(Sep 24, 2009)
James Macaulay of Hamilton, Ontario, writes: "Dear Bill: I got one of your books on old cars from the public library and I enjoyed reading it very much. Back in the 1950's, I drove a 1938 Oldsmobile coupe and I am enclosing a picture of that car.
I worked at Dofasco Steel Mill in those days. In October 1954, I was working the 4 pm to midnight shift when Hurricane Hazel struck Ontario. Rain driven by the high winds drenched everything, including our cars. My friends had new Plymouths and Dodges but none of them would start. My 16-year-old Oldsmobile started right up and I drove all the other fellows home. That car was very dependable.
It also had two folding seats hinged down behind the front seat. They were great for our two young girls. The engine was a flathead six cylinder and the headlights were partially mounted in the front fenders. The dashboard was unique and certainly was different from any other cars of that era. The instruments were all on the driver's side and close to the steering wheel.
James Macaulay is referring to the newly designed instrument panel, which the Oldsmobile Division of General Motors called the "safety instrument unit." Corners were eliminated with the use of curves and all projections of knobs and the like were eliminated by mounting everything flush with the dashboard. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that this new safety dashboard translated into higher sales.
Although we think of most cars back in the 1930's as either black or dark blue, brighter colours were available. The buyer of a new 1938 Oldsmobile could purchase the car in, of course, black but also in red, cream, brown, green, maroon, two shades of blue, and two shades of gray. Taupe mohair interiors were available on all closed cars.
The Oldsmobile convertibles for 1938 had a unique feature years ahead of its time. A vacuum line from the intake manifold of the engine was connected to the volume control on the radio to increase the volume the faster you drove the car in order to compensate for the increase in wind noise. Another noteworthy feature were the eye-level taillights mounted on either side of the body. Most cars in 1938 had taillights mounted lower.
As a thank you, if your story is published in this column you will receive a copy of Bill Sherk's book "60 Years Behind the Wheel: The Cars We Drove in Canada 1900-1960". To share your stories or photos e-mail email@example.com or write Bill Sherk, 25 John St., P.O. Box 255, Leamington, ON N8H 3W2.
Bill Sherk is one of Canada's leading authorities on old cars. He has written three books on the subject. Since 1991 he has been a feature writer for OLD AUTOS newspaper as the "Old Car Detective" and is the recipient of an award from the Antique Automobile Club of America for his work as a Canadian automotive historian. Sherk taught history to high school students for 31 years and is now happily retired and tracking down old car stories from all across Canada.