Most young males just can’t wait until they turn 16, and get their driver’s licence. I don’t know why I didn’t. Perhaps it was that I didn’t think that my father would relinquish the family car to me. My birthday is in late September, and had already passed when my Dad told me that he had found a car for me. This was October, 1960. Dad knew a lot of people, some of whom owed him a favor or two. A man he worked with had a 1952 Morris he was willing to give to me, well, actually to Dad.
A Morris is a small English car. The Morris Garage was the builder of the well-known MG cars. Because of the Second World War, there was still a shortage of North American built cars, and the first of the imports were arriving. I was told that this little car was not in running order, but Dad, the only person I knew, who knew less, mechanically, about cars than I did, airily declared, “Oh, we’ll have her running in no time.” The owner lived on a farm with several other vehicles available to him, and probably just hadn’t driven this car for a year, or maybe two. The battery would be dead and the gasoline jellied, but Dad was probably right.
We drove ten or twelve miles out concession roads, put a length of stout rope from bumper to bumper (remember those?), and towed it home. I steered the Morris, and applied brakes when necessary, to keep from over-running the tow car. The owner of a local garage was a bit of a snake-oil, wheeler-dealer. It seemed like we barely got the Morris home when he called to say that he had someone interested in it and offered me a trade. I told him it wasn’t running but was assured he could fix that. He would send a truck with a tow-bar to bring it back to the garage, and I should ride along to see what he was offering.
He was willing to give me a 1939 Pontiac touring car, in running condition. I think that was the first year that they changed the old, three-foot long, floor-shift for the shorter, easier three-on-the-tree column shift. An old farmer had bought it new and seldom drove it. A couple of years later he got a newer car, but because of the weight and traction, kept the ‘39 as a winter car. Back then they used almost no salt on the highways, and he seldom drove on them. The body was amazing, two tiny holes, the size of a fingertip.
I still didn’t have my licence and wanted to fix up the car for when I did. My sister had moved into a house directly across the street. They had a two-car garage they never used, so I wintered my car there, one space for the car and the rest for work area. With some friends, I filled the holes and some edges, and then thought about painting it. It came black; most of them did. A guy in the same grade, in the next town, had one that he had painted a dark blue. I decided on Coca-Cola red. A cousin had got into construction and had spray-painting equipment. We sanded, cleaned and masked it, and he sprayed it red! I sent away for some fake bullet-hole decals from a comic book, and we put them on the passenger-side windows.
As spring progressed, I first got my learner’s licence, an adventure for another blog, and felt I should have the car ready to go when I passed my driver’s exam. I borrowed a trickle charger, and had the battery up to full strength, but nobody had told me about gasoline jelling when it sits over a winter. I tried to start it, and tried to start it….and tried to start it, and recharged the battery. I gave up temporarily, thinking I needed to enlist some auto-mechanic assistance.
A couple of days later, Mr. Wheeler-Dealer called me again. He’s got somebody who’s interested in the Pontiac, and would like to trade me a fully working 1956 Austin A-30. I told him that I’d painted it red, and couldn’t get it started. Not a problem, he’d get it started. He towed it to the garage, we signed some papers, and I owned the Austin, which was a four-year newer, upscale cousin to the Morris.
I drove it all day, but when it started to get dark, I couldn’t find the light switch. Three of us in the car and we couldn’t find it. I quickly drove back to the garage and explained the problem. He reached into the car and turned the lights on for me. The ignition key went into the center of the dash, just above the ashtray. Around the lock was a decorative little chrome ring. All you had to do was give it a quarter turn, which I might have done, had it been marked “lights”.
It was a wonderful little car which I put a lot of miles and a lot of MPHs on. It had a hydraulic clutch which leaked a drop of (brake) fluid each time a shift was made. Under the hood, there were two master cylinders, one for brakes, one for the clutch. Despite disassembling it twice, we could not locate the leak. I learned to drive it with a couple of paper towels under the clutch pedal and a can of hydraulic fluid in the glove compartment. The air filter was an empty Johnson’s floor-wax can filled with fine steel wool, dipped in oil.
These were rough-and-ready cars, with none of the smooth sophistication of modern automobiles. They were fun to own and drive though. If something went wrong, there were cheap and easy ways to fix them that didn’t involve a recalcitrant computer.
Perhaps ten years later, in our late twenties, my brother and I were reminiscing about the “good old days”. I wondered out loud what might have happened if I had managed to get the big Pontiac up and running and never traded for the Austin. There was a strange look on his face. What!?? He went to a trade school, although he didn’t take auto-mechanics. During the winter, he thought he’d do me a favor and clean my carburetor. He took it apart, soaked and brushed it and reassembled it….and had a part left over. You saw that joke coming, didn’t you?
He took it apart again and put it back together, and found the home for the lost part….but had two different ones left over. Are you laughing yet?….and he threw them away! Didn’t see that one coming, did you? He pumped gas on the weekends for Snake-Oil Guy. After wasting hours of his labor and causing him to have to obtain and install a different carb, he never told him why it happened.