by John Hall
Our winter trip to Toronto and the lack of heating in our car got my father to thinking. Somehow he had to get heat into the car if we were
going to make use of Mabel in winter. I don't think heaters had been designed for cars at that time, but if they were, they weren't for people
who had to make do with ten year old, second hand relics. My wife has often told me about the winter trips her family made to visit relatives
in St Ola, a small community about 30 miles North of Hastings, and the ways her family tried to keep warm during the trip. Her mother
covered the children in the back seat with heavy blankets and heated 'sad irons' to put in with them.
There are few people today who know what a sad iron is, but is was a solid block of metal shaped something like the electric iron used
today to press pants and iron clothes. The sad iron had three major differences however, it had no electric element to heat it, it weighed
about five or six times as much as today's irons and it had a detachable handle. Several of these were set on the back of a wood or coal
burning stove until they were hot and then one of them was picked up by the detachable handle and used to iron clothes. As each was
used and cooled, it was returned to the stove, the handle released and a warm iron picked up to continue the ironing. Sad irons could also
be heated, wrapped in towels and used to keep kids warm in the back seat of a car without a heater. If you ever get a chance to see a
sad iron you'll understand why people invented the electric iron and car heaters, but today a sad iron sold by antique dealers costs a
small fortune, although I can't imagine what anyone would use them for or why they would want them.
My father thought a lot about
how he was going to get heat into the car and examined various ways of connecting something to the engine. "One thing for certain" he said,
"there aren't going to be any sad irons used to keep Mabel's passengers warm. There's got to be a better way," and there was.
Dad got out his paper and pencil and drew what looked like a long, box like contraption, complete with measurements
and locations of holes with sizes. Once he had the sketch done he did an exploded drawing, that is he took the box and laid it out flat so it
could be cut from a piece of metal. This was to be the pattern for Mabel's car heater and he was convinced it would work. Once he was
satisfied the drawing was correct and he had the flanges right for welding, he made a cardboard model and fitted it to Mabel's engine.
He made adjustments as a result of the fitting and stood back to admire his work. My mother didn't think there was anything special about
making a pattern as 'women had been making dresses from patterns for years and men were only copying them.' Dad just grunted and
went looking for the metal to make his heater and soon he had it, retrieved from somebody's junk pile, I think.
He laid out the metal on the ground and transferred the pattern to it with a good, soft pencil. When this was done he started cutting with
his tin snips and soon he had the metal ready for bending. That part was a little tricky, but with a lot of patience, careful work and a bit of
swearing (Not when Mom was around), Mabel's heater took shape. He didn't do the welding himself, but he knew somebody who was
good with a welding torch and soon the heater was ready. This contraption, as my mother called it, was bolted over Mabel's manifold
and then had a closed tube which ran up the side of the engine to a hole in the floor on the passenger side. A flap was fitted over the
hole to perform the heater on/off switch function. Now I could see what my father was trying to do. He was going to use the heat from
the engine to warm the air in the box and let the warm air enter the car through the hole in the floor, an opening in the lower part of what
is now called the fire wall. Once the heater was assembled, Dad installed it and we were ready for the test. The engine was started, warmed
up and the hole opened. Hot air started to fill the car and there was also a bit of smoke, but this was soon corrected with better gaskets and
caulking cement. We were in business and looked forward to our first ride in a warm car when winter came.
Several of Dad's friends laughed at his 'Rube Goldberg' device, but he was sure it would work and it did. The first cool day in the
late fall when the car was cold to drive in, Dad opened the flap and warm air flooded into the car. We were in clover, but we had a
problem, the windshield started to fog up. This was soon solved when Dad found a small fan and mounted it on the dash so it would
blow across the windshield and the fog disappeared. Later several other improvements were added, such as a fan mounted inside
the heater opening, and a few , small holes in the heater housing to provide a better air flow, but the basic design was sound and we
had a car with a heater in it.
Later, I was to serve for many years in the Army and the vehicles we used were left over from
World War II, all without heaters. I've often thought an awful lot of soldiers could have been saved a lot of misery if their vehicles
had been fitted with a relatively inexpensive heater similar to the one Dad installed in Mabel, but then who cared if soldiers were
uncomfortable. After all, they were being paid $1.30 a day and isn't war supposed to be hell anyway?