A car that defied the logic of time and trade-in to become, 46 years later, a classic.
This is not the story of a show car, BUT the story of a survivor. A car that defied the logic of time and trade-in to become, 46 years later, a classic.
This is the story of Harriet.
Actually, it is the story of two Harriets: the car and her namesake, the woman who owned her for 33 years. In 1970, Harriet went down to the Ford dealership where she picked out a canary-yellow Torino GT convertible. But after two weeks, she returned it. Something about the Cleveland 351 four-barrel with 300 hp being a little too lively for her tastes. The dealer was more than happy to trade it for one in pastel blue featuring a 302 two-barrel cranking out a more sedate 220 hp (140 in SAE net form). To Harriet, that was just perfect.
That perfection gave Harriet staying power in Harriet’s garage. In a way, the malaise stasis of the ‘70s and the changing automotive landscape contributed to this car’s survival. No American convertibles after 1976 meant Harriet couldn’t find anything she liked to replace her Torino. And when convertibles did return in the ‘80s, they simply weren’t as special as the car she had. The Torino continued to be her daily driver until sometime in 1995. Sometimes survivors are just lucky.
In January 2003, I happened to find Harriet (the car) in the very same garage. In the dead of winter, I got it started and onto a transporter from Kansas City to Los Angeles.
Back home, it was clear Harriet needed a little TLC before she was once again road-worthy. The studded bias-ply tires had to go, as did the rusted steelies. Period-correct chrome mags with meaty BF Goodrich tires filled the wells instead. Both trans and carb were rebuilt, making for a happy powertrain. The leaky exhaust was replaced by a wonderfully rich-sounding Magnaflow dual-exhaust setup that completely transformed the character of the car. Harriet now had a voice—a full-throated presence.
So what’s it like to drive today?
For an American car built in 1970, the experience is shockingly modern. Every input, every effort is met with a directly proportional response. It’s a light sleeper, coming to life with barely a full revolution on the starter. Blue smoke wuffles from the twin tailpipes as the motor settles into a murmuring idle.
Hit the gas and there’s decent shove to get this 3,500-pound convertible down the road—140 net hp might not seem like much, but as large as this car feels today, it weighs about 500 pounds less than a 2016 Ford Taurus. And when was the last time you saw a Ford Taurus convertible?
Brake feel is firm and progressive, with the front discs offering a fair amount of bite. Punch down farther on the pedal and even the rear drums lock up with a remarkable consistency, generating just enough controllable tire screech to alert that texting pedestrian walking against the traffic light. The steering, while slow, is direct. In fact, the precise turn-in emphasizes the car’s width and softly sprung suspension. There’s a one-two count as the car lists to one side even as it’s changing direction. Lateral support? It’s beneath your hands in the form of the steering wheel. Holding onto the thin plastic rim is the only thing that will save you from sliding across the long expanse of vinyl during a turn.
And that’s what this entire ensemble is all about. The engine and transmission are perfectly suited to the Torino’s mission of a sun-loving boulevardier. Even though Harriet shared a platform with fire-breathing Cobra Jet monsters, this is not a muscle car. Who says it isn’t practical? Two mountain bikes will fit in the trunk—with the top down.
Sure, there aren’t crumple zones, airbags or even shoulder belts, but if you’re going fast enough to roll this car then you’re doing something wrong. It’s all about straight-line cruising. Gauges are on the sparse side. There’s water temperature, fuel and a blank face in the shape of a clock where a clock should be. The long, flat speedometer underscores the linear theme of how the car likes to be driven.
In case there was any doubt about that last point, the combination of a live axle, a unibody frame and the lack of a top means every pothole or bump in the road causes earthquake-like ripples through the body. Throw in 40-plus years of ongoing movement and the entire structure feels like a rolling game of Jenga.
So goes the life of a survivor. After 13 years of ownership, it’s getting to the point where the patina of the mechanicals is starting to wear thin. One of the top’s hydraulic cylinders is starting to leak, meaning raising the roof requires a little human assistance. And that 302, though wonderfully stout, is in need of a rebuild, as evidenced by those massive plumes of blue smoke. The trick is to recapture a little bit of the showroom magic while still retaining that survivor’s badge.
I have no plans to sell it, but I wonder: Will the next owner name the car after me? I hope not. I’d love to see Harriet’s legacy endure for another 46 years.
Lucky Survivor first appeared in the 11/14/2016 issue of Autoweek