I had breakfast with my best friend of all time a while ago; I’ve known him longer than I’ve known my wife. And we had fun swapping stories.
It occurred to me that while they won’t fill a book, these are things from the nineteen-fifties, -sixties, and -seventies that we’ll never see nor hear of again; and they really should be written down and shared.
They won’t be in any order, and I’ll add to this as I think of things. Just like any old-guy yarning.
Okay, away we go: Get a cup of coffee and pull up a chair at the table.
When I was an Apprentice Mechanic, the “Service Station” that I worked at had a clientele ranging from the most disadvantaged to the well-to-do doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. We also made a good business of caring for antique cars. Our place was at the bottom of a big hill, a hill where all the “nicer” houses in town were built. The hospital was also up there, one block up, and two blocks over.
Doc Turner had two Cadillacs: his was a ’62, Cadillac Black of course, and a true Sedan de Ville – a two-door sedan, with those big, heavy doors. Hers was a ’66 Sedan de Ville, a blue 4-door with a white roof. I knew where he lived, so one afternoon he asked us to run his car back up to his place, and please park it in the garage; leave the keys on the back counter, the back door’s open. No problem, Doc. We’ll have her back in a couple hours.
Driving that car was like piloting the USS Saratoga – ye gods, it was HUGE. And of course any little push on the gas would bring that giant V8 to life, and the car would shoot forward. Doc even had a piece of foam glued to the front of the gas pedal to help in controlling it. Even so, the hills tamed it to a point where it was a pussycat crossing the flat streets. I got up to his place, and as I turned into the driveway, I saw that the garage was TINY. And it had her Cadillac in the left side of it!
Oh lordy, now what…? I did some careful looking, as that big car rumbled at idle. Would… it… fit?
I looked back and forth for a minute, the car idling. Well, it just might…
I carefully eased forward. There was about an inch and a half clearance between the front right fender and the edge of the garage door, and about the same amount to her car, on my side.
My heart was in my mouth. I for SURE didn’t want to scrape up Doc’s beautiful black paint, and marking up her baby blue Caddy would pretty much guarantee that my name would be Mud for years to come.
I started to enter the garage, listening for sounds which would ensure my doom. A tortoise would have easily won a race with me, I was going so slowly.
The front fenders began to penetrate into the shadowy interior of the garage. Then what seemed like ten minutes later, the base of the windshield entered the shadows. All the while, there was just this little tiny bit of clearance, and so far I hadn’t hit, bumped, or scraped anything.
What seemed like another dozen minutes passed, and then somehow I had the car most of the way into the garage. I switched on the headlights to see exactly where the wall was, and began to ease into position.
It then occurred to me that I had no way to get out of the car.
I started to think about taking off my shoes and socks and how I’d climb out the window, then make my way backward, one foot on each car…
I then looked to my right, and noticed the side door of the garage was starting to line up with the passenger’s door. And that side door was open. …What’s more, it looked like if I parked the car just… right… the car door would line up with the outside door, and swing outward, into it.
Now I started to look back and forth between the front wall of the garage and the passenger door, judging the swing of it against where the car was starting to get close to the back wall of the garage.
I chose a spot to stop, set the parking brake, and switched off the engine. My heart slowed, and I started to breathe easier. The door looked like it lined up pretty good, and I figured I could move the car a little bit if my guess was off too far. I pulled the keys and slid across the seat to the passenger’s door. Moment-of-truth time. I carefully opened the passenger’s door, and it swung outward. Outward toward the side of the garage door’s frame. NO! I grabbed it just in time, stopping it just before it would have banged into the garage’s side-entry door framing.
I stepped out of the car, and had just enough space between the car and the wall to stand up, reach the passenger’s door, and close it, and then squeeze past the car to step out the door. Doc was a really tall, lanky kind of guy, what we used to call ‘a beanpole’. He had to be sixty or seventy, and was in marvelous shape. I figured that he could get back into the car pretty easily, with me parking it this way. But dang, I had to tell the boss about this before anything blew up on me.
