by Jim Bulls
Last time I left you, we were cruizin’ Reedley and eating cheeseburgers in 1960, as well as checking out the gas stations and bulk plants. But, you might ask, how did kids afford cars way back then, not to mention gas, insurance and cheeseburgers? We’ll get to that, after a little history.
My interest in vintage automobiles blossomed while on vacation in Yosemite. The Horseless Carriage Club of America was on tour and it was the first time I ever saw so many brass radiators in one place. Returning to Reedley one week later, I hopped on my bike and searched out every car, pickup, and truck that had running boards, from the 1940s back to the brass era. Included in that initial search, was a 1928 Model “A” Ford sitting in an alley.
That Ford was my very first car. I purchased it for $12.00. The money came mostly from mowing lawns, with a little from being a stand-by paperboy for the Fresno Bee. Mowing lawns (front, back, edging and sweeping) brought in $2.50 to $3.00 and maybe a tip. Sometimes, I would run errands for an elderly lady down the street, and she would pay me 50¢.
After that first car, others would follow me home like lost kittens or puppies. Some of note included a 1941 Ford convertible, a 1955 Buick Century, a 1940 Packard coupe, a 1936 Chevy four-door, and 1947 Chevy “woody” station wagon. I have owned close to 50 cars and about half of those were actually given to me. Fortunately, our house was outside the city limits–there were always six or seven cars in the backyard.
When I was a sophomore at Reedley High, I bought a 1940 Ford Deluxe Coupe for $325.00. I earned this money first by picking peaches, and then as a “box boy” at Nash De Camp. Box Boy duties included setting off the finished boxes packed by the “girls” on the line. The girls ranged from high schoolers to women in their 50s. It was an interesting job. The girls usually packed in groups of friends. They all differed in nationality, so you would hear conversations in Spanish, English, Finnish, and both high and low German as the packers moved around the conveyor belt.
The 1940 Ford had a fresh 59-AB flat head under the hood, decent upholstery (black & white Naugahyde), with chrome window moldings. Outside was a new black paint job, nice chrome and the outer grill panels were chrome plated instead of the stock paint, making for a different look.
Many used cars were available for the high school student. The returning GIs traded up to luxury and left their old cars in the back yard for some kid to come along asking “how much.” When a deal was made, all that was left was for the Vet to say, “show me the money.” In 1960, Model “A”s were so plentiful on the high school campus (over 30 if everyone was in school), they even had their own club.
If you wanted your own car to drive, there were plenty of opportunities for earning the money. Packing sheds like Hamilton, Youngstown, Peloian, Ugaste, Sorenson, Royal Valley and Sunsweet lined the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific tracks, or you could find a job at a peach dry yard or in the field picking fruit. Whether you worked in the field or packing house, you usually worked alongside a bracero, a manual laborer from Mexico who came stateside for the harvest. I was envious of some braceros I worked with, because their money would go a lot further in Mexico than mine would in Reedley.
There were a few jobs available at gas stations or auto parts stores, although most of these went to the owner’s kids. You could also wash cars at car lots, stock shelves or sweep floors at stores. Some kids got a daily allowance for school lunches. I got one dollar a day during school. Fifty cents would buy lunch at the cafeteria, so I could make $2.50 a week to put in the gas tank to go to Fresno to the races or drag main. Your parents might also give you something “extra” on the weekend for a movie and popcorn.
Working to pay for your own clothes or car or radio, taught teenagers a work ethic. You learned how to follow orders and answer to a boss. You took much better care of the things that you bought with your own money because you realized the effort it took to get them.
My oldest daughter worked in a packing shed and hated it. So, she got a job at Taco Bell to earn money to fix up her 1965 Ford Mustang–she called it a “junkstang”. When she was at Reedley High in the 1980s, the Mustangs were like Model “A”s in the 1960s and outnumbered the other makes of cars on campus.
It seems that now days kids are more into gaming and texting, and all things electronic. Most kids who drive today have a “rice rocket,” usually a Honda or a Toyota. But things might be coming full circle. Just last weekend, my neighbor boy (around nine or ten), knocked on the door and asked if he could mow my lawn.
By the way, today I have a garage full of parts for Fords, Packards and Buicks, and I still have that original 1928 Model “A” Ford, along with a 1940 Ford pickup and a 2011 Ford Flex.
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For more local and California history articles, including more Reedley history articles by Jim, be sure and check out our Hometown History section.