A sport that most of us have long forgotten but which still has its zest and allure is the game of automobile driving. I don't mean driving a sports car in races and rallies. That's a specialized business too rich for the layman's blood and emotions. I mean plain, everyday driving with the everyday family car.
We don't really do it any more, and more's the pity, because it is a game of fun and skill at which any number can play, even in today's traffic, which for most of us has become just a matter of high blood pressure and low language. I know, because I played the game myself for years.
I played the game according to rules of my own devising, and they would still apply. Competition in traffic isn't, or shouldn't be, a fender-bending contest but an intellectual exercise, like chess. In any traffic situation, at any given time, there is one place where you ought to be, and if you analyze the pattern correctly and think far enough ahead, you'll be in it and no one will be able to take you. It is against the rules of my game (to say nothing of being dangerous) to jump lights, chivy pedestrians or make other drivers slam on their brakes. The real point of the game is to utilize the space that no one else is using at the moment, and to do it so adroitly that you keep moving ahead of the less skillful players.
It is true that it is difficult to play the game today, not only because there is so much traffic but because all the cars on the road, sports cars excepted, are within about 10% of each other in acceleration, speed and maneuverability. But the challenge is still there, and the imaginative and resourceful driver can find plenty of offbeat avenues and cross streets, away from the big arteries, on which he can exercise his skill and save time as well. In city driving, the direct route is by no means always the shortest, and there is still a lot of fun left in finding your own secret way to get where you want to go.
February 1, 1960
And what fun it can be! To me, back in the '30s, it was more relaxing than whisky to come out of my office on the tip of Manhattan, all adrenalined up from a rough day, and drive uptown at 30 miles an hour through the heavy trucking on the New York waterfront and across to Central Park West, which had progressive traffic lights. If I could get on it just ahead of a red light I could hold a steady 35 and get all the way up across 110th Street, where the park ends, just before I caught up with the red light ahead of me. That took me directly onto Eighth Avenue, which had no lights at all in those days. I would weave in and out of the El pillars and the trucks and, believe me, I had to concentrate until I got to Yankee Stadium, around 161st Street. But then I could relax, light my pipe and enjoy the easy going on my secret, deserted route to the Hutchinson River Parkway. Between my office and the city line I had only seven traffic lights to go through, counting the progressivelights as one. Those were the good old days!
My partner on those trips was my Model A Ford, the best car I ever owned. My automotive enthusiasms have been many in the course of 40 years, but five stand out in retrospect, for I learned about driving from them. They were, in succession, a Panhard ambulance in World War I, a Model T Ford in which I carried my wounded after the Panhard gave out, a Porter, a Chandler and the Model A.
I had never so much as ridden in an automobile until I went to France in 1918, being a militia horse gunner who derided cars. But the Panhard was a fine car, and once I had mastered her four-speed, gate-type gearshift and got used to maneuvering her big 12-seater ambulance body around the blacked-out streets of Paris I didn't care if I never saw a horse again.
France was where I really learned to drive, and France had a great deal to teach me. The traffic in Paris was loaded with trucks and taxis and staff cars and bicycles; the roads at the front were crowded with vehicles of every description. Aside from dealing with this kind of traffic and the wild drivers in it, there were other things, too.
For instance, I learned to sky-drive on the Panhard, an almost forgotten art that often has proved useful. Even in a blacked-out city there is a little luminosity, and on clear nights I could guide myself by watching the strip of sky showing between the treetops or roofs on either side. It was always exciting, and sometimes downright heart-stopping. Once while cutting across the Etoile during an air raid I very nearly racked up the Panhard. A group of workmen was doing some last-minute sandbagging around the Arc de Triomphe, and just in time I saw a man walk across my unlit path. I passed behind him, leaving plenty of room for him but not for the 16-foot plank that I couldn't see on his shoulder. The Panhard had a roof over the driver supported by two sturdy irons (no windshield, of course), and next morning I found that the plank had hit them right at the level of my eyes, a night-driving hazard, which, like the granite monuments that decorate so many Paris trafficcircles, I included in my calculations thereafter.
