Clunkers & Creampuffs

Chapter 6: Five-Dollar Flivvers

Jalopies, Arise!

by James M. Flammang


Families that couldn't afford even a basic Model
T Ford increasingly found that their budget could
handle a used model with two, three, or four previous
owners – often bigger and more powerful than a Ford.

Low-wage workers and poor Americans had not yet become motorists in large numbers in the 1920s. Needless to say, the daily lives of the impoverished contrasted sharply with those of the newly prosperous.

Clearly, then and now, the poor often have a need for private transport that matches, or even exceeds, that of middle-class families: namely, to seek work that might be available dozens, or hundreds, of miles from home. Unless they lived and worked in major cities, those fortunate enough to have jobs might have to commute long distances.

As the Twenties decade opened, a one-time New Jersey governor declared that "if every family in the land possessed an automobile, many of the problems of social unrest would be happily solved." Car ads insisted that this happy state had already arrived: that every worker could "arrange" to buy a motorcar. One observer in 1923 even wrote that "to-day [sic], most men are too poor not to own some sort of car." Yet in the same year, Collier's magazine asserted that only 2½ million people could afford one.

That latter claim would be totally accurate except for one new factor: the birth of the jalopy. Ownership of "basic transportation," which took off as soon as the first secondhand cars grew worn and tired – thus unappealing to "respectable" drivers – began to create a new mode of motoring. This one was truly aimed toward the impoverished masses.

Henry Ford may have planned his Model T as the car for less-affluent families, but millions of Americans never could afford a new one. Nor even a secondhand Ford. But third- or fourth-hand? Maybe so – especially since the T offered one essential jalopy attribute: it was durable enough to deliver many more miles after passing through the hands of several (or many) prior owners.

For most of the urban poor, as for most low-wage workers, the usual mode of daily urban commuting was still the streetcar, rather than a private car. But not for all. In mid-decade, the average five-year-old car cost around $250 (almost as much as a new T). A 10-year-old model, at $60, might still lie out of reach. But a 15-year-old, its price fallen to just $15 or so (or even less), could bring motoring to an impoverished family that had recently thought it impossible.

Clicks and clanks, buzzes and bangings that would instill instant worry in a middle-class or affluent motorist were everyday occurrences for the impoverished car owner.

Collier's magazine estimated/insisted in 1923 that a family needed an income above $2,000 per year to justify car ownership. Even at the end of that decade, in 1929, 71 percent of families earned less than $2,500 per year, while 21 percent didn't even make $1,000.

Ownership of a tired old car might have been possible for many of them, but most new models remained beyond reach. And with the Crash forthcoming, the probabililty would soon decline dramatically.

In contrast, a 1924 Chevrolet ad for the company's $490 Superior roadster claimed that "There is no intelligent worker so poor he cannot arrange to buy a Chevrolet." Well, a lot of workers may not have lacked intelligence, but they did lack the means for such a purchase arrangement. The veracity of that claim is questionable, since even with the rise of time payments, only a portion of workers would be eligible.

Workers needed mobility – but millions couldn't afford even a much-used Model T, until it became a jalopy with a two-digit price (or less). Their owners constituted a new mode of motorist, many of whose descendants would still be buying clunkers half a century later. Big, obsolete automobiles, in particular, tended to fall to rock-bottom prices when they grew old and tired.

During his 1928 presidential campaign, Republican Herbert Hoover spoke of a near-future with "a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage." A pot might have been waiting for that chicken, but the mass of families had no garage ready to hold an automobile.

In 1927, 36 percent of Americans families could not afford – or did not want – an automobile. Two years later, it was estimated that not over one-third of wage earners' families owned one. Back in 1919 or so, just 15 percent of all surveyed families spent money on a car. In 1929, of the 27.5 million American families, 16.35 million had annual incomes under $2,000; 11.65 million under $1,500; and 5.77 million under $1,000.

A variety of names were proposed for used cars in a 1927 survey of dealers and manufacturers by Motor Age magazine. They included: rebuilt, second-hand, reconditioned, madeover, seconds, serviceable, remanufactured, relic (an interesting choice), revalued, revamped, nearly new, and many more.

Cheap and elderly cars were not entirely the province of the lower and lower-middle classes. In 1921, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. was one of those insisting that many people of wealth drive old, inexpensive automobiles. Perhaps not on treks to town from the family mansion, but especially for the auto-camping trips he was taking at the time, which were growing popular. Already, there seemed to be some evidence of reverse snobbery, with some of the wealthy not relying on their motorcars as evidence of their social and economic position.

