At seventeen, I finally joined the ranks of legally sanctioned drivers. I could have taught the drivers-ed class by then, including certain advanced techniques well outside the usual curriculum. Speaking of which, as part of this rite of passage, I retired the implements I’d used for hot-wiring the family Dodges. More importantly, I got a job where I could indulge my love of driving and get paid for the pleasure.
I went to work for my local Ford dealer. I became what’s known in the biz as a “car jockey.” My job: shuttle the dealer’s cars to and from various storage lots, and back to mother showroom. The scope for unauthorized amusement was… epic.
Ferrying Fords, I adhered religiously to the factory’s engine break-in guidelines. Well, one part. I took their recommendation to “avoid driving steadily” straight to heart.
In my defense, throttle stomping served an important quality control function. Factory fresh or no, Ford’s “Total Performance” 1971 models rarely ran properly. Remember: these were the UAW and Detroit’s “glory years.” If the manufacturer could get a vehicle on a transporter, it was good enough for rock and roll.
In fact, the dealer employed a full-time mechanic to tune-up and look over every car before delivery. All too often, new cars ended up at the body shop. Lucky for me, the body shop was miles away; the route included a tightly-winding road along Jones Falls.
My adrenal adventures were all-too-often thwarted by side-wall shredding understeer. Plowing LTD’s and Torinos through the tight curves was like shooting pool with a 2 x 4.
The Mustang Mach 1 HO raised the fun factor substantially– on the straights. But it was horribly nose-heavy. The steering was numb, the rear axle stamped and stuttered and the chassis flexed. It ripped and snorted but tripped all over itself in the twisties.
Surprisingly, a bare-bones Pinto was just the ticket. The early Pinto was essentially a European Ford with a goofy body. The German 2.0-liter engine pulled, the English four-speed was slick and the Euro-Escort rack and pinion steering was tight. It was light, squirtable and tossable– as long as the road was smooth. Smog controls, five mph bumpers, slush-boxes and dead power steering quickly turned the Pinto into another mid-70’s joke.
The Maverick– that recycled old Falcon disguised in bell-bottoms– was the punchline. With its feeble six and slush-box, throttle stomping was a given. Taking delivery of one from the transporter, I got in and floored it. One of the skinny little tires went up in a cloud of smoke.
A look under the hood revealed a surprise: a 302 V8. Even I, the auto know-it-all, was caught off guard; the V8 option wouldn’t be announced for some time. It sat around for months, but I kept it exercised.
On slow days I burned time (and tires) pulling doughnuts in a distant parking lot. Ironically, an old lady eventually bought it, oblivious to the chewed-up rear tires. Or maybe she didn’t care.
A service customer’s plushed-out ’69 LTD sedan was the oddest car I ever encountered. It had the optional 390 V8, three-on-the-tree column-shift(!), and manual steering(!!). I thought for sure he was in for a new power steering pump. The burly owner obviously wasn’t thinking about resale value when he custom-ordered it.
A metallic-brown ‘70 LTD two-door hardtop was my summer ride, though not exactly through legitimate means. The service department kept a couple of loaners. I pocketed the key before I left, grabbed a Coke next door and came back for it after everyone was gone.
I unhooked the speedometer cable (I was an expert by then), and took it home for the night or weekend. My boss was always happy to see me at work in the morning, long before anyone else arrived. He knew a highly motivated employee when he saw one.
I spent that summer cruising around and hunting swimming holes with three girls from my neighborhood. All four of us always sat up front, across the front bench seat. Ford’s designers must have had us in mind when they made the LTD so ridiculously wide. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to test any alternative theories.
Summer fun gave way to winter bleakness. I still worked at the Ford dealer after school. The problem was that I didn’t go to school very often. Baltimore had (finally) cultivated a hip street scene that was much more compelling than algebra.
I was a full grade behind in school. I wasn’t going to graduate that spring. And my parents didn’t have a clue.
On a February morning shortly after my eighteenth birthday, I packed my backpack and hitchhiked west– without saying goodbye to my parents. I had no fixed itinerary. Like lots of kids, I was California dreamin’ on a winter’s day.