After six months in Paris we were ordered to the front, and there we got the most amazing vehicle ever made, the comical little roller skate that the French first barred from the combat area for fear it would break down and ultimately extolled as the one automobile that wouldn't; the vulgar vehicle, butt of a million jokes, that nevertheless led the whole world into new industrial, economic and social areas—the Model T Ford.
The Model T probably had more things wrong with it than any other mechanical contrivance ever made in quantity, but they were wrong on purpose, so that there would be one thing right. In an age when no automobile was really dependable, one could rely on the T because she always ran. She ran with pistons so slack you could drop a nickel past them, valve clearances set by eye, ignition timed by sighting alongside a bolthead and sparkplugs drenched with oil; and she'd do it on anything from powdered coal to Campbell's Soup. You could run her a mile without water and then fill her up without cracking the block; you could coax her along all day on three cylinders, and if a wheel collapsed you could bring her in on a fence-rail skid. When the gas got too low to feed on a steep grade you could go backwards, and if the brake burned out you could come down on the reverse pedal. And in an era when every other kind of electrical automotive equipment was a curse and a blight onmankind, the low-tension magneto built into the Ford flywheel ran safe and unfailingly, submerged in the engine oil.
I had a lot of fun with my Model T, but my last adventure with her is most vivid in memory. It was in the Vosges Mountains when we were on our way to the Rhine with the French army of occupation. It was twilight, the T had no headlights and I was some distance from our base. My lieutenant came along in his touring car and offered to lead me home. He had lights.
The touring car was faster than the T, and the looey was too green a driver to understand that when he went around a turn he left me in the dark, so I had to feel my way. When I topped a hill I saw him three bends ahead and going away. I just had to get back on his tail, so I pulled down the spark and gas handles and started sky-driving. I soon came to a place where the road appeared to drop down and turn sharp left into a notch between two big mountains. I couldn't see the turn, but it had to be there. The tough part was that I had to estimate just where.
I watched the edge of that left-hand mountain, sharp against the sky, come back and back until it was opposite my left elbow. "Now!" I told myself firmly, and turned left. It was the greatest and the most difficult act of faith in myself that I have ever performed.
I almost made it; I missed by only a foot. My left wheels scalped the base of the mountain for 30 feet before I could wrench the car out of the ditch and back onto the road. But the drop had bent the wishbone and made the car uncontrollable; she shot straight across the road into the opposite ditch. I stayed with her and wrestled her back onto the road a second time, but I was doing about 40 miles an hour, and that heavy tail swinging in a half-circle was too much for her.
She started to roll, half-somersaulting, flipping her tail high in the air. Down she went on her side, with a crash of loose tools; up onto her roof while the floor boards dropped down on my legs; and over onto her other side. The canvas hood above the driver's seat collapsed over my head, and I shot out of the tangle like a flushed grouse as soon as the car stopped rolling. I was eating beans by lantern light when the looey came back looking for me.
The head-high front wall of the body was what saved my hide, which explains why to this day I like a steel roof and plenty of good strong vertical body pillars. I don't care for the current engineering practice of figuring in the window glass as part of the supporting structure of the car. I keep remembering those floor boards.
After the war a couple of elderly Model T's convinced me that different conditions demanded a different car. At the front in France the primitive simplicity and low power of the Model T had made it invincibly reliable and durable, and that was what counted there. But in the United States longer distances and heavier traffic put the emphasis on speed and pickup. To me, as to every novice, that meant brute horsepower. I was in that frame of mind when, one day in 1927, I met the automobile that almost took me to perdition.
It came about when the Franklin dealer in New York got the idea of taking in trade all the expensive foreign cars that for years had been on-blocks in the garages of Long Island estates because other dealers wouldn't have them at any price. In no time at all he had a couple of floors full of the most gorgeously colorful, exotic junk that ever caressed eyes aching from the monotony of the black, homely, slab-sided American cars of that day. In this coruscating mixed bag there were two Porters, a marque which no one remembers now because less than a hundred were ever made and those only in 1920 (the manufacturer went bankrupt in 1922).
