Al Howlett Remembers His First Car

Then and now!.... by Al Howlett

Way back about 1948 I was making 17$ per week and there were no benefit packages in those days. Out of this princely sum I was able to pay 5$ for board at home. So being of some scotch blood (I think) I opened a savings account at the Imperial Bank in downtown Galt. After a period of time I had amassed the huge sum of around 75$. A chap who I was working with had a 1931 model A sedan that he would let me have for around the contents of my burgeoning bank account. So there was my first venture into becoming a motorist who had little money and no driver's license. Since there were not many other motorists and speed radar was not in use I made it home with the new wheels.

Al Howlett and his 1931 Model A

My younger brother was there to meet me and inspect the new conveyance that would be our transportation to impress the local girls. My brother wanted to inspect the car for any defects that might impair the entry of any willing maidens who wanted to climb in. He opened the passenger side door and slammed it shut to make sure it would keep them in for the duration of the ride. The window promptly fell out in numerous shards of glass. Well brotherly love was the only test underway after that. But matters were soon put right when the brother said he would repair the damage at his expense. He also knew were we could get a new window in a junkyard. So it was off to Sam's junkyard for 50 cents worth of window glass. We did have to go to the local gas pump and fill the tank from the gravity glass pump. High fuel costs in those days were 2$ per week. Well that still left around 8$ for entertainment.

Oh yes I did go and get my drivers license from the examiner with the required skill test of stopping and starting on the Queen Street hill. That was not easy with a solid disk clutch. Remember mechanical brakes and no hill holding automatic transmission.

The A was even a Chick Magnet back then!

Well that old A covered a lot of ground at 45 mph and with a strong tail wind it might get up to 55. We hear a lot about street racing these days with the carnage created by the high-powered nut behind the wheel. Well there were nuts loose in those days but they did not have the machinery under foot or the other traffic to get in the way. But often there were short tests when some friends would meet up. I had a friend that also had an A and he could quite easily get the jump on me from a standing start. On one of these tests I was doing better than usual until the cast fan blade snapped off and exited through the hood. Luckily it did not go through the rad. along about this time many of the car enthusiasts decided to form clubs to curb this problem of street racing. I was one of those who thought it would be a good idea and later became involved with the formation of the Strokers. Well I had to do something after driving the A home with an out of balance fan, that was trying to shake the car apart. As an aside to this story I found out the other A had a different rear end ratio.

The fan in my old A had another function besides drawing air through the rad. The car had no heater so some ingenious type made a cast iron manifold accessory that sat on top of the exhaust manifold, to channel the hot air inside the car through a little hole in the firewall. That and a wool blanket were some help in keeping the girls warm in the front seat. Passengers in the back seat relied on their own heat.

The Model A –Part 2 by Al Howlett, added July 11, 2008

This is the continuing tale of early experience with the 1931 Ford sedan. Back around 1949 to 53, I spent many a happy time with my first “Hot Rod”. My younger brother and myself were always interested in mechanical things. We spent many hours exploring the local steam powered sawmill. The owners allowed us to help with the operation. This provided us with the opportunity to drive the Minneapolis Moline tractor with the hand clutch, hauling lumber out of the mill. Now this was volunteer work and it was good experience in learning about mechanical things. There was little TV and no electronic devices around in those days to do your thinking for you. Any thing that had a mechanical motion with wheels was of great interest. Well this taught us that you needed to be able to understand how things worked if you were going to run them and repair them if they did not.

About this time I had entered an apprenticeship job and now had acquired the 31 Model A. With my vast mechanical knowledge from the sawmill and other ventures, nothing on that 18-year-old A Bone would be exempt from exploration. We had also discovered some new hero’s that we looked up to. These were the stock car racers who ran Saturday nights at Bridgeport near Kitchener. Watching these fellows roar around the track got me to thinking that the old A needed a little more power. I think the first attempt was tape a stock car race poster to the car door. The second was to get some of those pill’s the con man was selling at the track to put in your gas tank. They were only naphthalene mothballs that were supposed to raise the octane. As none of this helped it was time to try something else. I thought that fiddling with the spark retard lever next to the steering wheel could be made automatic it might improve performance. So it was off to Bennie's yard to look for a distributor that had an automatic advance.

