The other day, I noticed a tiny crack above the wheel well of my relatively new hybrid car. I knew that I could seal it with a little Super Glue, and that small thing slipped my memory into reverse, back to when cars were made of steel.
I found myself recalling my beloved grandfather’s 1928 Hupmobile, a massive, black four-door sedan that I first remember seeing as a 5-year-old in 1938. It had a calibrated wooden stick that he would insert into its gas tank to see how full it was and a hand crank to start it when the starter wouldn’t. Climbing Buffalo’s hardly massive hills strained it, but I thought it was great.
I recalled a 1942 winter ride that I took with my Great Uncle Ed when the gasoline-powered heater that he had just installed in his 1936 Dodge coupe melted my rubber boots.
The memory of a cool fall evening trip reawakened when, wrapped in a wool blanket, I rode to Buffalo’s Grand Central Terminal in the rumble seat of my cousin Walter’s 1934 Plymouth. For those too young to remember, a rumble seat was an upholstered open-air seat for two located where the trunk is now found on cars. Seated in a rumble seat, you were in for a very windy but very exciting ride – a memorable thrill for me.
Safety was, to put it mildly, not a big concern in those long-ago days. Dashboards were filled with sharp objects that could impale an unfortunate driver or passenger involved in a collision. To be sure that a car’s threat also extended to pedestrians, it always had a hood ornament – a large, sharp metal object standing on its hood – ready to skewer anyone in its way.
Needless to say, seat belts were unknown, and air bags referred only to people who talked too much. Car brakes were mechanical then, not efficient and hydraulic; they worked fine if you had a very strong leg and at least half the length of a football field to stop. Lucky kids, and I was one of them, were sometimes allowed to ride on a car’s running boards – not safe, but great fun.
Even post-World War II era cars were not exactly technological marvels. The first car that my wife, Ann, and I bought was a (very) used 1946 Ford that once was unable to summit the old railroad viaduct on Kensington Avenue. Even at a gasoline cost of 30 cents per gallon, it was an expensive car to drive since its mileage never reached double figures.
We later owned a Volkswagen Beetle that I had to tune every weekend to keep starting and running even minimally well. Ann became an expert at starting our 1976 Plymouth when it “flooded.” She would jump out, lift the hood, remove the air cleaner, stick a screw driver in the carburetor’s butterfly valve, jump back in and restart the car in minutes. My neighbor, Charlie, and I regularly took turns pushing each other’s car to get it started, or, failing that, towing it to a garage.
The computer-driven, plastic marvel that I drive today starts every time, is smooth as can be and has every safety device known to man. It gets 40 to 50 miles per gallon and stops on a dime. But, as a great old Steven Sondheim song says, “something’s lost and something’s gained in living every day.” Cars are certainly wonderful now, but I miss the adventure they once were. Maybe a rumble seat would help.
Frank J. Dinan, a professor emeritus at Canisius College who lives in Tonawanda, remembers the thrill of sitting in a rumble seat.