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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

July 31, 1998

In my 23-year tenure as a high-school auto shop teacher, I had many cars and trucks donated to our program. Most of them were pretty mundane vehicles badly in need of repair. We never had anything really exotic or the target for an organized car-stripping ring - or so I thought until we were given a '50s vintage Ford F-Series pickup truck. It too needed lots of mechanical and cosmetic work and when it was given to us, we dutifully pushed it into our outdoor lockup and went home for the weekend.

Needless to say, I was astonished when I returned the following Monday morning to find that the doors, front nd rear fenders, wheels, glass, front axle and dashboard parts had been carefully removed and apparently lifted over a 10-foot high chain-link fence. The flood lights that were always on during the night had been broken and there were signs that our specially-constructed gate lock had been unsuccessfully attacked.

I later learned that the F-Series Ford pickup truck enjoys an almost cult-like status among truck aficionados and that if the culprits had been given enough time, they might well have absconded with our hapless derelict piece by piece.

That incident wasn't my first exposure to the mystical Ford F-Series, however. The first job I had in the auto business was that of a pump-jockey and lube man at a Mobile service station-cum-general repair shop in my then-home town of San Leandro, California in 1953. It was owned by Les Harkins, a genial mechanic who owned two brake shops as well as the Jaguar/MG/Hillman dealership where I worked. Harkins' pride and joy was a first-year 1948 Ford F-1 pickup that he ostensibly used for picking up parts but in truth, just used it for personal transportation. Its suggested retail price when it was new was $1212.

I was drafted that year and lost track of Les and his pickup until 1957, when he asked me to come to work for him again. He still owned the F-1 but it had seen some hard duty. It's 226 cubic-inch flathead straight six engine used copious amounts of oil, the three-speed manual transmission was noisy in all three gears and the steering column- mounted shift lever would occasionally get stuck between gears. Les later admitted that he should have gone for the optional floor-shifted four-speed when he had the chance.

That F-1 Ford half-ton pickup of 1948 was something of an anomaly in its day. In the '30s and early '40s, Ford pickups were strictly utilitarian, smaller and generally used for light duty. But this new breed of truck (along with its rival, the Chevrolet 3100) was touted as being car-like ("...with living room comfort.." as one Ford ad of the day put it) in the way it drove and handled easily the toughest of jobs. The engine that was in Les' truck was the standard unit but for a few dollars more he could have had the updated V8 (also a flathead) that put out a few more horses.

In its declining years, I made lots of parts runs in that old truck and my arms got lots of exercise wrestling its huge 18-inch steering wheel. In the rain, its single vacuum-operated windshield wiper was barely up to the job and gave up the ghost entirely on uphill runs where engine vacuum went down and the wipers stopped. I never enjoyed driving it but Les continued to use it as a daily commuter until we parted company a year later.

In 1953, the truck was renamed the F-100 and its appearance was changed to the more recognizable floating grill/headlight receptacle design that's so venerated by members of the multitudinous Ford F-100 clubs in existence today. There is even one or two of them in operation in Australia. At the local meets I rarely see many that are in original condition, the majority being customized with exotic interiors and exteriors and modern V8 powerplants. I didn't attend the annual F-100 nationals in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee this year but I'd bet that original versions were in short supply there, too.

The F-Series title has been used continually for the half-ton genre of Ford trucks to this day. Recently, Ford made much of the fact that its F-Series has now been an ongoing model name for 50 years as well as the fact that it has been the best-selling new vehicle in America for a couple of decades. To celebrate its golden anniversary, Ford unveiled the newest version, the all-new 1998 F-150, at the Texas State Fair in Dallas last year. The festivities included a 50-foot tall mock birthday cake and publicity that announced that Ford has sold over 26 million of them during the past half-century. Thousands of owners and spectators filed past the display area.

Having been a member of the original cast, I wish my old Friend Les Harkins could have been one of them.