The Humorous Side of Early Cars

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Delbert Trew is a freelance writer and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum.
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Early cars and their inflatable tires weren't always reliable. Patching an inner tube alongside the road preserved little of the driver's dignity.

The transition from horses and buggies to automobiles for transportation had its humorous side. Most early cars had nicknames, according to Junior Windom, a long-time mechanic and parts man from McLean, Texas. The model T Ford was known as a ‘Flivver,’ because driving it made your ‘liver quiver.’ A ‘Jitney’ and a ‘Yodeler’ were coined for the peculiar sounds the engines made while starting or idling, and a ‘Tin Lizzie’ might have been named after a retired buggy mare named Lizzie, although I don’t think that’s documented anywhere.

I’ve never heard of a reason for the name ‘Jalopy,’ but Chevrolet developed a heavy engine for its vehicles and immediately earning the nickname ‘Cast Iron’ for its cars. A ‘Major Bowles’ designated any Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge or DeSoto car made by the Major himself although he became more famous for creating the ‘Major Bowles Amateur Hour,’ a favorite early-day radio program.

A ‘Hoopie’ — a term that has endured — described any stripped-down, worn-out, barely running automobile, which could be of any brand. The Hoopie name came from the word ‘Whoopie,’ often exclaimed by the driver and passengers after finally arriving at a desired destination — and sometimes with good reason.

Ida Garrett, an early Ochiltree (pronounced ‘ock’-il-tree’) County, Texas, resident, was hired out at 16 years of age to drive for families who had purchased new cars; she learned to drive ‘on the job.’ During overnight trips, Ida and the families for whom she worked camped along the road or at roadside farms, and wherever she went, she collected driving stories. One she especially loved to tell was about an elderly farmer living southeast of Perryton, Texas, who purchased a new car and built a garage in which to park it.

The farmer quickly learned to start, shift gears, and drive the vehicle, but had problems stopping it. On his first trip to Perryton, the farmer killed the engine in a vacant lot, walked to the stores, made his purchases and carried them back to the car.

On returning home, the old gentleman approached the garage, placed both feet flat on the floorboard, pulled up on the steering wheel and shouted ‘Whoa! Whoa!’ The car plowed through the rear of the new garage, across the garden and through two barbed wire fences before it careened back onto the driveway. He needed two more passes before he was able to stop the car in the garage. Ida would laugh and claim, ‘He invented the circular driveway and the drive-thru carport.’

Cranking the early-day engines could be hazardous to arms and wrists. If the spark and gas were not adjusted perfectly, the motor kicked backward, and woe to the man who had the wrong grip on the crank handle. After rubber tires were invented, another hazard presented itself in the operation of the crude jacks and lug wrenches. Pinched fingers, skinned knuckles and embarrassing language were as regular as each morning’s rising of the sun.

There was little dignity in patching an inner tube alongside the road and then pumping air into the tire with an ‘up-down’ tire pump. The first gravity-flow gasoline tanks posed problems, too, when going up steep hills with a tank low on gas; drivers invariably suffered the indignity of having to turn around and back up the hills.

The dramatic transition from horse-and-buggy to automobile transportation tested many farmers who had grown up relying on horsepower in one form but found themselves having to adapt to horsepower of a completely different sort. Seeing the humorous side of that transition sometimes helped folks survive it.

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher, and supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas.

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