This Franklin dealer advertised his Porters (a touring car and a sedan) for $700 apiece. The touring car didn't interest me, but when I set eyes on that sedan it stopped me dead. Here, personified in an automobile, was the wicked woman of whom the psalmist tells. She looked like a lady, and a grand one at that, but she wasn't; she was the discarded mistress of a wealthy man who must have loved her dearly, for he had paid at least $10,000 for her, a lot of money in those days.
She sat there on the showroom floor and just looked at me, beautiful and bad beyond all telling. They raised the hood for me, and when I saw what was beneath it I started to sweat and tremble. For there was an incredible, tremendous engine that reminded me of nothing so much as the huge Maybachs in a German Gotha bomber.
The bottom of the crankcase cleared the floor by six inches, and the overhead camshaft cover came up to my elbows. It had an intake manifold like a stovepipe and a carburetor bowl like a water bucket. The cylinder bore was almost five inches, and the stroke must have been close to seven, for I know that this four-banger displaced 446 cubic inches, or over seven liters. I have seen the horsepower given as 170 at 2,500 rpm, which is not impressive now when every bucket of bolts claims more than 200; but in the early 1920s the biggest Packard rated at 75. In 1927 an automobile engine of 170 horsepower was fantastic.
She was big—heavens, she was big. She had a nickel-silver Rolls-Royce sort of radiator shell, and nickel-silver Mercedes-type headlights as big as washbasins. Her 25-inch wheels had been cut down for the new balloon tires. She had a hand-made, aluminum, custom-designed Brewster body that after six or seven years was still in the height of style, even to its fashionable maroon color, and the whole car was a miracle of taste and luxury. It was the most beautiful automobile I had ever seen, and I could say the same today.
She was brought to the curb for me by a dried-up Texan, a former Army tank driver who couldn't have weighed 150 pounds with a Stillson wrench in his hand. He put his arms around the big steering wheel, and took me for a ride up Eighth Avenue that I shall never forget. At 50 miles an hour that Porter snaked back and forth between the El pillars like a slalom racer, and whipped around moving trucks as if she had been a bicycle instead of a car weighing about 6,000 pounds. Her acceleration through gears plastered me back against the seat, and I felt in the pit of my stomach, rather than heard, the muted thunder of an exhaust as deep-toned as the whistle of the Leviathan.
We went into Central Park and I took the wheel. I am always polite to strange women, and in this case particularly I didn't feel like getting gay with a four-speed, gate-type, crash gearbox that had so much power ahead of it and so much weight behind it. But I confirmed what I had suspected from the nimbleness of the car—that the steering was lightning-fast, maybe 2½ turns to lock, and heavy; on those eight-inch balloons you really had to haul on it. I found, too, that no great thought had been given to ways of stopping the car. While this road locomotive had 170 horsepower in the go department, all it had in the stop department was a 14-inch steel-on-cast-iron transmission brake, and hand brakes on the rear wheels.
According to the Texan, no one had had either nerve or road space enough to find out what she could do in high, but she'd do a speedometer 70 in third, and she wouldn't even shift into high below 60. This meant that there might be a small problem in Bergen County, New Jersey, where I then lived and where the speed limit was 40 miles an hour. Another small problem was suggested when the Texan discreetly intimated that the gasoline mileage in town was about four to the gallon.
I said I'd be back the next day, and went home with my head spinning. I was a married man with three children, and I could see just how far my $75 a week would take me with that redhead. But at the moment I didn't care. I did, however, wonder what would happen when my wife met this temptress who was going to turn our home into a harem.
I found out in a hurry the next day. My wife climbed in behind the steering wheel, remarked that the top of it was higher than the top of her head, climbed out and took a good firm grip on my coattails. Thus was another good man hauled off the road to hell by a small, determined spouse. The Porter, I later learned, was sold for a tow car.
I bought a Chandler Royal which had a straight-eight engine with cylinders as big as flour barrels—3¼ by 4½—that developed 94 horsepower. Compared to the Porter it always seemed to me like a small car, for it had a 118-inch wheelbase instead of 142 inches. But the pounds-per-horsepower figured out about the same, and the Chandler had a rousing pickup that put it in a class by itself. Although she rode like a field gun, she'd do 70 over the worst roads if you were man enough to keep your foot down. She'd cruise wide-open all day, and if you didn't mind the beating she gave you, you could really score with her. That car taught me how to drive over the road.
