We just called it the “black panel truck.” Before today’s small delivery vans, commercial trucks without side windows were called panel trucks.
Our truck was a 1951 Ford with a flathead V-8 engine. My grandfather had bought it to haul liquor to his bars and package stores. It had only one fixed seat, for the driver, and a big dent in the right front fender. My grandfather said it was caused by collision with a bear, but that may just have been a story told to my grandmother.
The truck and our experiences with it are the stuff of legend in my family.
In 1961, my grandfather died, and my dad had to take over the stores scattered over a number of small towns in Central and North Florida. Every Saturday, we would load the black panel truck with cases of liquor (mostly pints and half pints) and deliver to the stores, taking inventory at each stop.
I was the only 10-year-old who could recite the names of popular brands of alcohol from the early 1960s. These were mostly bourbons and whiskeys. The closest thing to vodka was a type of grain alcohol called Everclear. It was 190 proof. I am sure the name referenced the color, not its effect.
Our Saturday runs were a family affair sometimes lasting all weekend. After stops in Sorrento and Mount Dora, our next stop was always the McDonald’s in Ocala on our way to Trenton and Fanning Springs.
This stop may sound mundane, but at the time, Ocala had the only McDonald’s in the area. We loaded up on 15-cent cheeseburgers for our continued journey. This McDonald’s was one of the originals with the old golden arches and seating outdoors only.
I mentioned that the black panel truck had only a fixed driver’s seat, but it also had a folding aluminum chair for the co-pilot (more about that later). That left the rest of us sitting atop the cases of liquor. We thought nothing of it.
As we grew and became drivers, the black panel truck stayed in the family. As each brother turned 16, he was able to use the truck for transportation. It’s a teenage boy’s prerogative to treat any vehicle like a hot rod, and we were no different. Loud pipes, surfboard decals and hand-painted graphics were all added to this tired old workhorse.
We had many memorable days and hours in the black panel truck. It carried us to school, the beach and even on dates. We put an old couch in the rear to supplement the limited seating.
I had made a Friday-night date with a girl in one of my high-school junior-year classes. When I pulled into the driveway in a blast of noise, decals and faded black paint, her father came into the yard. No sign of my date. He asked me where we were going, and I told him the drive-in theater. He took a look inside the truck, saw the couch, and shook his head no, heading back into the house. After some time sitting in the yard, I realized there would be no date that night.
Let’s get back to the folding aluminum chair co-pilot seat. One day, I came home and Don Whalen and my brother Mike were repairing the brakes. Without a lot of knowledge of brakes, I think they mostly guessed their way through the job.
To test their handiwork, Mike drove down the street toward an area we called the Gator Pits. Don was sitting in the folding chair. Not surprisingly, the brakes failed and the panel truck went over the edge of the pit.
Mike came out pretty well; however, the folding aluminum chair did little to protect Don. They both survived, but the metal dashboard had a big dent in it on Don’s side, caused by the collision with Don’s body. From that day on, the dent was known as the “Whalen Dent.”
As we grew older, we used the black panel truck less and less, opting instead for old jeeps and pickups. Eventually, the black panel truck was driven to a parcel of land our family owned in Cassia. It was drained of fuel and oil and placed on concrete blocks.
There it sat for years, until the land was sold. The new buyer said he filled the oil and added gas and a battery. It fired right up, and he used it on the property to haul hay. Flathead Fords are literally “cast iron.”
Now when I see an old Ford panel truck of any color, I can’t help but wonder if it is our old truck. If I do find it, you can bet the aluminum chair is gone.
The Whalen Dent? Well, that may have been harder to get rid of.
— Mancinik is a fifth-generation Floridian and a native of DeLand. He has been an active Realtor for more than 40 years. If his story has inspired you to share a memory of growing up in West Volusia, we’d love to have it. Send 600 words or so to firstname.lastname@example.org, along with your name and contact information.