Set of Wheels

by wjw on September 30, 2013

I learned to drive in a Model A Ford.

And no, I’m not that old!

The Model A in question belonged to my grandparents and was kept on their farm in Markham, Minn., which was not only the headquarters of the Williams clan but the source of the name I gave to my fictional nautical family in the Privateer books.

Check out the video for an idea of the driving experience.

The Model A had been, uh, highly modified, because it had been turned into a tractor.  This was common during the Great Depression among farmers who couldn’t afford a proper tractor.  You’d get someone with a welding kit to shorten the frame and the driveshaft, put these huge old wooden-spoked wheels on the back, and stick on a trailer hitch.  Then you were ready to go harrow the back forty, or whatever it was you did there.  (My granddad’s vehicle was also modified with a Buick transmission, though I don’t know why.)

The Minnesota term for a home-built tractor of this sort was “joker,” as in, “The joker’s bogged down in the back forty again.”

(I’ve just learned that another term for this sort of tractor is “doodlebug.”   At least that’s how YouTube refers to them.  If I Google “joker tractor” I get a hot-rod tractor, used in tractor pulls, that’s named after a Batman archvillain.)

The joker was the perfect vehicle for a driver trainee.  It drove all over the farm property, where there was no other traffic, and it couldn’t go more than 15 miles per hour.

At the beginning I couldn’t have been more than three, sitting on my dad’s lap and steering while he worked the pedals and the shift.  Later, when I could reach the pedals, I drove it solo.   (I’m not sure I ever got it out of second gear, though quite frankly I doubt any other gear was necessary.)

There was also a spare engine, which I took home, took apart, and reassembled, possibly in running order.  My mechanical phase, if that’s what it was, did not survive to adulthood.

I hadn’t thought about this in years, but last weekend, when I was on Long Island, I saw a Model A in a parade, and the memories came back.  And that inspired a Google search, which brings us to the accompanying video, which brought back a surprising number of memories.  I remember that highly abbreviated instrument pod, in the center of the dash, with only three or four gauges.  I remember that radiator ornament.  I remember the noise it made as the old four-cylinder engine took it around the fields.  (If you get tired of watching the thing drive around, you can skip to the end of the video and see what the whatsit actually looks like.)

Granddad’s tractor was even more primitive than the one in the video, in that it no longer had a hood, which made accessing the engine easier.  And it had a bench seat, possibly an old sofa, which wasn’t attached to the frame and which you had to be careful didn’t pitch you backward off the machine if you made too abrupt a start.

I’m not sure what became of the family joker.  I believe my uncle sold it, but I don’t know who to.

It’s not exactly unknown for me to wax nostalgic over cars made decades before I was born— get me started on Deusenbergs sometime— but this is the one that started motoring for me.



Urban October 2, 2013 at 4:30 am

First motor vehicle I steered was also a tractor, but probably a Volvo or Ferguson. Don’t remember, because I was at around the same age as you.
I hadn’t thought about it but I sort of thought that converting cars into tractors was a Swedish speciality and I had no idea that a doodlebug was the same thing.

wjw October 4, 2013 at 1:50 am

Hmm. Maybe it’s a Scandinavian thing? (My grandparents were Finnish, and adopted the name “Williams” when they entered the States.)

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