Get Your Historical Driver’s Licence Part II: Behind the Wheel

(Last time: Get Your Historical Driver’s Licence Part I: Motorcars At Fort Edmonton)

Now for the question I’m sure you’ve all been thinking: enough talk – so how does one actually go about driving a car from the 1920s?

Note: I’m not going to explain the full start up procedure in order, because I don’t want you taking this as a how-to manual to enable you to steal a vehicle at Fort Edmonton for a joyride. Remember, this requires paperwork, permissions, and proper training. However, I will post a photograph of the interior of the Ford Model A (1928) for your reference, and talk about the purpose of some of the interesting things you can see within it:

1928 Ford Model A interior

Some of these knobs and doodads look unusual but have modern equivalents that are quite familiar to you. Don’t be too intimidated!

The horn is to be found in the middle of the steering wheel on the left-hand side of the frame (round button), and the small lever directly underneath it controls the electric headlights. Just out of frame, above, are two further levers on the steering wheel which control the speed of the engine; one is called the spark advance. I only recall the positions that they need to be in, not their purpose or names. Much of what I learned was intuitive; after you turn the vehicle on, you move the levers from one position to the next until the engine “sounds” and “feels” right. (I never said I was an expert mechanic! But then again – how many of my readers can name all of the names of the parts and their functions in their own modern vehicles? That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.) As far as I know, they alter the speed of the engine in some way, and if they are in the wrong position the engine can roar in a rather frightening way or stall.

The two tall sticks coming from the middle of the floor are the gear shift (round knob) and the parking break respectively. When this photograph was taken the park break was on and the gear shift was in neutral.

On the right hand side of the frame you can see a metal doohickey (super scientific term, used by mechanics and historians everywhere, as you well know) with a metal lead coming from it: that’s the choke, to add extra fuel when one starts up the car. Unlocking the car, opening the fuel line, adding extra fuel ti prime the engine, turning the vehicle on, and adjusting the speed of the engine, are all separate manual procedures in these artifact vehicles but are dine in one in one smooth motion when you turn the key in modern cars. How times have changed!

On the dash, you can see five things clustered together, including the metal bulb in the middle. On the top (the equivalent of North) is the fuel gauge, which floats in petrol like the answer cube in a magic eight ball, and reads things like “3/4”, “1/2”, or “1/4”. South is a speedometer (in miles per hour), and the metal thing in the centre is actually a cover for a small lightbulb that aims downwards so you can read the speedometer at night. West is the keyhole, East is the tachometer (I believe).

On the floor of the car you can see two identical curved pedals on the left: those are the clutch and the break respectively, used much in the same way as in modern cars except that, as mentioned previously, you must double clutch to shift gears. You can also see the very, very small metal electric start button on the floor near the base of the steering column; it requires much less exertion to start up this vehicle than crank-starters! (Electric starters were thought to be perfect for lady drivers. More on that in the next post.)

My favourite little thing to point out that is not often found in modern cars is the foot rest. “Foot rest?” you may ask. “What do you need that for? Does driving cars from the 1920s make one’s feet particularly tired?” In the 1920s, it was very rare to have a decent stretch of road, particularly in Western regions of Canada and the United States. Most routes in Alberta were unpaved, and after rain they were often in terrible condition. (If you have ever had to drive down a dirt path after a heavy rainfall you know what I’m talking about.) Ruts and bumps were extremely common. If you were to rest your foot lightly above the gas as you would on a modern car, and went over a rut, you often accidentally stomp down, creating an alarming lurching motion. I know this, because I did it on several occasions when I was learning to drive the Ford Model A on the service road and behind Mellon Farm before I learned to use the foot rest properly. The foot rest, as you can see in the photograph above, is a stationary peg in the footwell of the car that’s of about equal size to the small round gas pedal. You rest your foot on the peg and gently roll the rest of your foot onto the gas, making for a much less jostled driver and passengers.

I only learned how to drive two cars at Fort Edmonton: a 1928 Ford Model A, and a 1929 REO. They both had relatively similar controls, and had electric starters, not cranks. George, the experienced mechanic, drove most of the rest, and a few of the volunteers who would come in a few times a season would come in to drive their own cars which are stored on site, including the 1906 Orient. It was not really necessary to train the new interpreters to drive many of the other cars; you cannot have every available interpreter driving all of the cars at once anyway, much as we sometimes would have liked to! Two is plenty, generally. George also has a sensible policy of not letting anybody drive the cars until we could demonstrate to his satisfaction that we could start them by ourselves without aid. What if I were, say, driving a crank starter and it stalled on the train or streetcar tracks? I’d need to be able to start it again without having to run for George and potentially cause a horrific (and expensive) accident. Regardless, I was quite pleased to learn to drive the ones I did! Though they have similar controls and start up procedures, they handle quite differently. I actually preferred driving the cheaper Ford Model A over the REO, which had a huge turning radius. The Ford could turn on a dime. Incidentally, while me and my short legs fit perfectly well in the Model A, to drive the REO I had to sit on a cushion. That’s why I look a bit tall compared to my friend in this photo:

"Hey, Nancy, what does a Tin Lizzie and a bathtub have in common?" "I don't know, what?" "I wouldn't want to be seen in public in either!" *raucous laughter* Two classy ladies driving the 1929 REO, a luxury car.
“Hey, what does a Tin Lizzie and a bathtub have in common?”
“I don’t know, what?”
“I wouldn’t want to be seen in public in either!”
*raucous laughter*
Two classy ladies driving the 1929 REO, a luxury car.

Just to satisfy your curiosity and mine, here is a link to a site that explains in very detailed steps how to drive the earlier Ford Model T, which I am told is far more complicated, with the “planetary system.” I don’t pretend to understand the differences entirely (I just know that riding in one is much jerkier than in the cars from the late 1920s), so please avail yourself of other resources!

Obligatory Disclaimer: It also has been nearly a year since I’ve been behind the wheel of one of these vehicles – I miss it so much! However, you should be aware that I know for a fact that I do not know all of the proper mechanical terms for what I am describing. There are of course plenty of other things to discuss about driving motorcars from this time period. I have only lightly touched the surface of a single model, and auto-enthusiasts reading this post are probably cringing at my lackadaisical explanations of the functions of various parts of the vehicle. However, as I stated previously, I also deliberately muddled the order and way in which one uses these controls because I don’t want people joyriding in these vehicles based on my instructions. Do not attempt to get behind the wheel of any vehicle (no matter how awesome) that you don’t know how to use without proper permission and someone who knows what they’re doing in the seat next to you explaining how to use it. This is a good piece of advice I have taken to heart, and should serve everyone well in life. Nevertheless, I hope that you have gotten a sense of the operation of these machines – enough to ask the interpreters the really tough questions!

Next time: Get Your Historical Driver’s Licence Part III: Using Artifacts as Props

Note: “Tin Lizzie” is one of numerous nicknames for the Ford Model T, which was the butt of many a joke in the 1910s and 1920s, mostly commenting upon their supposed smallness, flimsiness, and lack of style and class. Other jokes (made by Ford owners, no doubt) rightly pointed out the model’s reliability. I may have to write an entire post that just lists various Tin Lizzie jokes.

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.