It’s 1924; A Glimpse Into What Was

(first posted 10/23/2012)        1924 was a mere eighty-eight years ago.  So put on your traveling clothes and let’s take a figurative trip back in time.  There is a substantial automotive task facing us and your assistance is needed.

And just what is this task?  You need to buy, maintain, and repair a large fleet. Sound like fun? As you prepare for this task, you will need to adjust to your new surroundings. It is likely a safe wager that 1924 preceded the year of birth of nearly everyone reading this, so before getting down to brass tacks, let’s take a minute to think about 1924. After all, you will need to become acclimated.

Calvin Coolidge was re-elected President of the United States.  My grandfather, “Albert”, was born in March of that year.  You met him when he went to Texas, and when I went fishing with him.


The 1924 Summer Olympics were held in Paris, France.  France earned the most medals, 401, with Great Britain second with 239.

The Washington Senators won the World Series.

Now that we’re peering directly into the year 1924; specifically, early in July, there is work to do.  You are charged with managing the fleet of a state transportation agency. For reference, your state is the United States’ 21st largest in area and its 18th most populous, containing 118 counties and two major cities.

Your agency is just over 10 years old, and as the fleet manager you are responsible for tracking costs for the previous six months. Your budget is limited (but when hasn’t it been?). Now, here’s your task: Working within a fixed budget, you must optimize the amount of equipment you purchase yet continue to perform all necessary repairs (mechanical things do tend to break, and these are tax dollars, after all).

What would you do?

You have to maintain an optimal balance of cars, pickups, dump trucks, tractors, and other assorted equipment within your fleet. Sounds challenging, doesn’t it? Well, I can tell you about someone who was confronted with this very scenario back in 1924. So what actually happened?  Let’s take a peek at the first half of the year:  1924 Fleet Spreadsheet

Two of my earlier pieces on Curbside Classic recounted my experiences during my brief stint as a part-time fleet manager (here are Part 1 and Part 2), during which I acquired a lot of information (fleet managers tend to both share knowledge and seek the experience of others).  The other day I stumbled across this vintage spreadsheet, which I had acquired during that time, and it spurred me to consider how things have changed in the past four score and eight years.

So let’s take a look…

Listed were a total of 37 Dodges whose cumulative mileage for the year approached 143,000 miles.  They averaged 12.7 miles per gallon with an average fuel cost of $0.187 per gallon.  Yes, times have changed.

In a sense, however, times have not changed.  Dodge vehicles remain a fixture in fleets throughout North America.  The one thing missing for this car, as well as the others you will see, is its purchase price; that particular element of cost-tracking would prove fascinating.

There were 30 Oldsmobiles in fleet service for the Missouri State Highway Department.  Averaging 14.7 miles per gallon, they were much easier on gasoline than were the Dodges.  Heck, these Oldsmobiles were better on gas than the 155 Ford Model Ts, which averaged 13.9 and 12.8 miles per gallon for roadsters and touring cars, respectively.  Due to the greater numbers of them in service, the Model Ts (including pickups) racked up 634,000 miles, while the Oldsmobiles were operated a total of 121,000 miles.

In terms of automobile fleet use exclusively, Nash was the fuel economy champ.  The Nash “4” Touring achieved 15.8 miles per gallon.  However, there were only two Nashes in service, so the picture may well have been different had there been more.

There were even a few Hupmobiles, Stars, and Studebakers in the fleet.  Yes, 1924 did offer a quite a bit of variety.

Anyone remotely familiar with a highway department knows they must have dump trucks, and a fair number at that.

Until I started researching this piece, I’d never heard of Service Motor Trucks.  There was a grand total of one in service, pardon the pun.  A search for “Service Motor Trucks” and related permutations yielded nothing on Wikipedia; a little further browsing in Google revealed that the truck was built in Wabash, Indiana, but produced nothing else of consequence.  With only one of them having been purchased, I’m speculating that a fleet manager was hedging his bets.  It did get 4.0 miles per gallon, which is much better than some others that got between 1.0 and 2.0 miles per gallon!

If anyone has further knowledge about this truck or any of the others presented, please don’t be shy.

With 142 units in service, Liberty trucks were the most numerous in this fleet.  This picture is the better of the two Liberty truck photos I found. These trucks were designed by the Society of Automotive Engineers, and produced by various manufacturers for use in World War I.  With 52 horsepower, these rigs had a top speed of 15 miles per hour and fuel consumption of 1.5 miles per gallon.  Only about a dozen are known to exist today.

Given the time frame, I’d speculate that these Liberty trucks were World War I surplus.  Purchasing from U.S. government surplus is an age old practice, and I bought numerous vehicles from the General Services Administration during my time as a fleet manager.

Packard did not always limit itself to building cars; for a time, the company produced trucks as well.  Shown above is a 1920 Packard truck being used in Helsinki, Finland. Nevertheless, it is likely quite comparable to the 14 Packard trucks  in the Missouri state fleet–which, in true luxury car fashion, achieved a fleet average of 1.9 miles per gallon.

Pierce-Arrow, another of the era’s “Three P’s” of luxury automobiles, went through its own truck-producing period. As demonstrated by this moving-truck chassis, Pierce-Arrow actively sought business beyond building fire trucks, as it also pitched bus and vocational-truck markets.  Shown here is a moving truck on a Pierce-Arrow chassis.  Only four were in service, apparently turning in a typical 1.4 miles per gallon.  With purchase prices lost to the ravages of time, one cannot help but wonder if acquisition cost was one reason why so few Packards and Pierce-Arrows were in fleet use.

The hallmark styling of Pierce-Arrow cars is also quite evident in their trucks.

As with the Service truck, only one Denby was purchased, and information about Denby trucks is pretty scarce.  As nearly as I can ascertain, Denby was Detroit-based with a Canadian branch for its export business. A variety of weight ratings, up to five tons, were available. This ad is from 1916 and again, if you have further information, please speak up.

If you are a big spreadsheet geek, the spreadsheet I presented earlier contains lots more information I haven’t even touched upon, including the costs of oil consumption and consumable items and repairs.  Yes, as an engineer I occasionally do get excited about such things, but this is also an intimate glimpse into an otherwise forgotten aspect of, and finite period in, automotive history.

There are a number of other types and makes of equipment I didn’t touch upon.  A Cadillac tractor?  Yes, it seems that such a creature existed.  I did learn that General Motors produced just over 1,500 Cadillac V8-powered artillery-moving rigs during World War I.  Although not tractors per se, I have a hunch they could be one and the same, considering the time frame.  Sadly, pictures thoroughly eluded me.

I have also been made privy to the number of horses and goats used by the Missouri State Highway Department (now Department of Transportation) in days of yore.  Not a bad idea when you consider that a single bulk purchase could be self-perpetuating.  And just what were the horses used for? Obviously, something had to pull the motorgrader…