The stories behind the automobiles of yesteryear

One of the more interesting characters during the early days of automobiles was Floyd Clymer. In these days of “helicopter moms,” his exploits while still quite young were nothing short of astonishing.

Love of cars. Floyd, the son of a country physician, was born in 1895 in Berthoud, Colo. His father, an early supporter of the new-fangled automobile, bought a curved-dash Olds to carry him on his visits to patients in 1902. Then just 7 years old, Floyd fell in love with the Olds, developing a love of cars that never left him.

At age 10 he bought a one-cylinder Reo car and a year later wangled the right to sell Maxwells, Cadillacs and Reos, becoming the “world’s youngest automobile dealer.” He wrote, “I sold 26 cars my first two years,” and “…worshiped the men with wrenches and greasy hands: the Duryeas, the Stanleys, Ford, Olds, Oldfield, Buick and the rest.”

Youngest automobile dealer. In 1907, Motor Age magazine published a photo of Floyd and the headline: “The World’s Youngest Automobile Dealer.” The story went on: “The Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Co. can undoubtedly be credited with the youngest dealer in the motor car business. The above photograph shows Floyd Clymer of Berthoud, Colo., who was a licensed driver and an authorized dealer at 11 years of age. Master Clymer operates the Berthoud Auto Co. and has an office with a stock of supplies in the building of his father, Dr. J.B. Clymer.”

When Floyd was 12, he had tried to sell a Maxwell to a man named Gus, who turned him down and ordered a Jewell car from the factory. It came by rail, in a crate and partially knocked down. Gus knew nothing of cars and offered Floyd $3 to help him get it running and teach him to drive the thing.

Putting it together. They got the Jewell together and running, but when Floyd put it in low gear it went backwards. Astonished, he shut the car down, but Gus wanted to try again so Floyd again cranked up the engine. This time the thing went forward when it should and backwards in reverse so Gus’ family loaded into the car and Floyd set out to Loveland to get ice cream.

After enjoying the treat, Floyd started the car in front of a large group of onlookers, put it in gear and again it went backwards. Gus was upset, thinking that the boy had somehow “mixed up” the gears in the transmission and ruined his new car.

Two cycle engine. The crowd was laughing at them, but one man said: “That’s a two-cycle motor, I can tell the way it sounds, and it is running backwards!” This was Floyd’s first experience with a two-cycle engine, which could kick backwards when cranked and start running in the wrong direction. So, “Gus was a happy man! We got home O.K. (and) Gus paid me the $3, thoroughly satisfied that I had not wrecked his Jewell — but he was a mad Swede for a few minutes.”

In 1910, Dr. Clymer decided to move to Walla Walla, Wash., more than a thousand miles away. The elder Clymers went by train, but young Floyd, 14, and his brother Elmer, 11, convinced the Studebaker agent in Denver to furnish a new 1910 Flanders 20 that they would drive to Walla Walla.

Popularity. At the time Henry Ford’s Model T was becoming very popular and the Studebaker man thought it would be great publicity if one of his cars could be driven such a distance by a pair of youngsters.

Floyd writes: “(We) were to take the car on this hazardous journey, without a mechanic or spare parts, over plenty of rough terrain, mountains, and desert, with only a load of trust in a comparatively new make of car.”

All the necessities. They were seen off by the governor of Colorado and carried a letter from Denver’s mayor to the mayor of Spokane, Wash. They had tools, a collapsible canvas bucket to refill the radiator, and two 100-foot strips of canvas to give them traction over deep sand.

Again in Floyd’s words: “Well along the route, everything was going fine. Our engine sounded invincible, even when confronted with the dry terrors of the desert and the worst imaginable roads.”

Gas and oil was obtained at the small towns along the way and they looked forward to the enthusiastic welcome they were sure to get in Spokane, “ … from crowds of Spokane natives lining the main streets and pointing to our car, gasping and filled with awe.”

Sleeping outdoors. Sometimes they spent the night in a friendly sheepherder’s wagon, but “ … most of the time, we rolled (up in) our blankets in the open and two scared kids settled down for a lonely night.”

West of Laramie, maybe 150 miles into the trip, the Flanders’ transmission gave out and the boys walked along a railroad track to a small station where they wired Studebaker in South Bend, Ind. Soon, a passing train disgorged a factory mechanic with a new transmission and the boys were on their way again.

Transmission troubles. But not for long. Another 100 miles along, the new transmission gave up the ghost and they were again stranded. This time the Flanders mechanic came from Denver, replaced the gear box, and sent the boys on their way.

Before Floyd and his brother got out of Wyoming the transmission broke again. The Studebaker Company decided that it “ … was just too expensive to keep a couple of kids in transmissions … ” and besides, the publicity they were getting from the stunt wasn’t all that great.

So they canceled the trip and told Floyd to ship the Flanders back to Denver by rail.

Adventure. Feeling, as Floyd later wrote: “ … bedraggled and a bit let down by our sponsor factory … ” the boys had to make their much anticipated grand entrance into Spokane not as conquering heroes, but as un-noticed train passengers.

Floyd Clymer had many more car, motorcycle and even airplane adventures. Maybe he’ll again appear in a future column.

About the Author

Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules. More Stories by Sam Moore

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