Note the distributor,
34 Ford wheels and ahooga horn

Yep just the thing for a price that I could afford was in some old 4 cylinder engine. Once fitted to the engine it worked OK but I doubt it increased the power.

Next effort was painting to make it look more racy. With a nice brush the top got a coat of black and around the center was a light green. Leaving the hood side panels off to expose the modified power was a boost to the performance for sure, or my mind set. We stripped the front fenders off the car along with headlamps and removed the front axle brake rigging etc; The engine and frame with the rest of the gear was then scraped clean and painted with some Canadian Tire red undercoat. Things were looking better all the time and as we proceeded to re assemble the racy looking Ford with no fenders, remembering how those stock cars looked. The wonder came to mind of what it would be like to make a few circuits around the track. Na! We could not do that as we lacked a tow car and a lot of the other equipment. Besides those old boys would run us into the fence. However the urge to test and acquire race knowledge was strong.

Just down the street there was a triangular intersection with a pole in the middle. Now if we went down and made a few laps around the intersection without the fenders we could get some racing knowledge. So the two would be racers headed for the intersection for a few practice laps. After a few circuits we noticed the gravel was getting a little torn up and we were wondering what would happen if the constable happened by.

Since there were no fans in the stands and no checkered flag waving it might be prudent to head back to the pits in our garage. Beating a hasty retreat, we sailed into the garage and hit the brake pedal. The pedal smacked the floorboards without any effect. Crunch and crash followed as we ran over the freshly painted fenders hitting the back wall of the garage and shoving it about a foot off the foundation. The two would be racers had just taken themselves out of the race and into the fence. We forgot to read the line “Do not try this at Home”

Well no one was hurt except our pride. The accident investigation revealed that we had not replaced the cotter pin in the clevis brake rod and those race laps had caused it to fall out. As many racers have found out over the years it sometimes is the small neglected things that take you out.

The garage wall was jacked back in place and the fenders were hammered out and remounted before the race marshal came home and spotted the evidence. The A went on to other adventures for several more years but was never entered in another practice race.

Winter driving in the A Ford: Part 3 added Aug 16, 2008

It was one of those nights that the wind was howling and the snow was drifting all over the place. I had retired to bed upstairs with my nice warm friend, a brick that had been warmed on the stove and wrapped in an old blanket. This was placed so you could keep your feet nice and toasty. Then this awful horn blowing started up outside. I jumped out of bed and threw up the sash and there to my wondering eyes stood my best friend up to his knees in snow beside his 39 Pontiac coup. Hey Al can you help me? I have my girl with me and I can’t get down the concession road to take her home. My car can’t make it through the drifts. Of course I could help! After all the honor of Henry Ford was at stake here.

I got my friend and his girl to cuddle up in the back seat of the A for the added traction to the rear wheels. Remember the heater did not reach back there. I stomped on the floorboard starter button while pulling up the choke rod and adjusting the carburetor mixture to rich at the same time. With a roar from the motor and some giggles from the back seat we were off through the drifts down the road. With the old straight cut gears in low and the high clearance of the A we made the trip in quick time. After I delivered my friend to his house and got back to my cooling bed brick, I drifted off to sleep on a cold winter night with warm thoughts about how nice it must be to ride in the back seat of an old A Ford with your best girl.

The old 31 A was good in snow but came up short on icy roads. However Canadian Tire had the solution to this problem. For a couple of bucks ( no funny money in those days ) you could get chain grips. These consisted of small chains that wrapped around the tire and were attached with a leather strap through the wheel spokes with a buckle. A couple of these on the rear tires and you could go most places at slow speed. One winter morning I was motoring along Water Street with the grip’s doing their thing of thumping the ice, when in front of the Carnegie Library one of the straps wrapped around the brake rod to the left rear wheel. The A now had instant ABS brakes but only on one wheel that caused a 180 degree rotation of the direction of travel. Since there was no other traffic about this caused little inconvenience except that I was headed back where I had come from. With some of the repair tools that I always carried, I straightened out the bent rod releasing the stuck brake, turned around and resumed the journey. This is a couple of incidents in the experience of winter driving in the A Bone. How to keep the frost off the windshield without a defroster was another matter requiring a simple solution. But that is another story for another time to remind you how good we have it today with our climate controlled cars.

