This week’s post is dedicated to anyone who’s ever thought, “They don’t build ’em like they used to.”
On Monday, March 1, 1965, my grandfather proudly took possession of a brand-new Ford.
It was a Fairlane, his first car with power brakes and power steering, not to mention a smooth, powerful 289 V8 engine. Not the sexiest ride, perhaps, but a fine example of why people get nostalgic for Detroit’s vaunted Good Old Days.
The arrival of a newly purchased car is always a big deal, especially when it’s fresh off the production line, and I’m sure my grandpa looked forward to many miles of driving. His excitement practically explodes off the page.
His excitement might have started fading as early as Thursday, March 4, when he found himself back at the dealership:
My grandfather was not a risk-taker, behind the wheel or anywhere else, so I can’t fathom him doing anything that would have blown out his shock absorbers in four days of driving. I can only assume the car came off the line with a couple of defects, and that my grandpa made a 100-mile stop just to get the first batch of bugs ironed out.
From my point of view as a nearly-forty-something, this seems absurd: A brand-new car shouldn’t need any repairs. For the extra money it costs to buy new, you should be able to count on some period of flawless operation.
But I’ve heard other stories like my grandfather’s. A co-worker once told me he bought a car (Buick, I think) in the mid-’80s and was issued a checklist of potential faults. The idea was that he would drive the car for a little while, check off all the stuff that didn’t work or didn’t fit right, then bring it back to the dealer to get those faults repaired. It was simply expected that some glitches would be found.
At any rate, my grandfather’s honeymoon with his new Fairlane lingered at least until May 25, 1965. It might have ended that day, though.
Now, my grandpa owned two Fords at that time — the new ’65, and a ’61 that started the year with 43,000 miles on it. I was going to give the ’65 the benefit of the doubt and assume the older car had the carburetor leak.
But my dad told me the ’61 Ford was at college with him in the spring of 1965. A carburetor leak “would have been my problem, not his,” my dad said. And since my dad went to college in Troy, N.Y., the ’61 Ford would not have been towed to Stamford Motors.
So there we have it — a car less than two months old, making a second trip for repairs, this time with a show-stopping engine defect. Nice.
A few years later, Arthur Hailey’s novel “Wheels” popularized the concept of “Monday and Friday cars” — the notion that cars built immediately before or after a weekend were poorly assembled because of high absenteeism and lack of attention.
Perhaps the ’65 Fairlane was a Monday or Friday car — though in those days, American carmakers had plenty of production problems from Tuesday to Thursday, too.
Ford’s acceptance of sloppy quality control later came back to cost it dearly. Seven years to the week after my grandpa’s carburetor problem, another new Ford with a carburetor defect would cause significant financial and PR damage for the company.
On May 28, 1972, a Ford Pinto stalled out in traffic on a California freeway, was rear-ended, and burst into flames. The car — bought new the previous November — had suffered from chronic stalling and other problems that several trips to the garage had failed to repair. After the accident, the stalling problem was traced to the carburetor.
The crash was the genesis of Grimshaw vs. Ford Motor Co., the legal case that accused Ford of willfully ignoring hazardous flaws in the Pinto’s fuel-tank design. The publicity surrounding the case would forever brand the Pinto as a firetrap and FoMoCo executives as callous, though of course the company disputed both conclusions.
Ford held on to my grandfather as a customer through 1969, when he bought another Fairlane — this time a homey cream-colored sedan. He passed the ’65 down to my Aunt Elaine, who used it for several years.
The ’69 model served him well until the early ’80s, when my grandpa broke with decades of tradition and bought a Chrysler product instead of a Ford. He would go so far as to buy a Honda before being prevailed upon to turn in his keys in the ’90s. (Edit: I have my family history wrong. See the Comments for a correction.)
I would have been interested to see how my grandfather rated the cars he owned over the decades, and where the ’65 Fairlane ranked among them. Perhaps it was one of his favorites.
But if it were, that impression would not have been based on its first two months.
Come back tomorrow for a related quick-hit post.