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Share our heritage | “The horseless carriage as I knew it”

This photo shows Wilbur “Pete” Confer at age 15 driving a 1906 Franklin. In the car with him were Sol and Clark Confer. The fourth person is not identified.
This photo shows Wilbur “Pete” Confer at age 15 driving a 1906 Franklin. In the car with him were Sol and Clark Confer. The fourth person is not identified. Photo provided

Each Monday the Centre Daily Times will publish an installment in its “Share our Heritage” series, featuring photos from Centre County’s past. Today’s story and photo is from Max Confer, of State College. He submitted these remembrances, written by his uncle Wilber “Pete” Confer.

“It was around 1899 that Bierly Brothers, who operated a carriage repair shop in Milesburg, installed a gasoline engine in a rubber (solid) tired buggy. I saw it once or twice when they tried it out on the streets of Milesburg.

“The next time I saw an automobile was around 1905, after we had moved to Snow Shoe. M.D. Kelly and his brother, Harry, each bought Buick touring cars. They had two opposed cylinder engines and two-speed planetary transmissions. I suspect they were chain drive. Two Thompson boys, cousins from Bellefonte, came to Snow Shoe and were their chauffeurs.

“That same year, T.B. Budinger bought a used Franklin. It had four air-cooled cylinders and the engine sat crosswise in the car. It was chain drive.

“By 1907 there were two cars on the market propelled by steam, Stanley and White. They were more powerful than the cars powered by gas engines but it took time to get up steam before they would move.

“A man traveling through Snow Shoe with a steamer encountered trouble and was stranded at the Mountain House. Garages were very scarce in those days but a local boy, Ernie Eckenroth, was able to fix the steamer. I often wondered where Ernie got the know-how.

“In 1907 T.B. Budinger purchased a new Franklin. The engine sat lengthwise in it. It had a three-speed sliding gear transmission and was shaft drive.

“In 1910 Dad bought a used 1906 Franklin, which had the same features as T.B’s 1907 model.

It must have been because I became an auto bug and studied all the automotive books I could find that I was chosen to be the driver of the car instead of either of my older brothers. I was then 15.

“I spend three days in Bellefonte learning to drive the car and keep it running — I hoped. That was before starters appeared. It took some experience to shift from high into second gear without clashing ’em. There was a throttle atop the steering wheel and a spark timing lever under it.

“There was no choke on the carburetor, but a small rubber hose attached to the top of the carburetor ran up through the dash. If you blew in this hose the float lowered and let the carburetor flood a bit. Be sure you retard the spark or you’ll get a sore arm.

“The car had a laminated wood frame, four full elliptic springs and no bumpers. It was a soft-riding car but there were no radius or torque rods so the rear axle was able to change its relative position with the rest of the car at will. This made it impossible to adjust the brakes on rear wheels evenly. The bands on the rear wheels rattled a lot, so I soon discarded them. That was years before car inspections.

“The service (foot) brake was on the drive shaft just back of the transmission. It was very satisfactory EXCEPT when the cap which held the transmission main shaft amid ball bearing came unscrewed. When that happened the brake would retard the speed of the car slightly but would not stop it on much of a grade. Very embarrassing twice.

“Once when I had just started down the Bellefonte side of Snow Shoe mountain, I discovered I had brake trouble but I could not stop the car to do anything about it. Each blind curve I approached I sure hoped was not hiding a condition that would call for me to stop. I doubt if anyone was ever as glad to get to Gum Stump, the foot of the mountain, as I was that day.

“The other time Dad, Mother and I were on our way to Pitcairn to visit Sadie and Art. It was before the days of improved and marked highways. We picked out a route via Philipsburg, Madera, Spangler, Crabtree and Greensburg. As we came to the foot of a long hill there was a very small stream with a small wooden bridge across it. Some men appeared to be repairing the bridge and a flagman tried to stop us, but no soap. That bearing cap was out again.

“We got stopped on a flat spot beyond the bridge and I crawled under and put that bearing where it belonged. For more than 60 years, I’ve been wondering what they were doing to that little bridge near Crabtree.

