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Owning an Auto in New York Puts Victim in Luxury Class

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Owning an Auto in New York Puts Victim in Luxury Class

Charles B. Rosebault
The New York Times
December 3, 1922


Let the motorless minority relax in envy and bitterness, for the man at the wheel, with all his pretense of being one of the favored, is often really the goat in this play called Life.  Apart from the fact that he is in the hands of Destiny, when he is not in those of a traffic cop, he really belongs to the hunted, with everybody ready to take a shy at him whenever there is even a mite of a chance.

Time was, within the memory of many still active and vigorous, when the nimble-witted soldier of fortune looked out on the Paradise of Fakers—just below the present Times Square—with eyes alert for the man from the country.  Hungry Joe and lesser lights in the art of separating man from his coin, the keenest psychologists of their day, wasted little effort on the New Yorker who was thought to be above the enticements of three-card monte, green goods and the shell game.  But there has been a scrapping of old methods and facile invention of new in this as in other of life's callings.  The world stands still no more among  the light-fingered than among those of heavy and laborious hand.  It has been discovered that the come-on may be sheltered under the mantle of the Great City.  So the citizen is no longer immune.  And by preference it is the motorist who is singled out for rich and easy picking.

Motorists may be roughly divided into two groups: those who hire chauffeurs and those who don't; and the former should again be separated into the ones who exercise some supervision over their hirelings and those who feel that they have other and more worth-while fish to fry.  These last are, of course, a royal source of revenue for our friends.  A half dozen such will provide an income—even after allowing the most generous commissions to the go-betweens—which must move the spirit of the late Hungry Joe to clamorous demands for reincarnation.

But these are only a handful to the vast number of humbler owners who conduct their cars in person and who seek, as far as possible, to keep this item of their budget from forcing them into bankruptcy or the hands of the alienist.  It is to these that the experiences I am about to relate are particularly addressed.

One morning recently the hero of this tale received a postcard addressed to him as the owner of the, let us say, Blank car.  It was an attractive card, with red ink to emphasize the more eloquent and enticing features of its message.  It started off thus: "Mr. Blank Owner; the service shop for your Economy after your vacation and Summer touring."  There followed a list of suggestions indicating intelligent understanding of what should be done after a protracted period of knocking about over country roads.  Then came the statements which interested the recipient more particularly.  These were: "Former Blank employes.  Official Service Blank Car Repairs and Service.  The Flat Rate Shop.  Labor $1 per hour."

The owner had no need for repairs at the time—at least he believed he hadn't, as his car had been overhauled by an expert only a short time before—but the time was drawing near when the grease cups would need attention and clean oil should go into the motor.  So he filed the card for future reference.

For the small number of New Yorkers who are not personally conversant with the worries of the motorist, it will be sufficient to explain that these are, apart from the financial problems and the actual running, not very different from those of the owner of a highly-prized pet animal.  The automobile has to be housed, fed, watered and watched constantly for strains, bruises and the offensive behavior of its kind.  Eternal vigilance alone will maintain it for the joy and comfort of its possessor.

Therefore, though this particular car was running smoothly, its engine purring gently, clutch and wheels and gears responding promptly to the master's touch, that matter of the grease cups and the oil could not be forgotten.  This was in the back of the owner's mind when his eyes fell upon an advertisement of the Blank Company, the gist of which that owner of Blank Cars should only patronize official Blank service if tey wished to be assured of honest and efficient treatment.  Thereupon he looked up the address on the postcard and took his car there.

He had been bitten before.  A large and imposing service station had taken $30 for work in which the grinding of cylinders and removal of carbon had been the most important item.  A year later, when he happened to mention this to an expert, upon whose good faith he knew he could rely, the latter had turned from his inspection with a startling observation:

"Well, they did you.  Those cylinders were never touched since they left the factory."

So he was on his guard, and his first question was directed to the bona fides of the statement that this was indeed an official Blank service.  The response of the manager was hearty and convincing.  The place was duly authorized and they were working on Blank cars all the time.  Two of them were in the shop at the moment, and the manager conducted his caller to the workroom to prove his statement.

It was a large and busy place and the manager was businesslike and well informed.  In fact, quite eloquent.  What was reassuring, too, was the evidence that there was no swivel-chair ornament, but an actual worker, in worn overalls, with black grease on his hands and the smudges of real labor upon his manly brow.  He looked over the car with a knowing professional glance.

"Sure she doesn't need anything else?" he asked, when the customer had explained his wants.

"That will be all this time," the latter answered confidently.  "I just had her overhauled."

The manager again applied a critical eye to the car, then reached out and grabbed the front off-wheel with both hands and rocked back and forth on it.

"That wheel is in bad shape," he said.  "You could have an accident with that."

The owner threw his weight against the wheel, which seemed solid enough, but the manager knew better.  Whether he had learned some new kind of strangle hold or a new principle of dynamics, he certainly did move the wheel back and forth.  Only a fraction of an inch, to be sure, but, as he explained volubly, that would be greatly augmented when the car was jacked up.  It was undeniably serious.

"You'll see when I take it off," he added.  "You can't be too careful with wheels.  I was out riding with one of the Blank agents the other day and his wheel came off, almost upset the car and nearly killed a child on the pavement."

