By on April 7, 2007

1971_mach1.jpgAt 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.

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16 Comments on “Auto-Biography 11: Gainful Employment...”

  • avatar

    Great story. You were obviously the opposite of Doug!

  • avatar

    “Plowing LTD’s and Torinos through the tight curves was like shooting pool with a 2 x 4.”

    I like this quote. Too many cars are like this today.

  • avatar

    I agree with ZoomZoom; this doesn’t seem to be that much different these days. The handling gap is still with us!

  • avatar

    I worked as a “lot boy” at a Ford dealer when I was 18 for a summer in Iowa. Your description of the Mustang is nearly identical to a used ’88 Mustang 5.0 5-speed I got to drive. Fun in a scary-as-hell kind of way, with big cajones.

  • avatar

    Your comments about the early 70’s Pinto made me curious… and I uncovered an amazing story from Time magazine, back on September 21, 1970.,9171,942296,00.html

    Not only was Ford rolling out its Pinto, but GM was busy with its Vega, all to combat the threat of the VW Beetle. According to the article, “G.M. and Ford each hope to sell 400,000 of their minicars during the new model year. Volkswagen predicts that its sales will rise by 12% to 600,000, and Japan’s Toyota and Datsun expect to sell a combined total of 250,000 cars to U.S. customers. Unless the market for subcompacts expands faster than most analysts anticipate, somebody is likely to be disappointed.”

  • avatar

    As someone who spent a number of years autocrossing SCCA B-sedan, I can full agree with your assessment of the Ford Pinto. One hellishly underrated car – that was THE ticket in class if you didn’t have the money for a BMW 1600 or 2002.

    And boy, did the local SCCA chapter hate it when you beat those German wonders. The SCCA was my first experience in virulent anti-American bias.

    Oh yeah, I was driving a Vega GT, almost as good around the track as the Pinto – and I had a reliable one. Actually, a damned good one. Hated to see it go, but I knew the motor was going to go sometime soon.

  • avatar

    Back from college with no real money I was able to score a used 72 Pinto for $350. It was about 10 years old at the time. It had a 1.6 rated at 54hp, 4spd, no radio, and a crease in the transmission tunnel just behind the front seats from being rear ended in the back (which was pushed in but the trunk still worked). I did a check to make sure it had a gas tank shield installed. When ever I went over a bump large enough, the driveshaft would rub against the tunnel. But the car was fun to drive. I apppreciated that it was wider than most small foreign and domestic cars at the time. It didn’t make me feel claustrophobic. Of course it wasn’t fast but it ran, no matter what. Low on oil? In need of a tune up? Bad gas? No problem.

    I also remembered a friend in college who had a burnt orange 71 Pinto also with a 4 spd. But his was different. It seemed to have plenty of power and while I wouldn’t say it was fast as in musclecar fast it was quick. He could accelerate pretty good and dart in and out of traffic. But mine was like an old draft horse in comparison.

    I looked up the stats on these cars and found that the 1971 had a 1.6 rated at 75hp. So the drop to 54hp could only be due to smog controls. The bigger 2.0 (the only engine if you wanted AC) was 100 glorious horsepower in 1971 and 75 in 1972. It was this motor that must have been in my college mates 71. A Euro sourced 100 hp, a 4 spd, and a small car like that equals fun to drive.

  • avatar

    By the time I was in college, the horrible Vega was long gone and the Pinto had a terminally bad reputation, even though I saw lots of them around at SCCA events. An example: – a pair of Pintos running in the infamous 24 hours of Nelson, next to the factory-entered SVO Mustangs.

    So it was a German Capri for me, with a 2-liter engine and a long-tube header and extra large carb. Great college car – and winter car too, although having to replace the heater core in the dead of a Buffalo winter was no good.

    I mention the Capri because there was (and still is) a fundamental difference in approach between America and Europe. Here, we expected to fight the Japanese with a single economy car per manufacturer. The Vega and Pinto had to have the breadth to go up against 3-4 cars per each Japanese manufacturer (2-drs, 4-drs, wagons, sporty coupes). Obviously they didn’t even come close.

