SIDNEY UNDERWOOD - "Grandad And His Precious Cars"

By Sidney Underwood
My Granddad, Johnson Williams, a Doddridge County Native, grew up during the horse and buggy age. Born in 1870 he was taught horsemanship by his father, Israel Williams.

By age 16 he was an accomplished rider and knew how to handle a team of horses. On the farm he hitched horses to plows, disks, mowing machines, buggies and wagons.

He worked horses in timbering to pull logs to a saw mill when he helped his father build a house that is still standing today. Granddad's skill with horses was in no way unusual during that time period as horses provided basic transportation and the power needed for farm work until well after the turn of the 20th century. As a young man, he had no way of knowing that horses would someday be replaced by motor vehicles.

I remember Granddad telling me that he was taken for his first ever ride in an automobile when he attended the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Henry Ford and his partners, John and Horace Dodge, had an active display and offered rides to everyone.

Granddad along with other fairgoers climbed into one of the open cars with some trepidation. The vehicle that Granddad rode in that day probably was a 1904 Ford Model "C" that had a two cylinder engine.

It resembled a fancy two seat buggy with a short square hood. Granddad watched as the driver used a crank to start this "Horseless Carriage." He noted that it had headlamps fueled by acetylene and levers on the steering wheel to advance and retard the spark. I'm sure it looked rather complicated to someone who had worked exclusively with horses.

The sound of the engine did not calm the riders and when the car moved forward with a sudden lurch, some thought they might be in danger and considered jumping from the strange little machine. Although the driver tried to reassure everyone, the short trip around the fairgrounds did not convince Granddad and fellow riders that the automobile was a safe and dependable mode of transportation.

Instead, they thought of it as a novelty that would be a rich man's toy. It would never catch on with the general public because of the complexity of its operation.

The world was changing and by 1910 an occasional {Horseless Carriage} could be seen in Doddridge County. Generally they were encountered during summer months on the North-Western Turnpike. They were open cars with foldable canvas covers. People of means were the first owners of these strange unusual sounding machines.

When one approached, it was cause for excitement and also concern. Farmers would quickly secure their livestock and calm the horses until the thing had passed by. With the roads in deplorable condition during the winter months, only the bravest of motorists would venture out. When they did venture out, it was not unusual for them to get stuck in the mud. Generally, it would be a local farmer with a team of horses to the rescue.

By 1932 cars were regularly seen on the local roads, although horses and buggies were still a common sight. The turnpike had evolved into U. S. RT# 50 and was now a two lane highway stretching across the nation. Granddad Williams had three grown daughters and one 18 year old son at home.

There was mounting pressure on him to purchase a car. Finally giving in to the demands of the family, he purchased a used Essex sedan. Exactly where he purchased the car, price paid and other details will never be known as everyone with knowledge of it has passed on.

Following the prescribed rules of the day, Granddad mailed in the necessary funds to Charleston and received his driver's license through the mail although he had no experience in driving a car. He was a 62 year old man who knew horses well, but not automobiles.

Thinking that he should practice driving before venturing in to the town of West Union, Granddad took the Essex into the field below the house and experimented with the controls. At first he was doing well driving around a field with a haystack located in the center.

It was when he decided to stop the car that he accidently drove into the haystack while frantically trying to locate the brake pedal! In time he learned the basics of driving, but never really became comfortable in the driver's seat. He soon decided that when he needed to go somewhere, he would have his daughters and son do the driving.

My Mother, Marguerite {Williams} Underwood often told me that she and her brother and sisters would argue among themselves about whose turn it was to drive. That solved granddad's dilemma and he was never at a loss for volunteer drivers.

From what I was told, the Essex was trouble prone and required quite a bit of maintenance. My Aunt Pauline Williams married Edward Cutright in the mid 1930's. So it was my Uncle Ed, a good mechanic, who was called upon frequently to keep the Essex running. However, Granddad grew increasingly frustrated with the car's constant need for repair.

In 1936 he decided that he wanted to purchase a new car hoping to avoid all the issues endured with the Essex. Granddad remembered the Dodge Brothers from the world's Fair in St. Louis in 1904 and knew that they had established their own company which was now part of Chrysler Corporation.

He also knew there was a Dodge dealership in Salem. That dealer might have been named Flannigan. Granddad really wanted a new Dodge since they were advertised as being dependable. The story goes that Flannigan would not give him what he wanted out of the old Essex that had definitely seen better days. Now Granddad had a knack for figuring things out.

So he went home and plotted his strategy. He knew that Mr. Bill Calhoun Sr. was a Plymouth dealer in West Union at the time. So, Granddad and the Essex showed up there a few days later. Mr. Calhoun thought that if he sold Granddad a new Plymouth, it would be good publicity for his business. To insure the sale, Mr. Calhoun allowed Granddad more for the Essex on trade than what it was actually worth. So the deal was made and Granddad became the owner of a new 1936 Plymouth sedan. The story does not end here.

That same day, instead of going home, Granddad and his driver motored directly up to Salem in the new Plymouth to the Dodge dealership. Believe it or not, Granddad and Flannigan worked out a deal whereby Flannigan accepted the new Plymouth and handed Granddad the keys to a new Dodge sedan which is what he wanted all along.

