Car Camping #4: The Cadillac #4, Engine Switch

The reason for buying the 1952 Cadillac was the car’s big V-8 engine. 

Our family had grown to five and our camping supplies were early 1950 technologies. Heavy canvas tents. Coleman stoves. Canned food and iron skillets. Supplies that once fit in the trunk now required a densely packed trailer. 

Cadillac V-8 engines were big, powerful and reliable. Just what we needed to get over the high summits of Idaho’s rugged Forest Service roads. Roads that still remain surfaced with the dirt and rocks the landscape provides. 

The greatest disappointment of the Caddie turned out to be that big engine.

After a few trips to the shop Dad mentioned how he was surprised at how unreliable the engine was. Sure, it was more reliable than the Model A Ford he had kept running for his folks through the 1930s and 40s. But it sure needed more fussing over than he had expected from a Caddie V-8.

The shop fessed up that the Cadillac motor factory had burned down shortly before our car was manufactured so General Motors had installed Buick motors. They had equal motor-mounts so were handy to toss in but they did not have the horsepower the car was designed for. 

Dad never agan bought a  GM product. 

(But I think the switch was his fondness for Mercurys — the first car he bought on his own.)

Buck Brook #21 – Rusted

This story from my time at Buck Brook Farm in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York is for the amusement of my friends of the Western states. You folk from the east and midwest will fine it an excuse to ask, “What? Doesn’t everyone use their floormat to keep their feet off the highway?”

Actually, the answer is no. No, we do not.

I was twenty-two before I landed on winter roads in New York State. My driving skills had been honed in the traffic and on the mountain roads of Idaho. And in Idaho we used sand to give traction on our winter roads. Not salt.

Sure, sometimes a rock got through the sand sifters and rock chips were a part of windshields and paint jobs. But the undercarriage of our car lasted longer than the engine. 

Imagine my discomfort when I got in one of the small sedans of a Buck Brook staff member and felt lumps under the rubber-and-carpet floor mat beneith my feet.

It turns out the lumps were the frame of the car. Between the beams of the frame there was nothing but the highway zipping by at fifty miles an hour and only inches from my precious tootsies!

The car’s owner laughed it off with a shrug, sped up, and replied, “Oh, sure. This car is over seven years old and I never bothered washing off the salt.”

What? One has to wash the bottom of a car?!

They are funny folks, those Easterners.

Car Camping #3: The Cadillac #3, Parking 

We got our new Cadillac in 1952. In 1952 grocery stores were just starting to include parking lots and advertise for an area larger than the near neighborhood. Shopping for anything else meant going downtown where the department stores were located. 

In 1952, downtown Boise had bustling business buildings, cafes, specialty shops and six large department stores. And crowded two-way traffic. 

Downtown Boise also featured that most challenging aspect of city adventures: parallel parking. Mom had no idea how she would ever be able to park that huge, heavy vehicle in tiny downtown spots with traffic backing up behind her.

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There was a reason cars had huge steering wheels back then – it gave the driver more leverage when turning the tires. Another way the driver was given more leverage when turning the tires was making it so it took a lot of turning the  steering wheel to move the tires back and forth.

At driving speeds the tires turned rather easily since the they were moving into the change of direction. When the tires were standing still the only thing that worked to turn the tires was brute force. 

Well, folks, the tires on a car are standing still when you are cranking the wheel to parallel park.  No wonder Mom was worried about parking that heavy Cadillac in downtown traffic. Yet on her first try that vehicle slipped into a spot easier than any other car she had ever driven! 

Today we take powered steering for granted, but my Mom never did! 

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PS – While researching this story Wikipedia told me the first power steering for cars was put together by a man named Fitts in 1876. Chrysler sold the first off-the-line passenger car with power steering called Hydraguide in the 1951 Chrysler Imperial. Apparently General Motors was not going to be lost in the dust and had power steering ready for the 1952 Cadillac, the first GM car to feature it. Both these systems were based on work introduced in 1926 by Francis W. Davis. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_steering

Buck Brook #20 — A Manhattan Pothole

The school at Buck Brook Farm had one large van for when special events were attended by multiple students and staff. In case I was ever the only staff member willing or able to venture on such events I was sent to the county DMV office to get a chauffeur’s license. Even without proper cap and livery, this lanky twenty-five year old from the hippie school managed to pass.

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The only time I remember actually chauffeuring anyone in that extended van was to some event a hundred miles to the south — in the center of Manhattan Island. !

I had observed drivers in Manhattan, both as a passenger and a pedestrian. Zero to fifty between lights was the expected response to a green signal. And drivers were immediately responsive to your signal to change lanes but you better jump into that space they gave you or it was assumed you’d never mover over and the space was closed. The space was, after all, a good foot longer than your car!

By 1970 I had driven in Los Angeles and Portland and Seattle and San Francisco. What could be so different with driving a small bus filled with teenagers into Manhattan? I wasn’t even on a surface street when I found out. 

