Previous Home Next
  • Excerpt from George Underwood's Autobiography - "Life in the Not-So-Fast Lane"
    The years of 1932, 33 and part of 34 must have been the most uncomfortable
    years of my life (to date, that is). After the first year at the Chicago Unit, at least I was
    ambulatory, using crutches and ready to face the world again. When I got home and my
    folks saw the problem of getting around and enjoying the outdoors like all the friends that
    I grew up with. The bicycle that I had won was out of the question but my sister hooked
    the wagon to the rear fender with a rope and away we went to the stores, rides to get me
    motivated I guess.
    Dad kept busy trying to think of the right gadget to do the job for me. His first
    idea was to convert the old wooden wagon to something like an ‘Irish Mail’ only with
    one lever on the right side and connected to the rear wheel. That worked OK but the right
    arm got tired in a few minutes. Scratch that idea unless you could make both arms work,
    but one had to steer. The next plan was not so simple but for an electrician it should be
    duck soup, right? Read on. He cut a hole in the bottom of the wooden wagon to hold a 6-
    volt automobile storage battery; got a starter motor from the junkyard and made a pivot
    with the old lever. A wooden ‘vee’ belt pulley was mounted on the side of the rear wheel,
    and pulling the lever would tighten the belt at the same time touching a switch to turn on
    the motor. Great so far, so some of the kids gathered to see it go!! I felt like a test pilot at
    the throttle and I was only 8_ years old. Here we go!! I pulled the lever back and almost
    went out the front of the wagon—it was wired in reverse! It was fixed in a few minutes
    and tried again. It went like Hell and had to be tickled to go slow. It was easy to dump the
    thing over when going around a turn too sharp. The brake was another lever of wood that
    rubbed the rear tire. It kept the driver busy making it work but I was the envy of all my
    sudden friends. Deemed, too dangerous, Dad gave up and decided to make something
    that would be more of a machine than these “Rube Goldberg” things.
  • It was amazing to see what was growing in the basement. A single-cylinder, one horsepower
    gasoline engine built by Maytag Co. for washing-machine power, showed up
    from a friend who had an engine shop and store. The cost was $52.00; it had valves in the
    head with exposed rocker arms and push rods from the camshaft. Instead of a rope starter,
    it had a segment gear on a lever that would engage the cranking ratchet. Seemed great
    but trying to get it to run on the concrete floor to check it out was almost impossible,
    without anchoring it to a frame or bench. Had to wait till later. No plans were drawn, just
    chalk marks on the floor while I watched what was happening and learning a whole lot
    that I used later in my life. He started the frame with a long piece of 1_" channel; cutting
    notches with a hand hacksaw to allow the steel to be bent into a frame that was about 7 ft
    long and about 24 inches wide. The ends were narrower to give a taper to the front and
    rear with straight sides for about 36 inches. When satisfied that this was the right shape
    he wanted he took it to the neighborhood tire shop who had a welder man that got
    interested and did the work after hours for free, I think. All of the joints were heavy
    brazed and looked very professional. The rest of the work was done in a similar manner
    The clutch was a unit from a shop where the machines were driven by overhead
    belts and long drive shafting. It was a ‘cone type’ that had a tapered cone and by moving
    the hub sideways a finger would slide up the cone and would turn a bolt about _turn,
    enough to clamp a split hub tight to grab the rotating inner hub. With a system of a bell
    crank and lever the clutch could be operated easily and lasted for the known life of the
    The clutch and brake were on a jackshaft with a large driving pulley and another
    pulley and ‘vee’ belt to a wooden pulley on the rear axle; only one tire was driven. The
    brake was from the junkyard again and was a Plymouth emergency brake. It was the
    easiest thing to connect, just one lever with a thumb ratchet release on the lever for
    parking. The steering wheel was something else. Back to the junkyard, Dad selected the
    steering column from a Ford Model ‘T’. The wheel was fully 20 inches in diameter, so
    we asked our Shriner friend, who also made the wood pulleys, to make a steering wheel
    about 14 inches in diameter—no problem, so a few days later we had a beautiful
    machined wood wheel of laminated pieces. The arms of the Ford wheel were cut to fit;
    now all that was needed was something to use to steer.
  • A set of four balloon-tired airplane tail wheels showed up that had needle
    bearings and an eight-inch rim size, complete with air hose fittings. Lots of fun rolling
    these around the basement and getting in trouble while work was being done! My sister’s
    boyfriend (Anthony Trendler) and later her husband was there even on date nights to help make some of the
    parts. The rear axle was simple because the tire on the left side could idle while the right
    one was anchored to this rotating axle. Needle bearings were used with inner recession on
    the axle. The rear springs were fashioned by another friend of Dad with a forge shop.
    Junk single leaf springs were heated and forged until the bearing shells were a tight fit.
    The front, of course was different. One spring was forged to fit around the rigid axle, one
    side was welded, the other free to turn and not fight the other over uneven ground. A
    Masonic friend owned Pokorney Machine Co., who volunteered to make the steering
    knuckle system. Great work was done to connect to the Ford reach rod and cross rod with
    a cantilever axle to fit the wheel needle bearings. Worked OK for many years with no
    trouble. Well here we were with a frame and drive system, but no body!! No problem,
    with some wood pieces the steering columns was supported and I was told to try to drive
    the thing in the spring after my ninth birthday!! It worked great! The few old photos show
    this time of my life. If you think the electric wagon was exciting to my friends, you
    should have seen the group of bicycles that followed and the riders begging for a ride on
    the car frame!
