How I Learned to Drive
By Walter P. Chrysler, 1937.
This story appeared in the “STATEN ISLAND AUTO ECHOES” October 1987 News Letter. Transcribed it here by Frank Nathanson .
It was love at first site when 33-year-old Chrysler laid eyes on the 1908 Locomobile touring car displayed at the Chicago Automobile Show. A railroad executive living in Iowa and earning $350 a month, Chrysler was hardly in position to own this “rich man’s toy,” but He bought it anyway. Friendly bankers who shared his faith in the infant automobile industry lent him the $4,300 he needed. The knowledge Chrysler gained tinkering with the Locomobile proved useful–he went on to become manager and then president of Buick Motor Co. and to found the corporation that still bears his name.
THE BARN in the backyard of our house in Oelwein was where we stored our garden tools, but more than half it’s space was cluttered with a lot of useless truck that had been left there by the former tenants of the premises. I began to clear this rubbish away, putting into a bonfire a dished buggy wheel, some dried-out, broken pieces of harness and bottles that had contained horse liniment. On that fire I dumped wheelbarrow loads of dust, straw and other litter, and did not stop until the barn was spick-and-span. By that time, my wife was excited by curiosity.
“I’m going to use it from a workshop.”
“What are you going to make, dad?”
“Della, I’ve bought an automobile.”
I told her all about it–that I had spent our cash reserve and gone in hock for more money than I would make in a year. She did not scold me, but it did seem to me that when she closed the kitchen door, it made a little more noise than usual; maybe she slammed it.
The automobile arrived in a freight car, anchored to the floor. I did not know how to run it, but ZI certainly was not going to allow another person to be the first behind it’s wheel. I arranged with a teamster to haul it to my house and put it in the barn. I cannot remember that I have ever been more jubilant than when Della, with Bernice in her arms and Thelma jumping up and down with excitement, saw me steer the horse-drawn car into the yard. If it had been a jewel of fantastic size, I could not have been more careful of it. My wife was wild with enthusiasm then and wanted to take a ride immediately. But I put the car in the barn, and it stayed in there so long that she despaired of ever getting a ride. Sometimes she sat in it when I cranked up and let the engine run.
Night after night, I worked in the barn until it was time to go to bed, and some nights I did not leave the automobile until it was long past my bedtime. Saturday afternoons and all day on Sundays I worked on that car. I read automobile catalogues, I studied sketches and made still other sketches of my own. Most of the time, the innards were spread upon newspapers on the barn floor. There was no single function I did not study over and over. Finally, I proved to myself that I knew and understood it, because I had put it all together, had the engine tuned so that it was running like a watch.
“What is the use of having an automobile if we’re never going to ride, dad?
“Now, don’t be impatient, Della.”
“Impatient! You’ve had the car three months and it’s never been out of the barn.”
It was a Saturday afternoon, and so hot that I had taken off my coat and had my sleeves rolled up. I finished eating. “In the barn three months, you say? Well, this afternoon she’s coming out. Come look!” By then the noise of the Chryslers’ Locomobile engine was a commonplace in our neighborhood, but somehow the word was quickly spread that this was an exceptional occasion. I had a gallery of neighbors, as I cranked up, got behind the wheel, one hand devoted to steering and one to fiddling with that confounded sliding transmission lever. I swear, you would have thought the car was ticklish, the way she winced, but the engine was purring, and when I looked behind, I could see that she was not smoking, much. Then I clamped my teeth on a fresh cigar and engaged the clutch. The big touring car bucked like a mustang saddled for the first time. We shot forward; as some of the neighbors whooped and yelled, she bucked again and lurched into a ditch, rolled half a length farther and stalled, axle deep, in my neighbor’s garden patch.
I had chewed up about one third of my cigar on that short run. I sent off for a man who had a team of horses. He came, the trace chains clinking against the stones of the road. The fetlocks of his horses were caked with mud. “Careful where you hook those chains! Mind that paint! Be careful! Want to ruin that car?” Say, mister, I’ve hauled cars before and will again. Keep your shirt on. I’ll hold these horses.” We pulled her out;, I settled with the teamster and promised monetary satisfaction to my irate neighbor. I heard a few mocking laughs, and so I cranked her up, jumped in behind the throbbing wheel and started off. This time I got her into high and let her roll. All I was doing was to grip the wheel and steer. I had to turn at the corner, but rather than make those chains growl and clash, I let her go in high. I won’t swear that only two wheels were touching the ground, but I want to testify that if felt that way. As we leveled off, we were at the edge of Oelwein, right in the country. A few hundred yards ahead, I saw a cow emerging from behind an Osage hedge that bordered a lane. She was headed for the road. I bulbed the horn until it had made its gooselike cry four or five times, but the cow, a poor rack of bones draped with yellow hide, kept right on her course and never changed her pace; nor did I change the pace of the automobile. I could not; all that I could do was to grip the wheel and steer, biting on my cigar until my teeth met inside of it.
Well, I missed the cow, thought I was close enough to touch her. I missed few of the ruts and holes along that country road to the section line where there was and intersecting road, and there I turned again — a little slower on this turn — and rode another mile before turning onto the third side of a quadrangular course that I knew would take me home. I fed more gas to the four-cylinder engine on the street that led toward home. On the basis of ratings today, that car would be said to have about eighty horsepower. As I went up the grade, the neighbors saw me riding fast, maybe twenty miles an hour. I stopped at the barn. My neighbors helped me push the car inside. I closed the doors and then discovered I was so tired I trembled. There was not a dry stich of clothing on me; that perspiration came from nervousness and excitement. It was six o’clock in the evening then. I went into the house, stripped of my clothes, took a bath and got into bed. I was all in from that wild ride. well, that’s the way I learned to drive….