He Saw The First Signs Of Traffic

Posted: September 23, 1990

Charlie Frank remembers the night well.

Freezing rain and snow were icing the windshield. As he steered the 1927 Chevy with his left hand, Frank pulled the handle of the crank on the dashboard with his right, back and forth, back and forth, working the windshield wipers that hung straight down from the roof of the car. Sitting beside him, Frank's brother Bill held a candle up to the glass to help melt the ice and warm Charlie's hands.

It was a long treacherous drive from Glenmoore to their home in Malvern, and that last couple of hours crawling along Route 30 seemed endless. They were going about 20 miles an hour, pretty good speed, actually, and, fortunately, they never saw another car.

That was in 1930, and Charlie Frank, now 79, had already been driving for five years. He drove his father's tractor when he was 11 and taught himself to drive a car when he was 14. In 1927, when he was 16, he got his driver's license and bought the Chevy, the first of only eight cars he has owned over his 65 years of driving on the Main Line. He ticks off the names of each one proudly:

"First the Chevy, then a four-door Whippet sedan, made by Willys- Knight, then a six-cylinder Willys roadster, a 1932 Plymouth coupe - my only lemon - I traded it in for a 1934 Chevy with a rumble seat, then a 1940 Chevy Master DeLuxe. I was going to trade that in a year, but then the war came, and I held on to it for 18 1/2 years. Next was a 1960 Studebaker Lark and a 1973 Chevy Nova. I still drive the Nova. It's only got 54,000 miles on it."

Frank grew up on a farm on Diamond Rock Road, north of Yellow Springs Road above Valley Forge mountain. His father opened a barber shop on Route 30 in Berwyn in 1919 and drove a horse and buggy from the farm to the shop. There were hitching posts all along the road then, Frank said.

He remembers when not only could you safely ride a horse or drive a buggy along Route 30, but when you could walk.

"Five of us kids would go out one night a week," said Frank, who had 10 brothers and five sisters. "One kid in the front and one in the back would carry a lantern, and we would walk down Yellow Springs Road, across Mill Road past the blacksmith, then through what's now Chesterbrook, across Route 252, up Howellville Road to Cassatt and go to the old movie theater by the bridge over in Berwyn. I guess that was about five miles. It was so dark, just the stars gave us some light. But it was safe."

Stop signs and traffic lights went up in the 1930s, according to Frank. ''In 1932 I was taking my mother to the hospital," he said. I was in such a hurry I went through a stop sign on Bear Hill (Route 252). I had never seen it there before."

Chances of getting a ticket back then were slim because there was only one cop in each town, including "Sidecar Harry" Lewis in Berwyn, so named

because he rode a motorcycle with a sidecar.

Frank is proud that he never has received a ticket, not even for parking. He did have a close call in 1930 when he was pulled over by a police officer for driving too fast. " 'Do you have any idea how fast you were going?' he yelled at me. 'No sir,' I said. 'Well, you were doing 20, maybe even 22.' It was a 15-miles-per-hour speed limit in the park those days. I didn't get a ticket, but he warned me, 'If I ever catch you again, I'm going to run you in!' Now I'd be arrested for driving too slow."

Frank has always practiced what he calls "instinct" driving. Before traffic signs, he only saw maybe one or two cars a week, he said. "You got to a corner and if you saw another car, you stopped or he stopped. Instinct."

He and his wife, Marion, have lived in Berwyn since they were married in 1935. Their courting car, Marion Frank said, was the Chevy with the rumble seat. She never learned to drive and did all her errands on foot while raising their two sons and a daughter.

"Route 30 was just two lanes then. You could walk right down it, and if you heard a car just move over," she said. "When it went to four lanes, I took the side streets."

Driving was a pleasure then, she said. "Charlie and I would put the kids in the car at Christmastime and drive all over looking at the lights - all the way down Route 30 and up through Valley Forge Park. And if we saw something really pretty, we'd just stop and get out of the car. Well, I wouldn't do that now."

Frank retired in 1979 as a gardener and groundskeeper for the Devereux Foundation. Today, his driving is restricted mainly to trips to Chester Springs and Lionville to visit his children and grandchildren. He avoids as much as possible driving on the major highways.

"I don't think I've ever driven over 60 miles an hour. You were lucky if you got up to 35 with those old cars. Now, if I had to go to Norristown or King of Prussia or the city, I wouldn't get on the expressway or 202 because you have to go 40 miles an hour or they take you off. I'm not nervous, but you got to watch every move. It's not what you do, it's what the other guy does."

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