Thomas J. Beck
Photo Credit: Norm_A
A Love Lost
First Car; Old ’39 Ford
My first car was fully loaded until the driver’s side door fell off into the road!!
Yes, it really broke off and fell in the road. It was my first car, a 1939 two-door Ford sedan. It was the Standard model, the Deluxe had two taillights.
Back to my old ’39; I grew up just outside of Detroit and our neighbor two houses down the street had an old ’39 stolen from his driveway, from in front of his garage while he was working in the garage. His wife was doing dishes in their kitchen and they both heard the car start up and each thought the other was going to the store or some place. The car didn’t get recovered for over a month as a bank robber was using it. This was in 1952 and the cops never suspected a beat-up 13 year old Ford to be a getaway car, so the robber got away from several bank jobs without being stopped. Eventually he got caught in a shoot-out in one of the banks. So alas, the ’39 Ford didn’t do him any good that time. But when it was returned to my neighbor the brakes, transmission and lights were in need of fixing. The bank robber had not been kind to old ’39.
When the old ’39 got towed home and placed in his driveway, our neighbor, Mr. Thomson, walked over to where I was helping my friend Bobby work on his ’46 Ford. He then asked whose car we were working on, Bobby proudly stated that it was his car. Then the neighbor told me to give him $1.00, which I promptly did, because Mr. Thomson was one of the good guys. He handed me the ’39 title and said to get my car out of his driveway. I was 15 ½ and wasn’t a legal driver yet, but that didn’t stop me. I think the only reason my father let me keep old ’39 was that he never thought I would get it on the road. The day I hit 16 I got my driving permit, and I had the car in running order. Well at least it could go at a fast walk.
A couple of months later, my friend Gary who didn’t have wheels, lined up a double blind date for us; now this was in February, in Michigan, so it was cold. But not to fear, we had two blankets so we and our dates would be warm at the drive-in. Gary had directions to the house of one of the girls, it was out of town 15 or 20 miles, but not too far for a hot date. Now this ’39 Ford was the first year to have hydraulic brakes, the good news; but it didn’t have sealed beam headlights, the bad news. I always said that I had to light a match to look to see if the headlights were on. Here we are tooling down this two lane country road in the dark at about 45 mph. Unknown to us, someone had removed “road work” signs and those little kerosene pots that they put around construction sites years before the modern flashing lights now in use.
So I drove right off the end of the pavement and dropped about a foot into the gravel sub layer that was waiting new cement. What a drop! I’m sure I was over six feet tall before this happened. The driver’s side door landed in the gravel. This appeared to be the only damage, other than our heads being closer to our shoulders, so we loaded the door into the trunk and tied it down with some wire that was always carried by old Ford owners.
We got to the girl’s house and all was going well until we got them outside and tried to get them into a one-door Ford. Well after much hard talking we got the girls to honor their date. But they got in the backseat with both blankets and Gary and I had to rough it out, in the front with no blankets or girls to keep us warm. When we got to the drive-in the girls spent the whole night inside the warm concession stand. Some date!
The next day I went to the friendly neighborhood welder and had the door welded back in place. From then on I had the only “one door Ford” in Michigan. For some reason, that Gary and I couldn’t understand, those girls wouldn’t date us again.
Old ‘39 had a hand gas lever as well as a foot pedal; a manual choke; 4 on the floor gears; and a hinged windshield that you could open to get wind in the face in hot weather. It had three holes in the floor for the gas, clutch and brake pedals. The problem was that in the winter, slush would fly up thru these holes and a few times it froze my shoe to the gas pedal. It made life interesting for a panic stop in the snow! One time I left my shoe frozen to the gas pedal and I applied the brake with only my sock on.
Even after I had sold my old ’39 it came back to haunt me. I had gone thru several transmissions from drag racing on Woodward Ave. But I found that any year’s Ford transmission would bolt right into my ’39. So I never repaired a transmission, just went to the junkyard and got another one out of a wreck. I got real skilled at transmission swapping. I was happy with old ’39 and with the last transmission out of a ’35, I could beat a brand new Ford in a drag with no trouble. Was that ever ego-deflating to the rich kids whose parents had bought them a new Ford! But this ’35 transmission had two drawbacks; first it was geared so low that my top speed was only 40mph and also the shifter was worn so bad that if you were any less than exact in shifting into 2nd it would lockup in 2nd and reverse at the same time. This caused the rear wheels to lock in place and you came to a screeching, hopping stop! The only way to unlock it was to pop the top of the transmission off and with your heal; kick the jammed shifter out of 2nd. But by keeping the correct wrench under the seat, I could be back to drag racing in seconds.
I found out that you should replace the transmission top before continuing the drag, as the first time I didn’t do it; I won the rematch and then looked over to my passenger expecting to get praise for winning, but instead he started saying several unkind things about me and my family. He was covered head to foot in transmission oil. Not only did I lose a buddy but I had to buy more transmission oil.
My first love, old ’39, was not much to look at and my father saw that it was always in need of repair and an ugly thing in front of his house, so he started working on me to get a better looking, more respectful car. His idea for me was a 1948 Plymouth with a wimpy straight 6 that couldn’t outdrag a slug. But at the third or fourth used car lot which he took me to, I saw a beautiful blue/gray 1948 Ford coupe with a big V8; it was love at first sight! But I told my dad that its cost was $150.00 more than I had, so I would need to keep old ’39 for a while longer. Well my dad really surprised me; he was so desperate to get old ’39 out of his yard that he offered to loan me the $150.00. This was not the dad I knew, I’m not saying that he was tight but he watched every penny raising five kids on his paycheck. Well, I took his loan as I was working after school and weekends at the evergreen nursery and made more money than I had time to spend. He drew up loan papers with payment blocks to be checked off with each payment. The loan interest was set at the same rate the bank would have paid him, so it was a win-win loan.
The next thing I had to do was sell old ’39. I had worked with a West Virginia teenager at a greenhouse and one afternoon he wanted to buy old ’39. He had cash so we made a deal and I warned him about the transmission.
That night, after a late date, I was in the dark, at my folks backdoor trying to get the key into the lock when five or six guys jumped out of the bushes and grabbed me. Now they may have identified themselves as cops but when you are as frightened as I was, all you want to do is get away! One of them behind me used a night stick on the top of my head. He was good at it as it didn’t knock me out but just turned my legs to water and took all the “flight or fight” out of me. Meanwhile this woke my dad up and he came running out the door into their arms, he was also soon nightsticked. When they got us to jail I asked not to be placed in the same cell as my dad as I didn’t want to be within reach when he regained all his wits.
They told me that I was going to be charged with a whole string of crimes including running a police car into a ditch and injuring two cops, when they tried to stop a drag race. I had signed old ’39’s title over to this WV guy and mailed it to the DMV in the state capital, so he would get a new title in his name. Late the next day the cops got the word that I had really sold old ’39. The Cops released us that next afternoon telling me not to ever do this again. So what should I not do? Did we damage their night stick?
My father never did forget the lump on his bald head or that I had caused him to be in jail for the only time in his life. I never saw that WV guy or old ’39 again but heard he fled back to his West Virginia home territory. I’m now retired and have moved to the beautiful hills of West Virginia. These days I spend time looking over all the old cars in these WV hills, if I spot old ’39 I would need to take her back and restore her to her prime drag configuration! A love lost is better than no love at all.