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Author: W. Bronson Taylor
( Article orginally published September 1942 by Hobbies )
Automobiles sneaked up on me unawares. They still do. As a boy, I occasionally saw an automobile or rather a horseless carriage, as they were called, pictured in some newspaper or magazine. Then without any warning some one would say, "I saw a horseless carriage in Buffalo today." This was usually followed by an account of how many horses ran away at the sound and sight of the terrible contraption.
Then one summer day about 1898 or 1899, it was rumored that a lawyer in Lockport had bought one. Lockport, the county seat, was only eighteen miles away. People commented on his sanity and wondered how he had ever been elected district attorney. Anyone who would risk his own neck in such a machine and go round scaring horses was hardly to be trusted with a political office of importance. It was some relief to know that the thing probably would never run as far as Barker, so perhaps there was no need for worry.
However, shortly afterward, Lewis Hudson who lived on our street, came running home from downtown and announced he had just seen a horseless buggy go through our village toward Somerset. The rest of our gang was stunned into disbelief until we received verification from another boy who said that it was stalled down by old Mrs. Andersons. We ran in a body, bare legs flailing the air as we raced the half mile to Mrs. Andersons. There stood a one cylinder "Olds" with Mr. Dempsey, a very perplexed lawyer, watching steam rise from around the "inards" under the seat.
The motor was very hot, so was Mr. Dempsey. With my usual lack of modesty, I suggested that it was possibly out of water. He assured me that it didn't use water. It was a gas engine. I showed him the filler cap and suggested that he unscrew it. He tried it and a burst of hot steam. greeted the attempt. I ran to Mrs. Andersons and brought a pail of water. Soon Mr. Dempsey was chugging along toward Somerset.
Although I was not twelve years old, I was one of the few persons in the community at that time who could hook up a door bell or a set of batteries for a gasoline engine. I had read a deecription of the Oldsmobile in the Scientific American Magazine, so knew that it must be out of water.
The first car to be owned in the town, Barker, was a similar Oldsmobile bought by Fred Webb in about 1904. My first ride was in that car. I was coming home on the train from high school one afternoon. As the train stopped at Newfane, Fred stopped at the Newfane station with his car. The window by my seat was open, so Fred called to me and invited me to ride the rest of the way home in his car.
As we started out it began to rain. The auto had neither windshield nor top. He passed me the steering lever while he dragged out an oilcloth lap covering. I didn't get the hang of steering quite soon enough and narrowly massed a hitching post as we rolled along toward Olcott Beach.
Soon afterward Lewis Bradley bought a Cadillac with a tonneau on back which was entered by a rear end door. The next car in town was a two cylinder Maxwell owned by Vrooman Putman. I occasionally worked on each of these cars. One morning when I came down to breakfast, two of them were parked in our back yard and a frantic phone call asked me to come and fix the other one. I should have stayed in the automobile business. At least I had 100% of the business at that time.
In the early days of the horseless carriage, Niagara Falls was the place to see the most cars. Wealthy people liked to bring them to the falls. As early as 1901, the Winton six cylinder cars replaced most of the horse drawn sight seeing cabs at the falls. In 1901 at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo the first automobile parade was held. There were twenty-eight cars in the parade. Most of them finished the parade.
My greatest thrill in those days was attending a race meet at Fort Erie, Ontario just across the river from Buffalo. There were several races, one mile, five mile, and fifty mile. There may have been other distances.
The biggest name in the race was Barney Oldfield. He was already world's champion of the one mile. He had won the straight mile in a Ford 99. He was entered to drive "Old Glory" in the one mile on the one mile circle track. However, this car, shipped by freight, failed to arrive, so the morning of the race he purchased a Blitzen Benz in Buffalo. As he was the main attraction at the track he hated to disappoint the crowd. Driving a strange car in a race was out of the question, but he promised to try out the new car so we could see it in operation.
