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THE WONDERFUL FOUR-HORSE OLDS
Walt Sibley
April 18, 1960
In 1902 an auto trip of just 40 miles was an unpredictable venture for hardy souls only
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April 18, 1960

The Wonderful Four-horse Olds

In 1902 an auto trip of just 40 miles was an unpredictable venture for hardy souls only

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Any expedition proposed by my Uncle Jeff was pretty sure to be high adventure, though it didn't always turn out happily for all concerned. He had the spirit of a Magellan, but his neck was too long and he stuck it out too often.

A succession of mishaps over the years had left him undaunted and eager for any new experience, and it was only natural that when my father bought a little four-horsepower Olds-mobile Uncle Jeff should urge a trek into the hinterland. None of this sissy stuff, riding up and down on South Bend's pavements; get out and see something of the country. There was a wonderful place to camp on Lake Michigan, just above Benton Harbor, known as Double-L Gap, and the yellow perch would bite like crazy. He'd been there the year before, a two-day trip by horse and buggy for the 40 miles.

"If one horse can do it in two days, by simple arithmetic four horses should do it in half a day," Uncle Jeff pointed out. The car's single cylinder was supposed to be rated at four-and-a-half horsepower. "That extra half will give you a reserve for the hills," he added, persuasively. Father was a bit on the conservative side but, proud of his new car and anxious to prove its ability, he consented to the expedition. I was plumb ecstatic to be included.

Fifty-eight years ago (it was in the spring of 1902) a camping trip required a lot more duffel than in this day of light and compact equipment. We took a bulky wall tent of heavy canvas, tent poles and stakes, three blankets, a roll of mosquito netting, water bucket, two barn lanterns, a bull's-eye hand lamp, a gallon can of kerosene, assorted groceries, plus a shovel, ax, coil of rope and a collection of wrenches, pliers, nuts, bolts and spare parts in a canvas bag. There was also a cigar box full of worms and three bamboo poles. And, of course, a hammock, for no camping trip was complete without one.

Father had made two neat iceboxes to hang on the arms of the dos-�-dos seat. They were insulated with sheet cork and lined with tin, and had a grille in the bottom and a drain tube. We were up at dawn loading our cargo. The fish poles were lashed to some of the bundles on the left side; in fact, everything was tied to everything else, and if one package started to come loose there probably would be an avalanche of all the others. When the last item was aboard I could just see over the things stacked beside me on the dos-�-dos seat.

At last the big moment arrived. Father flipped the switch, put his heel on the compression release, held the tiller with one hand and cranked at the side of the seat with the other. The good little engine took hold at once, and we were off amid the cheers of assembled neighbors and cries of "Don't you come back without some fish!"

"We'll bring you more'n you can eat," Uncle Jeff promised.

It was wonderful to be chugging along on that bright morning at double the speed of a fast horse and good fishing in prospect. After leaving the city pavement our cantilever springs bumped pretty hard, but we were happy as long as the engine pulse was regular. All was well until we met up with Hardscrabble Hill just beyond Buchanan, an easy enough high-gear ascent today but a tough one then on account of the sand. Here Father pulled into low and unleashed our "half-horse reserve power." The engine responded manfully for a few yards but couldn't quite make it alone. So Uncle Jeff and I hopped off and pushed the rest of the way. We'd barely reached the top when the overheated engine backfired and steam billowed from underneath with the smell of hot oil. Bad news; water tank and filler cap were under the rear deck. Off came the luggage, the iceboxes, dos-�-dos seat and deck lid. Everything was sizzling. It was not surprising that the water boiled away after that long uphill grind, because the radiator was merely a dozen or so one-inch brass tubes installed flat under the footboards. There were no fins and no fan—just the passage of air at three miles an hour. It was half a mile to the nearest horse trough, and you know who got the job.

Under way again we began looking for a place to lunch. The shade of a huge maple in front of a farmhouse tempted us, but across the road a horse tied to a post began to mill around and snort as we approached.

"Hold on a minute, Albert," Uncle Jeff cautioned, "let me get there first; I can handle her." And, in fact, the animal did calm down as he stroked her neck. He motioned for Father to come ahead, when suddenly the horse reared back. She uprooted the post with Uncle Jeff still hanging on and high-tailed it down the road. They clanked together a couple of times until, luckily, the strap broke and man and post rolled in the dust.

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