My First Car, or Remembering the Gray Ghost

March 10, 2018 by  

1952 Willys Aero Ace

Author’s Note: This is an expanded version of a story I wrote in 2012.

1967 Plymouth Barracuda

I got my driver’s license in September, 1970 when I was 16, and I wanted my own car in the worst way. Granted, I had decent access to my parents’ cars, an enormous, wallowing 1968 Mercury Colony Park station wagon (my petite 5’1” mother’s car), and an off-lease 1967 Plymouth Barracuda 2-door hardtop (my step-dad’s go-to-work car, and the car my step-dad and I took to the driver’s license examiner’s facility to take my test).

The Barracuda replaced a truly weird car, a 1960 Simca Aronde P60. The Simca was made in France, but because Simca was owned by Chrysler, parts were more available than you might otherwise think. Anyhow, the Barracuda was a tough car, with the basic 273 cubic inch 2-barrel carb, and bulletproof Torqueflite automatic transmission. I did my darndest to kill it, but I never could. That took my sister’s ex-boyfriend’s doing when, a few years later, Nancy had been given the car, and the ex-boyfriend (soon after becoming the ex-boyfriend) apparently went into our garage, got the fuel canister we used for the lawn mower, and ran a curtain of gasoline along one side of her car. He then set the car on fire. Fortunately, the fire never got much beyond that one side, and really only scorched the paint and melted some of the rubber window and door seals. It wasn’t damaged too badly, and fortunately, that the minor conflagration didn’t jump over to anything in the garage, which could have ultimately set the house on fire. After that incident, the insurance paid to bring the car back up to snuff, but Nancy wanted to distance herself as far away from that car and the memories as possible, so she traded the Barracuda for an early-70s Pontiac Tempest. The ex-boyfriend passed away a few years ago, and all I can say is that many members of my family and I hope his death process was painful and prolonged. Sorry if I sound uncharitable, but that’s a long, sad story that I’ll probably never share in deference to my sister.

But as I always do, I digress. This is supposed to be a story about my first car.

I often bicycled to Ed’s Garage in my home town of Oakland Park, Florida. Ed’s was owned by Bob Schmutzler, a crusty old mechanic, who enjoyed his Pabst Blue Ribbon maybe a bit too much. He gave me my first beer at age 16, and shared some really interesting and educational pictorial material stashed behind a bookcase where he kept his shop manuals. He was from upstate NY and definitely had the accent. He was a highly skilled master mechanic, who had a fine reputation for rebuilding Ford Model A engines, including pouring molten babbit (a tin/lead amalgam) to make new main bearings, designed to support the crankshaft, and were good for maybe 10-15,000 miles before the process was repeated. Modern mechanics have it so incredibly easy, with press-fit main bearings, made from exotic alloys that usually last the life of the car and beyond.

The Willys in my parents’ driveway

And…we’re back. As I said, I was visiting Bob, and probably enjoying an illicit brewski (yeah, like you didn’t when you were 16–I was smoking cigarettes, too!) when an old friend, Bob Reynolds, a leading figure in the Fort Lauderdale Region, Antique Automobile Club of America in the early 1970s, pulled in, driving a most amazing car: a battleship gray 1952 Willys Aero Ace two-door sedan. It had a 161 cubic inch F-head “6” (for the techies out there, an F-head engine had overhead intake valves, and the exhaust valves were side valves). Basically, Willys engineers inexpensively improved the power and fuel economy without having to retool for a complete new engine, or for that matter, even a new cylinder head. The overhead intake valve train was a bolt-on affair, and it improved engine breathing tremendously. I need to research this to be sure, but I am guessing that the main engine block was the classic and nearly indestructible Willys Hurricane 4, of World War II Jeep fame, with two more cylinders tacked on. This basic engine was a flathead, in other words, the valve train was on the side. As valves opened up into the cylinder head, the fuel-air mixture first came up and over into the combustion chamber, and after ignition, the exhaust went out the same way. It was how nearly all automobile engines were built, with few exceptions (Buick and Chevrolet among a very few had overhead valve engines, going back to the late 1920s), before World War II. By 1955, nearly all US automakers had overhead valve V-8s, and most inline 6s had overhead valves, too.

