Confessions of an Automobilist


I AM a small-town banker, and I am expected to act the part, living well, dressing well, and patronizing all our local affairs, as a banker should.

As a dispenser of credit, I have many opportunities to study human nature and to observe how men get ahead and how they fall behind. I believe my bank has handled more automobile propositions than any bank of its size in the country. We have made a specialty of loans on automobiles and have watched the agencies as they have grown from nothing to substantial business-concerns. In this connection we have acquired a large amount of experience, suffered no losses, and learned not a little of the weaknesses of human nature as reflected in the automobile.

I am not a ‘tightwad.’ I am careful and I am thrifty — at least I was until I became a motorist. I am not a good spender. I have always worked for my money and I part with it only for value received. I have always saved part of my earnings, from habit rather than from necessity. I have never earned ‘big money,’ but I have always had enough. I have never celebrated a stroke of good fortune more riotously than by buying a new suit of clothes and a necktie. But several years ago, when I was getting into my stride, I was told by my friends that I had arrived; and I wanted to believe them. Perhaps the moment had come to paraphrase General Pershing and tell the world ‘Ashdown’s here!’ How could I tell it more effectively than by the purchase of a car?

At that time the automobile had not yet become a popular fad. The streetcar was still the common method of local conveyance and the railroad still the common medium of long-distance transportation. There were no finance companies especially equipped to handle time-payments on cars. The banks were highly skeptical of the automobile as a credit-risk, and the man who borrowed in order to buy a car was looked upon as dangerous. Even the humble Ford had to be sold, instead of selling itself as it now does. The dealers were inexperienced and without adequate resources. A car was considered distinctly a luxury, not, as at present, a rudimentary necessity.

After a severe battle with my thrifty conscience, I persuaded myself that I could afford a car. Absolutely ignorant of cars and car values, I finally decided upon a modest secondhand machine, of a make that was neither standard nor popular. The price represented about one tenth of my yearly income, and I had never before spent half so much on a luxury. Theretofore my greatest single extravagance had been a bicycle, which, while bearing at the time about the same relation in cost to my earnings, carried with it no upkeep or heavy depreciation, no social obligations or incidental expenditures; its first cost was its last.

It is a rigid rule with me not to buy what I cannot pay for, and whenever I drive a new car out of the salesroom it has no lien upon it; but it was not without trepidation that I drew my check in payment for that first automobile. Being a ‘used’ car, there were many trifles about this one that needed attention, and several accessories that added to the appearance. I was particular about appearances, wanted as much for my money as possible, and the first cost was decidedly not the last. I had carefully estimated the probable charge of maintenance and upkeep. Gas and oil would average so much a week and the garage in our simple community only five dollars a month. I could afford that tax upon my income without distress. My conscience was clear — or, rather, it was becoming hardened.

I had not gone half a mile on my initial trip when a tire blew out, and with it went also some of my preconceived ideas about automobile expenses. Not having a mechanical turn of mind, and being wholly without a workingknowledge of a car, I had to fall back upon my garage-man every time anything went wrong, and that was very often. But having bought the car I had to use it, whatever the effect upon my bank account.

Then, too, I was a green driver. Skidding had not become a popular sport; car-insurance was in its infancy, and rates were high; but by the time I had turned around twice on the avenue and landed on the sidewalk, none the worse for the double turn, I had learned the danger of wet pavements and the value of protection. As a sensible precaution I purchased a set of chains. But I put them on wrong one wet morning and the significance of this was about one hundred dollars; for while the wheels were revolving at the legal rate of speed per hour one of those chains came off, wound itself around the rear axle, and tore out the housing.

At first I carefully set down all expenses connected with my car. I was curious to see if my budget was working out, but the figures mounted up so fast that I dared not look the facts in the face and so closed my books. Ignorance is bliss and bliss is expensive.

Having a quick method of locomotion, it was easy to run out into the country of a Sunday for dinner, or of an evening for a drive and a ‘bite.’ Then, too, my friends expected me to do the honors, as chauffeur and host, and this added to the mounting costs. But I had started something that I could not stop gracefully or consistently. My thrift habits were steadily giving way to spendthrift habits.

After eight years of experience I find that the psychological processes of carowners are much alike. First you want a car; then you conclude to buy it. Once bought, you must keep it running, for cars are useless standing in a garage. Therefore you spend and keep on spending, be the consequences what they may. You have only one alternative — to sell out; and this pride forbids.


