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Writing a store about 100 years in a house...

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Dear Knowledgeable Car Folks,

I'm writing a novel about 100 years in a house in Los Angeles. Over 100 years, those people drive a lot of cars. I was hoping I could turn to some of you for car questions as I write.

Right now, I have to write two cars in 1921-1922. One is driven by an extremely successful woman scriptwriter (the actual Frances Marion, who earned 350,000 or so in 1921!) and another is driven by a starting out woman scriptwriter, who couldn't afford, say, a housekeeper yard/man. What kinds of cars might they drive and how would they shift gears in them? I'm thinking of having writer number 2 buy an electric car because she's tiny and the kick of the starter crank might be too much for her. But she's a flashy girl, very much a wild flapper, so it would have to look like more money than she yet has.

Anybody who has details of what these cars might look like, sound like while starting, while driving, the kinds of tiny things that can make them seem real for a reader as we're tooling along talking about, say, Mary Pickford's latest flicker, well, I'd sure appreciate their help.

Thanks in advance,

Sally Rafowicz

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By 1922 the crank starter was very old fashioned. Even Model T's came with electric start almost all the time by then (it was new for the T in 1917). Electric cars were still available in very limited numbers, and they were quite expensive. They also had a severly reduced driving range and were essentailly all owned by (what can best be called) "society ladies" who rarely drove more than a few miles.

A person without much means in 1921 would almost be totally limited to a Model T or the similar competitor, the Chevrolet 490, which was not nearly as common. In 1922 a new car was introduced by Durant Motors called the Star to compete for the low-price field. It's name may be appealing for your character.

Making your car stand out in that time would mostly be a personal effort, painting it a special color, buying a sportier body to replace the factory touring car, etc. There was also the used car market even then, and a flashy person might be able to find a used Buick, Hudson or Studebaker that was an executive's car. (It wasn't until the late 1920s that car styling changed dramatically from year to year, and in 1922 a 3 or 4 year old car wasn't all that different from the showroom models in appearance.)

As for the successful woman's car, there are all manner of choices (Packard, Cadillac, Pierce-Arrow, etc.), but the main thing to impress the crowd would be the special body purchased for the car. There were a number of custom builders at the time catering to the well-heeled, and the only limit was imagination.

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Dear Historywriter:

Your topic appealed to me because of the motorcar history aspect of your story and the travel-through-time theme. The previous post is right on track according to everything I know. The suggestion of the car called Star is great, really, and I wouldn't have thought of it. Nice car to avoid the "I'm Poor!" stigma of a Model "T", but not hideously expensive either. My Father, who grew up in the 20's and 30's, often talked about the sand hill north of Hutchinson, Kansas that everyone went to for informal hill climbs with their cars. It was called "Star Hill", he said, because that was the only car that could make it all the way to the top. Maybe that tale could be transposed to Los Angeles, with a grain of truth. I'm sure my Dad would approve if he were still around.

I'm a member of the Peerless Motor Car Club and had another idea for the novel. One of our members* sent me a copy of an original document he has that shows the inventory of a Peerless dealership in the 1920's. You're probably thinking that this would be dull as dirt; but armed with something like that, you could have your two scriptwriters strolling through a dealership comparing prices on used Peerlesses, Lincolns, Cunninghams, Rickenbackers, etc. As Dave says, one could look at used luxury cars even when not able to afford new ones. My Grandfather was actually approached by a guy in the 1940's who had a '29 Duesenberg for sale for $500.00.

My choice for a somewhat "fast" young woman in 1921 would probably be a Kissel Gold Bug. Amelia Earhart's Kissel is in the collection of the Forney Museum in Colorado...if you want to research it. Problem with one of those is that thay were "tres expensive", probably too expensive. The great thing about this point in time is that there was never a better selection of cars and car companies than the early Twenties. As you have probably found out already from your own research, your characters' choices would have been astounding.


* P. Mordant from Belgium, see Peerless Forum near the bottom of the list of 84 AACA forums

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Appearance would be very important. One of the best references to look at to choose what you want is the January issue of MoToR for any year, which is the show issue. These have photos of carsin appropriate settings, with different body tpes; all the way across price and class range. There would be most that you would want to know about a carwithout seeing and driving it. If you are from Southern California, the Horseless Carriage Foundation Library in San Diego might be a good place to start enquiring. A model Deusenberg was an exclusive, expensive car that was not heavy and was good to drive. It had superb hydraulic four wheel brakes from the start. The first prototype was shonw in Jan 1921, but the first production cars were probably not in the hands of customers until late 1921 at the earliest. Tom Mix had one of the first few. The 30th made was exported to Mexico in June 1922. You could pick anything but avoid the monsters, because unless your girl had worked out regularly at a gym (which probably was an un-thought concept then), the steering and brakes might be wearing. Of the bigger cars Pierce arrow was always renowned for driving ease.