I found the back door standing open, just as Doc had said; so I dropped the keys on the counter where they couldn’t be seen from outside, and began the hike back to the station. All the way back, I had plenty of time to think about how I’d parked that car, and lots of time to worry about the consequences.
As soon as I got back, I found the boss and told him I’d put the car into the garage, next to hers. His reaction wasn’t what I’d expected: “Good. You didn’t scratch either of them, did you?”
“No-no-no! But holey cow, it was a real sweat to get that car into the garage!” At that point, he began to chuckle. “Good for you. I figured it was time you got yourself a little character built… That garage was made for two ’39 Fords to fit side by side, and it’s some feat of driving that neither of those cars has not a single scratch on them after all these years. Can you imagine doing that every day? But I’d bet that’s how Doc Turner stays so fit! He has to do all those gymnastics every time he wants to get in and out of his car. So, did you see how it works for HER car?” I admitted that I was so scared that I’d done something wrong, that I forgot to look. “Well, with hers, it’s kind of the same thing. Her doors are a foot and a half shorter, so she just parks so that the door swings out against the side of the garage, and then she just steps right outside from the car. I don’t know what they would ever do if they forgot and locked either of those garage doors.”
One afternoon, we’d finished up a restore-to-drivability service on a little Ford.
A 1955 Thunderbird: 22,000 miles. Original, unrestored, in that salmon pink color. (Yeah I know, but remember, it was the 50’s.) It really didn’t look like anything special, just another car that was twenty-some years old and that just sat most of the time. It was the early part of summer, and the owner was going to be driving it periodically again. And the car was perfect, exactly the way it came out of the Ford factory, every part original (well, except for replaceable stuff like the fan belt, wiper blades, and spark plugs).
Anyway, it was done, we didn’t want it just sitting there in the lot, and so it needed to be delivered. I spoke up first, and the boss relented.
“BUT!!” He spoke with great sternness, getting right in my face: “I will NOT give you the keys unless you promise one thing.”
Sure, name it.
“Every intersection, and I MEAN EVERY INTERSECTION, you STOP COMPLETELY and LOOK BOTH WAYS!!”
Ooookayyyy… and this is … why?
“Almost every one of these cars that’s been in a wreck, has been T-boned. It’s because you can’t see out of them, to see if anything’s coming to the side! NOW, PROMISE ME!!”
Yes, sir, I promise.
“WHAT are you promising? Tell me!”
That at EVERY intersection, I will stop and look both ways.
“NO! You will STOP COMPLETELY and look both ways! Say it!”
I will stop completely and look both ways.
“Do you PROMISE!?!”
Yes, I promise.
“All right then. Here’s the key.”
I went over to the little T-Bird and threw in a towel to sit on, then sat and carefully swung in, so as to not touch the door or the frame with my shoes. We were careful around all antiques in this manner; that’s one of the reasons we had a good business in them. Meanwhile, we’d done a good job here: she fired right up and that little V8 settled into a smooth idle.
I closed the door and sat up into driving position. Holey cow, NOW I saw what the boss meant. Although my head didn’t hit the inside of the roof, the front edge of it came to well below my eyes. I had to hunker down to see out the front. Carefully I eased the gear selector into Drive, looked around to clear the lot, and made for the side exit of the station. I stopped at the edge of the curb and looked both ways. Clear.
I eased onto the gas and began to ease my way out. I heard the boss yell, “Good job. That’s the way to do it. Now do them all like that!”
It was kind of cool, driving a little car like that, even though the wheel was huge in comparison with today’s cars that have power steering. This did not, and even so, it communicated the road surface nicely back through the wheel.
I made it to the top of the hill. Stopping completely, I checked both ways as I signalled for a right turn. Clear. I eased onto the gas and rolled forward.
Exactly one block.
