The Car was built around 71 years ago, but was a mere 23 years old when I bought it from a classmate of mine at Cornwall Academy, a private prep-school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts back around November, 1962 for 4 monthly payments of $25.00. I didn’t have quite enough credits to go to college right from high school, so I was sent there to the post-graduate class. I don’t recall the kid’s name now, the school burned down years ago and was never rebuilt, and the car is just a fond memory and a saved gearshift knob (it’s around here somewhere!). The one picture I had of the car is now long-gone.
Ah! …found the gearshift knob:
I have always been mechanically adept, thanks to my Dad’s influence, so at the tender and know-it-all age of 18, I figured I could get this really cool-looking car running on my own, get the interior tuck-and-roll Naugahyde covered, including the HUGE trunk, with maybe some switches and gauges on the roof interior, similar to the Studebaker Avanti. The spare tire and jack was stored behind the driver’s seat, and there was a door behind the passenger seat that opened into the trunk, which was about 6 feet long! I imagined being able to slip into the leather-paneled, neon-lighted trunk with my date, right from the cab of the car! *woo-HOO!* I was 18, remember?
I knew it had a dead engine and no brakes when I bought it, but I had already made a connection with my math teacher to buy a 1952 Dodge 6-cylinder engine that would fit it exactly, and the cost was only $25.00, so I made the deal with the kid I bought the car from that I could use his small box of Craftsman tools on weekends to get the car running.
We pushed the car down behind the school’s maintenance shed, out of sight of the main building, where no one would bother it. I parked it under a stout, almost horizontal limb of an oak tree so I could use it to pull the engine, then did what it really needed most; I polished the dashboard!
Oh, part of my deal for the tool-use was that I could borrow the 6-volt battery from his ’56 Ford while I worked, so I could listen to the radio and eventually test the electrical circuits once I had swapped the engine. I spent many Saturday nights sitting in that car, listening to the radio, thinking about how I would customize her and dreaming of the cruising I would be doing once I got her running! That is… once I got permission from my Dad to even HAVE a car!
Now, my math teacher, whose name I have forgotten, played an integral part of my ownership experience. I have somehow lost the school yearbook that would have his name, and because the school no-longer exists, there is no record of it online to do any search for the info. I did have contact with a local newspaper editor who gave me the info about the school burning down, and the headmaster/owner having passed away not long afterwards. So this being the case, I will give the name of ‘Mr. Curtis’ to the math teacher, using poetic license, also to protect him from any connection to the matter even all these years later.
Mr. Curtis had the ’52 Dodge engine stashed at a farm somewhere around 20 miles from the school, and he took me and a friend there to pick it up. We went in his 1950-ish Dodge station wagon. Well, the engine was carefully wrapped in a canvas tarp, and we loaded it into the back of his wagon and brought it back to the school, placing it on the ground next to the ’39.
I must say here that the extent of my automotive ‘mechanical know-how’ to this point had been cleaning the spark plugs and adjusting the idle of my Mom’s ’53 Buick Roadmaster, along with changing the tires when they got a flat.
(Is this story starting to sound like a version of John Carpenter’s ‘Christine’ [a red 1958 Plymouth Fury] movie from 1983, starring Keith Gordon and Robert Prosky, written by Stephen King?)
During the following days/weeks, I un-wired and unbolted everything I could from the ’39 engine compartment, carefully laying out the wires so the bends and curves didn’t change when I put them in the trunk, so I could later (maybe) figure out where they went after the engine swap. …no clue what a regulator or a coil did!
I (ahem) ‘borrowed’ the knotted 2″ x 15′ rope that was meant to be the fire escape method from the 2nd-floor 8-student bedroom I was in, to use for pulling out the engine. I do recall struggling to come up with a way to pull out the engine without a chain-fall or any pulleys, and finally used a system similar to a Spanish windlass. This was done by tossing the rope over the branch, then securing the ends to 2 points on the engine, then putting a strong pole through the space between the 2 ropes coming down from the branch, and twisting them with the pole for leverage, causing them to shorten up a little each time, then blocking up the engine and shortening the rope over and over, until it swung free of the engine compartment so I could push the car back from under the engine.