The Model A and the Water Holes; Part 4 added June 9, 2009

I had a recent request by some of my young friends to relate this story about my old A. The names have been changed to protect the innocent participants. One of my friends Steve was a regular in some of our escapades. Steve did not have wheels at the time but was very good at attracting female company. I had the other part of the requirement the old reliable 31 Ford. There were some rules that were part of the game. If you wanted to take a girl someplace then she would be required to invite her friend along also to entertain the car owner. Payment you might say for the ride. This arrangement for a foursome was enjoyed on numerous outings to the movies or down to the quarry at Valens for an afternoon of swimming. Just one of the various water holes, that were a destination attraction to the 31 A. You drove in through a field dodging the many potholes and rocks to get to the favored spot. With a few blankets covering the windows to provide privacy for the girls, it became a change house. Remember the bathing suits back then covered more skin than today, so it was necessary to have a good place to put them on and take them off? The wet ones were hung out to dry on the outside of the car as you motored back into town. This was a form of advertisement to all who might notice and see what they had missed. Looking for repeat business no doubt.

On dark and stormy night the foursome, Steve & Jane, Jill and the fearless car owner had been out to a movie. It was raining “Cats & Dogs” and the old vacuum windshield wiper was trying it’s best to provide vision. (Poorly, on going up the hills) Jill requested that she thought it would be a great idea if I would drive out to her house in the country so she could get her things in order to stay at Jane’s. Well that should be no trouble for a model A Ford and driver. Besides it was a dark night out there in the country with two girls along and you never knew what might happen. Our destination was on a side road somewhere out about the location of to days African Lion attraction. We found a narrow lane way that Jill said would take us to her front door. Cautiously navigating up the muddy road and cresting a hill I discovered that there was a river of water boiling across the lane in front of the car. I stopped and said are you sure this is the way to your house?

Sure is and this is only the creek, we drive through it all the time. Donning my river pilot’s hat, I took the ladies word and plunged in. With great bubbling noises the A made it to the other side. Climbing up a small hill we came to a very dark house, not a glimmer of light anywhere. Jill climbed out and disappeared into the gloomy house. After sitting in the car for some time listening to the rain splashing on the car and thinking that the creek must be getting higher all the time, Steve and I decided to go to the door and see what the holdup was. We carefully shoved open the front door and ventured in. There was a yellow flickering glow coming from inside the room and it was quite warm. We could not see a thing but could hear this thumping noise from someplace in the room. I quietly said “Steve light a match and see what is in here”. I did not think he might have had one as he did not smoke but was probably prepared for the girls who did. In the dull glow of the match we could make out a wood stove and a big black dog thumping his tail on the floor. Jill showed up shushing us to keep quiet as she lugged her things out to the car. We made a quick retreat back through the rushing creek. The thought crossing our minds as to what a smart dog it was who did not go chasing around in the rain for other dogs or us. Well we made it back to town and the old A purred right along. With well washed wheels.

There is another water hole that was a favorite place for the old 1931 Ford. We had no running water on tap at our house back in those days and when the car needed to be washed the resourceful brothers would go out to a gravel pit where a stream kept the bottom part flooded. Usually we would park at the edge of the water and bucket it out onto the car. Being a rather hot summer day we decided to drive into the water to ease the workload. As we washed and polished the car it dawned on us that the car was getting lower all the time. It was sinking into the pond. Attempts to drive it out only made it go deeper. The gravel pit wanted our car. Time to call for help. Not having signed up for CAA we took off down the road to the sawmill to get the tractor to pull us out. The mill owner had this silly smirk on his face as he towed the old Ford out of the hole. “I guess you boys have learned something today” Yes we had! We cheated the gravel pit out of claiming our valuable car.

The old Model A was a good tow truck on it’s own, but that is another story or two.

Al Howlett