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The Wonders & Woes of J. Gresham Machen’s Motorcars

Following invention of the first internal combustion engine driven motorcar by Carl Benz in Germany in 1886, there were many home-shop tinkerers creating horseless carriages as they anticipated prosperous careers manufacturing their vehicles. Ten years after Benz, Henry Ford constructed his first vehicle—the quadricycle—named for its four bicycle wheels. Continued experimental models and a few production failures yielded a viable vehicle in 1908 that would change the world, the Model T Ford. Also called the Tin Lizzie or Flivver, the T would constitute in the early 1920s more than half of all registered motorcars in the world and would make Ford one of the richest men of his era. Joining the growing crowd of Flivver fans in 1917 was Princeton Seminary professor and Presbyterian New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen. 

A 1917 Model T. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In a letter written from Philadelphia to his mother in Baltimore, Machen mentioned he had just completed the first of three lessons “learning to run a Ford car.” He purchased the car, probably the touring car version that has room for four people and a convertible top, to make more efficient use of time by driving instead of coordinating train and bus schedules for trips. One person he would visit with Lizzie was his redeemed alcoholic friend Richard Hodges who lived in Millville, New Jersey. But for him the primary purpose for Lizzie was transporting the family to their summer home in Seal Harbor, Maine. Machen commented respecting summer sojourns that when he finished the second and third lessons: “It is barely possible that I might complete my education as a chauffeur to Seal Harbor.” Why the limited confidence regarding driving? Even though the Model T had a low price, mechanical simplicity, and truck-like sturdiness, there were oddities of operation that challenged drivers. 

The little car is proving to be an immense convenience, not only in going to Bar Harbor [Maine] and taking longer rides, but also in avoiding the tedious walk to the boat landing, which was always wearisome to Mother. I am afraid I am not a very skillful chauffeur; the water in my radiator displays a tendency to boil—especially when I took Mr. Woodworth and Mr. & Mrs. Duffy to the south end of Great Pond over a terrifically rough road—but I am learning something about the car. Most of the internal workings are still full of mysteries to me, though I do now know what is inside a carburetor, having watched it being repaired. Sometimes my motor will start when I crank it, and sometimes it won’t. I should like to recommend driving a car without a self-starter to my enemies. (Arly, July 3, 1917) 

Machen wanted to understand the mechanism of his motorcar. How many of his seminary colleagues would care about the carburetor but instead would sit in a secluded spot reading the latest in theological literature? He not only sought understanding of topics relevant to his calling but delved into other areas. However, it was not the engine and its carburetor that made the Model T a quirky car—Ford was at his best when designing the powertrain components and contributed several innovations to their design. The trouble with the T was controlling the drivetrain components. Three lessons were needed to understand operation of the car because one had to master what was called the Model T Shuffle. Lizzie’s controls included two levers on the steering column—one regulated the ignition spark, the other controlled the throttle (a primitive cruise control without the safety of a brake interlock); three pedals with the left one used to shift from low to high speed, the middle one reversed the car, and the right one sort-of stopped the car; and then added to these was a lever beside the seat used for additional braking and clutch functions. If it was raining and a windshield wiper was installed, then a hand was needed to operate the wiper, or a passenger could reach over and flip the lever back and forth. Added to these was the manual engine starting mechanism accessed with a hand crank at the front of the car beneath the radiator. This device provided patients for the medical professions. The awkward body position needed to turn the crank misaligned many a back. But the crank had a quirk that was even more hazardous. Broken fingers, fractured wrists, or broken arms could result if the crank was not held properly when used. As the crank was turned, if the engine backfired, it could kick back suddenly and hit anything in its path causing contusions and fractures. The Model T Shuffle was tricky, but once mastered, the Flivver came to delight its owners with reliability. Cadillac introduced the self-starter in 1912, but if Machen had waited a year to buy his Ford, a self-starter would have been on the options list. But his use of the Ford would be limited because early in 1918, he sailed to France to work with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in the Great War (First World War). 

Shahn, Ben, photographer. Cranking Model “T” Ford before the days of the self-starter, Worthington, Ohio. United States Ohio Worthington, 1938. Aug. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017732641/.