Then I stopped again, and looked both ways. Clear. Satisfied, I rolled forward. This car was fun to drive; I bet it’d be a hoot on a country road.
But I remembered my solemn promise, and stopped completely at the next intersection, which again was exactly one block. And I looked both ways.
Onward I rolled, stopping at each and every intersection, remembering my promise.
Twelve blocks later, this was starting to get really tedious.
But I’d made a promise, and dammit, I was going to keep it.
I stopped at the next intersection, and looked both ways. Again.
Clear. Or so I thought.
I was just about to take my foot off the brake, when something caught my eye from the left: it was a car… and not just any car; it was a great big old Buick, the kind made with about ten tons of iron, coming downhill REALLY fast.
The guy hadn’t seen me, because the T-bird was so low.
He zoomed through the intersection at what had to be a good 35 MPH in town (where are the cops when you need them…), with the speed boost from coming downhill for so long.
Then I realised, that if I’d started through the intersection, I would have been T-boned. And probably hurt really badly. Not to mention that it would have been my fault for really screwing up a customer’s antique.
NOW I was scared. I had about ten blocks to go.
There is no way to express the relief I felt when I finally pulled into the Customer’s garage, put the T-bird in Park, set the brake, and switched off the engine. I pulled the door down behind it, went to the house and hung the key in the secret spot by the back door; all as instructed.
Towel in hand, I began the walk back to the station. The shakes had finally quit by the time I walked in the garage; I found the boss and told him he was absolutely right. And why. (And I also knew that if any of our customers were around to witness this, that the story would get back to him sooner or later.)
To his credit, all he did was nod sagely.
We had an important Customer who needed his ’63 Lincoln Continental 4-door (yes, the suicide doors) started. His wife was going to be driving it, and it wouldn’t turn over.
Three of us got into the service truck: the boss, the shop manager, and me. We had everything we needed to get it going, as that car tended to sit for long periods of time between being run.
We arrived at the house, a smaller, unassuming place, but with a big single garage. Inside slumbered the Lincoln.
The boss went to the door and got all the keys; I was standing by with a hand oiler (that’s the proper name for the trigger-pull oil can you hold in your hand), and gave both the lock and the handle a shot, holding a rag underneath to catch any drips.
The door screeched open, and I went to work on the track and rollers. Up and down twice, and it was silent.
Now the guys came in to get the car started. The boss opened the door, pulled on the headlights… and nothing. So the battery is indeed dead; so that’s where we start. He pulled on the latch to open the hood.
It’s important to note here that on those years of Lincolns, the hood opened from the back. That meant we all had to be careful about not bashing it on the ceiling as it opened, and because it couldn’t be opened all the way, that inhibited access to the battery. And the jump cables had to go across the fender. I brought in a cloth to cover the fender, then went back outside.
I stood there outside, biding my time as the guys got the battery hooked up to the Start-A-Car and made ready. A couple shots of gas down the carburetor throat, plus a few more to get gas into the fuel bowl, and they were ready to try it.
The shop manager stepped back, took the long cord from the Start-A-Car that ended in a control button on the end, and put his thumb on it; the Start-A-Car clacked loudly as the relay snapped over and fed about 80 amps to the battery. He gave the boss the thumbs-up.
The boss turned the key, and that big Lincoln engine started to turn over, slowly at first, then picking up speed as oil got to the engine bearings… CHOW—-WOW—-WOW—-WOW—-WOW–WOW–WOW–WOW-WOW-WOWOWOWOWOWOWOW….
Nothing. The boss let off the key so the starter could cool for a minute. The shop manager let off the control button and the relay in the Start-A-Car snapped back with a loud THUMP.
Outside, I could see them both looking at their watches, waiting for about 45 seconds to go by. Then the clack and the thumbs-up again.
Again, the same drama with the starter growling; this time the shop manager gave a couple of shots of gas straight down the carb, as the top of the air cleaner had been left off for just this reason.