My first experience with a car taught me these truths: A used car is a risky investment unless its history and previous ownership be fully known. Some cars are given the best of care, others are grossly abused. Usually the best has been taken out of the machine and the new owner faces the problem of keeping a worn article in condition. A cheap new car is a better hazard than an expensive used one. Unless the owner is handy with tools, and something of a mechanic, he will be a frequent visitor to the repair shop, and this is always expensive. No matter how carefully the upkeep and incidental costs may be estimated, they will always exceed the theoretical figures. And if, in the effort to economize, the owner dispenses with insurance, he jeopardizes his principal every time he takes his car out of the garage.

The result upon the individual is to break down his sense of values. Whether he will or no, he must spend money at every turn. Having succumbed to the lure of the car, he is quite helpless thereafter. If a new device will make his automobile run smoother or look better, he attaches that device. If a new polish will make it shine brighter, he buys that polish. If a new idea will give more mileage, or remove carbon, he adopts that new idea. These little costs quickly mount up and in many instances represent the margin of safety between income and outgo. The overplus in the pay-envelope, instead of going into the bank as a reserve-fund, goes into automobile expense. Many families live on the brink of danger all the time. They are car-poor. Saving is impossible. The joy of security in the future is sacrificed for the pleasure of the moment. And with the pleasure of the moment is mingled the constant anxiety entailed by living beyond one’s means.

Here is an example that came under my observation. A bank clerk, earning about one hundred and fifty dollars a month, married, and bought a house with a trifling amount down and the balance in monthly payments. A baby came. He then argued himself into believing that the wife and baby ‘needed the air,’ although they live in the country. He found a secondhand car for $125. It cost him only twenty-five dollars down and he gave notes for the balance. But no sooner was the car delivered than he realized that he had made a mistake. He acted energetically, sold the car at a profit, and then bought a new one, paying all he had received for the old car on the new, but still owing on the notes. As a matter of fact he approached me for a loan of twenty-five dollars to pay down on the old car. I refused, but somehow he raised the money. Then he had three debts to meet: one on the house, one on the old car, and one on the new. Besides, he had borrowed from a friend in order to buy the house.

Practically every cent of this man’s income is pledged before he receives it. Whereas he was fairly comfortable before he got the car, now he is constantly running behind. What he pays on the house is lost on the car. What he might have saved, he must spend. As his anxieties increased, he became so irritable that he lost his job. The air is costing him dear.

The old car had taught me some expensive lessons, but I decided that I needed a better car. A new one, I argued, would not require any repairs for a long time. Although the spending of one tenth of my yearly income on the old car was a severe shock to my conscience, I found no difficulty in consenting to spend a quarter’s salary on a new one. I had surrendered completely to the automobile. I did not look the part in the old car; I hoped to in the new. I felt cheap, driving a cheap car; I should feel like a millionaire in a new and expensive one. My friends would be glad to know that I had succeeded and my enemies would have to admit that their appraisal of me had been wrong. I would show them both that I not only had arrived, but was traveling fast.

Therefore it was with much pride and satisfaction, mingled with a few misgivings, that I drove away from the county fair in a brand-new shiny show-car.

It looked like a banker’s car; soon it began to act like one. And, that there might be no doubt in anybody’s mind as to whose car it was, I had my initials put on it the next day.

I was not a careful driver, and lessons in driving this car were expensive. I learned: (a) that if you put on the brakes and throw out the clutch, on an icy pavement, even though you are protected by skidless chains and nonskid tires, you are likely to turn round; cost of this lesson — eighty dollars; (b) that if a trolley-car is coming up the street and you are going at right angles to it, the trolley-car may not stop for you and you may stop for it; cost of this lesson — thirty dollars; (c) that if the law says you must not go faster than twenty miles an hour and you go thirty, it may cost you, as it did me, twenty-five dollars; (d) that batteries need water frequently and the crank case needs oil occasionally — fifty dollars; (e) that if you cut in ahead of a Ford, and a laundry truck is in front, you won’t hurt the truck, but you may hurt your car if you cannot stop instantly— twenty dollars; (f) that if you do not look where you are going on a dark street and an ‘El’ pillar is in your way, you will probably hit the pillar; cost of this — ten dollars; (g) that if you do not signal the car behind you, it may hit you and ask you to pay the damage—twenty-five dollars. Truly, the first cost of this car was not the last.

Some of these catastrophes were covered by insurance and others were not; but altogether the bills of charges were climbing. And if to this were added the operating-costs, my car was an expensive luxury. Nevertheless, my social position was established; I was regarded as a leading citizen. I made no apologies to my fellow men, but I made many to my bank-account. And when I was told I was driving a ‘snappy-looking car,’ I agreed, nonchalantly, that I was.