“We arrived at Pitcairn in good shape in one day. On the way home our gas line got clogged and we were two days on the road. Dad sure did a bit of cranking. The gas tank was under the front seat and some solder that came loose from inside the tank entered the shut off valve. When we reached Philipsburg we had the tank removed and turned upside down to remove the solder. Later we had the filler opening made larger so we could reach in the tank. We learn the hard way.

“Then the steering tie rod had a habit of dropping off the ball on the steering arm. The ball was under the arm and the mud we drove through in those days was a poor lubricant. The large part of the ball wore smaller and the hole in the socket was large.

“One more story about the old Franklin and we’ll leave it! One day I was replacing one of the front springs. I had a 2x4 under the ends of the frame and a jack under it. I crawled out from under to get a different wrench. The 2x4 snapped. It was nice no one was there to hand me the wrench I wanted.

“Then Dr. R.J. Young joined the list of car owners. He bought a Metz roadster. It was a very small car. If it had a top, I never saw it up. I doubt if Dr. Young ever drove it. Doc Cramer (our physician) from Moshannon was his chauffeur. He was very tall and dressed exactly as chauffeurs were supposed to dress in those days — linen duster, gloves with gauntlets, a proper cap and I’m not sure about goggles. He was quite a picture. He kept the car at Moshannon and came for the doctor when called. I seem to remember of the kids racing him up the Mountain House hill.

“Perhaps you are more interested in types of old cars than the episodes I have related.

“John Boyce had the first truck I remember of about 1911. It had solid rubber tires, I think two cylinders and I don’t remember the name. Boyce ran the wholesale liquor store at Clarence.

“In the early days Willys Overland produced lots of cars. Cadillac put out a four cylinder car — cylinders were cast separate and had copper water jackets. They had a three-speed transmission and a two-speed rear axle for a while. I don’t think Cadillac ever made sixes. Hudson use to make pretty nice cars. Howard Coffin was his engineer. For a short time Carter Cars were produces. They had a friction transmission — two discs running against each other. I guess everyone knows about Fords.

“Chalmers made cars. I think it was in the 1920s. They had an air starter. A distributor let compressed air into the cylinder just after piston dead center. In the first Delco starting system, the motor and generator were a single unit, shaft driven through an overrunning clutch.

“Then there were the years we had free wheeling. Matheson made pretty good cars for a while. M.D. Kelly had one. Frank Smith, formerly of Milesburg, was their driver. He overhauled the engine after which only five of the six cylinders would work. They called Pete Confer in to fix it, but it had me stumped, so I took it over to Willis Wian, who taught me to drive. He fixed it in a jiffy. The valves were in round cages that sat down in holes in the cylinder tops. The cages had openings on one side that had to coincide with an opening in the cylinder head. One didn’t.

“After that I did some driving for the Kelleys and taught Leo to drive. After his final lesson, he dropped me off at home and started home with the car. After making the turn at Fravel’s Corner, he failed to straighten out and collided with a concrete post in Travel’s fence, bending the axle.

“Then there were Maxwells like Jack Benny had. I though they were pretty poor cars until Chrysler took them over. After they improved them, they changed the name to Plymouth.

And there were Chevrolets which we sold for a year or so. They had three speeds and more pep than Fords and sold for $55.

“During the depression I bought a new Plymouth Coupe for $450. That was dealer’s price.

“Back in the old days axles, springs and wheel bearings needed much replacing. Before ethyl gas came on the market, many cars ran better if carbon was removed after 2,000 miles.

“It seems to me that Charles F. Kettering had some part in giving us ethyl gas.

“Roads, design and improved metals have sure made a difference. Too bad the gas supply is running short. If some Kettering could just figure a way to turn our garbage into a gas we could use. Oh, well! Cheer up and be thankful you’re not president.”

Readers can contribute to the “Share our Heritage” series by sharing their own photos. Just drop off or mail copies of the photos to Centre Daily Times, 3400 E. College Ave., State College, PA 16801 or email them to Audience Engagement Editor Laurie Jones at ljones@centredaily.com. Provide as much information as you can. All photos in the weekly series are placed in a “Share our Heritage” gallery at CentreDaily.com. If you have any questions about this series, Jones can be reached at 231-6461.

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