That Chandler was even a good-looking car, so well-proportioned that she didn't look her size and weight; but she wasn't really a good car. There was always something the matter with her.
For a time she took to breaking a fan belt a week, and I never discovered what started and then finally stopped it. The cylinder head warped, and she blew out head gaskets regularly. The front-wheel brakes were just for advertising and supposed to be kept too loose really to hold. I found a man who could adjust them, and then she would stop on a dime, but I had to have it done every 500 miles. But the worst thing was something I never saw before or since. Inside the distributor were two little weights which spun round and round, spreading out or closing in as the engine speed changed. The spring on this "automatic spark advance" would weaken every so often, and when I went fast, the weights would fly out until they touched and gripped the distributor shell. This would shear off a soft metal pin that fastened the distributor driving gear, and then the spark would get out of step with the valves and the engine would stop firing. The muffler, big as a householdhot-water boiler, would fill with un-burned gas. Then the distributor would throw a random spark, there would be a terrific BANG, and the muffler would burst open like a tight vest. The Chandler's trouble was that she tried to do the impossible. She was years ahead of her time in many ways, but the design and metallurgy that she really needed just weren't there.
It was a load off my mind as well as my pocketbook when I sold the Chandler. And yet, I can't forget that when the light turned green she could leap like a tiger and pass a taxi-cab stopped a block ahead of me before it could cross its own intersection. She was almost a great car.
The Chandler's successor, though, was truly great, and the day that car was born is still a milestone in the automotive history of America. This was the Model A Ford, the long-awaited successor to the Model T that Henry had been turning out for 19 years. In the six months that Henry shut down for the changeover about a million car buyers just didn't buy, but waited for the Model A. Long before it appeared (late in 1927), the wildest rumors were rife and every strange-looking vehicle was suspected of being a test car in mufti. One of my auto-salesmen friends who was taking an Isotta-Fraschini to Boston parked it outside a lunch wagon, and when the bystanders asked the make of that long, low, racy, glittering, wickedly sumptuous and terrifically expensive job, he told them, confidentially, that it was the new Model A.
"They not only believed me," he told me with awe, "but were a bit disappointed with it."
What really won the public heart for the Model A was a publicity stunt that made every front page and wagged every tongue in the United States. A Brooklyn Ford dealer got himself pinched for doing 45 miles an hour in a Model A, and explained to the judge (and reporters) that he hadn't realized he was going so fast because he had been in second gear!
That had a stunning impact in 1928, because there were practically no cars on the dealer's floor that could turn a stop watch 60 mph or accelerate much faster than a horse-drawn wagon. People still thought in terms of long touring runs—weight and wheelbase, and an engine that could "take any hill in high." Second gear was just an inconvenience which knowing drivers bypassed until the Model A made it the maneuvering gear.
Ford's secret, of course, was light weight. He substituted strength and balance and engineering for cast iron, and got a power-to-weight ratio at road speeds that no other American car could approach. The kind of engines that the clumsy cars of that day would have needed to equal the performance of the Model A just didn't exist.
Thus, in its day, the Model A Ford was the best-performing stock automobile in America. It could do anything that any other car could do, a lot that no other could, and it could keep on doing it indefinitely. The last of the A's was made in 1931, 29 years ago, and they are so much in demand even today that a good one will fetch its original price and more.
The Model A is still, I maintain, the finest all-round automobile ever built. It had power enough to go anywhere in America and return; all the speed anyone could reasonably use; matchless roadability on turns and rough going, and utter reliability. When it did break down, it was easy to fix; whenever I see a mechanic changing a sparkplug on a modern car with his rump in the air and his head buried in the engine, I remember how merely raising the hood of a Model A revealed the carburetor, distributor, sparkplugs, valve chamber and both manifolds—in plain view and within easy reach.
