had no garage. I had no concrete pad. However, being young and dumb, I had a solution. Jacked up on a gravel driveway, tarps around the edges, and an electric heater under the car on an extension cord did the trick. It was a lot of fun to wiggle through the canvas, on the gravel, wet from dripping water, and work on a dead cold car in the dark with only a trouble light. Man, those things never stay shining in the right place. The thought of working that way just overwhelms my brain now. Anyway, I got the conversion done with one little problem. The gear shifter. My Ford had 3 on the tree but—and it was a big but. The Olds tranny was a “selector” type. One lever and the selector mechanism INSIDE the tranny rather than 2 levers and the selector in the shift column linkage as with most cars. You had to move the tranny lever in and out as well as back and forth and that just did not work with the 3 on the tree I had. Finding a shifter for that transmission was not easy. I was anxious to get the car going and young and dumb enough to be willing to shift the darn thing by bending over, reaching through a hole in the floor, and moving it by hand. Very handy. But, puddles could be an issue. Luckily I did not run over someone while shifting! Eventually, somehow, I found a floor shifter (even better) that would work.
Lots of work and eﬀort for 25HP!. Looking back, I would have done MUCH better with the flathead and some “hop up” goodies like 3-2s, headers, aluminum heads, etc. The wisdom of age.
During this project, I had started college about 90 miles from where the Ford was. I needed wheels and had bought a 48 Chevy coupe to tide me over. The Chevy was Not Cool back then. I very much wanted my sexy red Ford back. And quick.
Once the tranny shifter was in place and working, I parked the Chevy, collected some riders, and headed back to college on a cold snowy winter day. Having arrived in the correct city, I was in the process of dropping my riders oﬀ in a hilly part of town when I encountered: A. a hill: B. a ’54 Ford coming down the hill toward me: and C. a lady driving the ’54 with her front wheels turned to the right but locked, and sliding right toward me on the icy street. I had presence of mind enough to pull over to the curb and stop. I sat there staring at the sliding ‘54 with horror as I could see the crown of the road was directing her my way and it was becoming obvious she was frozen at the wheel and the brakes.
She hit me on the left front fender, hard enough to crunch the fender and wrench the entire front clip. I watched the hood buckle and the front of her car stop right next to me, antifreeze pouring out onto the snow. I could see the lady holding her head but at that moment all I felt was anger at having my pride and joy and so much work smashed. Besides, I could not get out my door.
Fortunately, I still had the 48 Chevy not-cool coupe. Then an interesting oﬀer popped up. A friend had a 53 Mercury 4 door that had been in a wreck and the engine/tranny poached for another car. However, the front clip was good. After some measurement, I concluded I could put the Merc front clip on the Ford. So I did. The center of the wheel wells were a tad forward of the center of the wheels but not very noticeable. So, I ended up with a Ferc, Mord, whatever you want to call it — a suitable odd ball! And it looked cool. I painted the entire car RED! After recovering from the fumes, no more skunk images to haunt me,
This should be the end of the story, but it is not. Unfortunately, at some point, I discovered that a Cadillac engine would interchange with the Olds – it would fit up to the transmission anyway. So it had to be. A Caddy engine was installed. How could I do otherwise? Who could pass up an extra 27.3 cubes? Not to mention the 160 HP rating.
So, in the end, over about 1 1/2 years, the Ford convert had 2 paint jobs, 2 engine swaps, 2 tranny swaps, and a front clip swap. My thing. Despite all the work, I lost interest in the Ford within a few months and went on to other cars. The next 60 years were pretty much like this foolishness.