Another digression…sorry. It was instant love when I saw that Willys in Bob’s dirt driveway in front of his shop. Bob had brought it over to display and to put a For Sale sign on it. I asked Bob (Reynolds) how much, and he said (remember, this was 1970, and this was basically an 18-year old used car) $250. It had no obvious signs of rust. The interior looked pretty good (I later found out there were four or five layers of seat covers on it, which I tore off to get down to the original mohair wool fabric which was still in surprisingly good shape. It had a 3-speed manual transmission with column shifter, and overdrive. Because of the gearing, this meant that it was reasonably sprightly off the line, and when the overdrive gear kicked in, it was quiet and composed on the expressway at 65 MPH.

I went home soon after and started working on my parents. Of course, because I was a boy, there were no free cars for me. Free cars were reserved for my sister. There I was: age 16, no job, in my senior year of high school (long story), and in serious lust for an even more seriously oddball car. Remember, this was 1970, and the musclecar was king. Some of the better-heeled guys at my high school had souped up Mustangs, Plymouth Road Runners, Plymouth Barracudas, Pontiac GTOs, and so many more, and I wanted this modestly powered, and bland looking Willys Aero Ace.

A little more about the Aero Willys. After WWII, Willys was in decent financial shape, having helped win the war with their versatile little Jeep, and realized that Jeeps and the brilliantly-designed (by famed auto designer Brooks Stevens) Jeepsters and Jeep Station Wagons weren’t enough—that they needed a real passenger car. They looked at the marketplace and saw a big gaping hole where there was little competition: the small car. The Aero Willys was conceived as an economical “small on the outside, big on the inside,” roomy family car, that was decently if not luxuriously-equipped, comfortable, smooth riding, and got great gas mileage. What they sadly didn’t understand, something Hudson was soon to discover for themselves with the ill-fated Hudson Jet and Kaiser with the Henry J, was that the American car buyer didn’t want small cars. To most American car buyers, having a small car shouted to their neighbors that they were either poor or too much of a freethinker: something a little dangerous in those Joseph McCarthy years. “Real Americans” bought a used, two year old medium priced (Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Mercury, etc.) car. This was socially much more acceptable than shouting to the world that they couldn’t afford a “regular” car. If they weren’t keeping up with the Joneses, they were at least in the general neighborhood. The Rambler American was a relative sales success because it was trimmed to a higher level, and was sold upmarket as a second car for the growing middle (and even upper-middle) class buying public. It also helped that it was as cute as a button. The rest, like the aforementioned Hudson Jet, the Kaiser Henry J, the Crosley, and so many others (GM, Ford, and Chrysler had all developed small cars in the late 1940s, but after some serious market research, the projects were abandoned) were shunned, as was the Aero Willys.

Another problem was that with the lower sales volumes, Willys and other auto manufacturers paid much more for their component parts from suppliers than GM, Ford, and Chrysler paid for similar parts. I think I read somewhere that the Aero Willys was positioned just below the Chevrolet in terms of equipment and features, yet sold for the price of an Oldsmobile or even a lower-line Buick, selling for hundreds more than the cars they were trying to compete with.

But all of that didn’t matter at all for a 16 year old car nut. That was old news. I wanted that car. My folks finally agreed to buy the car, finance it at their local bank, and give me the payment book (I think they were thrilled that this was a car that would be really difficult to get into trouble with). I was also responsible for my own insurance. Gas wasn’t a big deal, selling for 25-30 cents per gallon in those pre energy-crisis days. So, there I was with a car, no job, and no prospects. But I got the car and then dealt with the rest.

Borden BBF Restaurant Glasses

I decided I wanted to try my hand in radio. I had been involved with the Junior Achievement program for a few years. Our sponsor was a local easy listening radio station, WFTL, 1400 AM in Fort Lauderdale. We had a 60 minute show on Saturday afternoons when no one, especially not teen-aged kids, was listening anyway. The product we sold was advertising, and I turned out to be a pretty decent salesman. From this experience, I hit the bricks going from radio station to radio station, trying to get a gig. It was extremely apparent that whatever I was going to do, it wasn’t going to be behind the microphone. I was cursed with a stutter thanks to years of intense bullying, a somewhat high-pitched voice, and a slight lisp for which speech therapy back in elementary school did little to correct, but I gave it the old college try anyway. To my surprise, I got a call back from radio station WAXY, which was almost entirely automated—in other words, everything was on tape. The job I interviewed for was to be a “babysitter.” Three nights a week, I changed tapes on a 12 hour interval, programmed the commercials which were also on tape, and made sure the transmitter hadn’t moved. I did this for the princely sum of $2.00/hour, which was minimum wage at the time. Wow, show biz! The hours were from 6PM to 10PM on school nights, and from 6PM to 7AM on Friday or Saturday night. I think they worked things out so I worked just 39 hours a week—just shy of full-time. The interview went better than I expected and I was immediately hired. The two bucks an hour gave me just enough cash to make the payments, insure the car, put gas into it, and still be able to afford my smokes (yes, I was smoking by then—unfiltered Philip Morris Commanders–it took me another 20 years to rid myself of that habit), and regular infusions of fast food from the Borden BBF restaurant just down the street from the radio station.

