I should begin by explaining that I learned to drive at age 12 and got my license on the day I turned 14. That was the legal driving age in Texas in 1950.
Just after I got my driver’s license, I somehow managed to pull off what, for years, I believed to be one of the best selling jobs of my life, namely talking my parents into buying me my first car. I didn’t really find out until much later that I’d had help. I initially thought I’d pulled off this brilliant coup by a combination of wheedling, whining, cajoling and impassioned teen logic. As it turned out, I’d gotten help from a very professional source.
My good father (and mother) did acquiesce, with misgivings I’m sure, and bought me a shiny, black, like-new 1931 Hudson Greater Eight sedan with less than 30,000 miles on the odometer. My dad bought this car from Lloyd Lafond, our local Hudson dealer; in fact, the only new-car dealer in our little town of La Feria, Texas, population 2,000. And here’s the secret of how I lucked into the Hudson: I discovered years later that Lloyd Lafond had approached my dad after he’d found out I’d gotten my driver’s license and, salesman that he was, talked my father into buying the car for me. So it wasn’t just my wheedling; I’d had a co-wheedler.
The history of that particular car was this: Lloyd Lafond had been visiting relatives Back East and had seen this beautifully preserved, pristine, stately Hudson in the showroom of a small-town Pennsylvania dealership. The Pennsylvania dealer had originally sold the car new in 1931 and, in 1936, the man who’d bought it died. His wife didn’t drive, so the car simply sat in their garage until the Pennsylvania dealer bought it back and put it in his showroom to attract attention. That’s when Lloyd Lafond happened by, saw the car, figured it might make a good attraction in his own showroom, bought the Hudson and had it shipped to La Feria.
My dad paid Lloyd $300 and, at that time, the Hudson was perfect in every way, inside and out; pretty much still a brand-new 1931 automobile. I drove it, loved it, pampered it, and polished the black lacquer so relentlessly that the brick-red undercoat began to show through on the body’s raised surfaces.
The Hudson was geared quite low, as automobiles of that era tended to be, and from zero to about 20 MPH, it would out-accelerate most new cars in metropolitan La Feria, including new Hudsons. So that’s how I drove it, challenging everyone to a stoplight drag race, whether the other driver realized it or not.
Get a Job! Get Two Jobs!
The 1931 Hudson was the first object I’d ever owned that took money to operate; cash for gasoline, oil, maintenance, licensing and insurance. Suddenly, out of the blue, it struck me that I needed a job, preferably one that paid fairly well and, more to the point, one that could teach me how automobiles worked. So I applied first to Joe Machner, who ran the filling station on La Feria’s busiest corner, for after-school employment. Later, I applied for a summer job with Guy Miller, owner and chief mechanic of Miller’s Garage, the best repair shop in town. Both hired me, and for several months I worked at both places simultaneously.
Soon after I lucked into the 1931 Hudson, my good friend and classmate, J.D. Cole, bought himself a very nice 1932 Ford V-8 Tudor sedan, which he promptly stripped of its body in a crude attempt to build a hot rod. J.D. and I had spent hours at the newsstand in Wynn’s drugstore, anxiously reading about hot rods in a new magazine of the same name. It thus seemed to both of us easy enough to construct one; i.e. a hot rod. In J.D.’s case, though, the removal of the body was as far as he ever got, but even so, the weight reduction added noticeably his car’s performance, and he ended up with, in essence, a hot rod that didn’t look like one.
In the summer of 1950, J.D. worked as an apprentice mechanic across town at Carter’s Garage, while I held a similar position at Miller’s. J.D. and I were both following our blisses in occupations and preoccupations that would dog us the rest of our lives; i.e. again, the dirtying of our fingernails with cars that gave us rollercoaster rides of joy and grief.
I’d been working at Miller’s for maybe a month when a customer drove in in a 1932 Chevrolet coupe that he wanted to sell for $12; did we know anyone who might be interested? I piped up, “Yessir, I’ll buy it,” this despite the fact that I already “owned” and was driving the 1931 Hudson.
But because J.D. now had his cutdown 1932 Ford, my inner logic whispered to me that a 1932 Chevrolet might make an even better hot rod, so I plunked down the $12 – all the money I had in the world – and became the proud owner of a car that I already envisioned streaking down the black line at Bonneville and burning up the drag strips that were then popping up on abandoned airfields in Southern California. How I’d get to Utah and California from Texas I had no idea, but I’d definitely been taken in by the romance of Hot Rod magazine.