As for the cheaper option, with flair, maybe something pre-owned a year or so old might fit. A lot of people did not drive great mileages is they lived in a city that had everything for them. Kissel is a good thought, and maybe Jordan, operhaps an air-cooled Franklin.

Anyway, if you can get to look at MoToR, thepictures, specifications, prices, and weights should help you.

Ivan Saxton

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You bring up an interesting question. I love history and historical novels. I love it when the author gets the feel of the period and getting the mise en scene right is a big part of creating the illusion of life in a different time.

The following should be taken with a grain of salt. All off the top of my head, you will want to check for the exact dates but I assure you the feeling will be right and the dates will be close.

My suggestion, a Marmon for the wealthy woman and a Ford for the poor one.

The Marmon was a very expensive and rather flashy car. It was also technically advanced in design, and use a lot of aluminum. This made it light in weight and easy to drive compared to other cars of similar size and performance.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald drove a Marmon touring car in 1921 or 22. He wrote a long description of a road trip from New York to the South.

Stutz was another well known luxury car with a performance reputation, something like Jaguar or Ferrari today.

For a more conservative woman, Pierce Arrow and Packard both made small 6 cylinder models aimed at the owner/driver market. These were much easier to drive than the long heavy limousine models that were meant to be chauffeur driven.

They had all the quality and luxury of the heavy models in an easy to handle size.

The small Pierce Arrow 80 and Packard 6 were new models in 1921 or 22, you might want to check for the exact dates.

The Hudson sedan was much in style at the time. They made a formal looking sedan with a leather covered roof and little opera lights that was very chic. But this was a cheaper, mass produced car.

On second thoughts the Hudson may have come a little later, about 1925 or 26.

By 1921 the self starter had been pretty well standard equipment for 7 years or so. The car makers were catering to the female buyer, just look at the ads from the early 20s and compare them to car ads from 10 or 15 years earlier.

Before 1915 the ads were full of descriptions of motors, gears, wheels, and similar technical details. By 1921 it was taken for granted that any car would run in a satisfactory manner, and the ads were all about style, luxury, and prestige.

So a young woman of an independent turn of mind, would easily be able to handle the typical car of 1921. It would require a certain amount of skill and training, as the cars of 1921 were harder to drive than today's. But many women mastered the art.

In 1921 fully half the cars on the road were Fords. Anyone looking for low price transportation would almost wind up in a Ford by default.

There were alternatives such as Chevrolet and Star. The Essex coach was the first low priced closed car, new out at the time, and was very popular. Then there was the Willys Overland Whippet. All these were popular low priced cars, yet all cost more than a Ford, up to twice as much.

It all depends. If your heroine recently sold a script for a good price and wanted to splurge on a car, she would be very proud of her shiny new Essex coach or Chevrolet. But if she was truly struggling 9 chances out of 10 she would be driving a used Ford and lucky to have a car at all.

That is another thing. I hope I do not insult your historical sense by pointing out the obvious. But the standard of living of 1921 was much lower than today, about on par with a 3d world country. Auto ownership may have been the highest in the world in the US, yet only about 1 family in 5 owned a car. So chances are a poor person would not own a car at all. In Los Angeles as in most other cities she would be using the street cars.

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More thoughts on re reading your post.

The suggestions I made were for the women to drive themselves. But the first woman would be much more likely to employ a chauffeur.

In that case her car of choice would be a heavy model made for that type of service. Pierce Arrow, Packard 12,Locomobile, Stearns-Knight, or if she really wanted to make a splash, an imported Rolls Royce, Minerva or Isotta Fraschini.

In those days Cadillac and Lincoln were not in the top rank of luxury cars. They were more for the working millionaire.

Your second heroine, if she was a flapper would definitely not be driving an electric. Her granny but not her.

I'm trying to think of a flashy car that was not too expensive. I come up with a Jordan Playboy. It would fit her personality perfectly but they were new out at the time and they were not cheap. Maybe a gift from her boyfriend the big butter and egg man?

A low priced used car with a bit of style. Could be a 4 cylinder Buick or Studebaker, a Briscoe Cloverleaf Roadster or a Saxon touring, all these would be about 5 years old at the time which would make them cheap used cars. All were small cars just above the Ford class.

I'm trying to keep in mind here the expense for gas, oil and tires. These were a big part of running a car back then and would tend to rule out the heavier used cars no matter how cheap.

I can see your flapper taking a 50 MPH dip in the landscape in her second hand roadster but not piloting a big luxury car.

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One other point. The typical car of 1921 was an open touring or roadster. Closed cars were available but they were expensive, and had certain practical disadvantages.

Open cars outnumbered close models at least 2 to 1. The cheaper the car the fewer the closed bodies they sold.

The rich woman might have a sedan or coupe, the flapper would most likely be driving a roadster or touring.