Knowing my Granddad, I'm sure very little money was involved in this trade. The funny thing was that the cars were almost identical except for exterior trim and minor changes to the dashboard. The Plymouth had the Mayflower Ship on its hood while the Dodge had a Big Horn Ram. The cars had similar six cylinder engines with three speed manual transmissions.

When Mr. Calhoun learned what had transpired with the new Plymouth he had sold to Granddad, he was, to say the least, very angry. I don't think he ever forgave Granddad for making the deal with Flannigan and never spoke to him again. Granddad, on the other hand, thought of it as just a business deal, sort of like horse trading.

Granddad kept that Dodge for 20 years before trading it to Lou Kiger in 1956. I have vivid memories of that old car. It was black with a brown mohair interior. The heater was a little silver box mounted under the dash on the passenger side that resembled an electric toaster with doors.

It was an extra cost $10.00 option. The car did not have a radio. It was just as well, Granddad would not have paid extra for it anyway. There was a strap mounted across the back of the front bench seat. Apparently it could be gripped by backseat passengers to make them feel more secure when the car was in motion. Hand straps were also mounted in the car above and behind the rear doors and were useful especially when the Dodge went around turns.

The long gearshift came up through the floor near the accelerator and the emergency brake lever was located beside it. There was one large round gauge in the center of the dash indicating the speedometer and odometer and four smaller square gauges for oil pressure, water temp, ammeter and fuel level bracketing the larger gauge. The big steering wheel had a ram on the center horn button. I remember it was easy to get into the back seat as the rear doors opened toward the front of the car.

I rode many miles in the back seat of that old Dodge. There was no air conditioning so we travelled during the summer months with the windows rolled down. Granddad had the car fitted with knobby tires on the rear wheels and they stayed on all year. That was a concession to the muddy country roads.

We got used to hearing the steady thrumming sound of those tires during the summer months on paved roads. The Dodge would run along easily at 50 MPH in high gear on good roads. It would also wade through deep mud as it had 9 inches of ground clearance.

The undercarriage was always coated with dried red clay mud. Granddad made sure the oil and filter were changed on a regular basis. The car was seldom washed and never waxed, but Granddad insisted that it be put in the garage every night, just like a buggy.

Two things I remember when I was a kid seem funny now. Granddad chewed Mail Pouch Tobacco and always rode in the front passenger seat. During summer months when we went somewhere, sitting in the back seat, I learned quickly to duck when Granddad spit tobacco juice out his window.

The other thing I remember is the fact that often we would pick up someone we knew hitch-hiking to or from town. If the car was full, the hitch-hiker would ride along with us on the running board while holding onto the center door post. That seems really incredible now when I think about it.

Granddad eventually traded the Dodge to Lou Kiger in 1956 for a slightly used 1954 Plymouth after my Dad convinced him that Plymouths were dependable cars. The old Dodge had accumulated only 62000 miles and still ran well when it was traded. Amazingly, the car had survived 20 years and had no rust on its body due perhaps to its red clay undercoating! Granddad got $200.00 on trade which wasn't too bad considering that he had paid $800.00 when he bought the new Plymouth from Mr. Calhoun for one day and then traded it to Flannigan for the Dodge. I think he paid Kiger $1200.00 for the 1954 Plymouth.

The 54 Plymouth was Granddad's last car. It had what was known as "Hi-Drive." The clutch was depressed to start the car. It could be shifted like a regular car or put in high gear and left there and it would shift itself. It had a torque converter between the clutch and transmission. It was leisurely slow in accelerating when the engine and transmission were cold.

Granddad's Plymouth had a radio and we cousins enjoyed it much more than he ever did. We took a trip to the mountains in June of 1957. My Dad drove his 53 Plymouth and had all the adults with him. My cousin, Eddy Cutright, who was 18 years old, drove Granddad's car with Kay and Sharon Stephens, Bobby Cutright and myself as passengers. I remember we listened to Ferlen Husky's big hit SINCE YOU'VE GONE as we traveled along behind Dad's car. Turning the dial, we listened to songs sung by Elvis, Fabian and Frankie Avalon. Pat Boone's LOVE LETTERS IN THE SAND was a monster hit at time I remember. We played the radio really loud because there were no adults round to stop us.

Both cars were Plymouths just a year apart and both were two-tone green and white and looked alike except for minor details on the front of the cars. People seeing us on the road probably thought they were identical.

I remember we had a flat tire in Granddad's car somewhere in Randolph County and had to stop to change it. Dad turned around and drove back down the road looking for us. When he found us, Eddy had already changed the tire and we were ready to go again.

Everyone remembers their first car; mine was a 1960 Corvair Monza coupe. It had an air cooled flat six engine in the back. The trunk, which contained the gasoline heater and spare tire was in the front. I wish I still had it. It would be worth way more than what Dad paid for it over 50 years ago.

Recently, I counted the number of cars that I have owned in my lifetime. I was shocked when I realized that I have owned 22 cars. Granddad owned only 3. How many cars have you owned over the years? Think about it. Probably more than you realize. I'm sure once you add it up, you will be surprised.

Cars are a part of our memories and are intertwined with our past experiences. I really dread the day when driverless cars dominate our roadways. Thankfully, that will occur after I am gone and I will not be here to witness that phenomenon.