Then I did the reverse with the ‘new’ engine. It was a very long and slow process, and I had to jam branches under the engine to hold it in place while I altered the rope, and also when I left it for the night so I could return the ‘fire escape’ to its proper place in the room. The only time the escape rope was put to actual use was when one of us would sneak out after lights-out and push someone’s car down the driveway so he could go to town and do a ‘Friendlies run’ for us and some of our friends in other rooms. This was usually done by the guy who had a ’61 Chevy Corvair Monza (…light to push, and relatively quiet). I can still taste the ‘Big Beef’ and fries and chocolate ‘Awful-Awful’ thick shake (‘awful thick and awful good’).
I didn’t even take a peek at the clutch or throwout bearing, not ever having been this deep into a drivetrain before. Ignorance IS bliss! I was a happy puppy working on my car!
I got the new engine in somehow, and then connected the wires as best I could. They were the old cloth-covered variety, with (now) hardened rubber insulation that would crack if bent at all.
Then I tackled the no-brakes situation by spotting the broken brake line down near the rear wheel. I couldn’t afford a new brake line, so I kinked and crimped the old one and poured in some new brake fluid, and it actually held! I also freed up the emergency brake, which was wrapped around the drive shaft, with its own brake drum just behind the tranny. Oh, the tranny was a floor-shift 3-speed, so I was told.
Well, lights worked, radio worked, horn worked, don’t recall that there were directional signals (doubt it), and wipers were vacuum-controlled, so they would only work when the engine was running. So I stepped on the clutch and hit the starter, and the car jumped forward!! Of COURSE the clutch was rusted in place, so I would have to pop it somehow.
I got my Buddy with the ’56 Ford to give me a push, once I had replaced his battery, and we made a few fruitless runs on this dirt trail down near the athletic field, to no avail. The clutch wouldn’t cooperate, and the brakes didn’t really work, because who knew about bleeding them?
Well, time really does fly when you’re having fun, and graduation was upon us, and I finally told the Headmaster, Mr. Moran, about the car, and I promised that I would come and remove it from school property within a few weeks after graduation. He agreed, and the pressure was off me until it was time to go get the car in early July, 1963.
I called Mr. Curtis and made arrangements with him to pull the ’39 to his house, where I would come out as often as I could to get it running and finally drive it home to Boston. I got my buddy Jay to go with me to get the car moved to Mr. Curtis’ house, and we set out in my Mom’s ’53 Buick with about $10 between us. Now, gas was maybe 22¢/gal at that time, and the big straight-8 engine (that’s right, not a V-8!) was probably getting around 6 mpg. on a good day, and we had nearly 350 miles of driving to do that day, the tank was already full when we left, so we would have just enough money for gas and we stopped and bought 6 bananas to eat, as we left before sunup, telling our parents we were going to the beach for the day. Still hadn’t gotten ‘permission’ to have a car!
Side-notes about the ’53 Buick Roadmaster:
- Straight-8 engine
- Dynaflo automatic transmission
- Heater under the front seat so it vented to the front AND the rear
- Hood that tipped open from side-to-side, depending on which side you unlatched
- Radio antenna mounted to the top center above the windshield and had a knob inside so you could swivel it down either way to raise or lower it
- Starter button was depressed by stomping on the gas pedal once you turned the key on
- Chrome front bumper and grill probably weighed more than a bus made today
We got to Mr. Curtis’ house, met his wife, and left in his Dodge wagon to get the ’39. He had already mapped out the route we would take, pulling the ’39 over all dirt roads through the woods to avoid any paved roads where the unregistered, uninsured car might cause a problem with John-Law.