    The Europeans, on the other hand, had an entire range of cars, with a multitude of engine offerings in each. You could buy a small Ford, for example, and choose between engines ranging from 1.3 liters to 2 liters. Each was well-equipped and few were strippers. They were (and still are) tiered against your salary, status, tax base, and whether or not your company paid towards a company car.

    We lost the battle against the Japanese for many reasons, not the least of which was because the one car entered in the battle wasn’t competitive.

    And of course because of crappy quality (design and build), the UAW (focused on member benefits and enriching the fat cat bosses at the expense of those members, to say nothing about the country as a whole), uninformed consumers (who as soon as they became informed went to the Japanese brands), and lack of leadership and vision on the part of management.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    windsworth: Having driven lots of new Pintos at the dealership in the fall/winter of ’71, I can reiterate your impression: there was a world of difference between the 1.6 and the 2.0.

    jwfisher: I think GM’s and Ford’s market research in developing the Pinto and Vega must have focused on owners of domestics, rather than existing import buyers. For instance, the Vega engine was designed to be a relatively large and torquey low-rpm engine, which is what Americans were used to. And the low, wide and swoopy bodies looked like little Mustangs and Camaros, instead of the boxy sedans Toyota, Datsun and Opel were selling.

  • avatar

    I had a '73 Pinto station wagon I bought new. In the time between the accident I had in it driving it off the dealer's lot when I bought it (a guy ran a red light at the corner and hit me as I was pulling out of the lot) and I drove it into the side of an 18-wheeler at 50 MPH (he made an illegal turn in front of me), I really loved that car. It was peppy, handled quite well for the time, and would hold an unbelievable amount of stuff with the rear sear folded down. AND, even without airbags I walked away from both accidents relatively unscathed.

  • avatar

    Thats my point – they made only 1 response to the Japanese so it had to cover a lot of ground. The cars didn’t directly compete, they were jack of all trades.
    Almost shortened American cars in a way. Despite the disastrous Vega engine (a lousy piece of engineering) the rest of the car could have been a 4/5s Nova. The Pintoi was probably more creative, with the hatchback added for practicality.
    But in the end the Pinto and Vega evolved into exactly nothing – an evolutionary dead end. The boxy and odd Japanese cars evolved into the very complete and well-done line of cars that we have today.

  • avatar

    Another wonderful piece of nostalgia. Damn, I wish I’d known about the car jockey jobs.

  • avatar

    From the time magazine article provided by galanwilliams

    “The secret for beating Volkswagen is quality,” says Chevrolet General Manager John Z. DeLorean.

  • avatar

    The 71 Pinto was a fine car – I drove a friend’s through the mountains of West Virgina and loved it, but the car was done in by the gas tank scandal, and the wierd styling of the rear wheel openings that seemed made for dragster slicks and which were filled with 13 inch econo tires. The rear end made that car look very much like a Detroit boat shrunk in the washer. Additionally, by 1974 college room mate with money thought a Toyota Celica (with 5-speed!)far superior to Detroit’s sad tales, and my father thought I should have an (auto :-() Honda Civic.

    All Detroit’s cars seemed to be built out of excuses and mistakes by then. It was very sad.

    And GM? I knew they were dead when the Cosworth-Vega came out. It had a COSWORTH DOHC head on the engine, and the bean counters kept the power down to 110 HP AND it was just as ugly as the other big-bumpered Vega’s. I knew then that the management running the company didn’t have a clue about cars – .

  • avatar

    ha, reminds me of my escapades as a “runner” for west liberty chrysler jeep. though the power runner for me was the grand cherokee. i has a special place in my heart for the manual a4 up the street at the used car lot. my that was a wonderful, and shitty job.

  • avatar

    A high school friend received a tricked-out, hand-me-down Pinto from his older brother. The car had the 2.3, 4 speed, aftermarket manifold, carb, headers, and better shocks. It was actually quite good(as in reliable and handled well) when compared to other 70’s cars. I also remember the Vega. I think GM made it out of a new alloy called insta-rust.

    BTW, I started driving in 1981. By then used muscle cars were a dime a dozen. Many of my friends drove/wrecked what are now considered classics. Speaking from experience, those cars were only good for driving very fast in a straight line. Turning? Stopping? You must be kidding.

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