In the 1950s owning an automobile was not possible for every family, let alone every young person who would love to have “wheels.” If you ask people who are of retirement age today, they will tell you that only a very small number of high school students drove to school back then. Large parking lots were not needed at schools as they are now.
Most rural areas were served by school buses by the 1950s. In the wide-open spaces of western America, it wasn’t unusual for students at the far end of the route to board a bus as early as 7 a.m. and return after 5 p.m., even though the school day ran from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. This author has driven bus routes that were close to 80 miles round trip morning and night.
Such grueling daily trips were unpleasant, especially for little kids. Because of the distances involved, nothing could be done about it. Those living far from population centers did what had to be done even if it wasn’t pleasant.
Some districts were huge geographically yet small in the number of students enrolled. But even in very small high schools, a strong feeling of community expressed itself through sports competition. In the 1950s, that meant football and boys’ basketball (in some areas girls played basketball too, with unique rules). Every able-bodied boy was needed to field a football team.
There was a time in our isolated part of Idaho that, instead of the standard 11-man team, six-man football was played (some schools in western Nebraska and parts of Texas regularly played six-man), but most of the time our school of 50 to 60 students grades nine through 12 played eight-man. Even then it was difficult for the Camas County Mushers (team mascot named for a dog sled driver) to field a team. In the early 1990s my son quarterbacked a team in an eight-man state championship playoff game. We had 13 kids on our team; the opponent had 40.
Those who participated in after-school practice, and that was almost everybody, had to have transportation other than the regular school bus. Because of the situation explained above, western states like Idaho allowed young people to obtain daylight driver’s licenses at age 14. That meant that when a kid became a high school freshman, if he lived on a farm or ranch far from the school, he might spend much time from then on during the school year behind the wheel of a vehicle, often a pickup or truck.
Not everyone who needed to drive to school had the resources to drive decent vehicles. The well-to-do kids piloted new or fairly new ones. Others drove various kinds of well-used cars or trucks. Some had to use creativity and come up with their own means of transportation. This is the story of one such vehicle that, in spite of its bizarre construction, was driven by numerous young people for several years both to school and for great enjoyment in all types of weather.
The actual builder of the “vehicle” in question is unknown. What is known are the major components used in its construction. The frame and running gear were from a mid-1930s Ford. That meant the brakes were mechanical, run by rods. Late 1930s Ford cars had mechanical brakes activated by cables. The engine was a Ford flathead V-8 of the 1940s, as indicated by the location of water pumps low on the block with outlets in the middle of the heads. The 16-inch spoke wheels were of 1934 Ford vintage.
The only real visual part of the car came from a Model T Ford from the 1920s. As a phaeton, it never had a top. It was obviously one of the last Model T bodies because there was a driver’s door. Although early Model T’s had what looked like a front door on the left side, it was solid metal that did not open. As the photos show, the grafted-on body was much shorter than the frame, so what stuck out exposed the gas tank and was used for storage. Of course, since the car never had a top, any stuff a person wanted to haul could just be tossed in if there were no passengers.
In the morning and evening, the only extra passengers were kids who didn’t have their own vehicle and needed a ride to and from school. In inclement weather everyone was bundled up as if they were going on an Arctic expedition. After school and on weekends, the old vehicle attracted riders of all kinds just for the fun of it.
In the winter, attempts were made to “bash through snow drifts,” which were common in our high mountain valley. In one instance the car came to a stop so quickly all passengers were thrown out in the snow. Since paved roads were unusual in the area, in the spring when roads were wet, back-seat passengers usually got a plastering of mud thrown up by the rear wheels. Rarely were complaints heard when that happened. Somehow that seemed to be part of the fun. All four tires were always bald or almost so, but a spare was unheard of. This author was aware of the car for quite some time, actually drove it often and experienced numerous “good times” that it played a part in, and no tire ever went flat.
Another feature that would create major concern for anyone but a bunch of kids was the car’s electrical wiring. To describe it as resembling a mouse nest is to flatter it. It looked like just a jumble of wires, but they all did what they were supposed to do. The Model T’s body didn’t have places for dash gauges, so the homemade car had only an amperage meter installed in a hand-cut hole. With no speedometer, we could only guess how fast we were going, but it is a sure thing it would go faster than it was safe to travel in it. Gasoline level was determined by sticking a stick down into the tank.
Transportation laws in rural areas were much less stringent back then and trouble with the local sheriff was never encountered. As hard as it is to believe, the last local owner drove the car trouble-free 150 miles on two-lane highways to another rural community when he got a job there. Although the car was running perfectly, the weather during the trip was extremely cold; exposed to the elements, the driver only made it half-way before he was too cold to continue. It was parked next to a business along the road and retrieved the next morning.
Rumor has it the last owner traded it for some hop-up performance parts for a better car he obtained in 1959. As that decade came to an end, the unique old car apparently did too as we never heard about it again. One person described it pretty accurately in hindsight: “It was such a crude, sloppy job of construction it’s a wonder it ever moved under its own power.” However, that homemade wonder provided transportation when it was badly needed and captured our youthful affections. We are glad we got to experience it. FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.