The 1932 Chevy was actually in pretty decent shape when I got it: nice mohair upholstery, no dents or dings, dull but original paint, everything worked, and the engine ran fine. As soon as I could, I drove the car over to Carter’s Garage to show J.D., and when I told him my plan to make a hot rod out of it, J.D. laughed and said, “Don’t you know the difference between Fords and Chevys?”
Well, no, I really didn’t – not beyond the obvious that Fords had V-8 engines and Chevys had in-line Sixes. It hadn’t occurred to me that there could be much difference at all; both were 1932 models, both looked a lot alike, Fords and Chevys were popular cars, so it seemed to me that both would make good hot rods.
J.D. was not a mean person; in fact, quite the opposite, but the next words out of his mouth plunged a dagger deep into my heart. “Fords,” he told me matter-of-factly, “make good hot rods, and Chevys don’t.”
J.D. didn’t lie, and he knew a lot more about cars than I did. “Why is that?” I asked.
“Because Ford V-8s have strong bottom ends and Chevys don’t.” I knew that by “bottom ends,” J.D. meant the crankshaft assembly, which included main and connecting-rod bearings. Weak bearings wouldn’t survive hopping up nor the stresses of high revolutions and heat.
Depressed and angry with myself for making such an egregious mistake, I asked my boss, Guy Miller, whether J.D. was right about Chevys having weak bottom ends. Mr. Miller said, “Yes, it’s true.” He went on to say that Chevys, Nashes and Studebakers were known for tender bottom ends, both in their main and rod bearings. Ford and Cadillac V-8s had reputations for strong bottom ends and were thus preferred by hot rodders (Oldsmobile and Chrysler V-8s would soon join that fellowship).
I obviously had a lot to learn about cars, and simply working in filling stations and auto repair shops wasn’t going to teach me quickly enough, so I asked Guy Miller if there were any books I could study. Mr. Miller reached up on a shelf where he kept his shop and interchange manuals, and he pulled down a worn, gritty volume of Dyke’s Automobile and Gasoline Engine Encyclopedia, copyright 1914.
My True Education
A.L. Dyke was a pioneering automaker with a literary bent. He lived and worked in St. Louis and actually, during 1901-04, offered a kit car of his own manufacture: a little 750-pound, five-horsepower runabout that people could buy and assemble at home. Dyke soon expanded his kit-car instructions into the Encyclopedia, which he self-published and updated every few years. Dyke’s Encyclopedia proved extremely popular and, by the 1940s, had grown to 1,500 pages. It became a standard reference for auto mechanics and kids like me who wanted to know the mechanical and electrical principles of motor vehicles. Dyke’s Encyclopedia combined theory with practice, using line drawings, photos and simple explanations in a marvelous, highly organized mix, and I spent hours poring over its pages – many more hours than I spent doing my school homework. (I still own two copies of Dyke’s Encyclopedias.)
As I absorbed my first smattering of knowledge from Dyke’s, I began to plot how I might prove J.D. and Guy Miller wrong… show them, by golly, that Chevys – or at least my Chevy – could indeed be transformed into a good-looking, fast, fun-to-drive hot rod. Like J.D., I began the process by removing body parts. Off came the hood, then the headlights and front fenders.
And because most of the hot rods I’d seen in magazines were roadsters, sans tops, I decided within a week or two that I had to cut the roof off my coupe. One of the things Guy Miller had taught me when I came to work for him was how to use an acetylene cutting torch. Just after I’d arrived, he’d assigned me the very warm summer task of cutting up large chunks of iron and steel – auto frames, fenders, bumpers, etc. – to make them easier to haul off to the scrap dealer. So I’d become something of an artist with a cutting torch, and I decided to apply that artistry to my coupe. I bobbed the rear fenders, and that’s when I resolved to transform the Chevy into a roadster.
The actual top surgery didn’t take long, just an hour or two. I ripped out the headliner, lowered the windows and began torching. I left the windshield header intact but cut through the metal roof section just behind it, door to door, then proceeded around to the pillars, quarter panels and the section below the rear window.
In an even more misguided quest to transform the coupe into a roadster, the Chevy’s roof also succumbed to the torch. Because it wasn’t licensed, Mike’s newly minted “roadster” had to be confined to the race course, nee horse pasture.