The shattered piston

Just to get an idea what the drive would be like (a few miles from Oakland Park to downtown Fort Lauderdale), I made the drive one afternoon. On the way back, I heard a very loud (and expensive) noise within the engine compartment. Something was rattling pretty fiercely. However, the car was still running, so I pressed on, but real slowly. I got to Ed’s Garage after he had gone home for the night. I parked the car, walked home, and talked my long-suffering mother (someone who decidedly did NOT suffer in silence) to take me to and from work while the car was being fixed. Bob called me a few days later to let me know what the problem was. The wrist pin, a round piece of metal that holds the piston to the connecting rod (the thing that goes up and down with the piston in the engine block) had let go in a spectacular way. Fortunately, Willys used replaceable cylinder liners, so the damage caused by the connecting rod banging around in the cylinder for a few miles was isolated to the sleeve, which was probably the hardest item to find, but find one Bob did. The rapidly rocking connecting rod also did a real number on the piston, breaking off big chunks of it. He and his assistant Vern got it all back together and handed me the bill: $75.00. I had to borrow that from my folks, too, but paid it back quickly.

It took a few weeks for Bob and Vern to get the parts together, all the while my mother was mad enough to spit at Bob Reynolds for selling me a lemon, not to mention strenuously objecting to being my chauffeur for a few weeks. When I mentioned this to Bob (Reynolds) one day, he understandably got real defensive. I told him that I understood there was no way, despite my mother’s convictions to the contrary, this could have been predicted. Until the wrist pin failed, probably due to failed metallurgy, the engine was relatively silent and showed no sign of distress…until it did.

Northeast High School

Once repaired, I drove the car to school (Northeast High School, Oakland Park, FL), parking illegally on the grass near the teacher’s parking area (the student parking lot was full). I was occasionally chided by school officials for doing so, and when necessary, I rode the school bus to school, and then took the city bus (a two hour run) home, until the “heat” from school faculty settled down for awhile. My sister and one of her girlfriends, who was living with my family at the time (another long story), would grab a ride with me to school, as it was certainly cooler than taking the school bus!

The Willys turned out to be relatively reliable, with only a couple nagging problems that I was never able to completely sort out. First, it ate batteries. I probably had to replace the 6 volt battery every six months or so. My sister, her girlfriend, and I got very conversant with the process of push-starting the car.

The overdrive solenoid, a mechanical device that engaged a secondary gearset that helped the engine turn slower, thereby increasing fuel economy and reducing engine wear, either lacked power or there was something else wrong inside the transmission. Considering my maintenance schedule was nonexistent (Oil changes? Chassis lubes? Hah!), it’s a credit to the folks at Willys Motors that it ran at all! Anyhow, the the overdrive gear engaged was to bring the car up to speed in second or third gear, usually above 25 MPH, then release the accelerator pedal for a second or so (something anyone who had a Chrysler Fluid Drive car would know about), wait for the click, and then resume accelerating. When coming to a stop, the overdrive solenoid (the thing that went click) would was supposed to release the overdrive gears at about 20 MPH. This was important for several reasons. Most important, however, was the fact that if the overdrive remained engaged, once stopped, the transmission locked up and could not be pushed backward, even with the gearshift in neutral. The usual routine was to slow down and pop the clutch a few times, which usually freed things up. One time, though, it didn’t. I was late for work, and had to rush. The overdrive, as usual, was locked up. I kept popping the clutch, but it refused to free itself. Like I said, I was late. I pulled into the last available parking space, which also conveniently had a tree immediately in front of the car. I had to call a tow truck to lift the (locked up) rear end, and pull the car out of the parking space. Brought back down to earth, I got into the car, started it up, and the overdrive freed itself up with the first pop of the clutch…

