Grandpa's Bug

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Bob Bilden's recollection of his grandfather's bug

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As a small boy living in the country 11 miles from town in the late 1930s, I saw very few tractors. Almost all area farmers then did their field work with horses. Only a few could afford the luxury of a tractor, and those who could tended to use them for only specific jobs, relying on horse or mule teams to do the bulk of the work.

My grandparents, Bill and Mary Wallingford, operated a small grocery near our farm. I spent a lot of time at the store. In the summer of 1937, my grandpa disappeared for three days. On the third day of his absence, I heard a strange noise outside the store. I ran out to the porch just in time to see Grandpa driving up on a strange-looking vehicle. He pulled up to the porch, signaled me aboard and off we went. 'Grandpa! What is this?' I asked. 'You can call it a bug,' he answered.

Grandpa's creation, assembled by him and a friend, consisted of an engine, transmission, frame and steering gear from a four-cylinder 1928 Chevrolet, a 1927 Chevrolet truck radiator, a front axle with 20-inch wood-spoke wheels and 5x20-inch tires, and a Ruckstell two-speed rear axle from a Ford TT truck, which, of course, had wood-spoke wheels. Grandpa cut off the wooden rear spokes to be even with the hubs and then had 20-inch disc wheels welded to the hubs. He'd had the wheel centers cut out about 1-inch inside the rims, then reversed the center disc and had them welded back in so the rear wheels would track with the front ones. He put 6x32-inch tires on the rear. Later that fall, he built a sweep rake to fit the front.

The following summer, grandpa decided to put up the hay on his field, as he had no renter at the time. My dad went over with his team and mower, cut the hay and raked it. The 'bug' worked great, and they managed to put up a good, big stack of hay. The following spring, after selling the store, my grandparents moved to town. Grandpa sold the 'bug' to the son of the man who'd bought the store. The young man had a wife and baby, and for the next two or three years, the 'bug' was all they had for transportation, as he couldn't afford a car. He and my dad cut hay together, using the 'bug' and a horse mower with a shortened tongue. They raked and swept the hay with the 'bug' and stacked it with an overshot stacker (using our old pickup to raise the stacker). The 'bug' was terrific for stacking hay, as it was faster in the field than a traditional tractor.

The first field driving I ever did was behind the wheel of the 'bug,' and our neighbor used it throughout World War II. He called it 'Beulah' after a popular radio show character. The 'bug' never had brakes; he used to downshift when coming to a stop.

As the years passed, I'd daydream about building my own 'bug.' About 15 years ago, I found a 1928 Chevrolet 'bug.' And so, 66 years after first seeing grandpa's creation, I set out to re-create it.

I had a Ruckstell two-speed axle and the right radiator shell. After cleaning the carburetor and installing a new coil and points, we gave the 'bug' a pull and the engine started.

Next, I removed the Chevrolet truck rear axle so that the Ruckstell could be put in place. I had to take the latter completely apart, as some of the bearings were stuck. But that was a good thing, as I discovered the teeth on the brass ring gear were worn to sharpness. I had another TT housing, and this provided a good ring gear. The planetary gears were in very good shape, as were the pinion and spider gears. I put it back together and mounted the housing in place. Then I shortened up a drive shaft to fit the U-joint at the back of the Chevrolet transmission. The radiator was reinstalled with the right shell and the hood put on. I rebuilt rear wheels just as grandpa had done, and made a drawbar out of a piece of heavy angle iron, mounted a horn on the firewall, and constructed a seat.

My only added concessions to comfort and convenience were steps on each side and a backrest. The 'bug' was almost a clone of grandpa's, down to the knife-blade ignition switch on the dash. It took grandpa less than three days to assemble his bug. I spent more than a month assembling mine, and I had the advantages of good hand tools, a welder and cutting torch. But it was a lot of fun!

For more information: Bob Bilden, 25387 Stockyard Rd., Bagley, MN 56621-9755.