What I hadn’t realized was that Chevys of that day contained an inordinate amount of wood in their body structure, and I kept having to put out little fires as my torch moved through various wooden parts that connected the roof to the main body. And that brought home another big difference between Fords and Chevys of that period: Fords used mostly steel body framing and Chevys (in fact, all GM cars) used wood, which made Chevy bodies considerably weaker than those of Fords.
Well, right after I cut and lifted the top off my 1932 Chevy, I jumped behind the wheel, started the engine, and began backing down the concrete apron in front of Miller’s Garage. As it happened, the car had been parked on the apron at an angle, so when the rear wheels rolled down into the street, I could sense the body torque slightly, and I thought to myself, “Uh-oh, that doesn’t feel good.”
A trip around the block confirmed that the top had helped reinforce the body, and now, with it gone, my newly minted “hot-rod roadster” jiggled around like Jell-O in a bowl. Roadsters and convertibles, I learned later, have reinforced chassis frames to compensate precisely for the lack of a fixed metal top. So that was Lesson Two in my pursuit of the ideal hot rod.
Going Nowhere Fast
That’s not to say that J.D. and I didn’t have a lot of fun with our respective cars. Neither was legal for the street, mostly because we couldn’t afford to license them, but both cars could be driven on private property. Fortunately, my dad had bought a horse pasture across from the high school, and that became our private race course. The pasture covered most of a city block, and with the family horses safely huddled in one corner, J.D. and I drove round and round the pasture’s perimeter, creating, after a few laps, a large, dusty, oval track.
To encourage grass to grow in the pasture, my dad periodically flooded the surface. During one such flood, J.D. and I delighted in driving through the water, and at one point J.D.’s back was covered with mud flung up by the fenderless rear tires of his Ford. He’d taken out the seats and sat on a wooden box that he’d wired to the frame.
Mike’s good friend and fellow car enthusiast, J.D. Cole, had removed the body from his 1932 Ford Tudor, also in an attempt to build a hot rod. Here, J.D. is seen at the rear of the car, working on his Ford’s differential.
Next day, as the water receded, we began circling our muddy race course again, slipping, sliding and going faster each lap. At one point, I watched in horror as J.D. took the far turn too briskly, and two wheels of his Ford actually raised up off the ground. It looked like the car was going to tip over, but it didn’t. Rather, it righted itself and veered back toward the center of the oval, but this time without a driver. J.D. had fallen off his box when the car tipped. The driverless Ford’s engine had stalled, but it proceeded another 100 feet or so and then stopped in a muddy furrow.
I ran over to the corner where J.D. had fallen off, and there he lay on the his back in an inch of water, mouth wide open, laughing his head off. He considered falling out of the car terrifically funny. After a minute or so, still chuckling, he stood up, slowly removed his pants and shirt, wrung them out, put them back on, and we resumed our track and field day without further mishap. Circling the pasture day after day, though, eventually got boring, and I sold my Jell-O bowl of a 1932 Chevy to a wrecking yard in Harlingen for $2 cash – an ignominious end to the first car I ever truly owned.
As for the Hudson, I continued to drive it for two more years, during which time I bought and sold a number of other cars – three Model A roadsters, a 1932 Studebaker convertible, a 1934 Buick sedan and, finally, a real, actual hot rod; but more about that particular car in a future chapter.
The Hudson continued to give good service until one sad day when the water pump seized. I could never find a replacement pump, and since the Hudson was no longer drivable, I turned my attention to building my real hot rod.
Ironically, today, with the Internet, I’m pretty sure I could find a 1931 Hudson Greater Eight water pump fairly easily, but at that time I absolutely couldn’t, so my dad reluctantly sold the car to a fellow in Corpus Christi. The good news was, though, that I’d soon replace the Hudson with one of the great automotive loves of my life. More about that car next time.
Michael Lamm grew up in South Texas. He’s always loved cars and, after graduating from Columbia University in New York in 1959, took a job as editor of Foreign Car Guide, a magazine about VWs. In the mid 1960s, Mike became managing editor of Motor Trend and, in 1970, he co-founded Special-Interest Autos magazine in partnership with Hemmings Motor News. In 1978, Mike began to publish his own line of automotive books. For more information, go to www.LammMorada.com.