Driving a Ford, Lately

Photo by Theo DouglasI was 23 and still working on my bachelor's in journalism at Cal State Long Beach when I bought my car, a rusty '63 Ford Falcon Sprint from a guy in Commerce. It ran great—it actually peeled out in low; I found out later the 289 V-8 was seriously bored-out—but it had a little bit of rust everywhere and I didn't figure I'd have it very long.

Today, I'm still driving it—from Long Beach to Santa Ana and back five times a week, having replaced or rebuilt the engine, the transmission, the driveshaft, the power steering, the generator, the regulator, the radiator, the grille, the fenders, the quarter panels, the bumpers, the windshield, the wheels, the heater, the steering wheel, the console, the seats, the instrument panel, the taillights and part of the floor.

But then, going to junkyards was what I did for fun before I got married, bought a house, and started fixing or replacing the furnace, the water heater, the siding, the bathroom basin, the kitchen drainpipe, the rain gutters, the doors, the screen door, the porches and the roof, not to mention refinishing most of the flooring. In the mid-'90s, when my friends were all finishing up hot rods built with vintage parts—a new thing then—I bought a Model A Ford for $600 and put another $4,400 into finding the correct engine, transmission, rear axle, wheels, tires, headlight bar, grille shell, carburetors, gas tank, pedal assembly and steering wheel to make it a '50s-era hot rod. And I still had enough spare change lying around to pay my friends to paint the Falcon flat black, which was the style at the time. I figured I'd lower it, take the rest of the trim off and call it done.

That was '96, the year after my friend Keith did a rendering of my car the way it would look finished: low, sitting on whitewalls, with no trim, painted a deep-red metallic. Today, it's still flat black—a very faded flat black Keith calls "the many moods of black primer"—and his rendering hangs on my wall at home. I've had it framed, but otherwise, I'm wondering what happened—or at least I would be if I didn't know exactly what happened. Somewhere along the way, I grew up, and I'm teetering on the precipice every would-be hot rodder or customizer reaches at some point.

My car isn't done, but I'm getting closer and closer to selling it—even if I just end up buying another old car, even if I buy a new car. I feel like Ray Liotta at the end of Goodfellas, when he's in the Witness Protection Program and can't get any action or spaghetti.

After 11 years, I've gotten tired, tired of overheating again and again: in the rain, on the plain, in a boat, with a goat. I'm weary of bottoming out. I lowered this car two inches—two inches!—and now it'll scrape on just about anything. My mechanic says the bottom of my oil pan, the lowest point of the car, looks like somebody shot it. It's starting to rust out again, and it's never had a radio or carpet—both niceties I can appreciate at age 34.

And somewhere along the line, everybody else got serious about something that used to just be another excuse to drink beer during the day. I paid $1,500 for the Falcon, but it's not a $1,500 car anymore. My friends, who know all about it because they help me work on it, say it could be worth $5,000 in its present condition. It's a Falcon! Even I think that's a little crazy—and I'm the guy who should be trying to milk it for all it's worth. But then, everything's different now.

Model A coupe bodies are going for $3,000, when I paid $600 for a complete car just seven years ago. A slew of magazines have sprung up to document the cars people my age like: The Rodder's Journal, Garage, Car Kulture Deluxe, Hop Up (again), Magneto, Rolls and Pleats, Dice, Burnout—and they're all reasonably successful. And the debate over hot rodders whose work could once be taken or left alone—people like George Barris, Ed Roth, Von Dutch—has elevated them to the stature of gods.

These three surely deserve it; they built, painted and pinstriped rods and customs that changed the hobby forever. But even they came up with some clinkers: Roth's second version of the Beatnik Bandit, Barris' mail-order course in van painting from the '70s that featured Barris, with feathered hair and flared pants I think he still has, standing next to a van: it was cheesy. Can I still say that? I don't know. A Weekly article I wrote about Von Dutch in January pointed out his drinking troubles and racist bent—and I've never had so many letters e-mailed, faxed or scrawled on spiral-bound notebook paper. We didn't even run them all, there were so many—running on in a high-pitched, chattering whine I'm used to hearing from AARP members kvetching about Social Security or pudding.

Everyone's playing for keeps now; my friends—whom none of us thought were building high-dollar cars—have sold hot rods to Japan for $15,000 to $20,000. Cars with no carpet, windows that have trouble rolling up and heating problems much like mine. It was okay when they were using that money to buy houses, but I remember how the "Kustom Kulture" exhibit on Dutch, Roth and Barris at Laguna Art Museum in '93 seemed like a good idea at the time, too. And here we are. I'm starting to wonder how much longer I'll have the Falcon. Air conditioning would be nice; so would carpet, a radio and a good suspension. So would something new—even if it's a new old car. I wonder if this Ford is really built for the road ahead.


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