A DEAL IN THE DESERT

Hav­ing heard tales of Ki­wis trav­el­ling to the US dur­ing the early ’90s and buy­ing up Amer­i­can tin at lu­di­crously low prices, Greg Jor­dan de­cided it was time to give it a go him­self

New Zealand Classic Car - - Fu­ture Car 1963 Ford Thun­der­bird - Words: Ash­ley Webb Pho­tos: Adam Croy

Greg Jor­dan had al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced some suc­cess in a sim­i­lar vein, buy­ing a 1960 Ply­mouth Belvedere at the bulk sale of Archie Somerville’s col­lec­tion from his barn in Whit­ford, east of Auck­land. Some read­ers may re­mem­ber this event. Buoyed by this good for­tune, Greg felt the next step was a trip to the States — this was long be­fore peo­ple were do­ing such a thing reg­u­larly, let alone as a busi­ness. Sure, he had heard sto­ries of guys go­ing to the US for cars, but he’d never ac­tu­ally met some­one who had done it.

How­ever, the first hur­dle to over­come was find­ing the cash. Back then Greg was work­ing as an ap­pren­tice fit­ter-turner liv­ing in a mez­za­nine work­shop across the road from where he was serv­ing his time. So, not ex­actly a cham­pagne in­come.

There was one way to solve the prob­lem, and that in­volved liv­ing and work­ing in one work­shop at night, and work­ing in the other by day, then sav­ing ev­ery­thing he earned. He’d of­ten wear his over­alls all day and then con­tinue work­ing at night on his other projects un­til it was time to go to bed. Nor­mal clothes were an ex­pense he could do with­out.

After a few years of se­ri­ous sav­ing, at the age of 22 Greg had amassed the re­quired funds for a trip to the US to buy a car. He’d ar­ranged ship­ping be­fore leav­ing the coun­try and, from mem­ory, that cost was $1800. The deal in­volved a con­tainer with built-in re­frig­er­a­tion that was sent over to the US full of New Zealand meat, but which was due to re­turn empty — al­though the re­frig­er­a­tion unit took up space at one end, it was per­fect for a car to come back in as the bon­net would fit in the area un­der­neath the unit.

The other fi­nan­cial as­pect in his favour was the ex­change rate at that time — about 64 US cents to the New Zealand dol­lar, sub­stan­tially bet­ter than the 40 cent per NZ dol­lar that pre­vailed for much of the lat­ter half of that decade and the early 2000s.

The Big OE

Along with a friend, Greg flew to Los An­ge­les and, from there, to Hous­ton with a 20kg tool­box as his stowed lug­gage. He didn’t know what he was af­ter, and while Chrysler prod­ucts were amongst his pre­ferred op­tions he was flex­i­ble. What Greg did know was he wanted to get some­thing which was rust free — that meant a car which, prefer­ably, had spent its en­tire life in one of the desert states.

Hav­ing flown on to Texas and picked up a U-haul truck at Hous­ton, Greg scoured the lo­cal pa­pers, spot­ting an ad­ver­tise­ment for a 1963 Thun­der­bird just out­side Dal­las in one of the satel­lite com­mu­ni­ties stuck out in the desert.

A drive out to in­spect proved that it was a true desert car, one which had never been garaged, hav­ing been parked out­side like most ve­hi­cles in an area that looked like it hadn’t seen rain for years. The ven­dor was a limou­sine op­er­a­tor and had a fleet of cars, all parked in the sand as well. A road test proved the Ford went OK, and it looked to be in tidy con­di­tion — the ask­ing price was a mere US$2500. >

Hav­ing flown on to Texas and picked up a U-haul truck at Hous­ton, Greg scoured the lo­cal pa­pers, spot­ting an ad­ver­tise­ment for a 1963 Thun­der­bird just out­side Dal­las in one of the satel­lite com­mu­ni­ties stuck out in the desert

On re­flec­tion, Greg reck­ons the ca­sual trans­ac­tion proved just how naive he was — he re­calls hav­ing al­most all the re­quired money in one bun­dle, all he needed to do then was to add a cou­ple of bills to make up the pur­chase price. He handed over the cash to the seller, who promptly gave Greg a beer, be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing into a back room for a mo­ment. On re­turn­ing, he an­nounced that he had counted the money and it was $100 short. It was hard to ar­gue and be­sides, Greg wasn’t able to prove whether all the money was there or not, so he con­ceded that he must have mis­counted, not in­con­ceiv­able. He handed over the ‘miss­ing’ $100.

