My parents were married in 1932, in the very worst part of the Great Depression.
And, like so many others, they barely survived. They had no car for more than five years, often walking to work in the bitter winters in far northwest Pennsylvania.
Finally they were able to buy a brand new 1937 Plymouth.
That Plymouth was to last them for over twelve years.
When they practically gave it to one of my Texas aunts in 1949, it had well over 100,000 miles — a much harder feat then than it is today.
It wasn’t replaced until well after new cars became available after World War II.
My father had lost his good job as a refinery shift foreman in 1940. We then roamed the country like gypsies, often sleeping in the Plymouth.
My parents often later joked about being the same as the fictional Joads from The Grapes of Wrath as they both looked for work — any work.
And, by 1942, when we had returned to Pennsylvania where a very good job awaited my father, there were no new cars of any make to be had.
All the auto plants had been converted to war production.
There was no civilian U.S. auto production from early 1942 until late in 1945, when the war was finally over.
Soon, my father had advanced to the point that he was provided a new company car as his employers had cleverly bought as many 1942 vehicles as they could.
This was, indeed, very fortuitous, as when the war ended, new cars were almost impossible to buy — at least at anything near the factory list price. Dealers were adding hundreds of dollars above the manufacturers recommended price. (For example, a new 1946 Chevrolet listed for $1600 and some dealers were selling them for $3000).
Enjoying the luxury, periodically, of the new company cars, my dad was in no hurry to buy one for personal use, even after he was transferred to a better position in southern Texas.
But he had to do something to get the old Plymouth ready for the annual trips back and forth to my Pennsylvania grandparents’ home near Erie.
His solution was simple: he bought a brand new motor for a Dodge truck that was identical to the engine in a new ’48 Chrysler six.
He recruited on of my Texas uncles and, together, they installed it in the Plymouth.
They had to relocate the radiator a few inches forward, but otherwise the car still appeared stock. Now the old car, nicknamed “The Mayflower” from the ship on her hood ornament, would really fly.
My mother subsequently had a lot of fun catching other drivers by surprise.
She wasn’t totally happy until she was herself surprised by a new 1949 Chrysler.
Our trip north, usually about 1,500 miles, started with a whim.
In Al Capp’s Little Abner, a very popular comic strip of the day, a rail tycoon allows his idiot son to pick the route between two cities.
The son then draws a straight line and that’s the way the tracks will be laid, near mind any obstacles in the way.
Jokingly, I asked my father why we couldn’t use the same method to find the shortest route between our home in Luling, a small town in central Texas and my grandparents house in Warren, a small city is far northwestern Pennsylvania.
He thought for just a moments and then handed me a yardstick.
I quickly drew a straight line between the two towns.
We would try to stay as close as possible to this line on our trip north.
This new route would take us over many roads that we had never travelled before.
My mother, always the cautious one in our family, was not very sure of the sanity of this new idea but reluctantly agreed.
So we loaded the “Mayflower” and off we went.
Early on, we made great time. On flat country, my dad drove very fast on the open road but slowed considerably when any town was encountered, explaining that was where the police were.
When we reached the mountains in Tennessee and Kentucky, we had to slow considerably as few cars of that era could climb these steep grades with ease.
Our old Plymouth, even with its new “hotrod’ motor, labored heavily up the very steep hills.
Of course, we than flew downhill, even with engine braking. That’s when the minor disaster occurred.
My sister was only four years old that summer She liked very much to ride between our parents in the close-coupled front seat. She was always both very curious and very observant, even at this early age.
Unfortunately, she is gone now, but she always claimed that she remembered her stunt.
She was fascinated by the ignition key located in the center of the dash, directly in front of where she sat.
She had seen how turning that key shut off the engine.
She decided to prove to herself what would happen if she reached out and turned the key back to the left.
Of course, she knew that she would have to turn the key back to the right to start the engine again.
About the time we had crested a grade and were now doing about 70 on the downgrade, she turned the key off and seconds later, turned it back on.
On a modern 21st century automobile with fuel injection, very little would happen if one turned off the ignition and then turned it back on.
Not so with the simple carburetors of that era, no matter how good they were.
The unspent fuel-air mixture collected in the exhaust pipe and muffler during the “off” period, then exploded when the ignition was turned back on.
The blast had such force that the muffler and most of the rest of the exhaust system was literally blown away.
We were then greeted with a great roar that approximated that faced by World War I fighter pilots.
Here we were in the most desolate part of Kentucky.
We were all nearly deaf by the time we reached a muffler shop in Cincinnati, Ohio, that was almost 200 miles away over the mountain roads.
That was the end of my sister riding in the front seat.
By the way, our trip that year was just over 1,300 miles, not the 1,500 that we usually travelled.
So something worked!