This is the first in a series by Howard LaPlante on his early experiences with cars.
Driving comes naturally to a farm boy. Ten years old is old enough to drive a tractor, after all there is work to be done. A car, a natural progression.
I was perhaps 13 when Dad drove his 1935 Ford out to a harvested grain field and put me in the drivers seat. He explained that unlike tractors it was not necessary to stop to shift gears. Wow! That was something, just push in the clutch and move the shift lever! And the power of the 85 hp V-8! I must have inherited a love for cars. Dad loved cars and had many. He also had taken a Model T Ford and stripped the body and made it into a Stutz Bearcat replica.
I showed my love for cars early on. When I was perhaps 4 or 5, I discovered the hired man's Model T in one of the farm sheds. Unfortunately, that was where the red barn paint was also stored. To my eye the car would look much better in red! No one seemed to agree! It resulted in the only spanking that I remember!
My half brother's National Guard unit was called up in 1939. He left his beloved 1932 Ford, 3 window coupe, suicide doors, rumble seat, wire wheels, and V-8 engine! By 1945 I was 14 and driving the car that had managed to survive being driven by hired men and Dad and was still in very good repair. My driving was limited to the local farm roads. On the occasion that I went to a movie in "town", I would drive to the bridge that went over the Mississippi river and park on the county side of the bridge. After all, the town cop patrolled the streets (1000 population). I did not dare drive there!
In those days farm boys could get their drivers license at 15 – rather amazing to look back on the procedure. I drove into town, the county seat, to the Court House, walked in and found the proper office. The woman at the counter asked if I knew how to drive? I replied that I did. To that the woman replied that it would be $3.00. She typed out the license and I was on my way!
Being a farm boy I was allowed to drive the car to high school, which would got me home early to do chores. In a high school of approximate 400 students there was only one other boy that drove to school, and he drove a 1946 Chevrolet Fleetline coupe – neat car! However, it was soon discovered that my old V-8 Ford was faster, although his did have the advantage that it could stop!
Stopping a car came about slowly. The early cars did not go that fast, so stopping was not a high priority. The very first car to have any kind of brake was an Oldsmobile that used a band wrapped around a cylinder on the rear axle. It slowed the car somewhat, but was hindered by dirt continually getting into the mechanism and requiring frequent maintenance The next improvement was drum brakes with internal expanding brake shoes. The brakes were on the rear wheels only! It was thought that front wheel brakes would be extremely dangerous! The first automobile to have 4 wheel brakes was the Dutch made Spikler in 1903. Not until 1923 did an American car try the idea. It was Dusenberg and Rickenbacker that were first. All the braking systems were of course mechanical. As you pushed on the pedal there was a direct connection via rods and cables to the brake shoes. Needless to say, no power assist! Hydraulic brakes were slow to come. The first car to have 4 wheel hydraulic brakes was again Dusenberg in 1921. It was not until 1931 that Chrysler, Dodge, DeSoto, Plymouth, Auburn, Franklin, Reo, and Graham followed suit. And not until 1939 did Ford finally agree that it was probably a good idea. Disc brakes were also slow to come, even though the disc brake was invented by an American in 1898. It was in Europe that they first gained acceptance in the early 1950s. My Triumph TR 3 had front disc brakes in 1958. Surprisingly Porsche was not a leader with disc brakes, it was not until the 1964 356 that they became standard. Most American cars were featuring disc brakes by the 1970s.
But getting back to my problems in stopping the 1932 Ford, it was always a problem! Especially one summer Sunday and I was on my way to see a girl friend. I was approaching a "T" road, I touched the brake pedal and it fell to the floor! No Brakes! I had the presence of mind to pull the emergency brake (well named!) and got it slowed down enough to make the corner, fortunately there was no traffic! Later found out that a pin had dropped out of the linkage – easy fix.
However stopping was always a problem. Had I been able to stop faster it might have saved the pig, but that is another story!