That big engine almost caught; it tried to clear its throat, but there wasn’t gas coming to the carb from the fuel pump yet. That gas tank was a long ways away.
A couple more shots of gas down the carb, and the engine caught and ran on its own, but it was really rough; it was going TUHHHHH–TUH-TUH-TUH—TUH-TUH-TUH-TUH….and then it began to hit on more and more cylinders. Finally it settled into a roar, and the boss let off the gas to let it slow down to the top step on the choke; to high idle. Meanwhile, I’m outside and I’ve moved upwind, because the Lincoln is smoking heavily. I saw the shop manager disconnect the Start-A-Car and begin to pack it up. He put the air cleaner cover back on, and spun the wingnut home to put it all back in place. Leaving the fender cloth in place, he came out of the garage with the Start-A-Car, and just as I was helping him put it back into the service truck, we saw…
The backup lights on the Lincoln came on.
The shop manager exclaimed, “What the hell…?”
The hood was still up.
We jumped out of the way as there came a tremendous CRASH, as the Lincoln’s hood caught on the garage door. That monster motor, even though it was still a bit sick, had plenty of guts to move that big car plenty fast from a standing stop.
The boss stopped, then drove forward into the garage enough to let us get the hood down somewhat. It was plain to see, even in the dim light of the garage, that things REALLY weren’t right with the front end of that Lincoln.
The boss backed the Lincoln out into the sunlight, and we could see that the whole front end of the car was about half ripped off. It was at about this time that the owner’s wife came out of the house, having heard the noise. Both the shop manager and I quietly stepped to the far side of the service truck; we knew what was coming, and this gal had a real temper. And we’d just screwed up her all-original Lincoln.
After the thunderstorm subsided, it was decided that the shop manager would drop me off at our service station so I could go back to work, then he’d meet the boss down at the local body shop and give him a ride back.
The story has yet another twist: the boss took his wife’s car over to where the Lincoln lived so the gal could have a quality ride for the weeks it would take to get the Lincoln fixed. Now, the boss’ wife was known for a less-than-sunny disposition, and we all knew she gave him hell every night for having to drive one of our station cars around for the duration of the repairs to the Lincoln. Our station cars were clean and everything worked okay, but they all were just on the edge of being ‘beaters’.
I never saw the Lincoln again, although I did have occasion to see the body shop manager from time to time. I learned that the damage to the Lincoln was something in the nature of $1,600; which would be probably about $12,000 today. But consider: that was at a 30% discount, because we did a lot of business with him. So the real nature of the damage would be about $15,000 today.
Here’s a couple from when I was a kid. My folks loved going camping, and Dad saved up the money to buy a 12′ Aloha travel trailer; and we went so many places with it. My older brother quit going with us at some point; his loss…
The sleeping arrangements consisted of the pull-out couch across the back of the trailer, a hammock above it, and the de-luxe fold-down dinette in the front. I always thought that was the best spot.
We had a German Shorthair Pointer; her name was Maisie, and she was a good and quiet companion. One Sunday morning, my Dad was in the process of getting up: he’d swing his legs over the edge of the bed, then take whatever time it took to fully wake up. This particular morning, Maisie was anxious to go out, and from the front of the trailer, I could hear her anxious pacing – her toenails clicking back and forth – while she waited for Dad to get up and take her out.
Suddenly, my Dad lets out with a groaning expletive, let me just say it wasn’t “Jiminy Crickets”. This was the expletive he deserved for really bad situations. Mom instantly came awake and said with alarm in her voice, “What’s wrong?”
“The… dog… farted…!! Ohhhh…” Another long groan. “Oh, this one’s WORSE!!”
Mom and I instantly dissolved into giggles, and they got far worse when Dad said, “Dammit, it’s NOT funny!!” Both of us had to pull the covers over our heads, because although my Dad would never, ever, have struck either of us, he did have a bit of a temper when things went bad.
