My father bought a new 1914 or 1915 Mitchell touring sedan. The Mitchell had just come out. Pictures say it was a beautiful automobile, but my memory has no recollection of it at all. (see attachment) In my time, he drove straight six cylinder Studebakers. For a time, he drove a straight eight Packard. The term “straight” means the cylinders were placed in a row. In an engine with “V” in its title, the cylinders were placed in a “V” with four on one side and four on the other side.

The tappets on those engines had to be adjusted regularly which accounts for my being in our unheated garage holding a drop cord electric light so that my father could get the tappets in adjustment. That work had to be accomplished by my father in an ungainly posture using a valve tappet feeler gauge. It was not inspiring work, but anyone who ever heard an engine with unadjusted tappets, would know that something needed to be done.

My first car was a 1931 Chevrolet coupe which was a reliable car. (see attachment) My second car was a 1937 Chevrolet coach. It was called a coach because while it could seat five or six people, only two wide doors were provided. In other words, it was not a sedan which had four doors.

The main selling feature of the 1937 Chevrolet was it was the first car to have “knee action” in the front suspension which was supposed to deliver superior riding qualities. That car was pretty much a disaster with the engine needing frequent major repair work and with the “knee action” front wheels coming constantly out of adjustment.

But the subjects of this essay are essentially a 1931 Ford and South Wind heaters. Today, we obsess over car safety. There are seat belts and air bags, and gauges of every kind to say nothing about signs that tell you when a door is opened. But the manufacturers still are doing very little in terms of improved mileage.

But in the 1930’s there was not very much concern about automobile safety. Horsepower was important, particularly after Ford produced its first V-8 automobile in 1934. Now there is an interesting thought about Ford. For all the 1920’s, Ford had considerable success with its Model T cars. In 1930, Ford replaced the Model T’s with Model A’s. The Model A’s had regular three speed transmissions which replaced the antiquated transmission band systems in the Model T’s.

One of the Model A characteristics that would offend modern day car safety experts, is that the gas tank was located in the hood section directly in front of the windshield. It is fairly clear that in a front end collision, the gas tank would spill or that the tank would be found in the laps of the front seat passengers. It was a fire hazard in any case, but Ford built its Model A’s until 1935 when they were replaced by the V-8 models. The Model A’s were a big success for Ford.

The cars had a floating gas gauge in the tank that could be seen from the passenger compartment. Presumably, Ford located the gas tank more or less over the engine because they must not have trusted the pumps to pull the gas from a rear mounted gas tank to the engine in the front. In spite of the obvious hazards, Ford found itself with a runaway best seller. The Ford car that led the sales parade was a coupe with a rumble seat where the trunk should have been. (see attached) Rumble seats contributed greatly in the romance department, but it was not the driver who profited from this aspect of the Model A’s. It was one of his passengers.

While all these old cars were in existence, not one of them had a heater, unless you considered a casing over the exhaust system of the engine. The casing led to a hole in the firewall with the thought that as the engine warmed, the heat from the exhaust system would be caught and moved somehow to the passenger compartment. Such heaters were not reliable at all and usually produced smoke fumes. But that was all the heat there was.

In most cars, particularly those with no windows or with isinglass windows, passengers, other than the driver, would cover themselves with blankets or robes. Horsehair robes to cover the laps of passengers were quite popular. But no matter how you cut it, riding around in a 1920’s or a 1930’s model car on a cold day was not enjoyable – not at all.


Then in 1938, an outfit called South Wind Heaters developed what must be the forerunner of today’s auto heaters. The South Wind was mounted in the passenger compartment. It had tubes through the firewall where it tapped into the fuel supply of the engine. When a large button was activated in the passenger compartment, ignition took place in the South Wind and heat was generated. If the South Winds were carelessly installed, it could very well result in a fire in the engine compartment. Fires in the passenger compartment were unknown to most of us who worked around cars, but fires in the engine compartment were a problem. Carl Schroth, my boss on my first job, had a South Wind which worked well.

The South Winds are still around today, but rarely seen. They are offered by a Canadian seller of specialties for used (restored) car fans. The South Winds are offered as refurbished and the dealer says that they “have an Art Deco look that fits perfectly with old cars.” In any event, auto manufacturers soon figured out a way to tap into the radiator and the cooling system of the engine. Hot water heaters made the gasoline powered South Winds largely obsolete. That was a good development because the South Winds were expensive and dangerous.

Well, that is the story on older cars. It would be worth a lot of money to drive a Model A Ford today. Perhaps it would have more cachet than the foreign cars which seem to be crowding out American manufactured cars. But the car business has always had its dog-eat-dog aspects. It is simply worse today than ever before.

For an old essayist who had a lot to do with old cars and filling stations. Writing about them is an exercise in nostalgia. Those days were clearly not as pleasant as they seem now, but it is pleasant to bring back memories of more than 60 years in age.

Anybody for an unheated rumble seat ride? My bet is that it would be necessary to beat off young people who would compete to ride the romance seat in a 1931 Model A Ford. And maybe some of us oldsters would be among them.

December 28, 2003

Seems like there are a lot of attachments for this one! If Judy gets some time, perhaps she’ll be able to dig up a couple and I can post them here. As far as cars though, it’s pretty surprising how long it took manufacturers to figure out that gas tanks should be put far from zones that crush during crashes. You might excuse the Model A for the mistake, but even later cars like the Pinto were still experimenting with terribly placed gas tanks — the Pinto was famous for having its gas tank at the very very back of the car, so if you rear ended one it was likely to explode. Fun times.

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