My First Car
1927 Chevrolet Coupe

Essay by
Wilfred R. Franson
October 1999

My 1927 Chevrolet coupe

1927 Chevrolet coupe, WRF Do you remember your first car?

Of course you do. Buying a car for the first time in your life is more than a transaction; it is an event.

My first car was a 1927 Chevrolet coupe. I bought it for the usual reasons: I had to have something to drive to work, I wanted to impress girls and arouse the envy of other teen-agers, and it was the thing to do.

Of course not one of those reasons made any sense. I lived only two blocks from a Chicago streetcar line and could ride to work for seven cents. Nobody was impressed by my car or jealous of my proud ownership of it. It was just a car.

Behind the curve of mechanical improvements

I didn't know this at the time, but my pretty little car was obsolete. The decade from 1925 to 1935 brought more mechanical improvements in popular automobiles than any other 10-year period: independent front wheel suspension, high-speed engines, hydraulic shock absorbers, and shatterproof glass were available on inexpensive cars in the early 1930s. My Chevy lacked all of those good things, so I had more than my share of trouble.

The combination of an inexperienced driver and those two-wheel external band brakes got me into some scary situations. I will always remember how it felt to slide sideways on a crowded street, and one incident will serve as an example. I was following a streetcar and it stopped to let some people get on. I tried to go easy on the brakes, but lost control and slid toward the back end of the streetcar. Luck was with all of us, and the Chevy stopped about four feet short of ramming the rear end of the streetcar.

The conductor went to the back window and looked down to see if I had actually hit his car. He probably dreaded the usual accident report he would have to prepare. Satisfied that the two unequal vehicles had not touched, he gave his bell cord two yanks and the streetcar moved on. My lack of skill and the unforgiving two-wheel brakes had almost hurt somebody, and I had nightmares about that incident for several weeks. Even with skid chains that car slid a lot.

Features; fixing & customizing

Another weak feature was the suspension, which could not cope with the Chicago potholes. Without shock absorbers to control them the springs bounced a lot and I broke two front springs in two years. The front axle had to be straightened in about a year. It just sagged a little at a time until its condition became obvious; the car was never in any kind of accident severe enough to bend anything.

But I liked the car and took it on several trips. The gearshift was quick and easy but did not have silent gears or synchromesh shifting. The gas gauge was on the tank at the rear of the car and I ran out of gas several times. I bought one of those engine thermometers and mounted it on top of the radiator. The Chevy started easily except on very cold days, when it insisted on being cranked.

One sad day while brooding on how much fun it would be to have a convertible, I decided to install a sun roof. I peeled off the top fabric, exposing the wood slats in the roof. I left the slats in place and tacked a big piece of waterproof cloth to the top so it could be rolled up and fastened if I wanted the sun to shine in. It worked a few times but didn't hold together and after a few months I bought some new fabric and tacked it al around, thus re-converting my sun roof to a hardtop.

Painting the wheels; education

Most of us retain some fond memories of our joys and troubles with that first car of ours, but I also carry a physical souvenir, a scar on the back of my left hand. I thought it was time to paint the wheels so I unbolted the disc wheels at the hubs and took them into the basement to paint them. The next day I took the wheels out to the garage and was putting the first wheel on the hub when the car fell off the four big wood blocks it was sitting on.

My left hand was caught between the tire and the left rear fender. Luckily the wheel jammed in the wheelhouse and the car did not come all the way down on my side. It fell all the way to the floor on the other three hubs. I leaned, lifted, and grunted, and managed to pull my hand away from the fender. I was lucky that day; my hand could have been crushed. All I got was a small, permanent scar on my hand.

That little coupe gave me a basic education in car maintenance, risk taking, foul weather driving, and frustration. Most of my troubles were my fault as much as the car's. The average used auto today would be much more forgiving of a new driver's mistakes, but not as educational.


© 1999 Wilfred R. Franson

Luck versus Auto Accidents
With Some Scrapes and Escapes

The Jefferson Ice Company
Chicago 1927-1929, 1933-1936

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