Ford Flathead I

  Jerome Shea       February 2, 2008      Weekend Wonk

I graduated from college in June, 1964, and in late August of that year I lit out for the West to enter the Masters Program in English at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.* I did my lighting out in a 1950 Ford, a black two-door sedan with a stick shift (“three in the tree”) and the legendary flathead (or “L-head”) V8 engine. First, a word about that engine.

The Ford flathead is arguably the most famous engine ever produced in this country. With just minor modifications, it powered Fords in the USA from 1932 through 1953, a remarkable run. Flatheads were very common until the 1950s—before the Ford, I had a six-cylinder Plymouth flathead—but no other will yank an American boyman back into memory with such force. No other has become almost a single alliterative word, “Fordflathead.” Google “Ford flathead” and you will be astounded at how the romance still thrives.

A flathead is so called because the valves are in the engine block, not in the “head.” (Practically all engines today are overhead valve designs; many if not most also have overhead camshafts.) A flathead is a more compact engine and much quieter than a chattering overhead. Well tuned, a flathead will tick over as quietly as your grandfather’s pocket watch. But there are ticks and there are ticks. One drawback of the flathead was that it produced a lot of heat and did not dissipate it very well. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

This was the mythical trip, the final break with the hometown past, the homeleaving that I could almost taste. I was ready to bearhug my future. Still, in my mind, the states west of the Mississippi were just a vague jumble. I had never been past Chicago, which is where my brother predicted that the Ford would give up the ghost. He was wrong. I stayed a couple of days with my Uncle Ray and his family, and then the real trip, the trip into terra incognita, began.

The Interstate highway system in those days got very spotty after Chicago, if it existed at all. I was not interested in it anyway. Just as today I would take US 66 if I possibly could, for that trip I stuck resolutely to US 30 from Chicago to Ogallala, Nebraska, where I made the final drop down the eastern plains into Fort Collins. US 30 is part of the old Lincoln Highway, “The Main Street of America,” almost as famous as “The Mother Road,” Route 66. It was a good road that took you through hamlets and small towns and cities in western Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. Always a welcome break, always a place to stop.

The Ford and I crossed the mighty Mississippi for the first time, together, at Clinton, Iowa. I forget the date, but I remember that it was sometime in mid-morning. I was 22; I could not guess how old the Ford was, in car years. But old, certainly.

The towns rolled by. Clinton, Cedar Rapids, Ames, Boone—I spent the night in Boone, a farm town where a college kid got flinty stares from guys in Oshkosh overalls. We crossed the Missouri just north of Omaha.

It was hot. Lordy, it was hot that summer! I stopped at a lonely outpost in Nebraska for an iced tea. The thermometer out front of the little diner read 108. That heat was asking a lot of the Ford, too, because the fuel line ran right across the top of the engine. But there was a simple fix. I had wrapped the fuel line in a piece of old sweatshirt and behind the front seat were a gallon jug of water and a turkey baster. Just wet the sweatshirt down whenever you stopped, and vapor lock was never a problem. A good, stout car, that old Ford.

In Nebraska, US 30 follows the Platte River. (The famous Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan was called the Boy Orator of the Platte, “an inch deep and a mile wide at the mouth.”) Fremont, Grand Island, Kearney, North Platte. Around Grand Island the Midwest gives way to the West. Green becomes parched brown. I spent the second night in Ogallala. But by Kearney I was beginning to scrunch my eyes, looking for the fabled Rockies.

Then a Nebraska state trooper pulled me over. I knew I’d done nothing wrong. Sure enough, he was just bored, said he thought it prudent to check my papers since I was young and alone and so far from home. We chatted. He wasn’t much older than I. I told him I was headed to Fort Collins to go to school. When would I see these Rocky Mountains I had always heard about? He guessed maybe a hundred miles farther on, but there was a question mark at the end of that statement. I was far from home and it was clear that he had never left home. I couldn’t help but feel smug as I drove off.

Well, by mid-morning the next day I finally did see the Rockies, majestic on the horizon, and by early afternoon I was in Fort Collins, my home for the next two years. We had made it; slowly and not very surely I would make this world my own. And for the Ford and me, one more adventure awaited.

See you next week.

*See “Great Moments in Teaching II.”

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