He rolled around the track in 69 seconds. Then the announcer said that he would try to break the track record (somewhere around 67 seconds). He drove around in 66 seconds. The crowd began to come to life. Next he tried for the world record which was around 63 seconds for a one mile circular track. As the world record fell the crowd went hysterical. He raced around the track without stopping. Each lap lowered the world speed record. When he made it in 59 seconds the crowd was wild with cheering. I believe he quit with a record of 57 seconds.
Other big names racing that day were Louis Chevrolet. He was killed the next year in the Briercliff race on Long Island. Dick Crocker and Ralph DePalma were in the five mile race.
Louis Chevrolet won the fifty mile race but failed by a few seconds from making a world's record. He blew his front right tire. We got a new tire ready in the pit at the end of the grandstand. I was sent to tell his starter to have him stop for the replacement, next lap. His starter wanted to demonstrate mounting a demountable tire before the grandstand. I rolled the tire out to the desired spot but the other man forgot to bring a jack. Chevrolet had to wait helplessly while I ran back for the jack. He was the kind of driver who always has the crowd rooting on his side. He seemed to be a part of his car. I really mourned when he was killed. His name still graces our highways in the Chevrolet cars.
One morning as we waited for the mail to be sorted in the post office someone read aloud in the Buffalo Express that Henry Ford said he would make cars cheap enough that anyone with a fair income could own one. That started a discussion. Most everyone agreed that they didn't want one as a gift even. Many roads were impassable at all times of the year some roads were passable in early summer and late fall. All were impassable in winter. The idea of roads which were passable all the time seemed more remote than a trip to the moon seems now. To you who are not old enough to remember, let me describe the average dirt road of that era. Horses kicked up the dust into a fine powder. Iron-tired wheels ground it still finer. In dry weather, boys could shove their feet forward with a plowing motion until they were about eight inches deep in the coolness of the dust. The narrow tires of that day just couldn't move in such a dust bath.
In March and April the roads were muddy. From mid-May to mid-June, dirt roads were about like they are now. After the summer heat the autumn rains solidified the dust or turned it into mud. If it didn't turn muddy, autumn was the best time of the year to travel with a car. Just like traveling today's dirt roads.
The first improved road I ever rode was from Buffalo to Williamsville, N.Y., in 1908. By 1913, road building was sweeping the nation. About that time a concrete road was built north of Scotia toward Saratoga. I have been told this was the first concrete road in New York.
In 1904 one of the national magazines ran an automobile edition. They showed pictures with descriptions of about three hundred different cars. Among them was the Niagara. That was made at Wilson, N.Y. Two young men had taken an old cheese factory or creamery and made it into a machine shop. It was a short distance from our high school. We heard the testing of motors all too plainly in the school. Their output was about three cars per year. The cars sold for around $1000 to $1300.
Building cars was a budding industry all over the country. Many makers built only a few and then quit. As late as 1913, trucks were built in Schenectady by Wm. E. Berning.
Berning built about a dozen or more trucks but only one car. I bought the car. It had a Rochester motor, Brown &. Lipe transmission, Franklin chassis, and Studebaker body. The body was made for a horse drawn vehicle. However, one would never suspect it. It was more like today's bodies than like the ones of that day. In 1909, I was at East Aurora, N.Y., where a cousin was building a car. He took a two-cylinder Ford car apart and placed a Stanley steam power plant into it. He had three Ames steam cars. I believe the Ames iron works built only three cars in all. He liked them so well he picked them up one by one. The first left hand drive I remember driving, was the Ames steamer.
Steam cars would travel roads where gas cars stalled. It looked for a time as if the steam cars prevailed but the gas cars improved so rapidly while steam reached its limit early.
In 1907, I bought a Warwick motorcycle in Schenectady. It was the only motorcycle in town at the time. It had a belt drive consisting of a steel cable wrapped in rawhide. The rawhide would outlast two cables. I sold it the next year in Albany.
