#RoadTripRewind: Ford Galaxy 500 'Land Yacht' Crosses the Atlantic for European Adventure

I remember it like yesterday; My dad brought the family to the United States on March 4, 1969 (we just celebrated our 50th anniversary as Americans). It was a cold sunny day when we landed in Detroit, for some reason I remember the 1 meter snowbanks on the runway. My uncle (our sponsor) and a family friend met us at the airport and drove us to our new residence, near our church, in the biggest “land yacht” I have ever seen–can’t remember the make/model. But I do remember vividly, the beautiful tree lined street, the manicured lawns (the neighbor next door had the putting green grass – he cut/trimmed it with hand sheers), the beautiful springtime and most interesting to a 9-year-old (space cadet) was the Apollo coverage and the moon landing. Imagine my admiration for our new country.

My mom and dad promptly found jobs in the nearby factories and started the American dream. My dad’s biggest dream was to own a Ford – in Europe, Fords were perceived as a powerful status symbols. So, after 3 months of hard work and savings, he walks into Bob Thibodeau Ford in Centerline and buys a new plum blue Galaxy 500 with the 390cid engine right from the showroom floor with $3500 in a brown paper bag. I remember this car well, my brother (7 years old at that time) could not reach the other side of the back seat, laying down.

After 5 years of hard work and difficult acclimation to the new environment, my Dad decided it was time for a family vacation to the “Old Country” with his pride and joy, the Galaxy.

He bought cruise ship tickets from New York to Cherbourg, France, on the Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner (the newest/fasted ocean crossing vessel at that time), including a ticket for the Galaxy. He put a roof rack on the car and we load everything we own (because we could) in the trunk/roof.

On a hot August afternoon we start the ~700 miles to our destination, New York, Pier 42. Mind you, no GPS or cellsphones, just a AAA map with a big circle around NY Port. First stop, Ohio turnpike. We actually stopped at a rest stop, to call our Aunt to double-check that we locked the doors to our house. Pennsylvania was uneventful but getting around New York was not fun. My dad finally tired out, booked a room at a pricey hotel(based on advice of a local joker). The next morning, they loaded our Galaxy and a Mustang fastback into the QE II cargo hold with a large crane and a cargo net – that was impressive. Our first cruise, on a British ship, tea promptly at 4 p.m., was an experience I will never forget. Bunk bed accommodations, the largest waves splashing on our portal – we could not play in the saltwater pool on the 1st Level – waves were too rough and cold.

We arrive in Cherbourg, France five days later. Same cargo net drill unloaded the Galaxy and the Mustang, and as the Mustang roared into the sunset, we were off on our ~2000 mile European adventure, southern route, in a fully loaded Galaxy 500.

You may not know this, but when a vehicle is loaded onto a ship, it can only have one gallon of fuel. Well, my dad was furious when they drained a full tank down to one gallon during loading in New York, and now in a foreign country with only one gallon in the tank, his blood pressure sky high, he aggressively tried to find a fueling station. Luckily there was one nearby. You can’t imagine the fuel prices/gallon in France, and my furious dad paying in dollars at a ridiculous exchange rate…there were a few choice words exchanged in 5 different languages between my dad and the French fuel pump attendant.        

Next stop, Lyon, in the south of France; beautiful scenic cruise through the French countryside on newer roads in our “cruiser” – quite the experience. The 500 performed flawlessly, even on that European unleaded (maybe).  Again, every 300 miles or so, comic relief was supplied by my dad and a new fuel pump attendant exchanging a few choice words.  The scariest part –crossing the Alps between France and Italy. We were warned by everyone, even the fuel attendants, “do not miss the tunnel under the Alps…turn right for the tunnel…”. My exhausted dad misses the tunnel and sends the Galaxy and us to the TOP of The ALPS – fully loaded. We had a snowball fight at the rest stop at the top, but then he needed to negotiate the switchback narrow lanes downhill and to try not to overheat the brakes. We made it! My brother and I helped by pushing the imaginary brakes in the back seat. I must stop here and praise, and give thanks to the designer of the 1969 Galaxy 500 brake system – great job.

A quick day through Italy’s northern region; Milan, Torino, the greatest, smoothest blacktop roads I’ve been on – the Galaxy truly floated on those roads.

Nightfall finds us at the border crossing to the “Old Country” in Trieste. A controversial city in the contested border between Italy and Yugoslavia. The Italians were happy to see us and the large vehicle leave their border – they were running out of unleaded fuel…but the Yugoslavs wanted to search every inch of that Galaxy before allowing visas. Well, my dad, speaking their language fluently, negotiating with American cigarettes and French brandy, paid the duty on the American tools he was importing – hey, Craftsman tools are hard to find in an Eastern Block county.

We finally arrived in Tetovo, Yugoslavia, in the early morning, not even sure what day it was, being greeted by our “Big Fat Yugoslavian Family.” My Dad proudly displaying his steel steed and after he rested, gave several family members a ride in the Galaxy.  At one time he had nine kids in that car. He even built an addition (garage) to our house in the city. He was now part of the new “Elite” in the city and everybody knew him. When he would drop us off at school with the Galaxy, everyone looked, my brother and I felt uncomfortable, so we started walking the 3 kilometers to school – “great exercise” is what we told our dad.

A happy coincident; in the summer, this city is visited by many Americans coming back to the “Old Country” to see family. On market day, our dad paid to park the Galaxy in the Center Square parking lot – the only parking lot that can accommodate our “yacht.” The attendant instructs him to park next to “dat big ting,” pointing to a Cadillac that has its rear end sticking half way past the Fiat next to it. We park next to the Cadillac and now both cars are blocking half the lane. We notice the Caddy has a Michigan plate and all the bright silver badging to go with it – that was as “bling” as it got back then. The “weird” part of this meeting with the Cadillac is, it was my wife’s family’s car – she was 8 year old at that time, I was 15. Our cars might have "met," but we didn’t until 1984.

Happy event: I got to drive this Galaxy, at 15, from my grandparent’s village in the mountains, down switchback roads, at night, in the fog…..I loved that car.

Interesting fact: The Galaxy 500 had a 390cid motor that was produced at the Rouge Engine Plant, the same place I started my Ford career as a manufacturing engineer in 1993.

That car gave me a great vacation, guided me to my beautiful wife of 34 years, and started my Ford

We came back to the states with our Galaxy, and regrettably was stolen from our front yard in Detroit.  But we will never forget the adventures our Ford Galaxy brought to our family!

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