Henry Ford had no idea what he was doing to the youth of America when he came out with the ‘flat head’ V-8 engine. It’s looks, sound and smells, let alone it’s power, caused adrenaline to flow, mixing into a dangerous combination with raging hormones. But unlike girls, we could, most of the time, control and understand the V-8.
In 1951, my hormones were pretty well dormant, but I had a lust for cars…any car would do. The smell of crankcase fumes and gasoline were perfume enough to turn me on! Before I was 16 I had three cars angle parked in front of the house, all requiring push starts. One of them I inherited from my father who passed away suddenly. It was a 40 Pontiac ‘Torpedo Eight’, four-door sedan, which wasn’t my idea of excitement, but it was a car and it ran.
A law student at the University of Washington changed my life by offering to trade me “a good running car” and $65 for the Pontiac. Off I went to the ‘U’ District to see. On a side street, in an underground garage, he slid open the doors and there it was. The teardrop taillights pierced my heart, and a rumble seat! The final arrow drove right through my pounding heart when I realized that she was a 1938 ragtop! He pushed her out into the autumn light so I could see all of her. The paint was mostly maroon but badly faded. The hood side panels had been leaded in for a custom look. Although I preferred cars, (and later, girls), with a stock, (natural), look, love blinded me. The top was original, badly tattered with many patches; there was just enough canvas left to keep off direct sunlight. Not much was left on the sides and the back window was a large ragged open space. All of the stainless trim had been pulled off and the holes filled carelessly with Bondo. Crawling underneath, my legal friend pointed out several hydraulic lines dangling down; it had ‘juice’ brakes!
“Go ahead, take her for a spin, I’ll wait here”, he said. I got in, turned on the ignition and pushed the starter button. She started instantly with an un-muffled roar; throttle light and responsive to my nervous foot. The clutch was abrupt but solid as I backed out and pointed her down the street. The short stubby hood with the torpedo at the end of it was very much different from the Pontiac.
Out of sight of the owner, I pulled out onto 45th street and pushed the throttle hard. At first, I thought clutch was slipping, (like the Pontiac), but then the tires began to scream, and yes, that was rubber smoke piling up back there! The car leaped forward as the tires hit rougher pavement. A fast shift to second brought another loud screech from the tires. I quickly braked, turned the corner and made my way back to the garage. My heart was pounding….. I couldn’t believe that I was really going to possess this wild beauty!
Well, our relationship was a stormy one, filled with moments of intense love and pride…. and periods of intense hatred. This ugly/beautiful machine brought me from adolescence to manhood faster than I wanted to go. She broke down a lot; shorting wires and plenty of broken axles and transmissions, but she was the fastest stock flathead V-8 I have ever encountered. I learned about policemen. Her evil looks caused them to continually pull me over, looking for real or imagined safety violations.
I learned you could drive in heavy rain or snow with no top, (it blew off one morning on the way to school), as long as you kept moving. I learned to squirt paints…. coats upon coats of yellow lacquer that quickly rubbed down to the dark gray primer I had applied, (that was very dumb), to spraying the whole thing over with sky blue enamel, all of this in the dusty driveway, of course.
I learned how to really swear by banging my knuckles while removing those lower bolts from the front u-joint cover.
I learned how to quickly de-mount, patch and re-mount tires along the road using two screwdrivers, a hammer and a bicycle pump.
I learned that leaded-in side panels look cool but weren’t cool for the engine, so I left them off.
I learned that I could never get my hands clean.
Well, that ’38 ragtop is long gone…. making the few that are left more valuable.
When she left my life, everything calmed down and it looked to me that girls could be a lot less trouble than a flat head Ford ragtop. I was so WRONG!