The Model T, the Boy, and the Big Deal

Karen Radford Treanor 


Copyright 2023  by Karen Radford Treanor

Don O'Brien from Piketon, Ohio, United States.
Photo by Don O'Brien from Piketon, Ohio, United States

Long ago, my husband and I used to visit his parents every Sunday. Sometimes after imbibing his post-prandial highball, my father-in-law would reminisce about his youth.

There were 11 Treanor brothers and no sisters.  Gene senior was half a set of twins. His sibling died in infancy.  Another brother died at age 3, and another one died of lung disease caused by mustard gas in WWI.  That still left a big cohort of men in the family who got up to all sorts of things. The brothers were born between 1889 and 1907, which meant the older ones were more like uncles to the later born like my father-in-law. They were looked up to and deferred to and sometimes led the youngsters into slightly grey areas.

My husband recently reminded me of the story about his father and uncles and the Model T Ford. The older brothers had acquired a car that ran well enough—but due to an unspecified disaster had a burnt-out floor in the back.  Considerable damage had been done by the fire, which had weakened the supports for the driver’s seat. “The faster you drove, the more the seat rocked,” my father-in-law explained.

The brothers polished the car and cleaned its engine and adjusted its air intake and carburettor, but there wasn’t a lot they could do about the missing floor structure without investing in major repairs. Since the idea of acquiring the car had been to make a quick profit, the brothers came up with a quick fix. They laid a double layer of carpet over the hole .and recruited a little brother. Any time they took the car out with a prospective customer, Gene was to sit in the back seat and prop up the front seat with his knees while the prospective buyer took the car for a test drive.  “I developed strong leg and lower spine muscles that summer,” my father-in-law said.

Eventually one of the first women drivers in Boston came to test drive the car. She was no easy mark and knew something about cars. She inspected under the hood and asked some cogent questions. “I’ll take it for a drive,” she said. “And who’s this?” nodding towards the boy in the back seat, who was doing his best to look young an innocent.

It’s our kid brother, he’s learning about the automotive business—we hope you won’t mind if he comes along.” If the buyer thought this odd she didn’t comment, and drove briskly out of the yard with Dave in the passenger seat and Gene sitting behind her. She drove down Bennington Street, turned right onto Moore, right again and back to where she’d started.

The hardest part was keeping my position when we went around the corners,” my father-in-law said. “I had one foot jammed under the frame of the driver’s seat and the other foot wedged against the back seat with my knee stabilising the back of the driver’s seat. It was uncomfortable, bordering on painful. At one point I groaned, but managed to turn it into a cough. Dave told the driver that I was just getting over whooping cough, which probably wasn’t as reassuring as he meant it to be in those pre-antibiotic times.”

The woman liked how the car handled and after a bit of dickering with the brothers, agreed to buy it for almost the asking price and made a $10 down payment. The brothers tipped Gene a whole dollar for his help. “It was more money than I’d ever had at one time,” he said. “There was no such thing as kids getting an allowance from the parents in those days—you wanted cash, you had to earn it. For a ten year old, a dollar was a fortune!”

Before the buyer returned to pay the balance and collect her car, the brothers found a better sucker. A friend of a friend turned up asking to see the Model T. Dave said they’d had an offer on it already but were open to reason. “Can I take it for a drive anyway?” the man asked.

Sure, but I can’t do it right now—come back at 3:30.” Dave said. He had a good reason for putting the buyer off—school didn’t get out until 3 p.m. and the boy with the useful knees wouldn’t be home until after that.

It’s just lucky for my brothers that I wasn’t kept back at school that day,” my father-in-law said. “It had been known for me to be given eraser clapping and blackboard wiping duty by my teacher for my occasional lapses in discipline. As it was, I got home and before I could get my usual after school bread and jam snack, I was pushed into the car and told to assume the position.” Once more Gene propped up the driver’s seat while Dave sat beside the buyer and extolled the car’s many virtues.

Once back to where he started, the new prospect offered five dollars over the asking price. This was too good to pass up, so Dave hummed and hawed a bit and made a big deal of consulting George and eventually accepted the new offer.

Now how were they to get out of the already done deal? Easy—they sent the younger brother around to the lady’s house to say his conscience wouldn’t let him rest—the car was a lemon.  He had talked his brothers into giving him back her down payment. “I handed her the ten dollar bill and tried my best to look honest and apologetic”, my father-in-law said.

You deserve a reward for such honesty, especially when it’s your own family,” she said, and tipped him another dollar. Gene stashed the dollar deep in a pocket and never mentioned it to his brothers, who made the other sale, and gave him yet another dollar for his part in the slightly shady dealings.

And now you know why I trade in my cars for new every three years,” my father-in-law chortled as he finished his highball and his story.

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