The other, scarier issue with the overdrive was the kickdown switch. Those of you who drive cars with automatic transmissions (most of you, I guess), know that as you travel down the road, if you punch the accelerator, the transmission shifts down one (or two or three) gear(s) to boost performance. It worked similar with the overdrive. When you floored the gas pedal, it engaged a switch, which cut off power to the ignition, which in turn reduced the load on the transmission so the solenoid could disengage and put you back into direct drive. Or at least that’s how it was supposed to work… In my Willys, noting previously the rather cranky mood of the overdrive solenoid, flooring the gas pedal only made the engine silent as the ignition was cut off. At the same time, however, the carburetor was still dumping fuel into the engine which, unburnt, began moving through the exhaust system in a gaseous (and highly volatile) state. So, when the gas pedal was released, all of the electrics were again functioning, and that gaseous gasoline ignited in an explosion with a resounding CRACK! It literally sounded like a rifle going off right next to my ear. Scared the living you know what out of me. Let’s just say I was more careful with trying to use the kickdown switch in the future.

Other than the overdrive, there were few other problems. The rear axle made some funny noises, which Bob Reynolds honestly warned me about, and even provided a couple of used rear axle halfshafts, should I ever need to service the axle. I never did, and other than the occasional squeak when I made some speedy turns, it never caused a problem. The only other thing that was a problem at all was a result of maintenance neglect. The brake pedal was sinking lower and lower toward the floorboard, a good sign that the master cylinder needed replacement, or at the very least, needed to be rebuilt. On the day I traded the car in, it almost completely failed as I drove in to the car dealership, and I almost hit my salesman as the car came to a rather lengthy stop. I only hope whoever had to drive the car to the back of the lot didn’t hurt himself!

Seems like I focused on the bad stuff. In reality, I drove that car everywhere, up to West Palm Beach, and down to Miami, and everywhere in between, and it never, ever, left me sitting at the side of the road.

My sister Nancy trying to skewer a potato while directing the driver, who happens to have a bag over his head!

I took it to all kinds of local old car events, such as the one pictured here at the right, a Fort Lauderdale Region AACA (Antique Automobile Club of America) picnic at Fort Lauderdale’s Holiday Park. One of the activities was to drive around an open field while the driver was blinded by means of a paper bag over their head, and the passenger directed the driver by voice toward a traffic cone, where the prize, a potato, awaited. The passenger was given a stick with a nail in it, so as to skewer said potato. The driver, in this instance was my sister Nancy’s boyfriend, of whom I spoke unkindly earlier in this story, and hanging on for dear life out the passenger window, was Nancy.

The Willys at a Pompano Fashion Square Car Show. Note the plastic sheet under the front of the car to catch the dripping oil!

I even showed the Willys at a couple of area old car shows, including one at the Pompano Fashion Square. Admittedly, someone on the mall staff had to put a plastic sheet under the car to catch the oil that was dripping from somewhere under the engine.

My grandfather, in his mid-eighties, had stopped driving and offered me his 1960 Chevrolet Biscayne. It was an Ohio car, and was suffering from terminal body rot. The tailpipe had fallen off just behind the muffler, which was also on its last legs. It leaked and burned oil at an amazing rate—it used something like a gallon of oil per tank of gas. While running, it emitted huge clouds of blue smoke, probably due to worn or frozen piston rings. Grandpa never drove the car above 35 MPH and that served to increase its oil consumption. The leaks, I presume, were from drying seals, due to the car being used so little in its last years. I bought the car for $50.00, and immediately spent another $25 to replace the fuel pump, which was dangerously leaking all over the place. I drove the car for a few months. Every time I stopped at a stoplight, cars on either side of me closed their windows from the smoke belching out of the truncated tailpipe (a side benefit was that I never suffered from mosquito attacks when driving the Chevy). I finally got tired of putting oil into it and parked it in my parents’ driveway. The Willys, now parked in the back yard, again became my primary mode of transportation.

In those days, the early 1970s, Florida had something called an annual vehicle inspection. Let me just say that I never had had the Willys (or the Chevy) inspected. Both would certainly have failed, without a large infusion of cash that I didn’t have. My stepdad, bless him, a man of great wisdom, finally approached me and said that it was time. Time to get rid of the Willys and the Chevy and get a “real” car. As it turned out, someone rang my parents’ doorbell one evening, soon after our talk. It was a gentleman from the neighborhood who saw the Chevy rusting hulk in the driveway, clearly unmoved for several months, and wanted to know if it was for sale. He was looking for a father-and-son project. I said “certainly!” It sold for what I paid for it: $50.00 (so I lost $25 for the replacement fuel pump…). That was half of the problem. The other half required trips to car lots all over town, so I could find a suitable replacement. I saw a few interesting cars:

  1. A 1967 Pontiac Tempest Sprint convertible. It had a 3-speed manual transmission with a floorshift, and had the unusual overhead cam 6 cylinder engine. I drove it to my parents’ mechanic, Dick Nitchman, who told me to get that car back to the dealer as quickly as possible before that engine blew up!
  2. A 1969 Austin America. This was the slightly larger version of the original Austin Mini. It had a novel 4-speed automatic transmission, which I didn’t know was a true disaster waiting to happen. I drove it around the lot and noted the rather loud exhaust system due to some broken welds, and decided not to pursue. I have been wary of British cars ever since.
  3. A new 1972 AMC Gremlin. The base model, with no back seat, a 3-speed manual transmission with floorshift, and air conditioning, would have set me back about $2,000. It would have been a great car for me, but I decided that at $2.00 an hour, the payments would have been too dear. I did like it enough to buy another AMC product a few years later, a firecracker red AMC Pacer X, my first new car.
  4. Finally, I encountered a dark metallic green 1968 Plymouth Valiant Signet. It had the iconic slant 6, Torqueflite automatic, manual brakes, manual steering, Sears under-dash air conditioning, and wonder of wonders, factory bucket seats. The seats were gorgeous, but as it turned out, they were the most uncomfortable seats I ever encountered in an automobile, even worse than my 1973 VW Superbeetle, of which I have written elsewhere on this website! The 750-mile drive from my parents’ house in Oakland Park to my Air Force tech school at Keesler AFB, MS, caused me to suffer in complete agony from the first 50 miles to the end. Anyhow, the car was $1,000, and it gave me a several of years of relatively trouble-free service. It was replaced in 1974 by the aforementioned Superbeetle.

So, in early-mid 1972, it was time to say goodbye to the Gray Ghost. My stepdad and I drove to the car dealership. Bill didn’t know how bad the brakes were getting, and considering what a white-knuckle passenger he was, that was probably a good thing. By planning my stops from a long way away (South Florida was a much quieter and less-populous place in those days), I was able to stop the car when it needed to be stopped (all the while distracting him from noticing that I had to repeatedly pump the brake pedal to do so), and we made it to the dealership. Not exactly safely, but then again, I didn’t kill or even maim anyone in the process (though I did just barely miss hitting a salesman in the lot who didn’t get out of the way fast enough), so I placed that one in the win column.

The Willys Aero Ace was a truly interesting car. Sadly, it spelled the end of Willys (and its successor, Kaiser-Willys) as a maker of passenger cars, but you know, they soldiered on (pun intended) with their four-wheel drive Jeeps, allowing the Kaiser-Willys company to survive when so many other independent manufacturers didn’t. The Aeros were an advanced design with unit body construction, a novel f-head 6-cylinder engine, nimble handling, decent gas mileage, and more fun than you could shake a stick at. Unfortunately, buyers stayed away in droves, as they did for most American small cars in the early 1950s. It took the 1958 Recession for car buyers to re-examine their prejudices against small (inexpensive) cars, and even imports! That recession saved Studebaker from the automotive equivalent of gallows for a few more years with the completely stripped Scotsman in 1957-58 and in 1959 with the Lark. It even convinced struggling American Motors to dust off some body dies lying in the corner of their Kenosha, Wisconsin factory, not used since 1955, and after making a few tweaks, introduced the “new” Rambler American (and in so doing, saved American Motors from the fate that befell Hudson, Packard, Kaiser, Frazier, Willys, Nash, and Studebaker a few years later). In the meantime, very quietly, the VW Beetle was turning into an icon.

I really miss the Gray Ghost, as my parents named it. It was quite a car, and unique? About as unique as they come.

Someday, I’m going to write a story about the great Detroit price wars of the early 1950s, and how it managed to kill at least six venerable independent US marques, in some cases almost immediately, and in one case (Studebaker), dying an incredibly slow death, lingering for almost 15 years. I think I may have summarized that story in one of my other automotive tales on this website.

Aero Willys after a redesign by Brooks Stevens for sale in Brazil

Postscript: The Aero Willys survived, along with its Kaiser Manhattan sibling, beyond the end of US production in 1955. A group of Brazilian entrepreneurs made a deal with Kaiser-Willys to purchase the body dies, unique tooling, and the engineering drawings so that they could build the car down south. They hired famed industrial designer Brooks Stevens to update the look of the Aero Willys, which remained in production from about 1958 until the mid-1970s.