Old Forty

Even the best of rides can throw a rod once in a while

By Tom Bryant

In 1959, the summer before my first year of college, my dad bought me a 1940 four-door deluxe Chevrolet. It was the finest car ever made, at least to me. There is something about a youngster’s first automobile. The occasion creates an aura of independence, open roads, traveling, seeing the country. Adventures are only limited by the imagination.

Dad bought the almost 20-year-old car at an estate sale in Pinehurst and called me at the ice plant where I was working a summer job before going off to Brevard College. He was the superintendent at the plant and gave me the job to supplement my spending money for school. The chief engineer on duty that day called me to the phone that was hanging on a post in the engine room. Dad said, “Tom, I need you to help me move some stuff at home. I’ll pick you up in a few minutes.”

“What stuff? I’m in the middle of pulling ice right now.”

“Never mind, let Walter take over. You’ll only be gone an hour or two.”

Walter was another summer employee, and we alternated the chore of pulling ice from the huge brine tanks. We used an immense crane that could lift 10 blocks weighing 400 pound each all at once. It was not my favorite job around the plant, so I was glad to let him take over.

When Dad arrived, he went to his office to check messages, and I waited in the car. In a few minutes he was back. “I need to go by Pinehurst, and then we’ll run home to move that swing set for the girls.” My sisters were into gymnastics and had an exercise bar and swing set in the backyard. We needed to move it to a shadier spot.

“I hope I’m still on the clock,” I joked. “I need the money. School is only six weeks away.” In those days I made the minimum wage, which was a dollar an hour. A 40-hour week provided, before taxes, $40, a lot of money in the ’50s.

I assumed we were going by the old chicken plant in Pinehurst where Dad was the consultant for the refrigeration system, so I didn’t pay a lot of attention when we pulled in to the driveway of an old house that had seen better days. He stopped in front of a ramshackle single garage. A dusty car squatted forlornly in the dark opening. “There it is, buddy roe,” he said.

“There what is?”

“Your new ride.” I piled out of the car and, somewhat dazed, walked to the garage and the dust-covered vehicle. It was so dirty, with years of accumulated grime, that I could hardly tell its color.

“What do you think?” Dad asked.

I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know what to say. “Will it run?”

“Sure it’ll run. I checked it out before I bought it. It’s gonna need a lot of cleaning and some small repairs, but she’s solid and, with a little work, will carry you many miles.”

I opened the driver’s side door and crawled in. It was magnificent, dirty but magnificent. I looked out at Dad and asked, “Can I crank it?”

“Sure, the switch for the starter is on the floor. I’ve already put in a new battery, so she should fire without any problem.”

I pushed down on the switch and the old vehicle roared into action.

“OK, son, back her out and I’ll follow you home.”

That was easier said than done. When I was just on the outskirts of Pinebluff, cruising at about 40 miles an hour, the right back tire blew like a firecracker. As I was pulling to a slow stop on the side of the road, the left front tire also blew out with a bang. Dad was right behind me and pulled over, got out of his car and walked up laughing. “I thought we’d make it home anyway,” he said, chuckling. “Those old tires are the originals and are dry rotted. They’ll have to be replaced. You wait here and I’ll get a wrecker to pull your car back to the plant, and we’ll put on a new set of tires.”

The rest of the day was a blur. Dad went to town and bought a set of tires from the automotive store, and the guys working at the plant helped me install them. I remember changing the oil and using some of the plant’s equipment to grease the old vehicle. It had been years since she had been serviced.

That day began a love affair with the ancient ride that we nicknamed plainly “The Old Forty.” I used her for all sorts of things: camping, hunting, fishing. She carried friends and me many, many miles safely and only left us, or me, rather, stranded once. It was my sophomore year and I was on the way to school, clipping through Hendersonville, about 20 miles from Brevard, at a pretty good pace. I topped a rise right outside of town and heard something give way in the engine. I pulled into the gravel parking lot of a two-pump service station, got out of the car, raised the hood and heard rattling. It sounded like something in the motor was using a hammer trying to get out.

An old guy, dressed in bib overalls, walked over, looked under the hood and motioned for me to shut down the engine. “I’m sorry, old sport,” he said as he leaned in the passenger-side window, “but I do believe you have, as they say in the vernacular, thrown a rod.” He spit a dollop of chewing tobacco out the corner of his mouth. “It looks like you’re heading to school,” he said, noticing the load of camping gear, clothes and boxes in the back seat.

“Yes sir, Brevard. The semester starts tomorrow.”

“Well, I’ll tell you, we might be able to solve this little quandary. Brevard is right down the road. I’ve got some business there this afternoon and if you don’t mind being towed by an old pickup, as a matter of fact about as old as this beauty you’re sporting, I can tow you to school and then you can make arrangements to get her fixed at your convenience.”

We hooked a chain from the front of Old Forty to the hitch on the back of his pickup, and that’s how I arrived at college. The old gentleman and his ancient truck deposited me at the rear of my dorm, right across from the cafeteria where a line was forming for evening chow. A cheer went up as we unhooked from his pickup and pushed my car into a parking spot. The old guy grinned and said, “It looks like some of those folks are glad to see you.”

That was an understatement. “The Old Forty” became famous as the conveyance that, even though it wouldn’t run, brought me back to an institution of higher learning, or so said many of my friends.

I had the car repaired the next spring and we went on to many more adventures.

A few years later, I was sitting in the front seat of the old vehicle in the parking lot of Ritchie’s Drive-in Bar and Grill, on the outskirts of Elon College, another bastion of higher learning I was attending at the time. I had Old Forty idling, heater going full blast, attempting to warm Linda and me. It was right frosty outside and the windows were fogged. I had been planning for weeks to propose marriage to the cute little girl sitting there in the passenger’s seat, and I made the decision, for better or worse, to pop the question.

The stars and moon must have been perfectly aligned that night because Linda said “yes,” and I swear I could hear the old car happily applauding, or maybe it was just the valves rattling as I shut her down and kissed my soon-to-be bride.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

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