Talk of cars for the masses automatically excluded, with little comment, millions of Americans. James H. Collins, speaking of the potential market in 1923, exempted such people as the illiterate, immigrant, and negro. Collins was also one of those insisting that there was no saturation point at hand in 1923, and that such a point would not arrive for a long while. He felt the mass of Americans would be brought into car ownership: the 87 percent of families earning less than $2,000 per year would ultimately be able to purchase a new car.

Enter the Jalopy

"Jalopies" came into being as soon as the first secondhand car no longer looked and ran well enough to attract the true motorist – whereas an impoverished potential owner eagerly snapped it up. Slang word origins are difficult to prove, but "jalopy" is thought to have derived from the name of a city in Mexico, Xalapa (or Jalapa), which was known for dealing in less-than-pristine vehicles.

Plenty of other designations for worn-out motorcars entered the American lexicon as well: clunker, junker, wreck, crate; and in a later era, beater, rattletrap, or bucket o' bolts. Or, in the minds of auto dealers, simply "basic transportation."

Buying of "basic transportation" (cheap used cars) was common by the late Twenties – a major part of the auto subculture, then and continuing into modern times.

How did jalopists differ from other motorists?
* Their car wasn't a status symbol, a thing of beauty, or an investment – except by a small subculture that actually preferred to drive clunkers and savored their many flaws.
* It was simply meant to go from A to B (and if possible, back again) as many more times as possible.
* It was wholly immune to the new concept of "planned obsolescence" created by General Motors.

So, what makes a jalopy? What was it like to own and drive one, who owned them, and how did the jalopyist differ from other car owners. Although the Model T pops first to mind when thinking of early jalopies, various big, once-costly makes became even greater bargains when old and tired, as revealed by price comparisons between diverse makes and models as they aged.

Because the Model T Ford was so simply made, thus long-lived, it was possible for a car with several previous owners and tens of thousands of miles driven to still contain many "unused miles." As manufacturers issued new and presumably better, thus more desirable, models each year, the values of older machines kept declining as they aged.

For those who couldn't possibly afford a new Model T, or any other vehicle hot off the assembly line, a secondhand example awaited. If that one was too expensive, the back row of the nearest used car dealership might contain a tired-looking jalopy, worn down by two, three or four previous owners, but not quite dead yet. A little mechanical work, touching up a few details, and that decrepit elder of the automotive world might be good for another year or two of service.

Best of all, instead of being priced at, say, $500 when new, or $200 secondhand, or $75 with two or more owners behind it, the non-dream machine might be had for ... fifty dollars? Twenty-five? Less? Purchases of the most worn-down examples of motordom for five or ten dollars were hardly unknown, especially during the Depression of the 1930s.

A 1925 survey of used car values produced some specific figures. The average five-year-old car was worth $247. At age 10, the average dipped to $60. For a 15-year-old vehicle, paying $15 was about right.

As used cars dropped in price during the late Twenties, lower-income people could even wind up with more than a Ford – with a big, higher-powered car. The westbound cars driven by the "Okies" in the 1930s, after all, were often tired-out large automobiles.

Whether jalopies were the cause of disproportionate numbers of accidents was (and continues to be) speculative, never truly proven. A 1924 analysis of 280 accident fatalities by the NACC's Traffic & Safety Committee found only seven due to a defect in the car.

Many in the upper and middle classes were not pleased about the prospect of car ownership by their social "inferiors."

Nomads Take to the Highways

By the 1920s, we get a first glance at motorized nomads. Whole families began to hit the road (usually westbound) for long holidays, or to experience what author Jessica Bruder, a century later, would call "houseless" living in her book, Nomadland.

The "Okies" memorialized in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath – both the novel and the subsequent 1939 movie – first hit California to seek work not during the Depression, but during 1920s "prosperity." That brand of prosperity was for the "better people," and rarely reached down into the economic life of the least affluent Americans.

Note: See Chapters 7 and 8 for details on the saturation point in marketing of cars.


Click here for Overview: Casual History of the Used Car

Click here for Chapter 1: Early Days - Rich Men's Playthings, Poor Men's Dreams

Click here for Chapter 2: Ford's Model T and the Masses

Click here for Chapter 3: Production and Prosperity

Click here for Chapter 4: "Easy" Payments

Click here for Chapter 5: Family Cars and Family Life

Click here for Chapter 7: Rise and Fall of the Used Car

Click here for Chapter 8: Saturation and Salesmanship

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