Well, things went fairly smoothly for a while. We tied the ’39 to the rear axle of the Dodge wagon, and with me behind the wheel of my dream-car, planning to use the emergency brake to slow and stop, we pulled away from the school property and headed off into the woods of the Berkshire Mountains. I had clamped the 2 battery cables together, fully planning to engage 3rd gear once we got rolling, hoping to get her to kick over so I could actually drive her for a bit. The problem was that the clutch was still rusted together, so the rear wheels would only skid along and the engine didn’t turn over at all. Oh, well…
Before too long, the Dodge started overheating, and we had to keep stopping to let her cool down after some long uphill grades. The day wore on this way until we came to a paved road that we had to cross to continue on our merry way on the dirt roads – the ONLY piece of pavement we would see that whole trip! All we had to do was go diagonally across the pavement, maybe a distance of about 75 feet, and be off into the woods again.
Well, guess who happened to be sitting at the side of the paved road about 1,000 feet away…! If you guessed the ice cream man, you’d be wrong. Too bad, ’cause we sure could’a used a nice cold popsicle about then. Nope, it was a proud Officer of The Massachusetts State Police, who rushed right over to see if he could be of any assistance to us.
After the usual formalities of asking us to produce our licenses and registrations, and upon hearing my sad tale of having to move my precious ’39 from the school grounds or lose it to a junkyard, he ticketed Mr Curtis for towing an unregistered and uninsured car on a public way, resulting in a $35.00 fine. He then ordered me to park the car and go to a local gas station to arrange for a tow truck to move the ’39 wherever I wanted it moved, but under no circumstances were we to move it by utilizing gravity (we were on a slight hill), pushing by hand (we hoped he would let us push it off onto the dirt road on the other side of the roadway) or by using Mr. Curtis’ wagon to move it. *sigh* The ‘Statey’ then drove off to chase down more bad guys.
Knowing the empty condition of my wallet, and knowing full-well that I couldn’t afford a tow to Mr. Curtis’ house, even if it cost only $20, I unscrewed the above-pictured gear shift knob, broke my pocket knife blade trying to pry off a memorial hubcap, said a sad ‘farewell’ to my beautiful ’39 Plymouth Business Coupe, and rode off onto the remaining dirt road to Mr. Curtis’ house. It was a pretty quiet ride.
We got there around suppertime, and Mrs. Curtis had made macaroni and cheese with hot dogs mixed in, and convinced us to stay for supper before our long drive home. It was a nice gesture, but I was truly miserable. I assured Mr. Curtis that I would send him payment for whatever fine he had to pay, which I eventually did. The $35 fine was just another heart-stab to me, as I was earning $110/week working for the Boston Sanitation Department as a fill-in rubbish-collector, working from about 4am to 5pm, 6 days a week, collecting trash (not garbage, that was a different department) in the Dorchester/Mattapan areas. Yeah, $110 a week, and that was BEFORE TAXES, so I probably got about $65 a week take-home! …and it was considered a GREAT summertime job! I had to ride my bike (no car, remember?) to where the truck would pick me up depending on the route for that day, and I would get dropped off somewhere else at the end of the day, walk or hopefully take a bus to where my bike was stashed, then pedal home.
The trip home from Mr. Curtis’ was fun, too. We had to take the Mass. Pike which is a toll road (of course!), and we didn’t have enough money for the toll, which was about $4.00, I think. We hid our wallets in the car, parked at the side of the toll booth area, and went into the control building, noticing the manned police car idling at the side of the road, waiting for someone to try running through without stopping.
Inside, I fibbed to the sergeant at the desk, telling him I had lost my wallet and didn’t have any money to pay the toll. He wrote my name and address on a form and had me sign it, explaining that I would pay the toll within 3 days or the police would come to my house and take my license from me and fine me.
I drove the remaining few miles to my neighborhood, dropped Jay off at his house, and went home. It was probably around 10pm by then, so I said ‘Hello’ to my parents, then excused myself to go shower and go to bed, as I had to go to work in the morning. I fell asleep clutching the only remaining item I had from my ’39 except the sweet and sad memories of the experience.
About a year later, I happened to be driving in that area of the Berkshires and passed a junk yard, and thought I spotted the ’39 in a pile of old cars, but I couldn’t stop at that time, and have only thought about her from time-to-time since then.
Another case of ‘should’a, could’a, would’a… *sigh*