In 1908, I purchased a Reading Standard motorcycle in Buffalo from a young priest. It was a wonderful machine. It ran about 125 miles on a gallon and weighed only about 125 pounds. I drove as far west as Cleveland and east to Syracuse. There was one improved road near Syracuse and one near Buffalo. Euclid avenue in Cleveland extended into the country several miles. The rest of my travels Were on dirt roads, except where graveled somewhat.
My next was a Thomas, made in Buffalo. I do not think they ever got into production but they made Several experimental machines in their automobile factory. They were very good cars but the motorcycles left much to be desired. I was in the crowd that greeted the Thomas flyer on its round the world race when it stopped at Albany.
The first car I owned was a "Doctor's Maxwell." The "Doctor" differed from the regular two cylinder planetary drive only in being a gear drive. It was a progressive type transmission instead of the selective type we now use. My next car was a 1904 Marmen. This car was a planetary drive, air cooled V4 motor. The top let down like a phaeton. When the top was up, a celluloid curtain could be lowered in front. The fenders, body, rear end housing, transmission case, and crank case were all aluminum. Ignition was by dry cells. It was a good car for its day. Its greatest weak spot was the cast iron gears in the differential.
My next car was a Ford No. 6020. That was my first Ford. I had one in each million of the next ten million Fords. My first two Fords were right hand drives, models N and S. They were very noisy in low, reverse, or idling. When in high they were quiet enough. The transmission was not. closed in as in the Model T. They had gas generators for the head lights. I got more pleasure out of Number 6020 than any other car I have ever owned. Tires in that day were expensive, and ran only about 3500 miles. The 'water pump was below the radiator and the radiator would be racked into leaking from the vibration. I have had about 25 cars in all but that was the real pleasure car.
I look back on that with the fond memories that today's kids will look back in future years, on the jalopies they bang around today.
I traded the old Ford 6020 in on the Berning. I think it was later sold back to Ford for his museum. The list of car names I have worked on or driven is like reading the names in a cemetery, Brush, Stoddard Dayten, (I stalled one on the tracks in L. Aurora as the Washington flyer was beating down. Men rushed out and shoved it clear) Rambler, Moyer, Carter, Peerless, Scripps, Booth, Chase.
Among my souvenirs is a road guide book of New York which I carried in 1908. It fascinates me as to how the big garages of that day scorned to handle the Ford. Yet the cars they sold are mostly remote today.
When Henry Ford said he would make a car for the people, some smart news reporter interviewed Buick and asked him what he thought of Ford's plan. Buick is said to have replied that cars 'would always be a rich man's luxury, but when better cars were built Buick would build them.
I think it was in 1912 that the following incident happened. Henry Ford was traveling in Europe. His office made arrangements with General Electric to have a conference with Ford on his return. Ford was planning to put self starters on the Model T. He wanted to contract for generators and starting motors. On his return to New York his office telegraphed Schenectady to find out the time, Ford would arrive in Schenectady. Someone pulled a boner.
I happened to go into the Steinmetz office that afternoon to see John Dudley Ball, one of Steinmetz' boys. As I entered Ball was convulsed with laughter. When he was able to speak he asked me if I had met Ford's equippage leaving. I acknowledged that I had just met two big foreign cars followed by a Ford filled with luggage. After another good laugh he went on.
A man had entered the main lobby of the office and handed a card to the very important person who presided at the reception desk. That VIP never glanced at the card but demanded what was wanted. The stranger desired to buy a DC motor or Generator. The VIP steered the stranger to the elevator and directed him to local sales department. Local sales sent him to Direct Current Motors, who sent him to DC engineering.
While this was going on someone got a call on long distance for Mr. Ford who was supposed to be at the G.E. office. About that time things began to happen. Someone contacted the reception desk. The VIP looked at the card of the stranger. It read "Henry Ford." Pages raced through the halls. Finally the gentleman was located. Apologies were made and the conference got under way.
The result of the conference was nil. The G.E. Co. didn't have manufacturing facilities sufficient to manufacture such a large order. This was our best laugh up to that time.