Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer, June 1996
America's love affair with the automobile has shaped much 20th-century history from the development of suburbs and interstate freeways to the latest battle over air quality. In the early days of motoring, though, owning a car conjured up images of romance and adventure, especially in the minds of young men like S. Alva Matheson.
One of the state's gifted raconteurs, Matheson was born on May 10, 1903, in Cedar City, Iron County. At about age 15 he began to long for a car. He had no money to buy one, of course, and in those days parents were not expected to supply it. Still, he was an ingenious lad, and he knew how a car's engine worked. In his life story, Reflections, he told of finding loads of discarded car parts at the dump. Worn parts were often replaced with new ones because garages lacked the equipment to rebuild parts. Young Alva thought he could coax some of these discards into working a little longer, so he began collecting the parts needed to build a car of his own. He wrote: "When it was finished I had eight different cars represented in it, such as a Ford motor, a Buick ignition, a Chevrolet oil pump, a Star radiator, Franklin front springs, a Brisco rear end, Dort clutch and Studebaker driveshaft. It was a sight to behold and whenever I stopped I usually had a crowd of spectators."
Soon after school let out in the spring, Matheson took his car on its first extended trip to a fathers and sons outing at Duck Creek in the high plateau country east of Cedar City. Others were going by wagon, but Matheson, in the timeless manner of young men, wanted "to show people I knew enough to build a usable car." The vehicle had no body as such. He had wired a seat to the frame and wired a box behind the seat to hold food and bedding for himself and his friend Elmer. At slow speeds on a rough road the car had a tendency to jackknife, throwing Elmer off the seat and onto the road, usually on his feet. And they had to stop at almost every stream to add cool water to the radiator. Other than that "the trip was enjoyable and uneventful" until the rough road dropped from Deer Flat on its way down to Navajo Lake. Rounding a curve the car again jackknifed, propelling Elmer and the bucket of eggs he was holding off the seat and down a steep hillside. "All he could do, "Matheson wrote, "was to go hopping from one lava boulder to another as his momentum dictated.... with the bucket of eggs dangling at arms length.... By the time Elmer had reached the bottom I had rounded the turn and was right in front of him.... When we realized that no harm was done it seemed so comical that we just sat and laughed...." That was only the beginning of Matheson's adventures with his first car.
Later, he owned a Model T Ford when it was a fad to "take the touring body off... and build a two-seater speedster type body. This was the early Hot Rod and.... was the kind of a car I had." One day he and a friend, Jeff Woodard, decided to do a little prospecting and set off on an old wagon road toward Modena near the Nevada border. High centers, washouts, and ankle-deep dust were the hallmarks of such roads. Twenty miles from any possible help Matheson's car threw a rod. He tried driving slowly but knew from the banging that the car would be ready for the junk heap before long. He soon found the problem - brush he had driven over had opened an oil petcock, causing the oil to leak out. They decided to eat lunch while waiting for someone to come by who might help them. Lunch "consisted of salt pork to fry our eggs, some beans and bread. As I cut the pork I remarked at how tough the rind was. My friend said 'Yes, we used...a strip for windless bearings and they never did wear out so far as I know.' Wheels began to turn in my head. It didn't take me long to decide to try it in that connecting rod. It was about the right thickness and I could see no harm that it could do.... I set to work with my wrenches and...had a bacon rind connecting rod bearing in and ready to try.... by being careful it might get us to Desert Butte.... When we reached the Butte.... all was going well so we came on home.... I left that bacon rind bearing in the motor for another two weeks of running before I changed it."
Matheson's hot rod had a tendency to lose oil in remote places. One day he and Jeff traveled through Lund, on to Blue Mountain, and west to Pine Valley, heading toward the Peerless Mine. Again, brush on the road's high center flipped open the oil petcock. This time he had no bacon rind to fall back on. Moreover, they were thirty miles from Lund on a road infrequently used. Ever inventive, they "heated some water and shaved and dissolved a bar of castile soap in it and used it instead of oil and by coasting whenever possible and blowing bubbles for miles we made it back to Lund with the cleanest motor on record and with no apparent harm."
Alva Matheson and his pals were not the only hot rodders or adventurers on Utah's dirt roads in the early years of motoring, but when it comes to telling the story of those times Matheson has few peers.
Source: S. Alva Matheson, Reflections (Cedar City, 1974).