My first car was a Ford truck, a 1939 two-tone green, flat-four, double-clutching, Ford pickup. The paint job was done with a brush, a kind of Kelly green with avocado accent. The rear fenders were bolted on with steel straps mainly to hold them together, and to the truck, because they rusted out and the sheet metal was split. No plastic on this truck. That picture above is how Betsy would have looked shortly after leaving the show-room floor. Notice there is only a windshield wiper on the driver’s side, and she’s black, and shiny, a more likely factory color.
Double-clutching, for those of you unfamiliar or who have never even driven a standard, involved stepping on the clutch to bring it out of gear to neutral, then stepping on the clutch again to drop it into the next gear. If you didn’t double-clutch you ground the gears, particularly in a down-shift situation. As you got better at driving the truck, you could kind of know the right spot, kind of feel the gears mesh and get the up-shift without the second clutching, but you had to be good. If you wanted it in “compound low” you lifted a lever with your thumb on the side of the stick shift and, double-clutching, moved the lever up and over to the left. The truck would then crawl like a tank. So in effect, the Ford was four on the floor.
The truck was a hand-me-down. My sister drove it first until she bought her 1955 Willy’s sedan. Yep, the Jeep company made a car. It was ugly, but then I thought my sister was ugly at the time too. It was called an “Aero-Sedan”. Willy’s is correctly pronounced “Will-is” and “Willy’s Overland Motors” was responsible for all the design and production of the WWII military vehicle. They trademarked the name “Jeep” but no one really knows how the military 1/4 ton “General Purpose” vehicle got shortened to the word “jeep.” It seems everyone just started calling it that.
The gas gauge didn’t work on the Ford. You used a stick that we kept on the floor behind the seat. You sent it into the gas tank to see how much gas you had, or you could drive it up High School Hill and if it stalled, you needed gas. Of course, you had to roll it backwards down the hill to get it started and head in the direction of a gas station. I only ran out of gas one time that I remember though.
My father bought the truck for what he called his “mountain truck,” something to sacrifice driving up to Coffeen Park, the trail-head for the wilderness area where we went backpacking and fishing. It had a camper shell of sorts on the back with a small cab-over that my father built. He paid $75 for the truck I think.
Helping him build that shell is not a particularly happy memory. It was my job to hold the folded end of the aluminum skin making up the roof. The drill he was using to put this on had a short or something. So every time I would hold the aluminum for him I would get a horrible shock, so I would let go. He’d yell at me, and I would hold on again until he started drilling. I would feel the current again, and let go. Took a while for him to agree that I was getting shocked from the damn thing, although to this day, I don’t think he believed me. He must have been grounded somehow, because he could hold it just fine.
The truck wasn’t anything you would drive any great distance out-of-town for sure. There was a free swimming pool in Buffalo that we would frequent in the summer. It was twice the size of our pool and, well, it didn’t cost the 35 cents we had to pay to swim for two hours. We would load up the truck and drive about two miles out on the interstate and park on the shoulder. Then we would thumb a ride into Buffalo, about 30 miles southeast. When we were done swimming, or more accurately, checking out the girls in swimsuits, we would thumb our way back to the truck, cross over the median and drive home. We never worried about hitch-hiking. I did it all the way through college. Dan Murphy and I hitch-hiked to West Texas State University one Easter break, from Las Vegas, NM to Canyon, TX. This vehicle breakdown worked every time except once, when the guy that picked us up insisted it made more sense to drive us the two miles back home, than the 30 miles down the road if we were having car trouble, which is what we always claimed. We’d say that the old girl was overheating and she’d be fine if we let her set and came back.
I tried once to sneak a whole pack of my friends into the drive-in movie hidden in the camper shell on the back. We got six people stuffed back there and then paid the admission for the two of us up front. Just as a side note, two up front was all you could get, so you can imagine the cramped quarters the six in the back were enduring. The lift up gate on the camper shell was fastened with a couple of slider locks on both corners. Those slider locks were in place as we pulled up to our speaker.