Time was when the leading men of the community vied with one another as owners of houses. The mansions of an earlier day, with their mansard roofs and spacious outbuildings, are mute evidence of the race for prestige years ago. A man expressed himself and his tastes through his home and its surroundings. If he owned a span of horses and a few carriages and hired a coachman, his entire investment was not half that often covered by one car to-day. The upkeep was small and could be figured with reasonable certainty. The coachman got board and lodging and perhaps two dollars a day; now a chauffeur gets five dollars a day and meals wherever he happens to be.

The paramount ambition of the average man a few years ago was to own a home and have a bank-account. The ambition of the same man to-day is to own a car. While the desire for homeownership is still strong, I believe people are giving less thought to the home and more to the car as an indicator of social position. The house stands still; only a chosen few can see the inside. But the car goes about; everybody sees it, and many observers know what it cost.

Given the choice of a fine home without a car and a modest one with a car, the latter will win. Real-estate men testify that the first question asked by the prospective buyer is about the garage. The house without a garage is a slow seller. While the country makes an appeal of its own, it has an added lure if it can be enjoyed through the medium of the car, and many a man has moved from city to country in order to get away from the high cost of maintaining an automobile in the city. The whole scheme of domestic life centres about the motor-car.

Dangerous rivalries among friends and in families are created by the motor. If one member of a family makes a bit of money he must advertise it to the rest of the family and to the world by the purchase of a car. Or, if his social scale seems a bit below that of the rest of the family, he seeks to lift himself higher through the medium of a car. The result is a costly rivalry that brings the whole group into debt.

Among business men the same tendency may be found. If a good year has brought substantial profits, they are not laid aside in a sinking-fund for the lean years, but spent on a car. A short time ago we loaned a merchant money to expand his business. He increased his overhead considerably and was taking some risk in the venture. He had paid less than half on his note when suddenly one day he appeared in a new sedan. We know where his profits are going and we shall watch that man hereafter.

Lately I was called on the telephone by a credit company in New York, and was asked about the credit of a certain merchant. I inquired their reason for the question, and they told me that he was buying a seven-passenger car costing about $1800. I had followed this man’s career with some care. His account was frequently overdrawn. He was putting a lot of bad credits on his books. I knew he was barely making both ends meet. I advised against the credit; and when he came to me a few hours afterward and asked for a loan of $250, I surmised the purpose and inquired about his car. He admitted that he was buying it. I asked him if he did not think a less expensive car would answer his purpose just as well. He took offense at this, and said that he had a big family and they too needed the air, and at any rate it was none of my business. I refused the loan. On my way to luncheon the next day I saw him driving his car. How he got it I do not know. I do know, however, that if he had bought a cheaper machine he would not have matched his rival. He must look prosperous even if he is n’t.

Not only is the car a symbol of the social and business status of the owner, but its loss is a calamity. I have never known a man to give up an automobile once owned, except to buy a better one. The experience of the finance companies is that only an insignificant percentage of the cars financed by them are ever repossessed. In other words, the car stays sold, no matter what hardships may attend its keeping. It takes courage of no mean order to confess to the world that you have had a motor and have lost it. Therefore the car is the last sacrifice to be offered on the altar of reverses. I know a man who did not have the price of his next month’s commutation ticket and yet he kept his automobile.

There is a class of individuals who look upon the car, not only as a necessity in their life, but as a smoke-screen to hide their real position. As long as they drive a motor, they feel that their creditors will be satisfied to wait. To buy a new one is evidence that they are still able to carry on. A case in point is that of a New York business man who was on the verge of bankruptcy. For six months he had taken nothing from his business. He saw the inevitable end. He had a car that was almost new. I was called up one day by a bank and asked if this man was good for a thousand-dollar loan. I asked the purpose of the loan and they told me it was the balance on a new car. I knew his condition and told them frankly of it. Being refused this credit, he went to another dealer and finally succeeded, with but little cash, in trading in the old car for a new one. Inside of a few weeks the receiver took charge of his business.

A certain merchant whom I know made money during the war. He built a pretentious house. He bought a car. The readjustment period hit him very hard. For two or three years he has been living beyond his means. He has borrowed all that the banks would lend and then has paid them off by placing a second mortgage on his home. To the casual observer no change has come into this man’s life. His wife drives to the same functions in the same car and they live in the same home, which is gradually being undermined by the false standard of living. Some day it must go under the hammer.

