The title of this article contains a word that modern young people are unfamiliar with. As a teacher of high school students, I learned that even rural kids of today find the word “courtship” incomprehensible. They naturally understand the boy-girl dynamic (do they ever!) but find it bizarre that there was a time when strong social norms dictated how members of the opposite sex related to each other.
It was enjoyable to discuss the subject in my American history class. When the time frame being covered reached the 1920s, the students became very attentive as dating activities of that era were introduced. The quaint idea of a young man and a young woman riding in a buggy, allowing the horse to walk slowly along a rural road while the couple focused on each other, was considered a great approach. The students had some difficulty understanding that finding time for a couple to be alone elsewhere was often impossible.
No secrets in a small town
The introduction of automobiles caused a cosmic shift in the dating scene. For the first time, young people could be alone, far from the prying eyes of parents and/or chaperones (another word drawing blank looks from students). The era known as the Roaring Twenties was a time of changes to many social mores, most notably those pertaining to male/female relationships. A good share of adults of the period understood and cringed at what was happening. “It” girls, flappers and “flaming youth” describe the extremes of what was considered the breakdown of the nation’s moral standards.
Although all that is recorded in history, the actual social scene young people participated in was quite slow to change. That was especially true in conservative rural areas, where most people lived in those days. Yes, automobiles allowed a young couple to be alone, but young people were often amazed at how information about their activities seemed to be common knowledge.
In most small towns a family’s vehicle was probably known by most residents, and license numbers revealed just whose Model T Ford was parked in a certain spot, even if dozens of other Model Ts looked just like it. What young people were doing during a date, either in actual fact or some gossip’s supposition, traveled on rural “grapevines” almost faster than light. Do you remember party line telephones? Even carefully guarded messages were picked up by those who thrived on listening in on other people’s conversations.
This author can testify to the accuracy of all that, because things were still the same when I “courted” in a Model A Ford, the successor to the Model T. Keep in mind, I wasn’t around during the time Model A’s were built (1928-’31). They were very old cars when my two older brothers bought theirs. I occasionally borrowed one when my somewhat “newer” old car was incapacitated. My students probably thought I was old enough to be in the Civil War, so my personal testimony of old car courtship in the early days rang true to them.
Henry Ford could be thanked for producing an automobile that made it possible for a couple to be able to replicate, to a small degree, the “let the horse head home on his own” solitude. You see, Model A’s had several features that aided in obtaining quality time alone. The young man was always told when leaving on a date when he was to “have our daughter home.” However, parents were quite forgiving when some legitimate automotive malfunction resulted in her getting home late. Having the car’s engine quit on the date fit into that category. The girl’s father had likely done his courting in even older cars, so he could understand engine trouble.
Carefully calculated “adjustments”
Henry Ford placed a valve inside under the Model A’s dash that, when turned, shut off gasoline that was stored in the tank located behind the dashboard. Either with his date’s approval or even on the sly, the driver could close the valve and the engine would quit. With the car stopped on a lonely lane, the time while stranded could be used for amorous activities. When the engine was tried later, it would cough to life because a small movement of the valve handle would allow gasoline to flow again. The excuse for late arrival home was honestly that “the engine quit.”
That excuse was usable from time to time. After all, old cars sometimes had the same problem over and over. However, another Model A feature that came in handy for dates was the way the transmission gear shifter worked. It was in the middle on the floor and looked like all other car shifters. The shifter was kept engaged to the transmission by a strong spring that allowed it to be moved through the gears. With enough effort, the lever could be lifted straight up against that spring. When that happened, the actual part that shifted the gears popped out of its socket and the lever itself would just flop around, rendering the car inoperable.
The time being stranded could best be used in romantic pursuits. In due time, proper manipulation of the gear shifter caused it again to seat in its proper place and mobility was possible. The explanation? “We’re late because of transmission problems.”
Somewhat less than full disclosure
When a young lady was on a date in a Model A Ford, she found herself sitting really quite close to the boy, since front seats in all cars of that era were made for just two passengers. In the unlikely situation where she wanted to get out of the car quickly, Henry’s door handle mechanism probably gave her date more time to convince her that their evening would be enjoyable even if it started out strained.
You see, although almost every other kind of car required the door handle to be pulled toward the passenger to open the door (sometimes they needed to be pushed down), Ford did it differently. To exit, one had to take hold of the handle. Using the thumb as a fulcrum, the handle had to be lifted up away from the door, a movement that was quite unnatural. If the Model A’s handle was worn some, any attempt to pull the handle just caused it to go round and round. The couple had time to reconcile their differences.
Creative problem solving
The final Model A Ford feature that aided in courtship may have been utilized by other drivers of old cars too. A time for the girl to be home was always set, but some parents were still apprehensive that the couple’s time away might not be spent in approved activities. In those early days, teenage “parking” was very definitely frowned on by adults. Stern warnings of “absolutely no parking” were the last words some young people heard as they left for a date.
The Model A had two levers on the steering column, one on each side of the wheel. The one on the left (where today’s signal light switch is located) was for retarding the spark when starting. The lever on the right was for adjusting engine speed.
Clever young people figured out a way to meet their parents’ requirements and still have a romantic interlude. In any large, fairly smooth, open space like a field or vacant lot, the car was driven out to the middle. The steering wheel was turned as sharp as it would go and tied to the driver’s outside door handle. The car was then started in first gear and the throttle lever pulled down so the engine was running a little above an idle, providing just enough power to make the car move.
The driver then crawled out the passenger door and joined his girlfriend in the back (or rumble) seat, where the couple smooched it up. The car would go slowly round and round. When returning home, the couple could honestly say, “we never stopped once.”
Today’s high school students find stories like these hilarious. They are all true, however. Romance can bloom and thrive in all kinds of situations, and in the early days, true love conquered all – just like it does today. To suggest to some reading this article today that Henry Ford played a significant role in the courtship of thousands of Americans may seem like a stretch, but it is true. If you are an incurable romantic, you might consider the purchase of a Model A Ford car to add to your tractor collection. They are easy to find. FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. 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.