Cross Coun­try Trip

Set­ting off on the long drive back to Los An­ge­les, Greg ini­tially started by head­ing east­wards — the wrong di­rec­tion, of course — into the swamp­lands of Louisiana just across the bor­der from Dal­las. He was stopped early af­ter cross­ing the State line by a po­lice of­fi­cer in a plain-clothes car. The of­fi­cer was sur­prised to find a young New Zealan­der driv­ing around amongst the al­li­ga­tors and the slums in his T-bird. Greg re­mem­bers the cop shak­ing his head in dis­be­lief as he walked back to his ve­hi­cle, in all like­li­hood won­der­ing whether the home coun­try Greg had de­scribed was ac­tu­ally real. This was his only brush with the law dur­ing the whole trip and, hav­ing done noth­ing wrong, he was soon back on the right road and on his way to­wards Texas, hav­ing stopped in Shreve­port.

The other pur­pose of the trip, aside from buy­ing cars, was to fill the U-haul truck up with Amer­i­cana to ship home for sale at an Amer­i­can Retro store which his trav­el­ling part­ner owned. So on the way they stopped at op shops, sec­ond-hand stores and flea mar­kets, with the T-bird be­com­ing the hack ve­hi­cle while the U-haul was grad­u­ally filled up.

One of the first moves on the car front was to go to a Pep Boys auto store and buy a new car­bu­ret­tor, as the Ford was us­ing more fuel than Greg fig­ured it should. The think­ing was that a car­bu­ret­tor re­place­ment early on would reap ben­e­fits in fuel sav­ings across the mileage yet to run, pay­ing for it­self on the way. The re­place­ment was a four-bar­rel Hol­ley, a com­mon car­bu­ret­tor and one known for its re­li­a­bil­ity. The unit on the car looked de­cid­edly tired, crusty from years of desert driv­ing, with leaky

gas­kets. Greg picked up a set of plugs at the same time, as well as a few other ba­sic parts that also needed re­plac­ing.

From there the friends made fast time across Texas, down through Austin and San An­to­nio, then back up to­wards Amar­illo. A vial of Nodoz caf­feine–based tablets proved help­ful with con­cen­tra­tion, as much of the driv­ing was done at night, free­ing up their time to tour around the towns and cities on the way dur­ing the day.

Hav­ing al­ready fit­ted the new spark plugs in a lo­cal car park, they stopped in an aban­doned gas sta­tion on the side of route 40, out­side Amar­illo, in or­der to get some shade from the blaz­ing sun to change the car­bu­ret­tor. The new unit went straight on with a new gas­ket, and af­ter Greg ad­justed the float lev­els and idle jets, the rig was up and run­ning in­side an hour. He dis­tinctly re­mem­bers tak­ing the Ford onto the road im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards and, in his haste to test the new set-up, he gassed it down the wrong side of the road for about 50 me­tres be­fore com­ing to his senses and pulling across to the right-hand verge.

Road­side Re­pairs

Sev­eral days of driv­ing by night and buy­ing up Amer­i­cana by day fol­lowed as they crossed New Mex­ico and into Ari­zona. They took the Al­bu­querque-flagstaff-phoenix route, dis­cov­er­ing that the lat­ter was a no­tably at­trac­tive town, with plenty of ir­ri­ga­tion — it was a re­lief to see green­ery and trees af­ter sev­eral days of driv­ing through arid waste­land. >

Pretty soon they were on the other side of Ari­zona. This was where the first break­down oc­curred, as the T-bird lost power and coasted to the side of the road in a rather du­bi­ous look­ing area of a town. It was day­light, for­tu­nately, and Greg was soon sur­rounded by a group of the cu­ri­ous lo­cal cit­i­zens, most of whom looked like anti-metham­phetamine-us­age poster boys. He had no choice but to re­main cool and get un­der the hood for a bit of en­gine di­ag­no­sis. Plenty of fuel was be­ing fed into the Hol­ley, but with no spark it was soon clear that the coil had failed. The group of on­look­ers had in­creased in size, as had the level of ag­i­ta­tion af­ter Greg per­suaded one of the mem­bers to fetch a coil from a nearby wreck for a ten­ner. The ten­sion in the sit­u­a­tion was pal­pa­ble, and one of the older guys watch­ing whis­pered to Greg that he needed to be care­ful, as the boys were con­coct­ing a ‘game plan.’ What ex­actly this en­tailed, Greg wasn’t sure, but he sus­pected it in­volved rob­bing him of any valu­ables.

It was early evening and the light was fad­ing when Greg fi­nally got the sec­ond-hand coil fit­ted, and he was re­lieved when the Ford fired back to life first pop. A royal wave and they were out of there, all the more aware that break­downs in back­wa­ter Amer­ica can be haz­ardous to man and ma­chine alike.

The tem­per­a­ture re­ally started to climb as our in­trepid he­roes en­tered Cal­i­for­nia, and Greg learned the im­por­tance of de­flat­ing tyres when en­ter­ing a desert the hard way while pass­ing through Joshua Tree Na­tional Park. Much of their pre­vi­ous driv­ing had been done on con­crete, but now the com­bi­na­tion of as­phalt and tem­per­a­tures around the 50-de­gree Cel­sius mark over­pres­sur­ized the rear left tyre. The tube blew through the side­wall, but re­mained in­flated — stick­ing out like a lit­tle bal­loon. On open­ing the boot to get the spare out, Greg found that it had done the same thing, al­though its tube had ac­tu­ally burst.

