It has been suggested that since I am old I should write about old stuff. Perhaps this presumes that old buggers don’t know much about new stuff, and that presumption is validated by the time I spend trying to get all of these new-fangled gadgets to work. With that in mind, I recently have been doing even more reminiscing than normal for an old guy. The other day, as I was on my way to an appointment an hour’s drive away, and with Barb dozing next to me, I noticed how comfortable and secure I felt in my car. This was not always the case. For the past hundred years, thousands of people have devoted themselves to improving the comfort and reliability of the horseless carriage, and there I sat with the sudden realization that I was taking it all for granted.
My first car was a ’36 Ford 3 window coupe. It was two-toned green and, although 12 years old, was still the coolest set of wheels in town. I was working at an automobile agency at the time and got first dibs when she came in as a trade. I called her Alice. The previous owner was an auto mechanic whom I knew, and he had done all kinds of cool things to her, not the least of which was to outfit her with hydraulic brakes, a very handy addition since conventional wisdom was that you could stop a Ford by dragging your feet quicker than by using its brakes. He had also fitted her with a truck engine which increased her to a feisty 95 horsepower. There was a cool exhaust system, and she was issued many a challenge as she sat panting at a traffic light like a cheetah ready to spring. She never backed down, and was rarely defeated.
In spite of my affection for Alice, I must admit that life with her was not easy, especially at this time of the year. It was also a busy time at my father’s service station as winter approached. Alcohol was used as an antifreeze, and it required constant vigilance. Since it was volatile, it would evaporate quickly and leave the radiator and even the engine block at risk of freezing and even bursting. Consequently, with news of the approach of an especially cold night, there would be a line of cars coming in to add antifreeze. Since loss of the alcohol left the radiator short of coolant, one was at risk of being parboiled when he removed the radiator cap. We did not have pleasant thoughts about those “last minute Charlies” who showed up near closing time on an especially cold winter night. Some solved the problem by draining their radiators, then filling them with water when they wished to go somewhere.
Prevention of a vehicle from freezing up at night did not, however, guarantee that your car would start in the morning. As a matter of fact, when the temperature got down around zero, most unprotected cars did not stand a chance. Motor oils became more viscous at lower temperatures, making it much more difficult for the 6-volt batteries of the day to turn the engine over fast enough to provide ignition, and cold rendered the battery even less powerful due to inhibition of the action of the acid it contained. In addition to that, the least amount of moisture in the distributor would cause it to ice and prevent ignition. Chrysler products were noted as being particularly “hard to start” in winter, though even in temperate weather, cars of that day were susceptible to stalling in heavy rainstorms due to water leaking into their electrical systems.
The Cars in the “Good Ole Days” Demanded Your Time
Back in those good old days, there were many other factors which would conspire to test one’s mettle. In winter, getting your car started was not necessarily the end of one’s problems. Since snow removal was not widely practiced, if one lived in snow prone environments he needed snow tires, and, in many cases, chains, the installation of which was not a really fun time. Speaking of tires, I should mention that to be able to get 10,000 miles on a set of tires was a minor miracle, while 60,000 is not unusual these days, and occasional flats were to be expected. The diligent driver would carry not only tools to change tires but rubber patches with which to repair punctured inner tubes.
Automobiles were definitely high maintenance, and the owner of one would soon realize that he needed to keep some tools and spare parts in his trunk. Most maintenance was available at the place one went to get gasoline. The term “service station” was an appropriate designation for these facilities. A routine stop for gasoline would also involve cleaning the windshield and headlight lenses, checking the oil, water level, and upon request, air in the tires. The customer would pay the attendant, receive his change and be on his way without ever leaving the driver seat. If it would have been discovered that I varied from that routine when working at Dad’s station, the old man’s wrath would not be pretty. He subscribed to the dictum popular in those days that the customer was always right, except in those instances where their obnoxiousness crossed a line which only he could set. In such cases, that mantra was dismissed and he would order the offender to “get the Hell out of my station and don’t ever come back.” This was most likely to occur when he noticed someone giving one of us worker bees a hard time.
Most routine maintenance was carried out at service stations. Oil changes were recommended every 1000 miles along with lubrication or what we called a “grease job,” which involved pumping grease into all the under-carriage moving parts. There were also wheel bearings to pack with grease and other routine inspections, i.e. tire pressure, radiator, brake fluid, etc. Cars of that era also required periodic tune ups which involved replacing or cleaning spark plugs, setting the timing, replacing various ignition parts, adjusting the carburetor, checking the battery, all of the engine belts, and the fluid levels in transmission and differential. We could also do minor repairs but would prefer the big stuff.