Every time we would get out of the truck to let the sweltering, claustrophobic group out of the camper shell, the manager seemed to be within view with his flashlight. I tried several times before the movie started and each time I was forced back in the cab by the manager and his light. The group in the back started pounding on the wall adjacent to the cab. The movie started, “Midnight Cowboy,” and the two of us in the front kind of forgot about the prisoners in the back.
I tried once more, in a guilty moment, to unlatch the locks from the camper shell, but the pesky manager was right there waiting for the extra fares he was certain would emerge. I walked to the bathrooms, like that is what I intended to do all along and went back and finished the movie. It was a hot and humid August night, with no breeze whatsoever.
As we were leaving the drive-in I started hearing bangs. I should add that there were no glass windows in this camper shell, just small peep holes on both sides, like you see in the gangster movies where they look out the door to see who it is and ask for the password. “Joe sent me.”
I’d have to say that was the maddest six people I have ever seen from that day since. When we finally let them out, a ways down the road from the drive-in exit so as not to be caught, they acted like they had just been released from a coffin. Kicking, screaming, and chasing me around. Worse part is we were trying to save them a whole 35 cents. That was a lot of money back then for a teenager without a job.
Needless to say, the next time we tried that, we left the locks open on the back of shell. They still caught them as they were climbing out of the back. I pretended I didn’t know they were there. Like that worked.
I drove” Old Betsy” for two years in high school until I graduated to my very own 1956 Chevy Wagon. It wasn’t one of those ’56 Chevy’s you see restored now with the big V8 power plants and the four on the floor. It was a red, white and “green,” straight six, with a column shift. It was partly green because an old lady came around the corner and ripped my left front fender clean off as I was pulling from the curb. Caught it just behind the headlight and ripped it clean off. Her car wasn’t even damaged. I picked up the green replacement at the local junk yard. The car was in mint condition until then, and I paid $150 for it right off “Locke’s Used Cars” lot. I paid more for the mini-bike I had with the three and half horsepower Briggs and Stratten.
I miss the Ford truck though. I’m not really sure what happened to her. I’m sure my father sold it after a time. Maybe he finally had it hauled to the junk yard. He spent a lot of time keeping that old truck running. He worked on the brakes constantly. Once, driving out of Coffeen Park, the brakes went out while we were coming down a pretty steep hill. Not only was this hill steep, but the road, if you could call it that, was two ruts littered with rocks that you should be crawling over and not “flying” over at 30 mph. On the left was a steep drop-off, hundreds of feet to the canyon floor below. It scared me pretty bad. I think it scared my Dad pretty bad too, but we made it down the hill and limped along until we found a hunting cabin. Someone just happened to be there and gave us something he thought might be brake fluid he found in a shed out back. It was a long, nerve-wracking trip down the mountain in low gear, but we survived. When I was driving the truck, I never had any problems with the brakes.
Anyway, I was long gone from home by the time Betsy left, but I’ve stuck with Ford trucks all my life.
That is until I bought the metallic blue 2007 Tundra Limited with the GPS, and the voice actuated controls, and the 10,000 pound towing capacity, and the big V8. I put my first dent in the brand new truck in September of 2008. I almost cried, but I swore at my wife, and threw my keys instead. Not cool for a grown man to cry about a dent in a $32,000 truck, but some of you might grant me immunity. Not really a dent, more like a crease in the side wall of the bed from the weight of the fifth-wheel trailer resting on it while I was trying to get it into a pull-through space at the storage yard that would have taken a vat of vaseline to get into.
Still, I pay over nine times the amount every month for the Tundra, than my father paid for that most reliable of transportation. She didn’t have a GPS, a radio even, the gas gauge didn’t work, no heater to speak of, the fenders were bolted on and the truck was hand-painted with a brush. Betsy would start up on the coldest of days, and refuse to blow her top on the hottest. Everyone knew she was my truck too.
At least for a time.
(Photo credit for the 50’s Willy Aero-Sedan taken at the 50th Anniversary Draggins car show, Prairieland Exhibition, Saskatoon, April 3, 2010 by trekphiler.)