1949 Ford Pickup Rescue

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by Clell G. Ballard
The derelict 1949 Ford pickup abandoned in the weeds behind a farmhouse.

There was a time in America when old vehicles were just that: old. When they reached that stage and were no longer drivable, they were often just parked. In dry areas like ours where nothing rusts away, they just sat and sat, usually out of sight. Such was the case of the 1949 Ford pickup in this story.

In 1974 I discovered an old red farm pickup in the weeds behind an unoccupied rural house. To a person who likes old vehicles, it looked pretty good. It took some investigation, but I tracked down the owner and purchased it for the princely sum of $50. My brothers helped me tow it home behind the World War II Dodge Army truck I was in the process of restoring.

A mechanical diagnosis indicated the probable reason for its abandonment: a badly burned exhaust valve. In addition, the flathead V-8 engine was cracked from water left in it during freezing weather. It looked like major expenses would be required to put the pickup back on the road.

A cracked engine block is almost always terminal damage. However, years of experience with Ford flathead V-8 engines taught me that they crack in, meaning the crack is internal and not visible. Experience also taught that some such cracks were semi-permanently repairable by using a block sealer, which is poured into the radiator water. The engine is started and whatever component is in the block sealer seeps into the crack and hardens so water can no longer contaminate the engine oil. I tried that repair and it worked.

Some engine disassembly was necessary to address the valve problem. It is amazingly easy to remove one of an old Ford V-8’s two heads (one on each side of the V) to expose the valves that are in the block. Removal of the intake manifold was also necessary but again such removal is not difficult. The valve seat was renewed and a new exhaust valve was installed. Things were “buttoned back up” with new gaskets and voila! The old pickup was “on the road again.”

New home for an old truck

My interest and repair efforts on behalf of the Ford pickup came more from a desire to save it from oblivion than a desire to use it. One of my brothers who’d originally helped salvage it later expressed interest in the Ford. He offered to pay my out-of-the-pocket repair costs, so ownership passed to him. (Remember that old vehicles in those days had little or no monetary value.)

However, his home was in Montana, 399 miles away. Although the Ford’s brakes were redone and decent tires had been installed, such a distance was a long way to drive a recently derelict old truck. My brother promoted a trip to his place for Thanksgiving for the extended family, including our parents and my other brother’s family. Mass enthusiasm for such an adventure carried the day and that meant it was my job to drive the old Ford to Montana. Others would follow in their comfy modern cars and provide a ride home.

Uneventful journey

It is hard to believe now but my wife and I set out in late November for Montana in the pickup accompanied by our 1-year-old son. We had no seat belts and the little boy traveled the whole way either sitting or lying on the seat between us or in his mother’s arms. That was just the way things were done in those days and we thought nothing about it. Since the pickup’s traveling speed was only about 50 mph, we left many hours before the others and actually traveled most of the way completely alone before they caught up with us.

Although the engine’s condition was less than 100 percent, it purred along like a champ and the aged running gear performed equally well, so driving the 25-year-old pickup wasn’t difficult. Our only anxiety resulted in a relatively small gas tank that just barely held enough fuel to cover the totally unoccupied distance between small towns where gas stations were located. When the needle touched the empty mark on the gauge a road sign indicated the next town was still 30 miles away. We pretty much held our breath that whole distance but arrived there with a huge sigh of relief.

It was dark as we neared our destination and it had begun to snow. Before leaving on the trip I had made a sign to put on the pickup when we delivered it. The TV show Sanford and Son was popular at the time; it chronicled the humorous activities of a junk collector and his son. Their pickup, shown prominently at the start of the program, was a red Ford of the same vintage as the one we were driving. I stopped a few miles from my brother’s house, installed the sign and my wife took my picture. Just down the road we delivered the pickup to its new owner.

Like a cat with nine lives

My brother, who isn’t a farmer but whose place was out in the country, used the pickup for several years about like a farmer would. Equipped with tire chains, the truck was used to haul logs out of snow-covered hills. The pickup was so heavily laden the rear springs couldn’t keep the frame from sitting on the axle. Hay bales were hauled piled high above the cab. Shale rock was hauled to use in building a stone wall. The old V-8 engine never missed a beat.

When he moved to another city, he gave the Ford to his church’s pastor who continued to use it to haul firewood out of the hills. Eventually it needed a replacement engine, which was purchased from a salvage yard and installed. In the 1990s the pastor passed the pickup on to a low-income family that needed a truck and the last he heard, it was still going strong. Reruns of Sanford and Son, with the red Ford pickup figuring prominently in the opening credits, are still aired on cable and satellite stations. Like that old pickup, we hope the one we resurrected is still on the road. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.

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