My Old Friend “Frank”
By Bob West
April 27, 1995
The first family car that I can recall was a 1924 Franklin touring car. This car was powered by an air-cooled engine. It had a hardwood frame, an aluminum body, and a top made of weatherproof cloth material. Each of the four doors had curtains made of this same heavy material. The windows themselves were isinglass. Isinglass, for you younger readers, can be compared to a very heavy clear plastic of today.
I can remember Dad taking these curtains to the Charles Day Harness Shop on Main Street to have new isinglass sewn in to replace the cracked and discolored ones. The curtains were held in place by a curtain rod standing vertical to the door, then snapped to the door and also to the roof. In good weather, the curtains were removed and stored under the front seat. Without the curtains in place, it was of course, very windy. On one of our family outings, my older sister Dorris, who was also my tormentor, told me not to turn my head sideways because the cartilage between my nostrils (she called it a plug) would be blown away and lost. Thereafter I was very careful to pinch my nose with my fingers to keep this from happening.
As cars were not equipped with turn signals, the curtain on the driver’s side had a small opening, covered with a flap of the cloth material so the driver could use hand signals. Sometimes it was hard to signal, shift and steer the car all at the same time. This car was very modern in its day. It had an electric-driven windshield wiper, most other cars had a hand-operated one. There was also a small fan with rubber blades to keep the windows from steaming up. On the dashboard, in addition to the speedometer and the odometer, there were four switches, one marked primer and one was the ignition switch. What the other two were for, I do not remember. There was no ignition key, but there was a key to lock the transmission, so the car could not be shifted. Since the motor was air-cooled, there was no chance for the radiator to freeze and burst. Dad told me that the last winter we lived in Post Falls was an extremely cold one. After work he would drive home, about three miles, drive the car onto blocks in the garage and then drain the oil from the crankcase into a pan and store it in the furnace room. The next morning he would fill the crankcase with the warm oil and the car would start with no trouble. He said he was one of the few people that didn’t have to do a lot of walking that winter. Of course there was no heater in the car. We depended on lap robes and blankets to keep warm.
One night when we were returning from a visit with my grandparents, the lights on the car went out. After that Dad parked it in the garage and never tried to start it again. One summer several years later, Eugene Schell, one of my high school friends, and I decided to see if we could get it started. We rented a storage battery and bought a couple gallons of gas from the Texaco station. As I recall, there was a one-half gallon vacuum tank on the engine, which was to be filled with gas. This acted as a primer.
We hooked up the battery cables, poured the rest of the gas into the gas tank, crossed our fingers and stepped on the starter. After a few agonizing moments of moaning, groaning and wheezing, the motor backfired, a big puff of black smoke came out of the tailpipe, and it then started purring like a kitten. We were really excited! All four of the tires were low, and we had to find a hand-operated air pump to inflate them. Finally the big moment. We slowly backed the car out of the garage and headed for country roads. Never mind that we didn’t have license or insurance, we simply stayed on the back byways where the cops wouldn’t catch us. We sneaked the car out numerous weekends on those country drives. One of my dad’s friends saw us driving one day though and reported us to Dad. I thought he would be angry, but he wasn’t and even agreed to sell us the car for $50. We then bought the license and insurance for it and we were ready for some fun times. We were actually the proud owners of a 1924 Franklin! Suddenly we were very popular at school. We had one of the five cars that students owned. Ours was by far the largest so we ran a regular taxi service up and down the schoolhouse hill.
The tire size for this Franklin was 4 ½ X 32, and it was very high off the ground, which made it great for bucking snowdrifts and mud holes. I truly believe that with chains it could go anywhere today’s Jeep can. We drove this car until both of us entered the armed service during WWII. We then stored it in a barn at Gene’s place until after the war.
When we returned over three years later we had no trouble getting it started. It was as if it were welcoming us home. One day we were driving out in the country by my Uncle Clayton West’s farm when we had a blowout. Much to our dismay, we found the spare tire was also flat. Those poor old tires. All the inner tubes had been patched a dozen times or more.
We hiked the five miles back home and returned the next weekend with the fixed spare only to find the other three had gone flat. As hard as we tried we could not find any more tires to fit. We left the car where it sat.
A few months later Uncle Clayton told me he was going to drag it to his place and use it for a farm vehicle. Some years later a stranger came into our store and asked me if I was Bob West. When I said yes, he asked me to come outside and see something. I walked around the corner by the bank and parked there was our old friend the Franklin.
It was painted a shiny black and had a new top and curtains. It looked like a factory new car. The stranger told me he was driving around the country looking for old cars to rejuvenate and had spotted ours in the junk pile at my uncle’s place. He asked if he could buy it but Uncle Clayton told him he could just have it. He came back the very next day and hauled it to his shop in Lewiston where he spent many hours restoring it.
The drive to Palouse was her maiden trip after the restoration and he wanted me to be the first to see it. I promptly called Gene so he was able to see it too. It was a happy reunion.
Three years later the same fellow stopped in Palouse again, on his way to Spokane to a car show. He told me he had won many awards for the Franklin, three of which were first place. When I asked him how the motor was running, he said, “like a Swiss watch.” That was the last time I ever saw this grand old car.
The following information about Franklin cars was printed in the June 13, 1913 issue of the Palouse Republic:
“J.A. Miller blew into Palouse from Walla Walla Sunday with a new six-cylinder Franklin car, taking his friends completely by surprise. The car was bought through the Palouse Garage which recently secured the agency for the Franklin. The price is $3,050, making the car the most expensive so far owned in Palouse. While the price is somewhat fancy, the car also has a fancy appearance, and a gait like a singlefooter, together with all the modern devices which go with automobiles.”