Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


MOTORING WAS SOMETHING OF a cult activity. We usta go for a ride, just for fun. Like any good cult, we had a lot of cant, the linguistic term for language of the cognoscente. Here are selected tidbits.

“Ride Shotgun.” Uttered in preparation for “Goin’ for a Ride,” this phrase entitled one to sit to the driver’s right. Of course, in England, Japan, and other keep-left countries, it would be to the left of the driver.

The fact that it was statistically the most hazardous place in an automobile was quite beside the point. It sure gave the best view.

Etymologically, the term arises from stagecoach days, when an armed guard rode up next to the driver, ahead of the chest carrying that gold shipment.

Image from the

Service Stations. These street-corner purveyors met the perceived needs of motorists, with professional auto mechanics often aided by high-school and college kids (like me in the ‘60s). Unlike today, they rarely offered winning lottery tickets, stale hot dogs on heated rollers, or really questionable sushi. They did sell gasoline, however, with attendants who did the actual pumping. 

Image from

“Check Your Oil, Sir?” Given the propensity of the era’s cars to consume oil as well as gasoline, it was not unexpected to have the attendant offer to check oil level. This involved releasing the hood latch (only rarely done these days; quick, where’s your car’s release?), and using the dip stick to check its oil level in the sump. 

These days, the worst of drivers continue until the Low Oil light comes on. 

My most bizarre “Check Your Oil, Sir?” tale resulted in a burning dip stick: Inadvertently, the attendant’s withdrawn dipstick encountered a hot battery lead and completed the circuit on the engine block. Agg.      

“Roll Down the Window.” This one is akin to “dial a telephone.” There was this little crank in the car’s door panel that actuated a complex mechanism lowering or raising window glass. 

My Mazda Miata’s door panel.

Think of three phases of automotive development: side curtains, crank windows, and electric actuation. I knew a Morgan friend who jumped ship directly from the first era to the third.

I recall once thinking how effete Lotus was in fitting electrically actuated window lifts in one of its sports cars. Later I learned they had done so for efficiency: The electric hardware was more compact and lighter than the traditional winding mechanism. 

A Look at the Winding Mechanism. Once, sitting idly while getting a fillup, I was tapping my credit card on the car’s sill and damn! dropped it down the window slot. To retrieve the card and pay for the gas, I had to disassemble the door panel (no mean feat).

“440 A/C.” It wasn’t that the air conditioning required 440 volts. The term meant “four windows down, 40 mph.” I forget which was my first car with air conditioning. 

“Filling ‘er Up With Ethyl.” This had nothing to do with a service station attendant of the fair sex (a rarity, in my experience). “Ethyl,” short for tetraethyl lead, was cant for premium, high-test gasoline. TEL was a miracle fuel additive discovered in the 1920s that mitigated engine knock, a premature ignition that could destroy pistons.

I’ve oft repeated the tale of the TEL salesman who would set Model T spark advance to full knock, then sprinkle this mysterious liquid on his tie and wave it over the car’s carburetor.  The knock would disappear. 

It’s not recorded what happened to the tie or the salesman, as highly toxic lead compounds are brain-damaging.

“Getting the Lead Out.” As noted in Wikipedia, “The toxicity of concentrated TEL was recognized early on, as lead had been recognized since the 19th century as a dangerous substance that could cause lead poisoning. In 1924, a public controversy arose over the ‘loony gas,’ after five workers died, and many others were severely injured, in Standard Oil refineries in New Jersey.”

“In the 1970’s,” Wikipedia says, “Herbert Needleman found that higher lead levels in children were correlated with decreased school performance. Needleman was repeatedly accused of scientific misconduct by individuals within the lead industry, but he was eventually cleared by a scientific advisory council.”

“From 1 January 1996,” Wikipedia summarizes, “the U.S. Clean Air Act banned the sale of leaded fuel for use in on-road vehicles although that year the US EPA indicated that TEL could still be used in aircraft, racing cars, farm equipment, and marine engines…. By 2011, the United Nations announced that it had been successful in phasing out leaded gasoline worldwide.”

The times, they were a’changin’, albeit not particularly quickly. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 


  1. Mike B
    July 19, 2022

    Leftover lead from Those Days is still around, and causes problems with highway improvement projects. The soil along most older major highways is contaminated with the stuff, so when it needs to be dug up for widening or the like there’s a lot of testing (including sometimes in adjoining back yards) and often carefully digging it up and taking it to a haz waste dump. Landscape maintenance people have cleanup protocols to go through after working there, too.

  2. Jack Albrecht
    July 20, 2022

    My 2013 BMW, no longer even remotely new, doesn’t even have a dipstick. It is measured electronically only. I used to work at one of the last full-service gas stations/car washes near where my folks worked. Very long gone now! Yes, the times they are a changin’

  3. -Nate
    July 21, 2022

    THANK YOU for recalling the old dayze when we worked in those small neighborhood filling stations .

    I miss them dearly and am glad I didn’t get the TEL poisoning .

    Slim Pickins sure looks young in that photograph ! .

    My father was a Doctor and always called the front passenger seat the “death seat” ~ that made it _more_ attractive to use kids, not less .


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