A Ford Expert in France 

The Great War transitioned the way war was waged from charging cavalry brandishing sabers amongst infantry troops using firearms to new technology. The horse had been used in warfare for cavalry and to pull wagons, but as the war years passed, equine means yielded to engines. Troops were attacked with aircraft propelled by engines; they were terrorized by engine-powered tanks; and the motor vehicle gave new mobility to troops, ordnance, supplies, and the wounded. Machen had some experience transported by Ford. 

To-day I was brought by a Ford out to my post. It was a trip of some fifteen miles. Many interesting things were to be seen— trenches, “abris,” [shelters] etc. It may amuse you to know of the benefit of my Ford experience last Summer. In the village where I am now located, but before we had gotten to the exact place where we were bound, “Fordy” refused to start. Crank as he could the driver could not make the engine go. At last your humble servant made the brilliant suggestion that she might be shoved a little down the grade, and thrown into gear. The thing worked like a charm. Brilliant, wasn’t it? (Mother, Letters from the Front, 28)

Machen’s method of starting the Ford was not so brilliant but a common practice for starting any motorcar acting like its transportation ancestor, the mule. Drivers of era motorcars would look for a grade to park their cars so starting could be achieved with gravity as described by Machen; the Flivver engine would turn over, sputter, and hopefully, once the spark was adjusted, run rhythmically with all four cylinders. 

Machen’s work with the YMCA involved operating a hut where soldiers could write letters, play sports, enjoy music, and buy assorted items like cigarettes, candy, and hot chocolate in winter, but near the end of the war, he gave speeches to meetings held in Army camps. As he went from place to place, “The necessary trips were made in the Fords that are operated by the Y.M.C.A.” (Mother, June 20, 1918, Letters, 143–44). 

Our supply is carried on by Ford camionettes which arrive in the evening at about nine o’clock, day travel being forbidden hereabouts. The stock has now been allowed to run down to almost nothing—compared at least with the good stock that we had ten days ago. At times I have sold some 1,900 francs worth of goods in the course of a day. One important part of the work is the filling of orders assigned by a sergeant or by an officer, for things to be sent to men in the lines. The demand for goods, however, is not nearly equal to that which prevailed at my last post. (Mother, Letters, 170). 

The camionette Machen referred to is a panel truck. Many Model Ts were sold as truck chassis with only the firewall and engine complete, then a custom box or bed was built on the chassis. These self-propelled camionettes replaced horse-drawn wagons. But often the T was used for transportation as a predecessor of the Second World War era Jeep. 

On last Sunday, I went out to speak at Bourron, south of the forest of Fontainebleau. The Ford that took me was scheduled to leave Paris at 8.30 A.M., but on account of some kind of trouble did not leave till about one. Then on the way out the chauffer proved to be incompetent; we ran out of gasoline; and so did not finish the forty-mile run till about six o’clock. I spoke at an evening service—without, as far as I could see, any great response. Contrary to the original plan we spent the night at the camp and limped along back the next morning. Danny drove the car in from the out skirts of the city. (Mother, November 28, 1918, Letters, 224–25) 

Why the Ford “limped along back” is not noted, but it may have had something to do with the “incompetent” chauffer unfamiliar with the Model T Shuffle and the car’s other quirks. Part of the simplicity of the T was what it did not have. There was no speedometer-odometer, no heater for the passengers, and importantly for the incompetent chauffer, no gas gage. The only way to check the amount of gas in the tank was with a dipstick small enough in profile to fit through the filler opening and long enough to reach the bottom of the tank. Machen admired Ford’s wonderful little car, but its shortcomings were being addressed by other manufacturers whose cars required less knack to drive. When Machen made it back to the States, he went shopping for a motorcar. 

Hopeful about a Hudson

By May 1920, Machen was driving a new Hudson. The motorcar was named for its chief financial backer, J. L. Hudson, the owner of a prosperous chain of department stores in Detroit. The Hudson was a step up from a Ford because it was designed with more comfortable seats and added conveniences to appeal to moderate income buyers and women. Until the invention of the self-starter, if a woman owned a motorcar it was likely powered by batteries—simply press a pedal or lever to go, no indignity suffered by bending over and cranking the engine. To improve the ride during the annual summer trips he ordered the Hudson with “Lovejoy shock-absorbers (125 dollars)” instead of “Westinghouse shock-absorbers (300 dollars).” He explained that the shock-absorber “principle is like that of the pneumatic arrangements which are fastened to doors to keep them from slamming.” (Mother, April 13, 1920) The new Hudson with a self-starter, comfy seats, and smoother ride was hoped to make driving more pleasant.