He was forced to de­flate the left rear tyre and drive on — all the way to Los An­ge­les, an­other 200 or so kilo­me­tres — he could hear the tyre make an un­nerv­ing noise ev­ery time the dam­aged part came round to the road. Although he feared the tyre would blow com­pletely, it lasted the whole way. >

Another Deal

Once in Los An­ge­les, Greg geared up to buy an­other car to ship back home along­side the Thun­der­bird. The trick here was to get the lo­cal sec­ond-hand pa­per early — and Greg queued up at 5am in the morn­ing at the print­ing house which pro­duced it, gath­ered in the dark with around a dozen hard­ened lo­cal sec­ond-hand deal­ers. As soon as the first bun­dle of pa­pers was printed they were brought out, and each dealer be­gan trawl­ing through their rel­e­vant sec­tions in earnest. By 6am Greg had his sec­tion all marked up, and was ready to start pes­ter­ing peo­ple with early-morn­ing calls. A few hours later he had al­ready viewed a cou­ple of cars and man­aged to pur­chase a 1958 Pon­tiac from a Mex­i­can owner. It was a black­plate car and had only one per­son on the pa­pers other than the Mex­i­can, who in­sisted on meet­ing Greg in the fore­court of a Mc­don­alds. The owner didn’t be­lieve that Greg ac­tu­ally had the cash to buy un­til he fronted up with his pile of $100 notes. The cost of the Pon­tiac was $4000 — with Greg sure that there was some­thing of a pre­mium on La–based cars as com­pared those bought in the Texan desert.

Although both the ve­hi­cles Greg pur­chased were from dry States and rust free, the Thun­der­bird proved to have the most solid body. What was in­ter­est­ing about the Pon­tiac was the tar-like residue present on the top­sides of the trim on the body — very dif­fi­cult stuff to get off — and ap­par­ently smog was the cul­prit: all the years of be­ing on the road in the city with the world’s worst air pol­lu­tion through the ’70s and ’80s had left its in­deli­ble mark.

With that fi­nal deal done, a few days later all the pa­per­work was com­plete, and both cars were on their way back to New Zealand.

Home Soil

Once the Thun­der­bird was safely here, hav­ing been driven over 3000 kilo­me­tres in Amer­ica and now within a kilo­me­tre of Greg’s One­hunga work­shop, where it was to be stored, >

The owner didn’t be­lieve that Greg ac­tu­ally had the cash to buy un­til he fronted up with his pile of $100 notes.

the Ford was in­volved in an ac­ci­dent whilst wait­ing for traf­fic to clear at the Royal Oak round­about. Greg couldn’t be­lieve his bad luck but, for­tu­nately, the dam­age was largely su­per­fi­cial — the car that had hit the Thun­der­bird had only been trav­el­ling at walk­ing speed at the time. The re­sult was a dented rear quar­ter panel and a bro­ken badge.

The dam­age was re­paired, and 15 years of stor­age fol­lowed for the car as Greg at­tended uni­ver­sity, and spent time work­ing over­seas. By the time it came out of stor­age, its en­gine needed to be stripped and new head gas­kets fit­ted in or­der to get it go­ing.

Over the last few years the Thun­der­bird has been given the full treat­ment — be­ing fully re­built from top to bot­tom, in­side and out. This proved to be rea­son­ably easy, as the body was so rust free — in­deed, the dip strip­per who re­moved the paint re­marked that the Ford was the best car that he had ever stripped, with the pan­els and doors look­ing like new with the paint off. On the other hand, all the rub­ber com­po­nents had per­ished in all that harsh US sun, and there was a fair amount of red desert dust and dead in­sects trapped in spa­ces within the body.

Phil Stokes at­tended to the car’s panel and paint, while Mor­ri­son Diesel pro­vided the me­chan­i­cal ser­vices. Ken at Auck­land Au­to­mat­ics gave the Thun­der­bird’s trans­mis­sion a once-over, and Ja­son Loose from Cut-loose Uphol­stery was re­spon­si­ble for re­fur­bish­ing the car’s classy in­te­rior.

Now the Ford is com­plete and com­pletely re­stored, it’s time for Greg to con­cen­trate his ef­forts on the next project — he’s not en­tirely sure what that’ll be as yet, but one thing’s for cer­tain, it’ll be one heck of an ad­ven­ture.

Now the Ford is com­plete and com­pletely re­stored, it’s time for Greg to con­cen­trate his ef­forts on the next project — he’s not en­tirely sure what that’ll be as yet, but one thing’s for cer­tain, it’ll be one heck of an ad­ven­ture

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