Furthermore, while the Model T, for all its virtues, had been what my dignified old boss called "a vulgar car" the Model A had style. The jeunesse dorée took the Model A to its heart and in many a wealthy household there was a daily scramble for it, with the loser getting the big limousine. There were even Model A town cars, a conveyance which of course demanded a uniformed chauffeur.
When the Model A came along, I adopted, so to speak, the morals of the Flapper Age and went in for plural wives and quick divorces. I kept two A's at a time and traded them in at 10,000 miles, or, say, twice a year, when the tires began to show wear. That figures out to 40,000 miles of driving a year, and for years that's about what we did—30,000 for me and 10,000 for my wife. Because now I had a car to go fishing. I was so busy in the office that vacations were short and few, but some of us leased a little stream over in Jersey, and in the May fly season I'd drive over there after work, four or five nights a week, fish until 10 o'clock, and then drive home to Connecticut; total for the day, say, 160 miles. Weekends, I'd go to the Beaver Kill, about 300 miles for the round trip, but if my wife or one of the kids were along, I'd have to take them home Saturday night for church and Sunday school and return alone to the stream, making 600 miles for the weekend. In the long NewYork trout season, that mounted up.
But all that sort of thing was just "business" driving—going somewhere. For relaxation, as well as to break in my numerous cars, I drove to work, 57 miles each way. And that was fun, for much of it was in traffic, where acceleration counted. That was when the A and I really went dancing. Thirty years ago, the Model A was further ahead of all the others than a supercharged Mercedes racer would be today.
Sometimes, when I worked late, I'd go home through the theatrical district as the shows were letting out, and have a diverting half hour jockeying with the taxis; or I'd pick up a newspaper delivery truck and have a friendly go with it. Those drivers were very good and had an advantage because their papers had a stand-in with the cops, but once they found you couldn't be bluffed they were quite sporting.
This city driving wasn't a fair contest really, and my victories were only partly skill. It was the ability of the A to pick up fast, stop quickly, dodge nimbly and fit into small spaces between big cars that made her the absolute monarch of traffic—a car that went through the traffic as if it weren't there. That, by the way, is almost literally true. I could make just about as good time through Manhattan by day as when I sometimes drove home at 3 a.m., with the streets deserted and the traffic lights turned off.
I believe that traffic moving steadily has a rhythm which follows some complex mathematical formula, a sort of harmonic which is the product of every car's course, speed and position. Every driver has had the experience of being "on the wrong foot," so that he dives into one tangle after another, is continually cut off and forced to use his brakes and always swings the wrong way. But when he is "with it"—in the rhythm—he can take a steady pace faster than the traffic around him and go through it effortlessly. In the 10 years when, once a month, I drove to Pittsburgh one night and back the next, over the Lincoln Highway, I could hum Tea for Two and always get on the beam.
But I never could do it as well with any of my later Ford V-8s as I did with my last Model A. The V-8s were good cars—they'd even run on kerosene, as I proved during the war—but they weren't a patch on the Model A coupé that my fishing cronies called The Black Avenger. That was the perfect one-man car (and the best way to drive—or fish—is alone). She was really a part of me; I could feel the road through the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands when I was driving her. She could corner faster than any car I ever saw, and she could shake off any car at accelerating right up to the legal speed limit.
The days of The Black Avenger are gone forever, for never again will there be a car so far ahead of all the others as the Model A was in her time. But I enjoy the memory of them, for I have now retired from competition. Like every man of my age, I cherish the conviction that I am as good as I ever was; but I am much too smart to try and prove it. So, like Zog and Farouk and other ex-rulers, I live quietly with my modern handmaidens—a '37 Ford, a frisky dowager of a '41 Lincoln Zephyr and a cute little '42 two-cylinder Crosley for easy parking at the railroad station.
But I love to remember that I was a king once, the king of New York in my Model A Ford.
A PORTER ALIVE?
Two years ago Robert B. Porter who, with his father Finley R., designed and manufactured the car, told me he had seen a real live Porter in the streets of Plainfield, N.J. "Looked in good shape, too," he says. Unfortunately, when he tried to follow this apparition he lost it in traffic.
If any reader knows who owns (or owned, if it is no longer running) this indubitably last of the fabulous Porters, the information will be gratefully received by