Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Signal Hill Model T Climb


         Many of you may remember the Model T Hill Climb held every year from “around” 1957-1977 on Signal Hill.  I say “around” because the dates are disputed, though an article from the March 11, 1957 Press-Telegram about the hill climb stated it was the 3rd such event, pushing the start of the annual climb to 1954, the same year the Long Beach Model T Club was formed.  Subsequent news accounts of the climb pinpoint the date at 1956 or 1957.  Also in dispute is the date of the last climb. Some say it was in 1978, but the final article I can find in news sources is 1977.  In any case, Model T enthusiasts may be disappointed to learn that it wasn’t a Ford Model T that first made it up the steep grade on Hill Street between Obispo and Temple on Signal Hill.  It was a Maxwell stock car in September 1920.

Mary Pickford owned a Maxwell
           The Maxwell was known as “the car that laughs at hills,” according to a March 1915 ad in the American Motorist:

          “The Maxwell is the car in which “Wild Bill” Turner made the world-record climb up Mt. Hamilton to the famous Mt. Lick Observatory. The Maxwell is the car that Billy Carlson drove 9 miles up Mt. Wilson, California, over snow and ice, around sharp dangerous curves, climbing 6,000 feet in 29 minutes and 1 second, breaking the previous record of 42 minutes.”

            The ad went on to state that “every man that owns a Maxwell is able to laugh at hills.”

From the Los Angeles Herald 9/25/1920
           For four years cars of all sorts had tried to make the difficult and dangerous climb up Signal Hill the Los Angeles Herald of September 25, 1920 reported, but had failed. There was a curving road up Signal Hill from Cherry Avenue which was easily climbable by automobiles, but it had long been termed “impossible” directly from the foot of the hill up its steep side to the top. There was no grade on the road. The only markings on the route were made by autos trying futilely to reach the summit. For years there had been tales of cars that had to be towed back to a garage after attempting such a climb.  In fact the grade off Hill Street between Obispo and Temple had even been described as Southern California’s own Mount Everest (Press-Telegram 5/21/1973). It was E. H. Stenninger and his sturdy Maxwell that first successfully made the grade.  He began at a standing start since there wasn’t room for a running start. He had invited some of the men from the Long Beach Maxwell dealership to ride with him, all refused.  They did, however, agree to come out and watch as Stenninger pushed his machine up a grade of 40 per cent.  Just to prove his car had “taken” the climb with no ill effects, Stenninger went down the hill and repeated his performance.

Model T's ready to climb Signal Hill
            Not many Maxwell stock cars are around anymore, but you will still find the Model T.  One reason might have been the price.  A 1916 Maxwell, for example, sold for $655, while a Model T could be purchased for $360.  This was when the average annual household income was $708.
     Ronald MacWillie, president of the Long Beach Model T Club in 1955, told reporter Dave Emery that there was a reason Henry Ford sold 15 million of the T’s from 1908 until 1927. “They were marvelous cars,” MacWillie said. “They start quick and they’ve got better visibility than modern cars. With the top down, it’s just like sitting in the middle of the street in a bathtub. Model T’s are like little toys, you open the hood and there is nothing there. Anyone could fix anything that went wrong. It’s like a little sewing machine motor – 22 horse power. (Press Telegram 6/30/1955).  MacWillie, who drove a 1914 Model T touring car and a 1914 Model T pie wagon, held Model T Club meetings in the big garage he built to house his classic machines.
                The Signal Hill climb was the only known one of its kind in the United States for Model T Fords, officers of the Long Beach Club told reporter George Robeson in 1961. They also revealed a few things you had to remember about the design of a Model T before you could drive it uphill.  For instance, if the gas tank wasn't full or nearly full, you would run out of gas halfway up the hill. Model T's had no fuel pump - the gas was gravity-fed to the carburetor, and when the car started up hill the tank was lower than the carburetor.  One way to get around this issue was to drive your Model T backwards up the hill, something many participants in the Signal Hill climb did every year!

            Signal Hill was also known for its Soap Box Derby races, though they used Palm Drive instead of Hill Street.  All was to come to an end in 1977.  It seemed skateboarders had gotten in the way.
Skateboarding Hill Street
              In 1975 skateboarding was hugely popular and the producer of ABC's television program, The Guinness Book of World Records wanted to shoot a skateboarding event for the show. The annual Model T climb of Signal Hill and the steep incline was remembered. It seemed the natural place to hold a skateboarding event.   For the next few years the Hill Street incline became the site of some of the most dangerous skateboarding on record. Wild parties, daring stunts and many accidents led the City of Signal Hill to cancel future events on Hill Street, including the Model T hill climb.  Though there was talk in 1981 and 1988 of resurrecting the Model T hill event, nothing happened.  It seemed the Long Beach Grand Prix, with its fast cars and action had upstaged the slower paced Model T’s.
Hill Street today

           If you have comments or memories please feel free to share them with others reading this blog.  I’ve included several links below to take you to others who remember the Signal Hill climb.

ONLY IN LB By Steve Harvey