Hudson Phantom
A 1919 Hudson Phantom. From Wikimedia Commons

After the PCUSA General Assembly concluded in 1920 having convened at the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Machen and his friend Bobby Robinson set out on a tour. He recounted the journey to his mother in a lengthy letter, June 2, 1920. When they came to Princeton Seminary, professors Caspar Wistar Hodge and William Park Armstrong were invited to join the duo but declined. The two travelled on spending the first night in Katonah on the Hudson River in New York, before driving on to Saugerties then headed up the Catskill Mountains. The car did not fare so well because the “road was very steep and my car, which was in wretched condition displayed poor hill climbing qualities,” but despite the challenging climb they made it to visit Kaaterskill Falls, “which was really a very impressive thing.” (Mother, June 2, 1920, p. 2) Further motoring provided a foggy but lovely view of the Hudson River Valley as the two paused for lunch at a hotel called the Catskill Mountain House. On they continued to Albany then east through the Berkshire Hills to Pittsfield where they lodged for the second night. Despite the poor condition of the Hudson, the two enjoyed a wonderful trip. But things would unfortunately soon change. 

Today at about eleven o’clock, the motor trip came, I am sorry to say, to an abrupt close. (Mother, June 2, 1920, pp.2–3) 

Had the wretched condition of his car caused a breakdown? No. While the two were happily chugging along enjoying the beauty of God’s creation halfway from Egremont towards Sheffield, Massachusetts, a man and his wife in a Ford coming from the opposite direction wandered into Machen’s lane, and despite hard braking by both, they hit head-on at “but slight speed.” (Mother, June 2, 1920, p. 4) The couple was hauling vegetables and distracted by the design of a fence. They did not realize they had veered into Machen’s lane. This part of the letter is repetitive, and the script is more difficult to decipher than usual and may reflect his agitation while composing details of the crash. The woman was frightfully disturbed and suffered lacerations from shards of windshield glass (no safety glass then) but more significant was her fractured jaw. The man had the steering wheel forced into his torso leaving him sore and bruised. Bobby and Machen had some “very minor scratches.” (Mother, June 2, 1920, p. 4) The oncoming driver, Mr. Frehan, admitted to the constable that the accident occurred because he was not paying attention. A physician examined the woman and said her fracture would heal in a few months, but Machen was clearly shaken and learned a lesson. 

I feel humbled by my very feeling of thankfulness to God that there is no unfavorable harm. Sympathy for those poor people in the other car is my dominant grief. (Mother, June 2, 1920, p. 14)

He added regarding himself, 

One thing is certain—I shall be about the safest and most careful motorist in America. You need not be afraid of going out with me now. (Mother, June 2, 1920, p. 13) 

After his trip Machen was to take his mother to Seal Harbor, so he precluded her thoughts of incompetence regarding his driving skills. He described the damage as serious and purposed to buy insurance for protection in future incidents. The mechanic in the garage in Egremont where the car was towed provided good news that the engine was not damaged, but then the bad news included replacement of the front fenders, radiator, radiator fan, headlights, and windshield. Machen was hopeful he could buy the necessary parts in New York and take them back to the garage when he and Bobby boarded the train into the city. Machen was hopeful the car could be repaired in time and the summer at Seal Harbor would not be lost. 

The car was mended but continued to be a mechanical nightmare. He sent a letter composed on another of Machen’s favorite inventions, the typewriter, to the Hudson dealer the next year not long before the Seal Harbor trip expressing frustration while hoping for a solution. 

After another three hundred miles my car has developed the same troubles as before—poor compression, enormously high consumption of oil. The block has already twice been removed, and the car has consistently failed to give satisfaction. . . . 

I am writing therefore to learn whether there will be any possibility for trading this car for another Hudson car, new or second-hand. Even if this car should be patched up now I should be unwilling to risk taking it to Maine, if I can possibly secure another car, since I am now tremendously busy and have no time to test the car again. (Mr. Perkins, May 23, 1921) 

Given his troubles and two failed repairs, why would he want another Hudson? Writing the letter made his complaint to Mr. Perkins clear and recorded Machen’s good faith attempt to work with him for resolution. Machen’s brother Arly (Arthur W. Machen II) was an attorney, and given the aggravation the Hudson caused him, legal action may have been in view if the dealer’s response was unsatisfactory. That resolution, if any, did not prevent motoring to Maine. 

