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Q&A with Kit Foster: May 7, 2015


Q. This name plate is brass and roughly 5 by 4 inches. Is there any history on it, and how many years did they make them?

— Frank Scimemi, Groton, Mass.

A. I’m not sure how well your photo will reproduce, but it’s a Cadillac data plate from the 1920-’21 period. The stamped number at the bottom is labeled “engine number,” but this is the number by which Cadillac identified cars until the 1970s, I believe. These cars also have a frame number, but it is different from the engine number, which can be confusing. The “59” on your data plate refers to the Type 59 model, built from January 1920 through September 1921. From 1917 through 1925, Cadillac used an alpha-numeric numbering system, with the serial portion limited to 1 through 1000. The letter was advanced from A through Z, then AA and, for the Type 59, BB. The highest number, according to the Krause “Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942,” was BB-12. I believe the letter prefix was sometimes stamped after the “59,” rather than preceding it as on your plate. Your number, U-59-831, would fall somewhere in early 1921, I believe.

Fortunately, Cadillac records survive, so you might be able to find out the identity of the car this came from, and where it was shipped from the factory. The General Motors Media Archive website,, gives ordering instructions. There is presently a $50 per car fee, and the ordering address is Allied Vaughn, 11923 Brookfield, Livonia, MI 48150, Attention: GM Vehicle Invoice.

Q. Upon re-visiting the Q&A in Old Cars Weekly of Dec. 14, 2006, I noticed that Walter Barraglia of Hollywood, Fla., asked why his 1945 Ford Pickup that used to be an Ohio Bell Telephone truck had a peculiar indentation in the left front fender. The picture he sent in shows a flat inward notch with a triangular appearance, the center point about 10 inches tall, making a picket. The answer by Tom Brownell stated these utility company trucks typically carried ladders that were slung on the side. My hunch is that the purpose of the front fender indent on the truck was to support and secure the ladder. Why these ladders were carried on the driver’s side, blocking the door, is a question for which I did not have an explanation, but the restored utility trucks I’ve seen have had the ladders slung on the driver’s side. Well, I think I can now answer the question.

About 1961, I asked my grandfather, Robert Ford Lemen Sr., who was born in 1884, why some Model T Fords had no door on the driver’s side, and why some vehicles on the left driver’s side had no key lock on the outside of the door. Grandpa told me that in the early days, horse-drawn wagons and cars shared the road. People would throw open the driver’s door and that would startle horses coming by. They would rear up, run wild, turning over wagons and buggies and injuring or killing people. There was a law making it illegal to get out or get in on the left driver’s side of cars and trucks. I myself have seen in many movies of cars and trucks in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s that driver or passengers entered vehicles from the right passenger side. A Clark Gable movie shows this. I wonder if that law is still on the books somewhere.

— Robert Lemen, St. Louis, Mo.

A. Yes, cars and horses had an uneasy relationship in the early days of the automobile, although in that time few cars had doors at all. I, too, have understood that the lack of door locks on the left side of cars through the 1930s, and the movie depiction of always entering and leaving cars on the curb side, was to encourage safe behavior (although no one I knew actually did this). There well may have been laws about this, but at that time they would have been state or local regulations. I’ve never heard of anyone prosecuted for such an offense, either. My grandmother was also born in 1884, so we’re probably about the same age. I don’t know whether any such laws are still on the books anywhere. Another reason why many Model T’s had no left front door was that the handbrake lever was smack in the way and would have tripped up the driver.

To submit questions to this column: E-mail or mail to: Q&A, c/o Angelo Van Bogart, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990-0001.

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