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A Drive Down Yesteryear's Back Roads

December 12, 1985|ROBERT M. CROSBY | Robert Crosby, a Glendale artist, was a member of the Southern California Gas Co.'s marketing staff for more than 40 years and taught marketing at USC. "The Boss," James B. Crosby, was a newspaperman

That little mysterious button. I have reason never to forget it. Pop had turned off the ignition lever on his new 1912 Buick, gone into the house--"I'll just be a minute, Bobby"--and left me in the front seat. Curiosity overcame me. I reached down and pressed the button. The engine roared into life! I was petrified. Pop came out. He gave me a cold look. "Bobby, you never touch that button." That's all he said. I was lucky.

That button was probably one of the "extras" on our 1912 Buick. If the engine was hot, a press of the button might start it.

Pop bought that beautiful 1912 Buick from F. S. Howard, manager of Howard Automobile Co. on Olive Street between 9th and 10th in Los Angeles. It cost Pop more than $1,300. A week later Mr. Howard realized it was the only 1912 Buick he had so he tried to buy it back. "No way," said Pop.

That year was the last year of Buick's right-hand drive. It had three doors--you entered the front from the left because the gear shift lever and emergency brake were outside on the right of the driver. He had a choice of two colors, and Pop chose gray with black striping. The top and windshield were extras.

Five passengers sat in luxury on tufted black leather upholstery. It had a Klaxon horn and isinglass curtains all around. There were two shining brass lamps in the front--Pop would strike a match while I, with his shout "Now, Bobby," would turn on the running board Presto tank. There was a single kerosene red lamp in the rear, and ah, those beautiful natural wood-spoke wheels! A leather strap held the crank; Pop set the gas and spark levers just right before he cranked the engine. He learned, like most of those early drivers, not to wrap his thumb around the crank handle. There were many broken thumbs in those days.

I can see him now, his hands gripping the wheel, wearing goggles and that jaunty checked cap. Mom wore a big brimmed hat, the veil whipping in the wind. We would head south through the ruts of Western Avenue, me in the back seat. I'd lean forward, my eyes glued to the speedometer, and count off for Pop--32, 33, 34 . . . 35! "Careful, Jim, careful," Mom would say. Then, if I saw another car coming, "Here comes one, Pop. Here comes one!" I'd lean out, wave to the other driver as he whizzed by, and he'd wave back. One time I counted six automobiles between southwest Los Angeles and Redondo Beach.

That narrow oiled road, as I remember, led to the only route to Hermosa and Redondo Beach where we had a cottage. We went south on Western (or you could go south on Vermont) then west on Slauson. Here are directions from "The Clutch," an automobile road map book of the day: Going west on Slauson "turn left at the row of gum trees . . . an Auto Club sign on the corner . . . cross railroad track at schoolhouse, turn right, or west, continue to . . . windmill, turn right following the electric railway . . . passing Inglewood Cemetery . . . south to the freight depot . . . turn right following the railroad track to Bilboa Road . . . an Auto Club sign on the corner, a small cottage on the northeast corner . . . passing Grant School before coming to Hermosa . . . " It was about two more miles south, along those white rolling sand dunes, that beautiful virgin beach and sparkling blue ocean to our "KilKare" cottage at Redondo.

Part of that route, now Aviation Boulevard, was to become a showplace highway. Twenty-foot-long trellises, about every 50 yards, were planted with rose bushes but Santa Ana winds took care of that dream.

But back to our new Buick. First "The Boss"--(Pop was "The Boss" to the older members of our family of 11 kids) had to learn how to drive this magnificent machine. He bought and set up in the backyard a 50-gallon drum for gasoline. Then he bought The Book.

The Book--I have it now open in front of me. Benjamin R. Tillson's "The Complete Automobile Instructor," published in 1906. Tillson was the "director of the H. J. Willard Co. Automobile School."

"If the carburetor float has been damaged," Tillson said, "a piece of wood will answer temporarily--if it leaks, a temporary repair can be made with sealing wax." Lubrication: "Set aside a day each week, preferably Saturday, because a long ride is usually taken on Sunday."

Tillson was right. After church and the Sunday dinner, The Boss looked with a cold eye down the dining room table and made the big Sunday decision, all of us kids in absolute silence. Who would be the lucky four to take a ride this Sunday?

Tillson said, "Once each week the crankcase and the transmission case should be thoroughly washed out--if the clutch slips, apply Fuller's earth or sulphur--and if the leather dries--soften with castor oil or tincture of myrah." Tincture of myrah?

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