Seal Harbor 1921 was a frustrating experience for Machen. The Seaside Inn, where the Machens resided, had a garage that could make minor repairs and provide lubrication and gasoline. During the month of August, the car used 96 gallons of gasoline and 22 quarts of oil. Where was all that oil going? It was going out the tailpipe as the Hudson chugged along leaving a plume of black smoke. It must have been embarrassing. The following year Machen’s motorcar used only ten quarts for about a hundred gallons of gas—an improvement, but still pretty bad for the era. He must have obtained resolution of the Hudson’s problems from Mr. Perkins in the intervening time but still was driving an, at best, adequate Hudson. 

Stepping Up to Studebaker

The next car was a Studebaker Big Six Touring car purchased in May 1924. The company was founded by the Studebaker brothers and for half a century manufactured wagons before producing its first motorcar in 1902. Magazine advertising in 1924 touted the car’s comfort with eye-catching banners such as “Coachwork to the American Aristocracy,” and “For Fine Coachmaking, Studebaker,” combined with text emphasizing the car’s “comfort and luxury.” Seats had deep cushion springs topped with upholstery of the finest Mohair, a fabric made from Angora goat hair. Clearly in mind for Machen was the most comfortable car he could afford—the Studebaker fit the bill. Anticipating his annual trip to Seal Harbor in 1924, he wrote to his mother about his new wheels. 

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. A Studebaker “President” Touring Car, displayed at the Studebaker Museum in South Bend, Indiana. United States Indiana South Bend St. Joseph County, 2016. -09-18. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016632030/.

I have bought a Studebaker car. In some ways, I like it; in other ways not. I regard it as a great nuisance here. The main question is whether you will like it. I had your comfort especially in view in the choice of the Studebaker; but one can never tell before a trial. (Mother, May 4, 1924) 

Machen had good reason to be skeptical about the new vehicle given his horrid experience with the Hudson. It being “a great nuisance here” refers to Princeton and the time and expense involved in keeping the vehicle running while teaching and writing. However, the new car was necessary for the important summer sojourns in Maine. His mother was 74 years of age, frail, and suffered a recurring respiratory affliction. Two years into the Studebaker story found him dealing with significant problems including replacing the fenders and headlights, likely from another accident; tire repairs—a way of life in the era; and the engine required a complete ring and valve job as well as rebuilding the carburetor. For the first third of 1926, the Studebaker spent more time in the Princeton Motor Shop than on the road. In mid-September, the car was again in the mechanic’s hands but this time in Maine for four days having the steering box rebuilt as well as the carburetor rejuvenated once again. Motorcars required constant attention due to their primitive but improving technologies for lubrication, fuel systems, electrical components, and drivetrains. In 1928, the Machens made it to Seal Harbor, but before returning home, it was necessary to take the car to a shop in Bar Harbor to have all the engine valves refaced, a shock absorber replaced, the muffler repaired, the clutch rebuilt, a radiator hose replaced, and the headlights adjusted with the bill tallying just over a hundred dollars; Machen was impressed with the work describing it as “excellent.” A few years later, Clement’s Garage in Maine rebuilt the engine, replaced an axle spring, installed new spark plugs, rebuilt the passenger heater, installed a new carburetor, and replaced a pair of shock absorbers. From 1924 to 1934 despite an abundance of problems, strange as it may seem, Machen enjoyed the Studebaker as an acceptably useful way to get around. He commented to his car insurance agent in 1933 regarding its condition just before he sold the car. 

The car, though so old as to be an object of curious interest at gasoline stations, is a perfectly good car. It has not been driven hard, and so has had less wear and tear than most cars one-quarter of its age. (Mr. Howe, March 29, 1933). 

The Studebaker was in its tenth year and had experienced many repairs that modern car owners would find unacceptable, but for Machen, the car was a good one and it would be a find for someone looking for a used car. The nation was early into the years of the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt had just been inaugurated for his first term a few weeks earlier, so would he buy another pricey vehicle like the Studebaker? 