If one were to keep a car more than two or three years, he could expect major mechanical problems. Clutches, engines and transmissions all had a limited life, and the auto repair business flourished. There were backyard mechanics, back alley mechanics and main street mechanics in addition to automobile agencies who were specialized with their better equipped facilities. For example, at the dealership where I worked, there was one person who worked full time doing front end alignments, while others were transmission guys and so on. These guys were bent on fixing things rather than just replacing them, and there was plenty to fix.
If those were the good old days, I propose that these new days are better at least when it comes to personal transportation. It has only been one hundred years ago since Mr. Kettering invented the electric starter, which was the revolutionary high-tech invention of its time. Prior to that, engines could only be started by turning the engine over by hand using a metal crank inserted into the engine. Delay in removing the crank when the engine started resulted in a lot of broken bones. The method was still available for another thirty years in most cars as an emergency method to use when the starter failed. This is said to be the origin of the word “cranky.” There is very little comparison between those cars of yester-year and today. If back when I was working at Dad’s station I was told I would someday own a car that I would drive 85,000 miles with the only maintenance an occasional oil change and one change of tires, I would have laughed all the way to the gas pump.
No doubt, many will have little interest in the analysis of all this mechanical stuff from an emeritus grease monkey, but I am certain all will be able to relate to the idea of comfort. Reliability is a concept, but comfort is an experience. Nowadays, cars are so comfortable that falling asleep is a major cause of accidents. While driving along safely ensconced in my new car, it occurred to me that this pleasurable experience would have been an adventure had I taken the same trip in Alice. This would never be a spur of the moment decision and would likely be planned days in advance. I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams driving along with the speedometer set slightly above the speed limit, freeing my feet to move around, not to mention the ability to talk to the car and have it talk back, to tune a radio which actually works, and to guide me to any spot in the country. Nor would I have believed that it would ever be possible to make phone calls from a car. That would have seemed weirder than Dick Tracy of the “Funny Papers” and his 2-way wrist radio.
To step into a modern automobile is much like taking a 0.5 mg Xanax, for there is little to worry about. You can be confident that it will start, regardless of the weather, and that you can drive away without even waiting for the engine to “warm up.” It is no longer necessary to stare constantly at those gauges or worry about tire pressure, as you can count on your new car to keep you informed. There is no reason to worry about weather short of a tornado or blizzard, for this car will power through water or snow accumulations that would make Alice sputter and stall. Alice’s windshield wipers were operated by a vacuum pump with two speeds: slow and slower, while my new car relieves me of the physically taxing job of turning them off and on and will wash the windshield on command. Since the car is smarter than me, it won’t let me tailgate some laggard who is poking along in the left lane, but instead will automatically slow down or even stop if necessary (I didn’t say it was always fun to drive).
Now there is no need to get your hands dirty by adjusting the outside mirrors before you get in your car; just push a button. The tiring ritual of pushing the clutch in and out to shift gears is no longer cool unless you are one of those throwbacks who likes to pull up to a traffic light and go “vroom, vroom.” In Alice’s day, there was none of that sissy stuff like power steering and power brakes, and it took a real man (or strong woman, I don’t want to get in trouble here) to handle her in a sharp turn or to learn to double clutch a recalcitrant transmission.
Although larger, more expensive cars were designed to be comfortable, they fell far short compared to the one now sitting in my garage. The seats may have been a little softer, but the term climate control did not apply. Heaters were limited to preventing frostbite of feet, and one needed to dress as for a Mount Everest climb in order to ride any distance in the backseat on a cold winter night. The problem would worsen as one was forced to roll down a window in order to make a hand signal. Nope, no directional signals or electric window openers. Windows would frost, requiring a gloved hand to continually clear enough area to be able to see the road.
Summer presented a different set of problems, the most relevant being a lack of air conditioning, requiring windows to be kept lowered. In those days, there were many unpaved roads. To be caught in the wake of another vehicle on a gravel road left one the choice of death by particle inhalation with the windows down or heat stroke with them up. In the best of conditions, one could expect his or her face to become covered with a greasy, grimey layer of dust mixed with sweat after riding for any distance with the windows down. On very hot days, one was also in danger of failure of the engine cooling system, with sometimes disastrous results.
As I drove down a well-paved road, safely ensconced in the lap of this luxurious cocoon, I reminisced about those days when driving was a challenge and not for the faint-hearted. It also occurred to me that one day in the not too distant future, another old man will write a blog about the days when he had to stay awake, steer his car, set the speed, and remain alert to prevent accidents. His grandchildren are apt to be amazed there was once a day when he couldn’t read, watch a movie, or take a nap when traveling. They might be aware of the history of that old clunky internal combustion engine, which polluted the environment, but they will probably find it difficult to understand the adventures we found and the lessons we learned from those old clunkers.