Please keep in mind that this was held forth to be one of the Blank official agents, in whom one might have implicit confidence.  His post cards were printed, showing that they must have a wide distribution, and, unless he was a practitioner of the black arts, it was fair to suppose that he must have got the name and address of his customer, together with the fact that he was an owner of a Blank car, from some official source.  So the car was left, with the understanding that the wheel would be examined and fixed up, if required, the oil and grease cups attended to, and the owner might call for it that same day—which was a Thursday.

Before calling the owner took the precaution of telephoning early that afternoon.  "No," came the answer, "we didn't dare go ahead without showing you first.  When can you come?"

"What's the trouble?" inquired the owner.

"You're in luck," came the reply.  "It's just a miracle your wheel didn't drop off on the road, and the car turn a somersault.  Come over and let us show you."

The car was jacked up when the owner arrived and looked as though it had been pulled apart.  Both front wheels were off, the radiator had been removed and the cover of the clutch case removed.

"Good heavens!" he exclaimed, but got no further.

"See those bearings?" the man who was on the job interrupted, holding out a handful, "they're so worn they just dropped out when I took off the wheel.  They can't be used again.  You've got to have new bearings.  You've got to have some new ones on the other wheel, too.  Then there's king pin bolts for both wheels and new bronze bushings, besides a bearing on the clutch release.  The brakes—"

"Look here," the owner intervened, "I'm not trying to make a new car.  This was running perfectly when I brought it here.  Some day I expect to have a new car."

The manager came up.

"We don't want you to break down on the road," he observed benevolently, "and then hold it up against us that we let you take the car away in rotten shape.  When we send a car out it's got to be right."

"But I just had it overhauled by a Blank expert," repeated the owner, whereat both smiled indulgently.

The owner looked at the wreck and wavered.  After all, this was the official repair service, and they must know.  He could not afford to take any chances, and possibly this was a stroke of good fortune in exposing hidden defects.  The wisest course seemed to be to get an estimate of the cost and make the best of it.

The manager wrote down some figures on a slip of paper, totaling $21, and announced that that would be the charge for the new parts.

"How about the labor cost?" asked the owner.

"If we tried to fix that in advance," returned the manager, "we'd have to charge a couple of hours more than it's likely to take, just to insure ourselves against mistakes.  You leave it to us and we'll do the right thing."

Again let it be said that this was held forth to be an official Blank agency.

The agreement now arrived at was that the car should be delivered at 9:30 on Saturday morning, and at that hour the owner reappeared.  He found the car in the same dismantled condition.

"We found a lot of the clutch plates were worn, so we had to put in new ones, besides a clutch release, a clutch hub and a steering knuckle arm," he was informed.

"Who authorized that?" demanded the owner, now thoroughly aroused.  "Didn't I tell you I wasn't looking for a new car?"

"My man said you told him to fix up anything he found necessary," was the reply.

"What!" exclaimed the owner.  "Where is he?"

Of course, he was absent.  The owner didn't trust himself to go on with the conversation.  Besides, he realized his helplessness.  A row might easily delay the delivery of the car, and he had an appointment which required his presence in New Jersey the following day.  So he smothered his wrath and inquired when the car would be ready.  Surely at noon, replied the manager, but if he cared to telephone at 11 it might be ready then.  At 11 the owner called up, and this was the answer he received:

"Your car will be ready at 1 o'clock.  The bill will be $95.21, and you will have to bring cash.  We don't take checks."

Visions of Hungry Joe and his cohorts floated before the owner's dazed eyes, and a chorus of "Stung!" resounded in his ears.  He called up his lawyer, a wise and philosophic person.

"My boy," said the latter, "you can fight them.  They will bring alleged experts to testify that the things they did should have been done.  The jury may or may not believe them.  Anyhow, it will cost you more than you save.  Besides, the wrath that is within you will continue for weeks, and you won't have your car.  Pocket your pride and take your medicine.  Tomorrow or the next day your blood will be cool again.  'Tis the best way."

The owner did not have the cash required, so he had to go to his bank, which was some distance away.  That necessitated abandoning a luncheon engagement.  He arrived at the shop at 1:15.  Of course, the car was not ready.  He waited around, hungry and boiling within, until 2:15, when he was informed that the job had been finished and the bill was presented to him.  The first item to strike his eye was that for labor.

"Forty-two dollars!" he exclaimed.  "What did you do, work night and day?"

It was a waste of words.  It was pay or fight, and his lawyer's warning was potent.  He counted out the banknotes and mounted the seat.  But the car would not go!  That job on the clutch had done the trick.  The gears would not shift.  Every effort to make them do so threatened to tear the clutch apart.

At 4 o'clock the owner went out for a bite of lunch.  When he returned at 5 the situation was unchanged.  He went away weary and discouraged, with a vague hope that the manager might keep his promise to deliver the car that night.  The next morning he rang up the shop, but there was no reply.  Doubtless the manager was having an outing in New Jersey!  It was Monday night when the car was finally recovered.

Very likely some smart ones will say: "Serves him right.  Why doesn't he look after the car himself?"  Ah, yes. I have known some mechanical geniuses who boasted of taking their cars apart for the mere pleasure of putting them together again.  They know all about its intricacies.  Nobody can fool them.  Those are the ones the repair men like to have in their neighborhood.  They usually pay the biggest bills in the end.

The moral?  There isn't any.  There are honest repair stations—but you have to find them.  Wherein luck plays its part.

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