Full Circle to a Ford Flathead V8

The Great Depression separated the healthy auto manufacturers from the marginal and weak with many companies closing their doors for good by the time the Second World War began. The two leading survivors were Ford and Chevrolet. However, the Great Depression reduced annual total production of both companies to anywhere from a third to half of pre-collapse numbers. Louis Chevrolet aggressively marketed cars with newer technology and features that Henry Ford was unwilling to adopt because he tenaciously held to the keep-it-simple philosophy and was loathe to admit other manufacturers had a better idea. Ford responded to the competition in 1932 with his flathead V8 engine that produced 85 horsepower and raised the performance bar for other manufacturers. After exchanging the sales lead a few years with Chevrolet, Ford was the leader in 1934 with its V8 cars, and one of the new owners was Machen when he bought a Tudor sedan. In addition to the difficult economy, Machen had founded Westminster Theological Seminary with its first session in the fall of 1929 and was providing considerable funding for its operation. So, purchasing a new car is surprising unless the Studebaker just gave out. He despised the Model T’s crank starter, but the self-starter in his Tudor could have problems too. After only 314 miles of driving, the Tudor let him down. The self-starter was useless because the battery was dead leaving him stranded on a street corner in Baltimore resulting in a tow to Mount Royal Ford for repairs. Maybe Lizzie’s hand crank had some nostalgic appeal as he waited for the tow truck. The Tudor is believed to be the car Machen owned when he passed away January 1, 1937, from pneumonia in Bismarck, North Dakota. He had gone to the state in frigid weather on a speaking trip to extend the ministry of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. What happened to the Tudor? Paul Woolley may have become the new owner because Machen had loaned the car to him for four months in 1935, but it is more likely the estate sold the car. 

1934 Ford Model 40 700 De Luxe Tudor Sedan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


What does Machen’s experiences with the motorcar show about him? Three attributes come to mind—curiosity, simplicity, and practicality. He was curious about the Model T, and curiosity is the beginning of learning. While the mechanic was rebuilding the carburetor, he watched and wondered about its mechanism. Owner’s manuals were different then because they provided not only operational information but repair instructions such as how to remove carbon deposits inside the engine and how to change crankshaft bearings, so Machen likely read the sixty-two-page manual cover to cover and learned about his car. Henry Ford built an automotive empire with a simple motorcar. Machen was a simple man, not simplistic, but simple in the sense of to the point and nothing more is needed than is required. As a minister and professor, it was simple questions he answered such as what is faith, what is Christianity, what is and what is not the gospel, and why supernaturalism is essential to the faith. Then there is practicality. Ford’s car was efficient and rugged—it got the job done. Machen’s purchase of the Hudson was both a practical concession to his mother’s frailty and relief to his back because it had a self-starter. His motorcars were for trips to Seal Harbor as well as tools for a more efficient ministry teaching, writing, and preaching as he continually answered the Philippian jailor’s question, “What must I do to be saved?”


Photocopies of correspondence and ephemera were provided by Archivist Grace Mullen (1943–2014) from the J. Gresham Machen Collection in the Montgomery Library of Westminster Theological Seminary; as I remember it, the Machen collection is filed according to date.

For additional information about Machen, see the biography by his friend and colleague, Ned B. Stonehouse, titled J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Willow Grove: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2004, reprint of 1954); D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995, reprint 1994); and Stephen J. Nichols, J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2004).

The story of Machen and Richard Hodges is provided in the author’s article “Mr. Machen’s Protégé,” in the Westminster Theological Journal, 71 (2009): 21–51; Letters refers to Barry Waugh, editor, Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2012); and finally, the story of the relationship with his cousin is told in the author’s article, “J. Gresham Machen and LeRoy Gresham: Cousins, Confidants, and Churchmen,” in The Confessional Presbyterian, 10 (2014): 3–12. 

Automobile information was taken from: Bruce W. McCalley, Model T Ford: The Car that Changed the World (Iola: Krause Publications, 1994), just about anything one needs to know about the Tin Lizzie is likely in this massive book; G. N. Georgano, The New Encyclopedia of Automobiles 1885 to Present, Every Make of Car in the World (New York: Crescent Books, 1982); Ford Manual (Detroit: Ford Motor Company, 1919). 



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