Get Your Historical Driver’s Licence Part I: Motorcars At Fort Edmonton

One of the skills that I acquired while a costumed historical interpreter at Fort Edmonton Park that I most like to brag about is my ability to drive historical vehicles.

Costumed interpreters learn a lot of interesting skills on the job that can also serve them well in life. Other skills I talk about a lot are basic competency in doing beadwork by hand and on the loom, the ability to light a fire with flint and steel in less than two minutes (even in the rain), and the know-how to cook delicious meals over open fires and on wood-burning stoves… which are not as simple as your childhood experiences camping and cooking hot dogs and marshmallows over the camp fire would lead you to believe. In general, I feel that employees of Fort Edmonton are better prepared to survive the coming apocalypse and accompanying breakdown in modern society than any other people I know.

But cooking over open fires only requires the requisite ingredients, tools, and fire permits; to learn to drive an artifact vehicle, you must first invent the universe have legal access to one of these cars (which must be in good working order), know someone in charge of those vehicles who is willing to allow a newbie to get behind the wheel, and, depending on your region, a historical vehicles permit. Many of these “artifact” vehicles have incredibly different controls compared to the relatively standardized models available today and therefore require specialized training and, of course, paperwork. I have two driver’s licences: my ordinary Alberta driver’s permit and a secondary one on my old City of Edmonton Employee ID card. You need to fill out paperwork and get a lot of training. (Un)fortunately, it’s not as simple as just sitting down in the driver’s seat.

As they say so often these days, “pics or it didn’t happen!” So here is a photograph of myself driving a 1928 Ford Model A. This is on my iPod touch. I show it to people when it comes up in conversation (or I work it into conversation) like some people have baby pictures in their wallets.

Taking over from the famous Ford Model T, the Ford Model A sat lower on the ground and had much improved controls.

Successor to the famous Ford Model T, the Ford Model A, like this early example from 1928, sat lower on the ground and had much improved controls in comparison with the most famous of Ford’s creations. Photograph taken on 1920s Street at Fort Edmonton Park.

Note, too, my fashionable cloche hat, cupid’s bow style lipstick, and debonair attitude.

One of the aspects about working on 1920s street at Fort Edmonton Park that I most loved was the artifact vehicles. Fort Edmonton has quite a few functioning vehicles. These models range in origin from 1906 through to the early 1930s. Some, like the one pictured in this video, are driven by maintenance staff so they can transport whatever they need to throughout the admittedly expansive park without breaking the site’s historic bubble, if you will. However, others are to be found at places such as the Motordrome on 1920s street and the Fire Hall on 1905 street, which, as you may recall, covers not just the year 1905 but encompasses the post-railroad but pre-First World War era in Edmonton. Most of the functioning ones are to be found on 1920s street, though a really neat International Harvester high wheeler from 1913 is driven on both of these streets. (Sadly, 1885 street and the Fort era (1846) generally don’t get to experience the awesomeness that can be found in motorized vehicles, for obvious reasons.)

The earlier cars, I should say, like the Ford Model T and the International Harvester model from 1913,  have very different controls. In the early decades after the invention of automobiles, there was a lot more experimentation, as this was far before cars were standardized. You can learn a lot about these kind of things at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta – that cars would run on petrol was not an obvious or even popular choice in the early years, for instance. There were also considerations that aren’t even on the radar with car design today. For example, some people notice that the driver’s seat on the International Harvester is on the “wrong” side (the right side) and assume that it’s a car from England, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to assume considering that that has been the standard for generations. However, you would be incorrect: this is a North American model. If you drive on the left side of the road, you as a driver need to be on the right side of the vehicle to watch for oncoming traffic in the lane next to you; that is the logic of the placement of modern drivers’ seats, as far as I am aware. But in the early 1900s, drivers weren’t as concerned about oncoming traffic, of which there was generally little. They were more concerned with the ditch to one’s right, not the centre of the road, and so the driver’s seat was sometimes placed on that side instead. (Edit: I have found another example of an early automobile model in Canada with the steering column on the “wrong” side. Click here to see a postcard of a vehicle near Tofield, Alberta, postmarked 1910.)

Car design was by no means standardized in the early decades of the twentieth century. That’s one of the exciting things about studying the development of the automobile; there was so much potential for change. The oldest car at Fort Edmonton, the Orient Buckboard, from about 1906, doesn’t even have a steering wheel; it has a long straight handle instead, which kind of reminds me of a rudder. You can see a historical photograph of a similar automobile in this article.

By the late 1920s, automotive manufacturers had started to hammer down what seemed to work, and the controls became more standardized. In many ways they start to look more familiar to modern drivers, but in others they remain quite different… and can be very tricky to use if one is unused to them. They have gear shifts, but one must double-clutch, for example; to go from first to second gear, for instance, one must clutch in, shift to neutral, clutch out, clutch in again, and only then can you shift into second gear. In fact, as someone who drove automatics when not in costume, I found learning to drive them easier than some of my colleagues who normally dove standards. It was easier for me to compartmentalize vehicles from the 1920s and the 2000s as two entirely different machines because using the clutch was entirely new to me. (Now, when I had to learn to drive a standard in the twenty-first century, that was confusing.)

So how precisely does one go about driving a car from the 1920s? That’s a question for next time. Stay tuned for Get Your Historical Driver’s Licence Part II: Behind the Wheel.

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16 Responses to Get Your Historical Driver’s Licence Part I: Motorcars At Fort Edmonton

  1. Kirsten says:

    I can honestly say I had no idea that you had to get a special permit or anything in order to get behind the wheel of one of the Fort Ed vehicles – I was just there on Canada Day actually and took a picture of that exact car too ;)

    • lamarkewicz says:

      I think that Edmonton may have a specific bylaw in place regarding vehicles of a certain age. I mean, they have different controls, as I’ll elaborate in my second post, but many of them can’t reach the same speeds as modern vehicles (or can’t accelerate as quickly) and most don’t have turning signals, which can make them dangerous on the road with modern vehicles.

      It’s also possible that it’s an insurance thing for City of Edmonton employees (Fort Edmonton is run by the city). Perhaps anyone, including ETS bus drivers, also have to get a similar license? Hey, I’m just a pawn in their games – I filled out what paperwork I was told to and took whatever training they wanted me to do. ;)

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  4. AMANDA! says:

    This is an awesome post! :-) Love the hats, and also the historical information.

    • lamarkewicz says:

      Well, if you like 1920s fashion… :D After the third part of this motorcar series, which will be posted tonight or tomorrow, I’m going to put the finishing touches on a blog post entitled “Beyond the Bob: 1920s Hairstyles for the Rapunzels Among Us” which will be looking at alternatives to the bob popular in the 1920s. It’ll have lots of illustrations, resources, and tutorials! Stay tuned, etc.!

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