Those Were the Days

Remembering automobiles before "cars"

Enterprising owner and automobile

Automobiles created quite a stir in the early 20th century. Here, the owner charged 2¢ for a spin around the block (which translates to about 45¢ today).

George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

Content Tools

My first recollections of automobiles (they were not called cars in those days) was when a few times in a summer, a daring, reckless young man would come chugging past our farm home in his noisy machine. My brother and I (being little boys and very curious) would drop whatever we were doing and run to the road to the machine and driver as they passed.

Automobiles were not enclosed in those days, but each one had a windshield. Generally the driver wore elbow-length gloves and goggles. He looked neither to the right nor to the left as he sped by, and how could he! A man speeding over the earth at speeds of nearly 15 miles an hour had better keep his eyes on the road!

Our farm was located four miles out of town, and to venture so far into the country in an automobile called for a man of considerable courage and grit. He never knew when starting whether the ride included a round trip or one-way. Many times it ended in humiliation when he was being pulled back to town by a farmer and a faithful team of horses, while the town loafers (who knew that the automobile would never be a success) laughed and jeered.

The auto driver was a man of dual status among all who knew him. To little boys like myself, and to many adults as well, he was held in high esteem because he was able to drive an automobile, much the same as present-day youth might look upon our astronauts. But to the staid citizenry, he was that crazy nut who went about scaring hores and killing chickens. 'He ought to be thrown into jail and kept there.'

No doubt the good folk of the community were thankful for the severe climate and short summers which allowed the reign of terror to last only a few short months. Of course no one, not even a crazy nut, would think of driving an automobile in cold weather. As a result, with the coming of the first frost the radiator was drained and the machine put upon blocks to await the coming of another summer.

As the years went by automobiles became more numerous, but were still driven only during the mid-weather months.

Buying a car in those days posed problems that we today know nothing of. After a man bought a car, he still had to learn how to operate it. Let me tell you of a few rather laughable events that actually took place in the neighborhood where I was raised.

I will begin with the farmer who bought a shiny new Model T Ford from the dealer in town. After filling him in with instructions and much good advice, the dealer sent the farmer home. All went well until the farmer arrived at his destination. Then, for the life of him, he could not recall how the dealer said to stop the car. Trying to remember the dealer's instruction, he continued to drive around and around the house. At last, in desperation, he headed for the barn yard, and taking careful aim, steered the car between two haystacks. Immediately he got results. The little engine coughed once or twice and expired.

Then there was the case of the neighbor who could never visit his relatives who lived on a hill without running out of gasoline at the foot of the hill. Each time it happened he'd add more gas, start the engine, put the car in low gear and away he'd be. This happened several times before he realized that the car wasn't quitting for lack of gas but because it needed to be shifted into low gear. Then there was the man who did most of his driving in low gear - and why not! 'Wasn't it faster than the horse and buggy.' It isn't that people were unintelligent in those days. Raised in an era before the automobile, they were just unfamiliar with its operation.

My parents were late in getting their first car. When they did, it was a 1919 Model T Ford, without starter, battery, or spare tire. Why, they argued, should a person pay $50 or $100 extra for a starter when he could do the job himself with the crank? At that time in history the common man asked and expected less of life than the people of today. Not only did our first car have no spare tire, it had no place where one might be carried. In case of a flat (which was frequent) the motorist either stopped and patched the tire on the roadside (using cold patches which every wise driver carried with him) or he installed a new tube, pumped it up on the spot, and went on his way.

Having no battery, our car depended upon a magneto for lights and starting. Whatever good might be said for its starting qualities, its lighting system was a sad and dismal failure. The amount of light produced depended upon the speed of the engine at the time. Thus whenever the car was in low gear, with the engine running fast, there was a fairly good light, according to the standards of those days. However, when the car was shifted into high gear, and the little motor slowed down and began laboring, the lights dimmed to almost nothing. Nor was that their worst feature. If the driver should make the mistake of speeding his motor a bit too fast while in low gear, it would send too much electricity through the lighting system, resulting in burnt out bulbs and no lights at all. It was on a night such as this that a full moon was needed and appreciated by a young man out for the evening. Not only did it make the night more romantic, it could, and sometimes did (when the evening's fun was over) show him the way home.

Another worry of early day motoring was rain, or the fear of it. Before hard-surfaced roads came into existence all motoring was done on dirt roads, a motorist caught away from home by a shower of rain, experienced near-disaster.

With the passing of years, more and better cars have been produced, featuring many improvements and conveniences. First viewed as luxuries, these conveniences became necessities in later years as our way of life became more abundant and demanding.

I, and all others of my age group, have witnessed a colossal change that no other generation has or ever will witness. We have watched the total and complete transition from the horse and buggy to the automobile. My memory bridges the years from the time when automobile was a curiosity and a thing of evil, to the present day when it is as much a part of our lives as the clothes we wear, or the food we eat; from the time when motoring was a summer time thrill for the wreckless, to the present age of year-round travel for both business and pleasure; from the years when a road meant a prairie trail, to our present vast network of excellent highways, managed and supervised by a highly efficient Highway Department.

I am most thankful that it was my generation that was destined to witness this great change, affecting the lives of so many. For this privilege I am truly and deeply grateful.