How I learned to drive! September 1, 2010
A hearty thanks to Cousin Arthur Robinson of Nanaimo, BC Canada for correcting some parts of this story to make it better in the details.
It was thanks to Uncle Gilbert and the summers and other times spent on the “Ranch” that my Grandfather Robinson moved his family to in 1887. Gilbert took over the farm when grandfather Arthur died in 1904 and lived there his whole life. I absorbed a lot of knowledge about the basics of living and doing as well as one could on the earnings of one’s own labor. I didn’t have too many uncles that I got to know but Gilbert and wife Kate were my favorite.
Two things that made it easy to learn driving skill here at a young age (10 to 12 or so),
were lots of farm roads with few immovable objects along the path and a very simple and possibly indestructible 1926 Chevrolet Superior touring car.
When I met my uncles copy of this beauty in 1942 or thereabout it no longer had a top or a back seat or even the hind part of the body! While the color was still close to the one pictured here a plain wooden bed and sides had been added to make it a pick-up truck of sorts for farm duty. Its main use was to gather fresh greens for the milking herd that was the mainstay of my uncle’s farm and to help with doing things around the property and teaching cousin Art and I to drive and later cousin Priscella.
There was never any idea of driving on the highway with the ‘old girl’ as we would not have passed the necessary operator safety and skill checks and there were a number of serious deficiencies like the skinny original tires as in the pictures were covered with the wornout casings from Uncle’s 32 Ford Victoria. And I don’t remember there being any tail light that worked, the vacuum tank on the engine side of the firewall that supplied the gas leaked and the battery was most often too weak to start the engine and a drycell battery was usually needed before one had to resort to cranking.
Now using the crank was always a challenge for me at that young age and fogetting to retard the spark, with the lever on the left side of the steering wheel, could be downright exciting if not dangerious. Skill in small measures gradually allowed me to become somewhat adept and ‘twisting her tail’ lost some of it’s menace as I graduated to one or two simple upward pulls to start the engine. Seasoned, more adult drivers were always warning me that cranking to start an engine was a little safer if you positioned the crank handle down at 5 o clock and pulled up to 12 o clock as a kick back loosed gripping fingers instead of breaking a wrist. Given my small stature at the time the position of the crank between the radiator and the bumper introduced me to my first challenges from the peculiarities of automobiles.
Following the start it was necessary to quickly move to the steering wheel and move the retarded spark lever to the ‘run’ position before the engine stalled. There was a throttle lever there on the steering column as well so that the engine speed could be controlled at a steady rate. The foot throttle or gas pedal was on the floor in the position you would find it in almost any car today and the same for the brake pedal except there was no power assist and you had to push hard to stop. The clutch pedal was used by the left foot and when pushed down, the long center gear lever could be moved through an H pattern and the rear drive wheels would turn and the car would back up in a low speed or go forward in 3 speeds. If you tried to move the gear lever without depressing the clutch fully it made a loud noise. And so did Uncle Gilbert.
Learning to release the clutch carefully to give the car motion in the right direction was one of skill and experience and only learned well after much jerking and grinding and yelling. “Clutching” was a learned skill and probably the toughest process as letting clutch slip produced heat and the smell of burning while too rapid engagement resulted in a terrifying leap of the car or a broken part that left the car unable to move. Both sequences produced an alarm from Uncle Gilbert.
In time we learned the best way to start the ‘Chevy’ particularly in cold weather. Leaving the ignition key turned off, pulling out the carburetor choke knob and turning the engine over several times drew gas into the engine. Then the spark lever was retarded and the key turned on and if God thought it was OK the engine would start on the first turn. If not one usually got down to shirt sleeves in no time at all.
Being a good driver meant you also took care of the needs of the car as well. One did a walk around every day because automobiles of this era were inherently un-trust worthy. In this Walk around a good driver made sure no tire was flat, the coolant level of the radiator was ok, and the engine oil level was ok. Different methods might be required to check the gas tank level – gauge or measuring stick after tapping the gas gage on the dashboard. And last of all there were no loose parts likely to fall off.
To control the vehicle direction there is a large wood steering wheel at the top of column which one rotates clockwise for a right turn and counterclockwise for a left turn – the wheels on the front steering axle pivot in response to the steering wheel movement. Brute force is required to turn the wheel and the shoulder development of young drivers is often admired from the sidewalks by young ladies when a lad would be allowed to drive into town. Of course a lot of girls just liked the car!
Much romance is attached to being a driver and since all my learning years and lessons took place in the Top Down ‘Chevy’ it was just that much more exciting when we could get up to windy, hair raising speeds of around 15 MPH or so. But of course with one of us riding the running board and Uncle Gilbert along as a passenger the traffic cop in him came out and quickly restored our loss of reason.
My days of ‘Learning to Drive’ did not end with those days on the farm nor was the 26 Chevy my only practice vehicle. I got a job in an auto washing garage and drove cars there, and I had a boss that let me try out on his new 1949 Ford for a summer and it was that car that I used to first pass the Washington State drivers test. I received my license in 1950 and it continues in force today.