Alternative Transportation Was Necessary for Students

1 / 4
Proof that a shiny new car is not necessary for pride of ownership.
2 / 4
Important mechanical components were open to the weather. The car had a windshield frame but no glass.
3 / 4
A perpetually weak battery really didn’t prove to be much of a problem because the car could be hand-cranked or easily push-started.
4 / 4
Since the vehicle was licensed and had headlights, it was legal to drive on public roads. Note the nearly bald front tires and the completely bald ones on the back.

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.

Alternative transportation

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.

Custom construction

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.

Intrepid in all weather

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.

Abandoned to time

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 cballard@northrim.net.

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