It’s well into dusk, I am exhausted from Disneyland, and I’m in the tightest parking lot known to man.
The papers are signed, the deal is done, and I am now sitting behind the well-worn, sun-cracked wheel of my new-to-me 55-year-old Ford F100. Keys in hand I go for the ignition, right side of the wheel like every other car I’ve owned and…nothing. No ignition switch, no hole…nothing. I look up at the previous owner and he laughs, tells me it’s on the left side. I put the key in, give it a twist and I hear the starter whirl to life. It sounds like rocks in a blender but the motor starts to catch, and then dies… At this point the buyers remorse and the “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” flashes through my head, but the truck’s mine and I love it and I am not one to back down. Quick conversation with the seller who tells me it’s always a bit rough to start. Pump the gas pedal a few times (remember, the pedal falls off its mount), give the key another twist and the truck coughs to life.
It’s dark at this point, so I pull the light switch out towards me and the headlights turn on. Well, at least I think they do. It’s either that, or there is a small child sitting on the front bumper holding two candles, but there really was too little light to even to tell that for sure. I start to cut the wheel to back out of the spot and suddenly realize that this truck doesn’t have power steering. Unlike the other things on this truck that just don’t work, it never had any to begin with, and it’s at this point I learn why old truck drivers look a lot like Popeye. The reality of just how large this truck is, and just how small the parking lot is becomes readily apparent now. I have never been particularly good at math but even I know that a 19’ft truck with no power steering isn’t going to have an easy time backing out in 15 feet of space. Cue the yakety sax and the million point turn. Now, If I haven’t painted a good enough picture of this parking lot yet, it was three very long rows of cars, with the middle row being two cars parked nose to nose. This left two lanes for traffic which all terminated at one gate fed by one lane, a lane which I was now blocking while performing my million point turn and the dance of a gazillion gear shifts in the original-to-the-truck transmission. It imagine it was quite something to watch looking back, I suspect we will see all the kids something similar at the local clubs any day now.
I am not exaggerating the million point turn, it really did take me about 10 minutes to get the truck out of that spot. During that time I developed my own group of onlookers sitting in their cars because I was completely blocking the only ingress/egress point out of their apartment complex. I like to think they were there to watch man triumph over machine. My girlfriend has a slightly different perspective. She was waiting for me to pull up behind her at the gate of the complex and she got a chance to speak to one of the fine folks cheering on my mechanical triumph. I believe this his exact words were “what the hell is this shit!?” After being told I was trying to impose my will on a 55 year old truck and failing, he pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and proceed to watch and be entertained as he and my girlfriend sat there making fun of my follies.
I’d like to say that getting out of that parking spot was the hardest part of getting home, but that’s not how this story goes. The previous owner told me during the test drive that he used to take the truck out all the time, drive it on the highway and just cruise. After backing it out of that parking spot, and realizing how terrible the headlights are, I decided he was nuts. My girlfriend suggested we take Beach Blvd instead, sounded like a solid plan, except for one thing, the truck is slow. I am not talking it’s an old truck slow, I am talking I could barely do 30 mph and Beach Blvd is 4 lanes wide and a 50mph average speed.
There I am, candles for headlights, driving on a major thoroughfare, and we’re going so slow my girlfriend lost count how many people flipped her off. I lost count how many scooters passed me, mainly because at that point I was too busy fighting with the gear box. This particular F100 came with the heavy duty T98 4-speed transmission. 1st gear is an ultra-low 6.4, 2nd was 3.09, and 3rd and 4th were much more normal ratios. This means that 1st gear was completely useless as I got about 8 feet before I had to shift. 2nd got you another 30 feet or so, and then I would switch to third. 3rd gear and I had one hell of a disagreement because the syncros were completely gone and I could only catch it 1 out of every 20 shifts, and that’s without a working tach, driving only on sound. As a result, I lived in fear of every traffic light, stop sign, or anything which forced me to hit the brakes. It’s not that I can’t drive stick, I daily drive stick in the DC area. I am very used to heavy traffic. But this particular gearbox took finesse, timing, swearing, and grinding to get it to function properly. Once I developed the technique of start in 2nd, rev as high as I could, and jump to 4th, it was much smoother, or so I thought. Since I had no working speedo or tach (or really any dash functionality at all), I could only guess how fast we were going. I am told we reached a blistering top speed of 15mph, though I think my girlfriend is exaggerating a little bit.
Once we finally made it back to her parents place 10 miles, and 50 minutes later, the magic was starting to wear a little thin for my girlfriend. After all, she was driving in front of me in the Corolla (already a bad choice) counting both the lack of speed on her functioning dash and the number of pissed off drivers with her working headlights. Meanwhile I sat blissfully unaware in my un-seatbelted bench seat fighting the ever cursed 3rd gear. To make matters worse, I managed to stall out in front of her parents driveway and took fifteen minutes to coax the truck back to life and up the driveway. It was 11:45pm on my first day of ownership and I went to bed with a grin on my face. The people that I woke up with the poorly muffled exhaust did not.
While it might seem that I had made and terrible choice, there was one positive event that happened while I was driving it back. Parked at a light, trying to figure out why 3rd gear hated me, two young guys pulled up next to me in silver Mustang. They rolled down their windows and proceed to machine gun questions about the truck. They loved it, thought it was fantastic and were glad to see it still on the road. The love I received from fellow car buffs, coupled by the love I had for the truck, made it all worthwhile.
The next morning we regaled my girlfriends parents with the story of the pickup and her stepfather shared stories of his trucks of old. He laughed at me when I told how I stalled it out and flooded just feet from home, told me I should have used the choke. Choke? Choke!? No one told me there was choke! After a quick trip to the driveway he showed me where it was, pulled it and the truck fired right up. No coughing, no stumbling, it just roared to life. He smiled knowing he had gotten one up on me, and at the time I had to concede he indeed had. What neither of us realized is that 5 months later I would discover the choke he pulled wasn’t even hooked up correctly. It did nothing. The truck just was out to spite me it would seem.
In the light of day, I finally got to spend some quality time with the truck. It was in pretty good shape, it needed a lot of work, a lot of love, but at least it was solid and all there. As it sat there slowly dripping oil all over the driveway (old trucks don’t leak, they just mark territory) I smiled.
But now it was time to arrange shipping to get over 3000 miles home.
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