Repairing in Steam Days
Service as Given in the Year 1900 (Article Courtesy of the Automobile Trade Journal).
By J.W Cottrell
The proprietor of one of the first four Locomobile service stations in the United States is still in the Automobile business. His comparison of service as it was known 25 years ago with that of today will only bring a smile to the face of the newcomer in the industry, but the old-timers to whom a 30-mile trip without a stop was an adventure, will remember and understand.
When the first automobiles used in Philadelphia were run down the gravel surfaced road to Atlantic city, known then and now as the White Horse Pike, the owners always stopped halfway on their journey at Hammonton, N.J. There they found service, a man with tools and equipment and knowledge to restore the cars to running condition again.
Al Patten, proprietor of a bicycle store in Hammonton on Bellevue Avenue, then a part of the White Horse Pike, started repairing automobiles before there was a single sales agency in Philadelphia.
The early cars coming to him were Locomobile and other steamers and he designed and used a plan of standing the car on end while working on the boiler that was a forerunner of later service station equipment.
Burned out boilers, due to low water, were common repair jobs in those days. The boilers wee made with steel shells and copper tubes. When the water ran low the copper tubes shrank at the bottom and allowed water and steam to leak out. Sometimes the tubes could be re-caulked, but often new tubes were required. To get at the tubes from underneath the car was a hard job, so Mr Patten rigged up a heavy block and tackle from a second story window of his store. When a boiler was to be repaired the car was backed on the sidewalk near the front of the store, the tackle fastened to the front axle and the front of the car bodily hoisted leaving the rear wheels on the ground.
While in this position the burner could be taken off easily and the work on the boiler tubes could be done in much less time and in a better manner than with the car standing on four wheels. And the mechanical worked standing up instead of flat on his back as was usually done. Speaking of his early experiences in giving service Mr Patten said;
" One trouble in those days was that the cars broke down far from a garage. We had to go out and fix cars under sheds or under trees. I remember one job on a steamer belonging to a man in Rancocas, several miles from Camden. He burned out his boiler and left the car in a shed in the Colestown Cemetery. He called me to go out and fix it. I rode on the trolley to Merchantville and then walked to the cementary.
I had an old suitcase filled with new tubes and tools. It was so heavy that I could not carry it in one hand and I carried it on my shoulder. The day was hot and there was about an inch of fine dust on the road. But I finally got there and found the caretaker watching the car. I fixed the boiler and drove the car back to the owner's home.
Most of our work then was emergency repairs. Cars were stuck on the road and we fixed them so they would run again. When we got a call we would take some tools and go out and try to fix the car right there. If we could not do the work on the road we would bring the car into the store. Often we hired a team of horses to tow the car into the store to repair it.
There were almost no spare parts avaliable then. If a bearing burned out we had to pour a new bearing ourselves. Now a man can buy bearings for almost any car in any large town. It was the same way with parts. Most of the time we made new parts to replace broken ones."
Early Service Days
" When a car broke down the family in it would put up at a large hotel for a day or two until it was ready, or, if they were on the way to the seashore they would go on by train and call for their car on the way home from their vacation.
After the first steamers came along we started to see a few gas cars. The three wheel De Dion Motorette was one of the first to come down the pike. Then we had the one cylinder Cadillac and Oldsmobile and Haynes and Rambler. Later came the Winton double opposed and a lot of other two-cylinder cars. There was a three-cylinder, the Duryea, and then the fours, among the first of these was the Winton Quad, with all cylinders horizontal.
The Old tyres were 2 and 2 1/2-inch single tube, much like the bicycle tyres. All the wheels at first were wire and had steel rims. The early tires were fastened by screw lugs and were cemented and shellaced on besides. People came to us for whatever was the matter with their cars. We had a vulcanizer to repair tyres and tubes. Quite a challenge too from those 2 1/2-inch tyres to a new 6.20 balloon.
The early gas cars had battery ignition from dry batteries. When the dry cells became weak the engines started to miss and we had quite a lot of work on ignition and sold quite a lot of dry cells. A few cars had magnetos. None, of course, had generators or electric lights. Some of the engines had phosphor bronze connecting rods and the end of the rod formed a bearing. Some had drop-forged rods with babbitt bearings."
Then "Pleasure" Cars
"All the automobiles were run on the main roads in those early days. The side roads were sandy and rough and the car could not get through. All the riding was done for pleasure. No one thought of using an automobile in place of the railroad when going for business. A trip from Hammonton to Camden, 30 miles, used to be quite a trip, now we think of nothing of doing twice that distance after supper in the evening."
Mr Patten started in business for himself selling and repairing bicycles in 1897. He became interested in automobiles through acquiantance with a Frenchman whose uncle in France had started to build motorcycles before there were more than a few gas cars. This man returned to France and wrote to Mr Patten about the gas cars then being built in France. He sent Mr Patten some literature and drawing of these early cars and translated the description for him. This aroused Mr Patten's interest in automobiles which has kept up ever since. In a pamphlet issued by the Locomobile Co., about 1900 or 1901, he was listed as one of four service stations then avaliable.
25 Years Service
Sales were less important than repair work in the early days. Mr Patten sold a Locomobile Steamer in 1899 or 1900 to a Harry Trowbridge in Hammonton, it being the first automobile sold in that section. Later Mr Patten also sold Rambler cars. He continued in his business in Hammonton until 1910 when he went with the Locomobile Co., in Philadelphia for a few months, then with the Studebaker factory branch in Philadelphia until 1912 when he took a position with the Studebaker dealer in Camden, N.J., the McClellan-Fulton Co., and he is still with this concern.
Some 24 or 25 years ago one of Mr Patten's customers loudly boasted in front of his store that he had just come down from Camden, 30 miles, "in three hours without a stop." Mr Patten was at that time working on the car to insure, if possible, that it would go the remaining 30 miles to Atlantic City "without a stop." A strange contrast between the repair work done by Mr Patten then and the maintenance service business as it has developed since that time.
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