When you’re 29, settling into a low-backed, barely-a-bucket seat without a seatbelt is a bit unsettling. I remember seeing PSAs to “buckle up for safety” when I was much younger, but these days it’s just common sense, perhaps because of those very Crash Test Dummy PSAs. Not using the seat belt would be like checking “roof of fuselage” for your seating preference on a flight.
But when there’s no belt to click, it’s also a bit thrilling. Your safety is up to you. You have to shoulder the responsibility of driving your car like you would a rifle or an excavator. The car doesn’t really care about you. There’s very little space between you and revolutionary dismemberment if you fall asleep behind the wheel of a 1963 Ford Galaxie Convertible. Thankfully, you probably won’t.
See, Jim really wanted an Impala. He used to own a ‘58 convertible, and he’d been digging around for one ever since, patiently searching, saving, and waiting. Then it sprung up – a gorgeous, black arrangement of American steel, beckoning him to a Mecum auction in Florida.
But an auction is a fickle sphynx, and Jim came back to Indiana instead with a ‘63 Galaxie ragtop: a cocktail of comfort, performance, and cheap gas poured into a mold cut from pure, futurist, space age optimism. Going to the moon? It will be a piece of cake. Because this is America and when your manager and his classmates were teenagers, they saved the bloody world from a couple of dictators who thought they were gods.
Light from the garage door spilled over the Galaxie’s creamy surface as I opened it. Since he’s my stepdad, Jim was going to let me drive it – if my friend Troy and I could get it running.
Old cars are simple. Unlike the ‘98 Maxima I just worked on for two days, most of the while wishing I could Hulk-smash it into a medicine ball, a ‘63 Galaxie offers plenty of room to work. You can see your friend’s rust-speckled face looking up at you in the gap between the valve cover and the bodywork. Old cars are easy to diagnose because there just aren’t many things that could go wrong.
It wasn’t even turning over, so that meant the battery, which was new; the starter, which was probably original; a fuse, of which there are not many; or wiring, which is something like an invisible flying velociraptor with knives for teeth – scary.
It was the easiest starter I’ve ever replaced. Save for the task of finding a new one – we had to order it. And the fit. Once the new piece came in, we couldn’t get it to settle into its socket. Upon closer inspection, we found that there’s a small access port at the back of the starter, because back in the day you could just fix or clean your starter instead of replacing it. The port is covered by a steel band, and the bolt for that band butted up against the block. Weird.
Nor could we just spin the band, since it had a notch cut specifically for one of the electrical terminals. So we went back to the parts store, where a man in a greasy jumpsuit dug our old starter out of a bin and salvaged the old band. And since this was a small town and folks are decent, he even took it to the attached machine shop and gave it a media blast and a fresh coat of paint at no charge.
Bolting it back on took about two minutes. Then I washed my hands, fired up the beast, and backed it out of the garage.
Jim’s Galaxie has a 352 cid. V8, which in stock form was good for at least 300 hp brand new. It was a mill originally designed for the Thunderbird, and this one has custom cams, (requiring the taller, M/T valve covers) and an aftermarket exhaust. That’s paired up to an old-school, torque converting automatic, so I didn’t slay any tires, but yes, that boat could roll, despite the fact that it weighed 3,700 lbs.
Troy got out his father-in-law’s 1953 Buick Super, a straight 8 with a two speed automatic, and we went for a huge, heavy, rumbling cruise through the Indiana countryside. I used to say that the only two excuses for automatics were in combat- and disabled-ready vehicles. But as I leaned back, one arm resting over the passenger couch, the other cocked on the foot-wide window sill, I began to understand the appeal.
You don’t hurry a car like this. You don’t really want to. What’s the point? Driving faster means getting out of the car sooner, and that just doesn’t make any sense. The ancient, floating leaf springs absorb problems better than the president’s receptionists, and the seats feel like a mattress. There’s summer breeze peeling over the chrome rim of the windshield and a comforting baritone murmuring out of the exhausts. Like a wise and friendly teacher.
Besides, if you go fast, you might have some trouble in the turns. Handling is everything you would expect from the aforementioned suspension, which we might say was tuned by JBR: Just Be Ready. But like the lack of seatbelts, the dunky, rolling turns rather add to the thrill.
A ‘63 Galaxie has many of those traits. There’s zero roll protection. It gets about 8 miles to the gallon. It’s rear-wheel-drive. Because a ‘63 Galaxie doesn’t really care about you. It’s there to be admired and enjoyed, but never pinned down, never boxed into your own world of common sense and efficiency and safety. It’s a car that shouts “Take it or leave it, pal!” and turns back to its work without waiting for your reaction.
And to examine it further, it really is a decent study in American sociology. It’s loud, powerful, comfortable, and heavy. It demands attention but rewards its pilot with the practicality of a massive trunk and a power top. It’s simple, reliable, and easy to fix. It’s an amalgam of everything America stood for in 1962. Commies want to nuke us all to next Tuesday, huh? I’d like to see them try! Have you seen what they drive over there? Me neither. Because they don’t even have television cameras! Nothing like my 352, I’ll bet.
No, you won’t fall asleep at the wheel.
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