Why You Should Thank Early Drivers, Mechanics & Inventors for the Safe Car You Drive Today

By Alex Perdikis

Did you know blacksmiths were some of America’s first car mechanics? Machinists and bicycle mechanics also added auto mechanics to their services in the early years. There was nothing like having a diversified skill set even back then.

In the early 1900s, 15 million Americans bought automobiles thanks to the affordable Ford Model T Roadster. Along with all those cars came breakdowns, crashes and, in some cases, utter chaos. You have those early drivers and the chaos that ensued to thank for many of the car features and laws that keep you safe now.

Amazing stories came out of those early years, though. Here are some of the best.

The Life of the Early Car Mechanic

The very first cars were far from reliable. They were also expensive. So expensive, in fact, that only the wealthy could afford them. Wealthy car owners did not drive themselves, but employed chauffeurs. And, in most cases, those chauffeurs were also mechanics.

Ford changed all that with the mass production of the affordable Model T. Nearly everyone could afford a car. And, Americans snatched them up like hot cakes.

The need for mechanics and car repair shops became apparent almost as soon as the first Model T hit the road. There were over 60,000 automobile service shops by the 1920s. Oil companies began offering repair services by the 1930s.

Car owners, as well as professional mechanics, learned engine mechanics on the fly in those early years. Tires blew out frequently. Out of necessity, drivers learned to change tires themselves.

“Many new car owners came from farming backgrounds. Farmers and their families already had experience fixing farm machinery. It wasn’t difficult for them to perform their own car repairs.” — Alex Perdikis

The Model T was designed with simplicity. Owners learned about their car’s engine from the owner’s manual and made their own repairs through trial-by-error. Stories about how owners fixed broken down vehicles with clothespins, twine, baling wire or whatever else they had on hand became the stuff of legend.

The supplied Model T toolbox consisted of a tire repair kit, jack and a measuring stick for gasoline. Professional auto mechanic shop tools typically included a piston vise, dolly jack, hubcap wrench, valve-seat facing tool and valve-spring lifter.

Turning Turtle and Other Mishaps

Americans loved the freedom of hopping in a car and going where they wanted to go. But, the roads, what there were of them, could also be frightening and dangerous.

Stops signs, warning signage, lane lines and street lights were nonexistent. What’s more, traffic laws were nonexistent. You could go as fast as you wanted, drink before you got behind the wheel and drive at any age — no license required.

A few early drivers learned about centrifugal force the hard way when they took a corner too fast and flipped. The problem became so common that newspapers reported the incident as “turning turtle.”

A June 29, 1914, Detroit Free Press article reported a turning turtle. The car contained a bridal couple, wedding guests, children and “many bottles of liquor,” turned a corner at 40mph and turned turtle. No one was killed, but the accident certainly but a damper on the festivities.

Horse carriages were still the main mode of transportation in the early days. Loud motorcars seemed to come out of nowhere scaring horses and carriage drivers alike. Such meetings caused numerous accidents.

The debate about how to handle the onslaught of automobiles and their reckless drivers became so intense that the Georgia State of Appeals declared that automobiles should be classed as ferocious animals. The court clarified its opinion later, explaining that cars were not in the same league as bad dogs or evil-disposed mules, however.

What Were They Thinking?

The lack of traffic laws in the early days meant anyone could and did drive. Truck delivery wagons in Detroit were routinely driven by 14-year-old boys. One family appointed their 11-year-old son as a chauffeur. Another woman, who regularly suffered from blackouts, was arrested 26 times for reckless driving before she ended up killing someone.

Terms for reckless drivers of the day provide a humorous insight into what it was like as cars took over. AAA dubbed inconsiderate drivers “fliverbobs.” Other newly coined terms included “joy riders,” “Sunday drivers,” “road hogs” and “speed maniacs.”

Better Times on the Road

The early days of driving were exciting, but they were also dangerous. Lawmakers and law enforcement experimented with various regulations and finally devised laws that governed who could drive, where people could drive and rules drivers had to follow.

Inventors also came up with ideas that made driving safer for everyone. Traffic lights, road signs and lane designations made the roads themselves safer and easier to follow. Safety features such as windshield wipers, backup lights and turn signals for cars began to appear.

The next time you get in your car, remember to silently thank those early drivers, mechanics, lawmakers and inventors for making modern cars and roads safer.

Alex Perdikis, Koons of Silver Spring general manager and owner, lives in Chevy Chase with his wife and daughters.