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Wheel power and growing up

by JERRY NICHOLS | October 9, 2013 at 1:27 a.m.

Like many boys, and some girls, too, I spent a lot of time while I was growing up thinking about my “wheels” and the power plants which propelled them. Even when my “wheels” were tricycles and bicycles, leg powered, I was thinking of them as powered vehicles. Of course it was all pretend, having your tricycle be a powerful motor vehicle that is, but even when it was in imagination, I was thinking of powered travel, capable of speeds faster than the speeds others could achieve, and motor sounds more authoritative and convincing than others.

I have wondered how many boys of earlier generations, before there were cars and trucks, may have been fired up about their horsepower. Surely many were. Having a fi ne horse to propel your buggy or cart, or a fine horse to ride, or a magnificent team of horses pulling your carriage, would in those days have been like having a great car, or a beautiful and impressive pickup.

Sometimes we may come near identifying ourselves and our feelings about ourselves with our vehicles. When we have a vehicle we are happy with and it is performing well and impressing others, we tend to think more positively toward ourselves.

But if our vehicle is out of style, or under powered, or malfunctioning, we feel like a failure, like an under-achiever in many areas of our lives.

I’ve noticed that advertising of cars and trucks picks up on this, and exploits it. Ads often don’t focus so much on the quality of a vehicle, they focus on how it will make you feel. Trucks are sold on how likely they are to impress other men, or women. An impressive vehicle equals an impressive guy, seems to be the message.

I actually have never had vehicles that made me feel great, or impressive, or appealing to other people. I think my tricycle was probably the most impressive of my vehicles, because my tricycle could be anything I wanted it to be, and as great as I wanted it to be. Sometimes, too, my idea of what would be impressive took a di◊erent turn from others.

For example, as I grew a little older, and noticed that a few people were making hot rods out of Model Ts and Model A Fords, my thoughts turned from making a snazzy hot-rod like that to putting a powerful motor in an old drudgy clunky-looking car. The idea was to look unpromising, then surprise everyone with speed and performance that the snazzy ones couldn’t match! I thought that would be impressive.

Actually I never had the money to try it. I was thinking to get a 12-cylinder Allison airplane motor, and put it into an old 1948 Dodge.

That would look the least like a snazzy hot-rod, and the surprise factor would be extra impressive! I wonder?

My fi rst powered “wheels” turned out to be our 1945 Ford tractor. That wasn’t much of a hot-rod, but it did have “road gear.” Some of the older tractors just had field gears. Our tractor had road gear. It could do 16 or 17 miles an hour, easy! When one was on the tractor, running “wide open,” that seemed really speedy. I used to wonder why that seemed fast on the tractor, but slow in the car. I did really enjoy running the tractor on the farm. I relished all the sounds, and sometimes the strains and the trials and the triumphs of a laboring, well-running tractor motor becomes a sort of music to the ears. The tractor really started my interest in the mechanics of how engines work. I remember as a little kid wondering how having spark plugs and fire all inside an engine could make it run and pull and plow and tow and make the pulleys and belts go round and round?

We got a new Ford tractor in 1950, and the gear shift pattern was di◊erent.

The old tractor had three forward gears, and on the side of the transmission an extra lever that gave each gear a “low” and a “high.” The new tractor had a fourth forward gear in the forward middle of the pattern, between reverse and second gear. The fourth gear was the road gear. Thisintroduced the concept of “speed shifting” on the go.

We soon learned to double clutch and quickly shift the tractor from third to fourth gear. We thought we were really skilled, like race car drivers, once we learned to speed shift the tractor!

My brothers and I started driving our car, a 1947 Chevy, at a right young age. But we didn’t drive on the road, we drove in the hay field. By 1950, we were sometimes pulling the hay wagon with the car. That was when the tractor was occupied with something else. Once in a while my Mom drove the car to pull the hay wagon, but as we boys got bigger, we began to drive, moving from hay pile to hay pile, loading loose hay onto the wagon rack. Dad didn’t trust us to pull up to the barn with a load of hay until we were much older, but out in the field I guess he thought we would have to go quite a ways to hit anything. I was probably 14 years old when I started driving the car on the road. That was before the idea of learners licenses, and so on. I always thought that by then I was a pretty good driver. At least I never smashed into anything.

Community, Pages 5 on 10/09/2013

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