Experience D’Orth - THE WAY WE WERE by Bill Orth

                Last month’s reminisces about how my father turned the family livery stable into an auto dealership over eighty years ago brought back to me many of his other stories about that era.  When autos first began to show up in rural areas, it was usually the village blacksmith who got stuck trying to fix them since he was the only one accustomed to working with metal. And many early cars were so crude that getting their parts hot and whanging ‘em with a hammer usually made an improvement!  The early wheels were wooden spoked, just like those on carriages, and there were other similarities as well.

                The Ford Model Ts that my dad sold new were delivered in a railroad boxcar.  The frames, with wheels and engines attached, were stacked, on end,  in one side of the railcar; the bodies, completely painted and trimmed, were braced standing up in the opposite end.  When a shipment arrived, the railcar was put in a siding next to a loading dock. My dad would round up the two town drunks and one additional sober workman.  The four of them would lower the first chassis assembly onto its wheels in the doorway of the boxcar. Then they would take the corresponding body--that had been stacked up on its rear bumper in the other end of the railcar--and set it on the chassis.  The railroad siding happened to be uphill from where the business was, so the now-complete car could be coasted down to the garage where a mechanic would finish bolting everything together! I believe he told me that there would be three Model Ts in each boxcar.  Following the afternoon’s exertions, the drunks would spend what they had earned in my grandmother’s saloon and snooze the buzz off under the porch.

                Although these early cars represented tremendous progress over horses and buggies (Those living creatures--as we learned last month--had habits, traits and personalities to be dealt with in order to get any service out of them.), the first automobiles also had their own idiosyncrasies.  For example, the Model T didn’t have a fuel pump;  the gas tank was located under the seat and was higher than the carburetor, so gravity kept the float bowl full—until you wanted to go up a steep hill. Then the engine suddenly got higher than the tank and the engine starved to a halt.  Three of the streets in town were pretty steep, so it was commonplace to see a driver chug up to the base of a hill, turn around, and reverse up the grade, which kept the gas flowing!  Also, when cold weather came around, your car demanded lots of extra work. 

When arriving home in the evening, the car would be put in the barn and as soon as it was shut off, you would drain out the engine oil into an old dishpan.  You would then bring this into the house with you.  The pan would just fit under the wood stove in the family kitchen, so the oil would stay nice and warm—and fluid.  Early motor oils got awfully thick below forty degrees and would make starting in the morning nearly impossible.  Since antifreeze hadn’t been thought of yet, you also had to drain out the engine’s water to keep it from freezing and bring that into the house, too. In the morning, you put the bucket of water on the stove to heat it up before pouring it into the motor, which, along with the warm oil that you poured back in, heated the engine and made it more likely to fire when you started cranking it—by hand.  If it didn’t start, and it was really cold out, before long you lost your thermal advantage and needed to start over!  We truly have come a very long way!

During the ‘teens and twenties, many auto manufacturers sprang up and often just as rapidly disappeared.  Either due to poor development, marketing or simply weak engineering, many marques only lasted a few years before their parent company slid beneath the waves of insolvency.  (Automotive history books are filled with the obituaries of Apperson, Whippet, Moon, Star, National, et al)   When one of these unsupported vehicles suffered a terminal illness—a cracked cylinder head, broken crankshaft, shredded transmission, etc—and an imaginative mechanic couldn’t scab up some repair using pieces from another car, no matter how nice it was otherwise, the auto became valueless.  In rural areas there was unlikely to be a donor cadaver in a salvage yard for an uncommon car, so my dad and other auto dealers like him found a solution for these orphans: erosion control.  

There was a sizable creek that ran along the back of my father’s property, and every spring the rising waters would carry away another foot of real estate.  Consequently, if a customer brought in a car that proved to be irreparable, it was the end of the road. The battery and tires could be used on other cars and were removed;  the radiator was usually  copper or brass and had salvage value, too, but the rest of the car was simply dragged down to shore up the creek bank.  Sometime around 1925, a gentleman traveling from the New York City area had the misfortune to badly damage the rear of his 16-cylinder Cadillac touring car sufficient to render it unable to make the trip back to the city.  He sold the damaged car to my father and bought a train ticket home.  The men in the shop used a torch to cut off all the lovely coachbuilt bodywork behind the front doors, fabricated a boom and a winch on the exposed frame and created a magnificent wrecker that was used for many years.  Some Cadillac V-16s survived to be displayed on the lawn at Pebble Beach;  that one towed damaged cars around Sullivan County, NY until a WW II scrap drive swallowed it up.  I well remember looking at a beautifully restored example in the Henry Ford Museum when I was about ten years old, while my dad related this story and recalled how well that big, smooth, powerful engine performed as a tow truck!

After WW II most of the small auto manufacturers had disappeared, their market share taken over by large, well-funded companies as the clientele recognized the importance of buying from a company that was going to have some staying power.  Of course, having said this, we now have to acknowledge that many companies that seemed healthy at the time, like Hudson and Studebaker, also succumbed as the business grew more competitive and the Big Three grew ever bigger.  However, there has been blood shed within these bastions as well; witness DeSoto in the 1960s and Plymouth and Oldsmobile very recently.  During the 1950s, imports began to enter the fray and the weaker among them have also disappeared, so we don’t see Triumphs, Hillmans, MGs or Sunbeams, to mention just a few, as current imports.

Sad to say, but these cars also received the same landfill treatment until a marque managed to become prevalent enough to survive.  I also clearly recall riding my bike down to the local Pontiac garage—just up the creek from my father’s place---during the summer of 1955 to see the first Porsche that had ventured up into our hills.  Unfortunately, its tourist owner had also ventured off one of the curvy local roads the evening before and wadded up the little dear.  While I was looking at the wrinkled red Speedster, the wheels and battery were removed and it was pushed over the bank behind the shop; the decision having been made by someone that it would be too difficult to fix. Too hard to get parts, no metric tools and no local market for any used Porsche parts, either. Its no doubt still there, but many layers of other derelicts have been piled on top during the past forty-seven years.  I drove past there exactly a year ago and the Pontiac place is still operating on the bank of Callicoon Creek, just off highway 17B.  I noticed that the rear yard is quite a bit deeper now than when I was a kid; instead of becoming eroded away, the many years’ accumulation of unfortunate cars that were slid over the edge have been paved over and served to increase the real estate instead!

So things have changed dramatically in the auto business over the years; our new cars don’t arrive in boxcars anymore—in fact, the big, luxurious Horseless Carriage vans that deliver the new, completely assembled Ferraris today could hold one of those early boxcars inside on its polished wooden floor!  And our setup crew isn’t a couple of  thirsty drunks, either.  Honest.


--  Bill  Orth  --


Bit o’ trivia: Everyone knows that all Model T Fords were painted black, but do you know why?

Not because of some Puritanical dogma on old Henry’s part, but because, at that time period, black paint had the simplest chemical composition and least amount of evaporative agents, so it dried fastest and the cars could be assembled more quickly!