First a bonfire, then the Oscars
In our age of remote car starting and smartphone apps to preheat or precool the interior, it’s hard to imagine such zeal and perseverance as the great film director Frank Capra displayed exactly 100 years ago during his student days.
Capra, who made such classics as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—movies known for their warmth and humanity—would go on to enjoy plenty of rides in limousines, but the routine measures and practices of his hardscrabble youth will amaze those who take for granted three-stage seat heaters and a toasty warm steering wheel.
Youngest of seven children in what he called “an ignorant peasant family” that had moved to the hills above Pasadena, California, Capra felt privileged to enroll at Throop Institute of Technology in February 1915 (the school currently goes by the more agreeable name of Caltech). Unable as a freshman to get into the 65-bed dormitory, he still lived on his family’s lemon ranch some 15 miles from campus.
“I went back and forth to school,” Capra wrote in his autobiography The Name Above the Title. “My transportation? A second-hand, single-cylinder, belt-driven Flanders motorcycle, the kind you started up by pushing it on the run.”
We suppose his bike was a Flanders 4 from the Flanders Manufacturing Company, of Pontiac, Michigan. Walter Flanders had been Ford Motor Company production manager before forming the Everitt-Metzger-Flanders Company in 1908. E-M-F cars were briefly successful, but the partners quarreled.
Flanders independently set up to build an electric car, a six-cylinder touring car and roadster, and the Model 20, a four that came in various shapes and tried to compete with the Ford Model T.
The sturdy 4hp, 485cc single-cylinder motorcycle was also produced. It offered a relatively refined front suspension and cutting-edge Splitdorf magneto ignition. Flanders hoped to churn out as many as 60,000 per year at $175 each, but the enterprise only lasted three years.
Popular Mechanics carried an ad for the ultimate 1915 Flanders (which could have been a holdover 1914), a 9hp twin that retailed for $225. A New York purveyor of sporting goods offered “a few left” at $138.50 each.
It’s hard to guess what Capra gave for a used model, but his thrift is evident in other passages of the book. Were he still alive—he died in 1991 at age of 94—he’d be shocked that a 1912 Flanders 4 was auctioned in 2008 for $60,500.
Besides his thrift, there was diligence. Seven days a week, he rose at 3:00 a.m. and did what a Mercedes-Benz S-Class owner who demands a hot stone massage from his car seat would never be inclined to do, namely, he “lit a small bonfire under the motorcycle crankcase to heat up cold oil.” Even Pasadena, promoted in the 1880s and 1890s as a semi-tropical paradise, can get chilly enough during wintertime to cause some inconvenience.
Capra had to arrive at 3:30 a.m. at the Pasadena Light and Power plant to check boiler fires and polish metal until 7:30 a.m. The pay: 25 cents per hour. Then he went to school, where he also worked breakfasts and lunches as a waiter in the dorm.
Rainy mornings made the ride to work “half-drowned ordeals of slips, slides, and muddy spills.” Returning home at 7:00 p.m., he always tussled with the final quarter-mile of dirt road, a stretch so steep he had to jump off the bike and push it.
“On a rainy night, it was a wrestling match with a wild steer,” he wrote. Then he backed into a shed and set up kindling for the next morning’s crankcase heating.
How much pleasure he must have taken in the limousine rides to come.