The first car to offer a low priced closed model was the Essex coach in 1921. It cost only $100 more than the touring. Most closed models cost at least $500 more than the open equivalent.

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<div class="ubbcode-block"><div class="ubbcode-header">Quote:</div><div class="ubbcode-body"> The first car to offer a low priced closed model was the Essex coach in 1921. It cost only $100 more than the touring. Most closed models cost at least $500 more than the open equivalent.</div></div>

The inexpensive closed Essex "coach" was introduced in 1922, and it (and all other Essex cars) cost more than twice the price of a new Ford or Chevrolet. Before 1922 Essex was no different than any other car, with closed sedans costing about 50% more than an "open car". Rusty is correct however, in 1920/21 you had to be at least as well off as an established doctor or lawyer to have a closed car. Most average people (at least among new car buyers, which were hardly "average people" in 1920) drove "open type" cars (touring cars or roadsters).

About the flashiest someone could go in 1920 who was without real means would be 3-5 year old roadster (Olds, Hudson, Buick, Studebaker, Maxwell, etc.) painted a bright color. A wealthy person could drive a bank vault on wheels if they wanted to because their cars were nearly always custom built, and some of the custom creations built for them at the time could be described as bank vaults.

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Dear Sally,

The young woman would need to balance practicality with the desire to drive something smart and "modern". Circumstances might dictate that she start with her Aunt Wilma's old car. Could be a very elegant but old-fashioned car. After some misadventures she could trade up to something like the Star or the Kissel.

When you get to 1928-29 I pick a Gardner or a Jordan. Look up the advertising for the Jordan. You'll love it. "Somewhere West of Laramie...".

SILENT MOVIE STARS: Theda Bara, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, John Wayne, Lon Chaney, Sr., Valentino, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Look at what kinds of cars the silent movie stars were driving. Then step down a notch.

I think the well to do woman would drive something that looked like it was going fast while standing still, something VERY SPORTY, not a stuffy limo. - Kathleen

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Here's a shot in the dark, to come up with a car for the established screenwriter lady. I read a long time ago that one of our WWI generals -- General "Black Jack" Pershing I think -- had an American car that he used to travel around in a lot when inspecting different areas of The Front while The War was going on in France. He complained that his windshield would crack when he got up around 100 mph and he wanted the windshield converted. . Get that car!

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Pershing was famous for using a Dodge in his Mexican campaign, one of the first uses of "autos" and trucks by the US military.

The standard US staff car in WW1 was the Cadillac V8, a good car but wouldn't do 100 MPH. 70 would be more like it although it would feel like 100.

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Looking up some prices of some Twenties cars, I see that a 1920 Kissel could be bought for $3,475, a 1922 Jordan Playboy Roadster was $3,095, and 1925 Star Coupe was $725.

Sources are 1895-1930: The Wonderful World of Automobiles by Joseph Schroeder, Jr., 1971 (reprints of old ads)(Kissel); Golden Wheels, By Richard Wager (Jordan), 1986; and oldcarandtruckads.com (Star).

P.S.: Thank you for the information on General Pershing, Rusty. I couldn't remember what make of staff car it was, just that he thought the windshield should be angled for high-speed driving.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Ordinary cars in 1921-1922: Ford Model T, Dodge Brothers, Reo the Fifth, Chevrolet 490.

Expensive cars: The most wealthy people had a custom built car. The chassis alone would cost about $5000-10000 (Model T cost $490). Brewster, Cunningham, Pierce-Arrow, Packard, McFarlan, Dorris and Locomobile were one of the most respected American high quality cars. Imported cars had only a minor share of the market at this point. Isotta-Fraschini, Delaunay-Belleville and Renault being perhaps the most well-known. Rolls-Royce had a factory in Springfield, Ma.

1921 movie "I Do" has a long street scene with several cars:


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Dear Sally:

May I suggest you use Buicks for both of them? LA was home to Howard Automobile, the distributor of Buicks for the West Coast, and would always have a quite large selection of Buicks in stock. Mr. Howard sold cars all up and down the Hollywood scale and managed to own Seabiscuit along with selling Buicks.

Your well to do gal probably would have a closed car such as a 1921 Model 50 if she has a chaueffer/yard man or a heavy touring such as a 1921 Model 45 or 49, both of which she could easily drive herself.

Your poor gal would have a very wide selection of really flashy used cars, starting with 1914 Buicks which are electric start cars. If she's a "flapper" type, I would suggest a 1915 C54, a big roadster, which came in some really great maroon or blue/purple colors.

If she's a more conservative type, a nice 1918 model E34 four cylinder roadster might be more her style.

I hope this helps.

Regards, Dave Corbin, Buick Club and

member of the Society of Automotive Historians

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Dear Sally:

Since my files on Buick include the actual Buick frame and engine numbers issued to the cars I have suggested, I could supply you with actual car numbers (what is referred to today as VIN numbers) if that would add to the realism.

Regards, Dave Corbin

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