The divided highways toward town turned into the West Side Elevated Highway — a crowded freeway squeezed between the Hudson River and the towering apartment buildings of the upper east side. Like everyone else I was keeping some eight feet behind the vehicle in front of me. Like everyone else I was going some fifteen miles over the speed limit, maybe 70 but it felt like 100. 

And then the pavement just wasn’t there.

The car in front of the big van was still there. The car behind the big van was still there. But there was no pavement there. Just squares of rebar.

And between the squares of rebar were deep potholes of beat up concrete.

Without hesitation the van dropped some two inches off the surface of the road and began rattling out a very fancy rendition of Riverdance across steel squares and deep potholes.

This went on for some eighty feet before our tires hit the sharp two-inch edge that returned us to smooth concrete roadway, slamming the suspension hard into the van’s undercarriage.

It was Manhattan Island, folks. Shutting down the West Side Highway to fix a Manhattan-sized pothole sure would have messed up the commute. 

As to me? I came away with an entirely new respect for the technology that goes into building four tires to survive city driving.

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PS: Wikipedia tells me the West Side Elevated Highway was built between 1929 and 1951. In 1973, three years after our Manhattan adventure, the highway was shut down “due to neglect and lack of maintenance…” It was dismantled in 1989. Its replacement was completed in 2001.

Car Camping #2: The Cadillac #2, Fantastic Features

For several days Dad delighted in reading the manual for our new 1952 Cadillac and discovering all the new features of this luxury “automobile” — versus all the “puddle jumpers” out there. 

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The first night the Caddy was home we kids were rousted out of our warm beds and led to the cold garage where he sat us in the front seat and pushed in the radio’s tuning knob. A motor’s rather loud whir had us discover the radio antenna rising out of the right side front fender. Pulling the knob out caused the same whir to make the antenna disappear back into the fender!

Dad’s excuse for buying the Cadillac was for its big V-8 engine, but an equally important feature was the heater. The heater blew out from under the front seat. The Manhattan had a heater unit hanging down under the dash on the front passenger’s side. All three of we kids would crowd on the front bench seat after a day sledding in the snow, usually crowding Mom onto  the back seat. Having the heat come out from under the front seat meant both the front and back of the car had warm air blowing on our feet, so Mom no longer had to sacrifice so we kids could warm up.

Come to think of it, it was probably also a safety feature since Dad no longer had to drive on icy roads while being squashed against his door by three squirming kids.

Buck Brook #19 – Chicken Shit Truck

We staff members at Buck Brook Farm were kept busy driving the little crooked roads of the Catskill Mountains. 

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Whether we were on a shopping trip or carting students to functions, there was always a mixture of groans and laughter when we rounded a corner and saw we were coming up on a particular type of truck. 

These trucks were always slow and never more so than when loaded down with cargo and grinding up the abundant steep grades of this mountainous terrain. And the mountainous terrain made for endless curves so passing was never an option.

From behind these trucks were large metal boxes, the size of a semi-trailer. At the base of the back wall of the truck was a little sliding door some two feet by two feet. These trucks were aways older and the little doors were always oozing a milky fluid. 

These trucks were chicken shit trucks. 

The concept of being behind a chicken shit truck grinding its way through the mountains was squeamish. The patience of waiting for a place to pass was challenging. But the smell? Well. Pour a bottle of ammonia over yourself. You get the picture. 

When we first saw these trucks we’d stop and wait where we were. If another driver came up behind us they’d understand and wait as well. Once the truck was out of sight we’d go up the hill, go around the next corner, and see if there was a chance to speed past. 

And we’d have a story that was instantly recognized by all who heard it.

NOTE: NEVER POUR A BOTTLE OF AMMONIA OVER YOURSELF! I don’t even recommend getting your nose very close once the cap is off.

Car Camping #1: The Cadillac #1

As soon as World War II was over the manufacturing might of the United States turned its attention to consumer items — items that were sorely needed thanks to limited or no production during the war. 

My folks were early customers of the new production lines. In 1948 they gave their Ford Model A to my aunt and uncle on the family farm and bought a brand new 1947-48 Frazer Manhattan.

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I was three at the time so the Manhattan was the first car I remember being ours. It had very cool push-button latches on the inside of the doors. Fortunately they were so stiff my very curious little fingers I weren’t able to open the doors with while the car was moving. But I sure tried!

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Alas, the Manhattan was outdone by our growing family’s need to go camping in the mountains and canyons of Idaho. By 1952 it was too small for the five of us and all our gear. When Dad hitched on a trailer to carry our heavy, primitive camping supplies the Manhattan barely made it out of town. We often stopped to refill the radiator from a stream using the “dipper” (a sauce pan) we always carried under the back window. 

There was a line of cars known to have big motors – which was Dad’s excuse to buy a 1952 Cadillac. 

Interesting innovations of the Frazer Manhattan

History of the Frazer Manhattan