And my Mom seldom missed an opportunity to tweak on him…
Once, they were working together on our new house, and Dad hit his finger with the hammer. Of course, a number of expletives followed. (Huh, maybe that’s where I get it.)
Mom was right there anyway, and said to him, “You know how you can keep from hitting your finger with the hammer?”
“Hold the hammer in both hands!!” Dropping what she was doing, she quickly ran away.
I still remember the glee in her eyes when she told me about it later that same day.
We had one mechanic who was really good, although to look at him, you’d never know it: he was a hairy block of a guy; goofy and good-natured. John’s methods were unconventional, but he got good results.
I was working the front one afternoon, and John was doing a brake job on a great big Buick. The right rear drum was stuck on, and no amount of hammering would budge it. I came in from outside to see John holding onto the drum with both hands, then placing his feet on the body of the car, on either side of the wheel well. He was four feet off the ground.
Thinking, this isn’t going to end well, I answered the driveway bell and started back out.
Right then, that brake drum popped loose, and John’s superhuman effort propelled him backward… Right into the window from the shop to the front office.
The window exploded with a giant CRASH..
Broken glass and shop chalkboard and office display pieces flew everywhere.
We all came running at the sound, only to find John, unhurt, standing up and shaking glass out of his hair, saying, “Wow, I guess I made a mess! But I got that brake drum off!” And it was still in his hand.
John’s next check was quite a bit lighter.
Another story about broken glass:
We had a plumber who was a good customer, and we maintained his truck; which was his ‘office’. Between calls, sometimes he’d come in and borrow our phone for a few minutes. But this afternoon, the phone rang and it was him – the brakes on his truck had quit working, could we fix it right away?
I took down the details of his truck, then went to the boss. “Of course! Tell him yes.”
Back at the phone, I got an arrival time, then hung up and checked with our local suppliers to see who had brake parts for his truck in stock. I hit pay dirt on the second call, then hopped in Old Red (one of our station cars and trucks, the ’49 Chevrolet Standard pickup) and off I went.
Meanwhile, the rest of the day went on pretty much as usual, except that it was a cold day and we had all the bay doors pulled down to keep in the meager amount of heat for the shop. These doors looked just like firehouse doors; they had six panes of glass across and eight high, with the bottom panel being painted wood (because if it was glass, we’d always have to be cleaning it).
The plumber called again; he was on his way.
We cleared the far left bay (the one with the heavy hoist) for him, and left the door down. I started watching out for him, while cleaning up from a different job.
Suddenly there he was out in the street, waiting to make the left turn and up into our lot. I saw him gun it – that was the way he always drove – and bump-de-bump, he was in the lot, and heading for the far bay.
Suddenly I saw his face go white and his knuckles on the steering wheel tighten to a death grip.
I yelled, “Clear the bay!! Run!! He can’t STOP!!” And we all flew from that bay.
I just made it around the front side of another car, and turned back to see him hit the door at about 10 MPH, all that mass of tools and stuff in his truck making it into a battering ram. There was a tremendous BOSHHHHH!!! as most of the glass panes in the door broke, and glass fell inside and out. The door, being made of flexible wood, was surprisingly unhurt.
The guy had been slammed into the steering wheel (remember, no seat belts then), but he was okay. And he had the presence of mind to shut the truck off and jam it into gear.
It took a few minutes to sweep up all the glass (he helped) and get his truck in.
We spotted him farther forward on the lift than normal, remembering an incident from before I worked there – The same kind of thing, a plumber, but with a little Dodge A100 van. The back was all full of tools and stuff, and when the guys took the front wheels off, it was enough weight loss that the van literally tipped backward and slid off the lift, landing vertically on its bumper. It was trapped between the hoist in the air, and that same garage door. A picture even made the paper at the time. They had to break several panes of glass in the door to allow a tow truck to slowly set the van down forward on the floor.
The day ended with the boss calling the insurance company, and me going down to the lumber yard to pick up several pieces of plywood to cover the openings in the door until the glass could be replaced.