Spring 1997

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A Winter Driving Vignette


John Rezelman

Index of articles by John Rezelman

Often this past winter I have looked up from my TV screen showing towering snow drifts and rotary plows throwing huge plumes of snow, out in the Midwest and even in New York's Tug Hill Plateau, only to see through my windows automobile traffic whizzing by my house much as usual here in currently-favored Crooked Lake country. I thought then of the evolution of the automobile from something that spent the winter in cold snowy regions in stored idleness, later becoming our chief dependence for travel of all kinds at all times, whatever the weather, and how this evolution spanned much of my lifetime.

My earliest childhood coincided with the ending of the time when cars were brought under cover in late fall; jacked up on blocks to take their weight off the tires, engine block and radiator drained, perhaps a little oil squirted atop the cylinders and left alone except for an occasional cranking (by hand) to insure their not "setting up." Only in spring, when weather had warmed and mud dried a little were they let down from the blocks and put back in use. Fewer and fewer people were doing this then, however, and more and more were accepting the challenge of using cars year around. Henry Ford's assembly lines were turning out quantities of affordable cars, driving horses were dying of old age and not being replaced, and carriages and sleighs were wearing out. (See Oliver Wendell Holmes' poem "The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay" for descriptive background on their problem, but in actuality, these things did wear out.) They required specialized craftsmen to repair them; these, too, were dying of old age and not being replaced. These horse-drawn conveyances were marvelous combinations of lightweight wood and iron that tended to get loose and wobbly. For their wheels this was especially serious. It called for removing the iron tire and reworking it and the wooden rim (felloe) next to it, rejoining them with the iron tire very hot, then shrinking it by rapid cooling in water so it again bound wooden felloe, spokes and hub into a solid unit. It took a highly skilled wheelwright-blacksmith to do this. (They became all but extinct, too, although their numbers are now increasing a little as the Amish population grows and Amish communities expand.) Without this repair treatment wooden wheels would eventually and suddenly collapse.

Driving atomobiles in winter called for learning new techniques, meeting new problems. By the 1930s cars had become almost the only winter conveyance, as they now are. Their drivers, manufacturers, road builders and road maintainers had found ways to cope. You might still see an occasional horse or team, blanketed and tied to hitching post or rail in country villages, but rarely.

One serious problem encountered in reaching this stage was visibility. It is still recognized today that driving is much safer when you can see where you're going. This lets you stay in the proper highway lane, or at least between the roadside ditches and avoid moving objects or even trees or utility poles suddenly appearing in your path. I thought as I rode on a recent short car trip in a snowstorm, yet with a perfect clear view through windshield and all windows, of what we once thought was a wonderul contrivance. This was a frame like a picture frame about 14 inches wide and about 7 inches high, with glass and wires crossing it. You connected the wires to something (not cigarette lighter; cars in those days didn't regularly have them, not run-of-the-mill) and there was an on-off switch. You stuck this to the windshield in front of the driver with suction cups and left it there. You could do this because windshields were flat in those days, not curved. Switched on, it would melt off snow and ice and furnish you with a dependable license-plate-sized peephole. This was often the only way to see out of the car, but we thought of it as a luxury and felt very safe and smug peering out of it.

The alternative was to open windows, both for a look and an attempt to equalize temperatures inside and outside the car so frost wouldn't form, if it hadn't yet. Heaters? Yes, there were things called heaters, but I don't remember any that delivered much heat. One thing you could do was mount a little electric fan, of 3 or 4 inch diameter on dash or steering post. This, aimed at a spot on the windshield, would keep a sort of peephole of small size clear and open most of the time. They were not the equal of the wire-and-glass kind, but better than nothing. Both reckless and cautious driving were practiced back then. The cautious had to be very cautious indeed if it kept you out of trouble.

Windshield wipers? Yes, we had them, of a kind. A limited kind. The early Model T Fords had one wiper per car, which you operated by moving it back and forth by hand from within the car. There were also electric wipers, reasonably dependable, as I recall, and others that operated on engine vacuum and didn't perform too well if the engine were under load. Windshield washers didn't exist until much later, but were not desperately needed as they are now. Icy roads were left icy except for a little sand or cinders at intersections. If one of that era's smaller-than-now trucks passed you it would not deposit a coating of salt-laden slush or mist completely obscuring your windshield and requiring a washer.

This started out to be a vignette, which is defined as a "short descriptive literary sketch," so I will confine it mainly to the visibility aspect already discussed and not now attempt to cover historic winter driving's many other aspects and features. I'll just mention a few for possible future treatment—the tire chains that sounded like guerilla warfare as broken cross chains slapped against fenders; the old starting trick of heating intake manifold with cloths and boiling water, a feat you couldn't find room enough to do in today's crammed-full engine compartments; the skilful "feathering" of mechanical brakes on roads that were pure ice—oh, you got to be quite accomplished if you survived much winter driving.

I thought of these things as I rode in a comfortably heated car with little problem in seeing anything and everything I chose to look at within a 360 degree circle.

I found I didn't wish for the good old days even one little bit just then.

1997, John Rezelman
Index of articles by John Rezelman
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