The most pathetic case that ever came under my observation was that of a Wall Street broker. He had the happy faculty of picking the winners, and made from fifty to a hundred thousand a year. He was generous. He lived well. One day his wife came to me and said they were in trouble and needed ten thousand dollars. Could I place a mortgage on the home? I inspected the place — the show place of the community. It had expensive furniture, sunken gardens, fountains, a refrigerating plant, servants. In the garage stood a special model of an expensive car. Beside it stood two other cars, both favorites with the well-to-do. I placed the mortgage. A few months afterward she came again and said everything had been swept away; even the cars had gone to the creditors. Her husband was in a sanitarium, a broken, nervous wreck. Could I make the mortgage twenty thousand? I made another inspection, and in the stall where the three stately cars had once stood was a Ford with a flat tire — mute evidence of the downfall of the family. Perhaps the cars had nothing to do with the calamity, and yet they typify the extravagance that once obtained, and that resulted in poverty too heartbreaking to understand.


The ambition to own an automobile does not confine itself to the upper classes and those with substantial incomes, but reaches down into the ‘ white-collar workers’ — the clerks and salaried men on limited incomes. In my own bank fifty per cent of the force own cars and drive to work in them. I do not believe the middle classes are getting ahead as they once were. What formerly went into the bank now goes into the motor-car. The thought in the minds of many workers is not how much they can save, but how long it will be before they can have a motor. I had occasion not long ago to check up a number of automobiles on the timepayment plan with a New York company. We found that the owners were carpenters, masons, bricklayers, and so on, living in inaccessible suburban places, who used their cars — all new ones — to go to and from their work. Perhaps their investment is justified by the high wages they now earn, but time was when the humble bicycle or the trolley-car was good enough for them. Walking to-day is a lost art. Even my laundress comes to work in a taxi and goes home by the same route. No doubt I pay the bill. To go to the village shopping on foot is now a social error, even though the distance be but a few blocks.

We have heard much about the saturation point in the automobile industry — the time when the public will be ‘fed up’ on cars and will not buy the output of the factories. No man knows when this time will come, but I am of the opinion that it is drawing near, for the class of buyers that is now purchasing cars is in the lower strata of business life. Go through the outskirts of any city and look at the number of cars left exposed out-of-doors in the tenement yards.

True, many automobiles are now sold to those who can afford them, but the competition is so keen and the driving force behind the dealers is so insistent that many who would not ordinarily buy are persuaded that they should do so. I use our own town as typical of many others. During a period of about four weeks I saw the following sales made: (a) a $1,500 touring car to a small tailor, who had no place to keep it, had nothing to pay down on it, — except an old Ford in exchange, — and who could not in the course of two years pay a note of seventy-five dollars at his bank; (b) a similar car to the policeman on the post, who went in debt for half his monthly salary for a year in order to pay for it; (c) a sedan selling for about $2000 to a restaurant keeper who had just gone into business for himself. He had saved $1000, purchased a place for $5000, borrowed $2500 from the bank, and gave notes for the balance in order to take possession. After the first season, with a hard winter before him, this man deliberately — or through the efforts of a good salesman — plunged into debt for $1200. The result is that all he earns must be applied to his debts, and he now has no margin of safety at all. Before, he was sure of his ground and free from anxiety. Now, he must not only work, but he must also worry.

Some will blame the dealers for sharp selling-practices; others will blame the finance companies for accepting any risk that is offered; still others will blame the buyer for being an easy mark. But, whatever the reason, the result is the same — debt, debt, debt, for a costly article that depreciates very rapidly and has an insatiable appetite for money. To be sure, the money goes out in small lots, but the toll is large if it be reckoned for a year, and this the average man has not the courage to face; or, facing it, he has not the courage to quit. He must keep his car.

The avalanche of automobile-owners is not a good omen. It signifies that the people are living either up to their means or beyond them; that the old margin of safety no longer obtains; that the expense account must constantly increase. The race to outdo the other fellow is a mad race indeed. The ease with which a car can be purchased on the time-payment plan is all too easy a road to ruin. The habit of thrift can never be acquired through so wasteful a medium as an automobile. Instead, the habit of spending must be acquired, for with the constant demand for fuel, oil, and repairs, together with the heavy depreciation, the automobile stands unique as the most extravagant piece of machinery ever devised for the pleasure of man.

But —

I still drive one myself. I must keep up with the procession, even though it has taken four cars to do so.