Auto evolution: a prairie family joins the ride

The author remembers what it was like as her parents started down the unfamiliar road of car ownership in the middle of the last century

SASKATOON — Jim Adamson farmed in Alberta near Harold Hathaway’s place in the 1940s and they worked together for harvest.

“Transportation in 1947-48 still involved horses and we had a particularly lively pair of grey Percherons, who delighted in periodically running away for no reason at all and in the process, usually completely demolished a hayrack and several hundred yards of fence,” Adamson said.

“As I recall, Harold Hathaway had a nice little team of bays, who were known to escape on their own also, but they were no match for the greys when it came to sheer destructive power.”

Hathaway’s “nice little team of bays” inspired him to welcome mechanization. For short distances, he’d say, “I put one foot in front of the other,” but otherwise, the horses were replaced by one of Model As in the early 1940s.

Automobile designer Henry Ford changed the world with his first car, the Model T, built for practical durability and easy maintenance. He further enamored the public by lowering the $800 price tag at its inception in 1908 to $300 in 1925 by inventing the assembly line in his factories.

These qualities made the “Tin Lizzie” the car of choice for 40 percent of American car owners and doubtless a similar ratio in Canada and Europe. The Model A rolled out from 1928 to 1932. They were easier to drive than the Model T.

However, through the Depression, cars of all types and ages reappeared as “Bennett Buggies” — their motors and windows removed to enable being pulled by horses because of soaring gasoline prices. The Bennett Buggies were named after the prime minister of the day, R.B. Bennett, a man who many said did not understand the struggles of the common man during that great financial crisis.

Hathaway escaped the humiliation of a Bennett Buggy, having turned 20 years old in 1939 with the end of the Depression and just enough cash for his first car.

His wife, Louise, remembered being courted by Harold in his Model A.

“When we drove to or from town on Saturday night, a part of the Model A might fall off, but Harold would throw it in the back and we’d continue on our way,” she said.

“A sure sign of spring was the stripping down of the car. Everything would be re-assembled into its proper place for another year. If we couldn’t climb a hill going forward, one simply backed down to the foot of the hill, turned the car around, and very easily reached the top, going in reverse.”

Hathaway drove it until 1956. Henry Ford would be proud.

Harold and Louise became parents to me and three siblings.

When it came time for a new car, money was in short supply. Louise’s parents, Wilbur and Gertie McLean, had just moved to Lloydminster and, in conversation with their new neighbour, learned she had a car for sale because her husband had died. Most women didn’t drive in those days.

Grandpa looked at the car and decided to recommend it to Dad. It was a dark green 1950 Studebaker Champion. Later the back doors of these cars would be given the moniker “suicide doors,” so called because if anyone fell out of the back seat, they’d be killed by the forward opening door.

One might wonder, “when would anyone fall out of a car?” but everyone was still getting used to cars and how best to manage a road trip, the newest craze of the day.

Car manufacturers were busy figuring out a design that attracted customers but also kept them alive. Falling out of a car happened more often than anyone with sunburned faces and ankles sporting white bobby socks cared to admit and that’s precisely what happened to my brother, James.

We didn’t own the Studebaker at that time, or chances are, James wouldn’t have made it to sundown. We were in Grandpa’s 1948 Plymouth DeLuxe sedan. James was three or four years old and enthralled with the push button door locks.

There were no seatbelts either. The usual speed was about 40 m.p.h. and the well-used expression to describe someone speeding was “going like 60.”

We were coming home from Lloydminster on Highway 45, a gravel road then. My dad was driving, Grandpa took the passenger seat and James and I were in the back.

Encouraged by Wilbur’s endorsement, Dad saw a transition from the Model A to something newer. It’s possible the A had already died, making it necessary to drive Wilbur’s car or perhaps it was just a treat and an honour for Dad to be given the wheel in his father-in-law’s deluxe car, taking James and I out of our mother’s hair, for once.

The McLeans stand in front of one of their earlier cars. | Hathaway family photo

In no time, James started playing with the door lock. Whispering to himself, he lurched forward, thumped the button down, ducked back against the seat, more whispering, lunged up, pulled up the button, and so on. Twice Dad turned around and told him to leave the lock alone, and James would sit still for about five seconds before starting his play again.

Finally, even the lock had had enough. James lunged forward, yanked up the lock and the door opened. He rolled out and down into the ditch, head over heels like a ball. He must have leaned on the swivel-style handle.

It was summer and the windows were open. Dad was talking to Grandpa and didn’t notice the drama unfold in the back seat. I called out, “Dad, James fell out of the car.”

He pulled over and ran back to where James sat up in the weeds. I watched out the back window. He seemed to be talking to James, no doubt checking him over for injury. He carried him back to the car, put him in the back seat, went around to the driver’s seat and from there turned back to us, shaking his finger.

“And don’t play with those locks,” he bellowed.

James sat absolutely still in the spot Dad placed him, white-faced and silent for the rest of the trip. He had no scratches on his face and he was wearing long sleeves and pants. I’m not sure if he had any bruises or scrapes anywhere else. All conversation ceased for the remainder of the trip.

I remember Dad standing in the kitchen telling Mom what happened while James went into the living room to play on the floor. Mom stood in silence, watching Dad’s face while he talked. I can’t remember her checking James for injury but likely she did.

No one in the family ever talked about it, to my knowledge. No one ever said, “remember when James fell out of the car?”

The family car made an ideal backdrop for an Easter photo. | Hathaway family photo

Perhaps it was something we all wanted to forget. Anyway, there was always some new episode to grapple with so why spend precious time dwelling on the past?

For Mom, though, it probably confirmed her belief that cars should be viewed with a measure of fear.

Dad bought the Studebaker and it kept us going for another 10 years. In it, we travelled all over the western provinces, pulling a tent trailer for camping. Mom remained a nervous passenger but her restless spirit kept her planning a trip every summer and most Christmas and Easter holidays. Road trips were new then, enabled by a car, and people enjoyed their new-found freedom, mishaps and all.

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