Even a Drive in the Suburbs Feels Like a '60s Vacation

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

WYCKOFF, N.J.

NAVIGATING his 1964 Ford Fairlane 500 Ranch Wagon through the late-afternoon traffic clogging roads in western Bergen County, Joe Mamola appeared to be getting a workout. The stop-and-go pace had the slender 48-year-old divorced father muscling the Fairlane's large-diameter, thin-rimmed steering wheel and pressing his right leg into the brake pedal with noticeable force.

Neither the steering nor the brakes are power-assisted in the nearly 50-year-old Ford. Both features were extra-cost options, as in many cars of that period. And given that the car also lacks another option, an automatic transmission, the owner's left leg and right arm were moving in marionettelike choreography -- working the clutch pedal and steering-column shifter for the 3-speed manual transmission -- unfamiliar to many drivers today.

"I like the uniqueness of the three-on-the-tree," he said, using car-buff jargon. With each shift, the clutch issued a "thump" as it engaged.

Mr. Mamola considers the effort of driving his wagon a plus, not a minus. "Whenever I drive the Fairlane, I feel like I'm on vacation. I feel the cares and stress of the job melt away," he said.

His job as a pharmaceutical sales representative comes with a car, and Mr. Mamola's daily driver is an up-to-date but somewhat anonymous 2012 Ford Edge. "It drives great," he said of the crossover utility wagon that has assumed a role once filled by station wagons like the Fairlane. "But it's my office, and it can make me feel hectic."

He attributed at least some of the frenzied feeling of driving the Edge to operating the myriad infotainment technologies that populate its dashboard and center console.

On a sunny, windows-down autumn afternoon, Mr. Mamola was driving from his updated colonial house to a Starbucks in the sprawling Boulder Run shopping center here. He wore a thigh-length brown jacket he'd bought at a garage sale in Taos, N.M. His job had taken him to New Mexico for much of the 1990s.

While issuing a throaty rumble from a low-tone hot-rod muffler, the Fairlane's 260-cubic-inch V-8 nevertheless sounded strained on gentle inclines. "It's a bit tired," Mr. Mamola said. In the spring, he will install a more powerful rebuilt 289-cubic-inch V-8, a factory option for '64 Fairlanes.

Reaching a steadier stride on clear stretches of road, the car rode smoothly and was surprisingly rattle-free, and the steering wheel lightened up in Mr. Mamola's hands. Yet even slow turns caused the modern radial tires to screech, a reminder that the soft-riding wagon was not built to be hurried. We both wore lap belts, which were extra-cost options in 1964.

Mr. Mamola bought the Fairlane from its original owner in Sussex, N.J., three years ago, paying about $5,000. It was a lucky find: rust-free with just 85,000 miles and nearly all original, except for a repaint in the original Wimbledon White and aftermarket wheels of a sort more often seen on vintage Corvettes and Mustangs. There were no rips in the well-preserved padded dashboard or pleated black vinyl seats.

"I didn't have to do anything to this car," Mr. Mamola said. That was a stark contrast to the dozen or so Fairlanes he'd bought, fixed up and sold as a hobby over the last 13 years, mostly while living in New Mexico. All were 1964 models, from the year he was born, although he said the car's styling was the strongest purchase influence.

Mr. Mamola grew up in a "Ford family," a tag once widely used to define product loyalty based as much on emotion as on tangible traits like performance or reliability. His grandfather and two great-uncles ran Mamola Ford, a small dealership in Lodi, N.J., from the 1930s to 1972. In high school, Mr. Mamola drove a 1971 Mustang, a gift from his father that he hot-rodded by installing the 429 cubic-inch V-8 from a Thunderbird of the early '70s. Before the Fairlanes, Mr. Mamola had preferred Ford muscle cars, like the 1968 Torino Cobra that he restored and the 1969 Mustang Mach 1 that he and his two younger brothers bought for their father as a 60th birthday gift.

And, interestingly, it was a muscular Ford that prompted his transition to the more workaday Fairlanes. "I saw a special on the Speed Channel about the Thunderbolt," Mr. Mamola said, referring to a high-powered, stripped-down version of the '64 Fairlane model built specifically for the dragstrip.

Traffic thickened as the car approached the Starbucks parking lot on Franklin Avenue. The Fairlane's presence seemed to cast a mellow spell over nearby cars jockeying for position; at least three drivers granted Mr. Mamola the right of way with cheerful waves.

Once parked, he showed off the wagon's considerable utility, including the cavernous cargo area and power window that retracts into the tailgate. He occasionally puts the wagon to practical use, like carrying 10-foot sections of rain gutter for his house. A rear-facing third-row jump seat technically makes the car an eight-passenger wagon, but Mr. Mamola's Fairlane lacks cushions for the seat -- they were extra-cost accessories when new.

Inside Starbucks, Mr. Mamola sipped bottled water. The enthusiasm in his voice turned to fervor as he shared how much his children -- his son, Jayden, is 9, and his daughter, Ruby, is not quite 7 -- enjoy the Fairlane.

"Until the kids, I wasn't into wagons," he said. "Now, it's an adventure every time we get into the car."

Adventures include trips to local parks or excursions for ice cream, and participation in local old-car cruise nights. "They love going to the shows, so it's a family night out that doesn't cost a penny," he said. "We don't even turn the radio on. We talk, we laugh and sing silly songs. They roll down the windows and wave to everybody." Mr. Mamola shares custody of the children with his former wife, who lives nearby.

Ruby, he said, especially enjoys the attention the car attracts. "I like that wherever we go, people ask what kind of car it is," she said in a message relayed by her father. Jayden, a third-grader, said, "It's so big, we can hang out in it, and it can pull the camper."

The camper is a 1958 Sportcraft trailer that Mr. Mamola is restoring with help from his girlfriend, Lisa Sie. It's an aluminum "canned ham" trailer -- so called for its shape -- popular in the '50s and '60s. It sleeps five.

"The kids are very excited for the camper," Mr. Mamola said. "When I brought it home, we camped out in the driveway." He said he wouldn't use the Fairlane to tow the camper, but rather a 1967 Ford Country Squire, a more powerful full-size wagon that he recently bought and is restoring.

Such wagon-centered family activities could have come out of the pages of the "Station Wagon Living" books that Ford Motor published in the early 1960s to promote wagon sales. Mr. Mamola bought the two-volume set on eBay. The articles and photos showcase cheerful families and young couples picnicking at the beach, camping and even rock climbing, all while seemingly dressed for casual Friday at the office.

Mr. Mamola said his Fairlane and other old cars also provided a lesson for his children. "I show them that when you take care of something, it can last a long time," he said. "Jayden has seen me fix up cars, the before and after, and appreciates that what's old and worn can be renewed."

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here