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My Motoring Misadventure With a Jerry-rigged Jalopy

Young and foolish. A phrase that springs to mind as I relate the tale of my first car. While they say you’re only young once, you can be foolish over and over. Which is why nobody ever says you’re only young and foolish once.

Lots of people have fond memories of their first car, a warm fuzzy nostalgia for that symbol of youthful indepen­dence. First cars are often used cars, often very used. Meaning they might have had more value as a cube of crushed scrap metal than as transportation. Still, the cash-strapped youth of America would buy these zombie-mobiles to squeeze out a few more miles before sending them to remeet their makers. Being a cash-strapped American youth, I participated in this sort-of cash for clunkers program.

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Such vehicle leftovers would often as not have some rather unique non-standard aftermarket add-ons not found at any auto parts store. “Features” were added, a wire coat-hanger aerial, duck tape Bondo. Standard car parts have a way of vanishing. Things like handles, knobs, the radio, a bumper or two. Many bits didn’t work as well as they once had, in some cases not at all. Heaters became air-conditioning, but only in winter. Hand-cranked windows became hand-pulled windows. Windows might even have been plastic sheeting duck-taped in place. (Duck tape heals all auto wounds.)

We called these nearly washed-up cars beaters. I think this originally comes from winter-beater, which were older cars folks drove to prevent road salt from eating their primary cars which were stored in the garage all winter. Though, as in my case, a beater was sometimes someone’s only car.

I was maybe nineteen when I bought my first car, a beater, which cost all of one hundred dollars. A very used 1964 Ford Falcon. Your basic, no-frills economy car, six cylinders, three-speed manual transmission, vinyl-covered front bench seat, rubber floor mats. By the time I got it, thanks to wear and tear it had some other non-standard "features". Like rusted out holes in the floorboards. These holes and rubber mats actually came in handy after a passenger spilled a large milk­shake all over the floor. I simply hosed it down and let the watery-milky mixture run out the holes. These holes were not so handy when it rained or snowed because they let liquids in as well as out.

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But it was other “features” on which hang my story. First was a worn battery cable connec­tion. In the old days the cable ends attached to the battery were thick and chunky, made of soft metal (maybe lead) which deformed for a snug fit around the battery post. Over time the soft metal would get stretched so the opening would enlarge to where it wouldn’t fit snugly any more. That had happened on my car.

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The second “feature” was a sticky ignition switch, which as standard in those days was on the dashboard rather than the steering column. These have four positions, clock­wise: ACCES­SORY-OFF-IGNITION-START. You can turn the key and leave the switch in any of the first three positions, but you have to hold it in START. It automatically springs back to IGNITION so you don’t grind up the gears on the starter and flywheel. However, on my old beater I could turn the key to START and it would stick there. Without this unusual feature what happened couldn’t have.

This meant sometimes I wouldn’t have a good connec­tion and when I turned the key… nothing. I couldn’t start the car. So I would pop the hood and jiggle the cable until it made a good connection and then start the car. This is where the sticky ignition comes in. I could leave the ignition switch turned to START, go jiggle the cable until it started cranking, dash back in the car and switch back to IGNITION once it was firing on all sixes.

This procedure is what you’d call a workaround. Or maybe jerry-rigging. As with many a jerry-rigged workaround, this method had a hitch. As the Falcon had a manual trans­mission the starter could be engaged when the car was in gear. If the clutch were out when you did this the car would lurch forward driven by the starter motor.

Now then, imagine the scene. My car’s parked in a lot behind a convenience store facing the back of the building about ten feet away. The ignition switch is stuck in START. The car, unknown to me, is in first gear. I’m standing in front of the car with the hood open jiggling the battery cable. I think you can guess what happened next.

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The starter engaged, the car lurched forward, the engine sprang to life, it started. My car was running with no driver trying to run me over. I jumped out of the way. The car was going past me heading straight for the building. Quick as a cat (I like to think), I jumped in the open driver’s door and jammed my foot on the brake as hard as I could. Only I missed the brake and hit the clutch pedal instead. Of course, this didn’t stop the car which ran into the wall and, the gears being disengaged, bounced off.

Luckily for me the old Falcon wasn’t going very fast and little damage was done to either the car or the building. I don’t think anyone inside even noticed as no-one came out to see what had happened. Unluckily for me a friend just happened to be walking by and saw the whole comedy of errors. He gave me my first, and only standing ovation. While my car suffered little injury, I can’t say the same for my pride.

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