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Used Parts Bin: 11 Fun Facts About Cars from a Century Ago

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Used Parts Bin: 11 Fun Facts About Cars from a Century Ago

Bill Crittenden
April 25, 2014

I've been poring over the New York Times archives for articles I can add to The Crittenden Automotive Library and manually typing them in, so I've come across a bunch of fun stuff that doesn't seem to be common knowledge today.  Here's my Top Ten about cars in general (not counting all the fun stuff I've learned about specific cars or companies) and a bonus article that just speaks for itself.

Cyclecars: cyclecars were three and four wheeled automobiles based on motorcycle running gear and very small, light bodies.  They even included narrow tandem two-seaters (driver in front of passenger).  Very popular in the 1910's and 1920's, they're all but gone, but the Morgan 3-Wheeler is a rare example of a modern day cyclecar.

Regenerative Braking:  the principle that extends hybrid cars' range was actually invented before automobiles, and instead of using batteries and electric motors they tried to use clock springs.  The springs would wind when a wagon was stopping, and release to give the horses a boost of power to get a heavy wagon moving again.

Left Hand Drive:  in 1909 pundits debated over driving on the left or right side of the road in America.  Rural wagon driving favored right side driving because the driver, sitting on the right side of the wagon, could watch their wheels and keep the wagons out of ditches.  As automobiles and city driving on paved roads took off, there was an advantage to the driver being on the side of the vehicle facing the middle of the road.  So, should we switch the entire country over to left-side driving?  Could we, after all the time we'd spent on the right?  Thankfully, someone figured out that we could just put the automobile steering wheel on the left side of the vehicle, and starting around 1910 the switch to sitting nearest the middle of the road started internal to the automobile cabin.

Automobile:  speaking of the automobile, the word itself was up for debate in the early years, as well.  Originally called "horseless carriages," then "motor cars," and then finally "automobiles."  But before automobile would come to be a noun describing a four wheeled vehicle, it was an adjective describing something moving under its own power.  Technically, a train, a motorcycle, or a boat with an engine are all automobile - as well as naval torpedoes, the most frequent reason for the use of the word "automobile" in the NYT archives before Karl Benz came along.

Reciprocity:  automobile licensing, in the early days, was very rudimentary.  Often licenses didn't include pictures and sometimes there weren't even proficiency tests.  States often didn't have reciprocity amongst each other - the principle that my Illinois license allows me to drive in Wisconsin and a Wisconsin license allows a driver to drive in Illinois.  A driver in Washington, D.C. would need a D.C. license for themselves and their car, and another set of licenses for Maryland, a long-time holdout against reciprocity because of the money it made from D.C. drivers having to buy duplicate licenses to drive anywhere in Maryland.

NHTSA Standards:  the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, didn't come along until the 1960's.  Their Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards determine what safety features a car has to have, but before NHTSA and the FMVSS it was up to the states.  Anti-glare headlamps were a particular annoyance, as what was legal in one state wasn't legal in another, and one trip documented a driver needing FOUR sets of headlamp lenses for an interstate highway trip.

Interstate Highways:  the Lincoln Highway system, begun in 1914, was the first road to go from coast to coast on well-marked, quality roads. Before then, roads were local, and built on a local tax base.  Without FHWA funds and standards, long roads through sparsely populated areas were...adventurous...to put it nicely.  Signs weren't all that great, either, but that was okay.

Speed Limits:  it was okay that signs and roads weren't as great as today's major highways, because cars weren't capable of great speeds anyway.  Speed limits of 8 miles an hour were common in cities like New York, and even that was a bit fast considering the low tech tires and brakes meant that 8 miles an hour still required a bit of stopping distance.

Police Cars:  back in the days when policemen walked their beats, police cars were often whatever car happened to be driving past - the officers would hop on the running boards and ride to & from the station or, occasionally, engage in a chase.  Obviously, this was a high-risk move that resulted in many fatalities and injuries, especially considering that at the time New York State had a two dollar registration fee and no proficiency test to be a licensed driver.

How To Drive:  I imagine driver training would be a bit difficult considering just how little was standardized on early automobiles.  Once they had all settled on a steering wheel, some still had throttle levers on the steering column, others used spark advance controls for the driver to give the engine more power when needed.  Some required the clutch be held in while driving, and engine choke controls were all over the place.  Contrast that to today, where pretty much every car operates the same basic way no matter who makes it.  That common layout didn't come along until 1913, and took many more years before becoming the standard.

Afraid of Change?  the adoption of automobiles wasn't a universally welcomed thing, and opposition came from more than self-interested buggy whip makers.  But all the words against were futile, perhaps none more so than those described in this article:

The New York Times - June 4, 1914

German Baptists Advise Against Owning or Operating Them.

Special to The New York Times.

FRANKFORT, Ind., June 3.-At the National Conference of the German Baptist Church, commonly called the Dunkards, which is in session on the Metzger Farm, north of this city, arguments were made against the use of automobiles by members of the church, after which a vote was taken.  Three thousand votes were cast against the use of the automobiles, while only three delegates in the convention voted for it.  The conference adopted this resolution:

Whereas, We realize the difficulty and unpleasantness in dealing with the automobile spirit, we advise all churches not to allow their members to own or operate an automobile, automobile truck, motor cycle, or any motor vehicle, at least until such time as they become in general use or until we get more light on the subject.

The leaders in the convention spoke strongly in favor of the resolution which was greeted with a storm of amens.

When this vote was taken, seven acres were reserved for the parking of automobile of members of the organization.  A count showed that 956 automobiles were driven to the grounds.

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