    At this time in the Depression little cars that had the Barney Oldfield look were
    popular but to buy one would be around $300. Too much for my folks. Tony Trendler,
    my sister’s boyfriend worked in his father’s sheet metal fabricating company shop. To
    him sheet metal work was ‘no problem’. He made a stainless steel false grill frame with
    rods to make up the ornamental front. The other cars mentioned above were tiny
    and kids got in with the aid of a shoehorn they were so tight. With me, and legs that
    didn’t bend, it required something different, so the left side of the front hood was built
    with a piano hinge door to allow easy entry. Tony fashioned its feature along with a
    removable bonnet over the engine and jackshaft that made it look like a real vehicle. The
    car needed a windshield, for a possible rainstorm; so back to the junkyard and the wing
    type window from a touring car was cut to be symmetrical and mounted on the hood.
    Looked and worked nice. What to do in case it got dark? The battery from the electric
    wagon was mounted inside the hood behind the grill. Two small running lights were from
    some kind of car and a small red light was put on the rear. A horn was also mounted
    behind the grill and sounded official when needed. The only damage done to the car was
    caused by me when following a group of ponies in the alley that gave children rides for a
    few nickels. A pony didn’t like when I honked the horn so it kicked and bent several of
    the rods in the grill. Never did that again.
    My dad’s goal was to get me mobile—well I sure was. The car was used only in
    the summer time and spring and fall when weather was nice, and after school if time
    allowed. I drove the car on the streets as well as sidewalks when necessary. Looking back
    on this would scare me if my kid were riding in traffic with this little midget racerlooking
    car; but I made it until I moved up to a 1941 Oldsmobile Hydra-matic!! The car
    was kind of short on power to go up hills; a running start was required to make the hill at
    Ridge Boulevard in Rogers Park. On level ground it could make 27 mph. That seemed
    fast sitting below the height of the wheels on the cars in the next lane. It had enough
    power to pull two wagons on level pavement. I enjoyed doing this because the wheels on
    the car would straddle the manhole covers but wagons wouldn’t. A good friend who lived
    on the next block on Coyle Avenue (also handicapped and could not walk because of
    Muscular Dystrophy), used a wagon all the time. He got irate when I pulled him over a
    cover once in a while. Still, we were friends all through college and work years. More
    about that in another chapter.
    Remember the description of the rocker arms? Well if they overheated they’d
    freeze, the rods would buckle, and you’d be ‘out of business’. I learned how to fix them
    by replacing with ones in the little toolbox with small wrenches and feeler gauges. I
    usually carried a length of clothesline so if really stuck, a nice person like an insurance
    salesman would tow me home! Looking back on this, I sometimes wonder if I was crazy
    to trust the car by getting so far away from home, but I guess I had faith or guts (or both).
    On long trips, I would be accompanied by my sister and Tony or some one else, riding
    their bikes. The farthest that I can remember was to Glenview Naval air Station in
    Glenview, my sister was worn out but I remember having fun. The car had to be
    lengthened by about 6 inches when I was about 13 to be able to fit in it.
    One great event I can’t forget was riding around the neighborhood and stopping in
    the alley every so often to see if my sister had her first baby. “Is it here yet?” I’d ask.
    Finally I heard, “Yes, it is a boy!”—my nephew, Carl A. Trendler. The arrivals of the
    others in he family; Bob, Loretta, and Gary Trendler were not as spectacular as Carl’s
    and for not mentioning theirs, I apologize. The car was stored under the back porch in the
    winter and it was hard on the paint job. It had to be repainted by hand several times,
    usually with a different paint or color scheme to make it more ‘jazzy’.
    Fuel was not much of a problem. The tank held less than a gallon and would last
    almost a week unless I used it on longer rides. Going to the gas station was something
    else; the nozzle on the hose was too large for the tank so a funnel was usually in the car.
    The most popular station that was convenient was the ‘Socony-Vacuum’, now Mobil
    Corp. For one dollar, you could get 12 gallons plus a dish or two. This was not high
    finances, but the guys at the station offered free gas if they could put the decal of the
    Flying Red Horse on each side of the hood—why not? They were flying until the car was
    sold years later.
  • Like mentioned above, it was fun to ride on the sidewalks, but little kids were
    always getting in the way and so, not to hurt them I drove in the streets. You might recall
    that these streets were not too wide and today most of them are ‘one way’. Most of the
    times I drove around the neighborhood, a trip through Rogers Park was included. It had
    nice things like a lagoon with ducks and swans, and a small zoo for tots to get excited
    about and enjoy. I know because my own children liked to go there too! When on the
    pavement in the park, I had to watch kids and adults coming around the next turn. The
    park was policed by the Park District Police of Chicago and the name of the regular
    officer in the park was Pat. He would stop me often by raising his hand and asking,
    “Where is your License Plate?” or, “Where is your vehicle license?”, to which I
    answered, “I don’t have one.” I don’t know if this satisfied him or if he just liked to look
    at the car.