A James Dean Wannabe
by Jim Van Orden, Richardson, TX
©2018, James Van Orden. Posted by permission.
It was love at first sight. “Stop!” I yelled as Mom drove past the Texaco gas station. “I want that car.”
The car that got my attention was a 1951 Mercury two-door, painted faded green with dual exhausts. The “for sale” sign in the back window read “$150/As is.”
Fortuitously, I had saved exactly $150.00 working as a $1/hour usher in the Maplewood Theater during the summer of 1960. “Mom, I have enough money to buy that car,” I pleaded, “and it’s the car of my dreams.”
Mothers can be wonderful and mine was no exception. She did stop. And I bought the car 30 minutes later from the garage mechanic. Dad, however, wasn’t impressed when he drove it home and told me the odometer stopped at 98K miles.
“I smell oil,” he said, “and there’s blue smoke behind the car.” He was right. The old Mercury had seen better days. But that didn’t matter to me. It looked like James Dean’s 1949 Mercury in “Rebel Without a Cause.” And James Dean was my idol at age 16.
The J.C. Whitney catalog was my best friend for the next six months. I ordered fender skirts, whitewall rubber tire inserts, dual glass pack mufflers, plastic filler for holes in the hood and trunk when I “nosed and decked” the car, and a cow horn to impress high school friends (which earned me a traffic ticket for “disturbing the peace”). The crowning touch was a $19.95 Earl Scheib paint job: black, of course, to match the James Dean car.
I couldn’t drive, however, until I turned 17. It was early January, 1961, about a week before JFK’s inauguration, when my long-awaited birthday arrived. Deep snow covered northern New Jersey roads, which required chains be installed on the rear tires. As Dad and I drove to the state facility for the driving test, a link broke and smashed against the inside rear fender well on every tire revolution. This didn’t set well with the state trooper who conducted the test. But I aced the parallel parking maneuver even in the snow. The officer thankfully ignored the painful noise and I passed.
What a car! Girls loved it and boys stared. It looked cool. But it had serious problems. Without a choke, it required lots of throttle mashing to start on cold mornings. Heavy winter clothing was a must as the heater never worked too well. Fixing the broken speedometer and radio involved $10 in junkyard replacements and scraped, bloody knuckles. I created “stereophonic sound” by installing a Cadillac speaker behind the rear seat.
“Profiling” was the car’s forte. It certainly wasn’t drag racing as I lost to cars with more modern engines. And races were a total embarrassment as the car emitted a blue smokescreen from its dual pipes that choked nostrils, obscured vision and drew the attention of police officers for miles around.
I asked a mechanic about the smoke and told him I got only 100 miles on each quart of oil. He said I needed a ring job. The $200 he wanted was out of the question for a guy who made $1/hour. He recommended a cheaper alternative and handed me a bottle of “Motor Medic,” a honey-like substance that cost $2. He was right…it worked. Instead of 100 miles/quart I got 200 miles. My fuzzy teen-age brain realized it was cheaper to buy 20 ten-cent cans of oil than pay for a ring job.
Driving the ‘51 Merc was like steering a battleship. About eight inches of play in the steering wheel, as well as four turns lock to lock, made fast maneuvers impossible (even with a “suicide knob”). But I taught girlfriends how to help steer while I had one arm over their shoulders.
The cool summer nights of 1961 offered a wonderful venue for drives to the Adventure Car Hop on Rt. 22 in Union, NJ. Hot-rodders hung out there and my Merc fit right in…especially when I revved the dual glass packs. Day trips down the Garden State Parkway to the shore and “Garbage Beach” gave me time to blow out carbon and drink Piels beers with buddies and girlfriends during that summer of innocence.
But it was time to get serious. I had to select a college and the one I picked was along the Mississippi River in Illinois. This was my first really long drive and I was excited. Day one took me 600 miles through Pennsylvania into West Virginia and Wheeling, a city where every street is either straight up or down.
It was a straight-up street that did me in. Stopping at a light during rush hour, I pulled away smartly but, as often happened with old Mercs, the shift linkage hung up between first and second gears. The resulting gear clash was monumental and the car came to an abrupt stop, blocking traffic in three directions. I was prepared, however, and put on an old glove kept under the front seat for such occasions. Jumping out, I opened the hood and got to work. A few minutes later, amid honking horns and angry gestures, I freed the linkage and drove off in a cloud of blue smoke.
The remainder of the trip was accomplished in just two gears: first and third. Second gear was stripped of its teeth. But it didn’t matter. The old flathead V8 could do 40 miles-per-hour in first gear and third pulled all the way down to 20. I liked the idea of not shifting into second. Two gears worked just fine until I returned home and put in a rebuilt transmission.
Never should have sold my Merc.
Sadly, I sold the Merc two years later. It went for a premium as the new owner paid almost double my purchase price. By this time, salt from New Jersey’s winters had eaten away rocker panels and fender wells. But it didn’t matter to the kid who bought it. He, too, was into James Dean and Mercurys.
Around my 60th year, as I pumped gasoline into my new Mercury Grand Marquis, I heard a marvelous exhaust rumble approaching. The sound and sight of the car were too good to be true.
There it was, my black 1951 Merc…nosed and decked, fender skirts, whitewall tires and dual glass packs. The owner got out and I said, “I had one just like it when I was a boy.”
“No you didn’t,” he replied. “It only looked like this one.” And he explained the car was a $100K custom built on a new Ford pickup frame and front clip with a 455-inch Buick V8 engine, GM automatic transmission, air-conditioning and power everything. Before he finished filling his tank, he told me he could “blow away” Mustangs and Camaros.
As pretty as his car was, something tangible was missing. Where was that wonderful smell of raw gasoline and burned oil? It didn’t look right, either…it was too perfect and needed something only the 1950s provided: raw attitude. As I drove away, I realized I liked my ’51 Merc a lot better. It was the real thing.
Be sure to read Jim’s other story on Dean’s Garage—Peykans, Zebras, and Jubes.