Flivver Talk

In the early 20th century, flivvers sailed the seas, swarmed the roads, and one even took to the air. How did flivvers become forgotten?
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Flight of Fancy - A single-seat aircraft, the Ford Flivver was intended to be the “Model T of the Air,” but the plane never caught on. Today, Model No. 1, built in 1926, is on display at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn. // Courtesy of The Henry Ford
Flight of Fancy – A single-seat aircraft, the Ford Flivver was intended to be the “Model T of the Air,” but the plane never caught on. Today, Model No. 1, built in 1926, is on display at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn. // Courtesy of The Henry Ford

Harry Brooks was rushing to an engagement in Berkley, so the young test pilot showed his derring-do (and showed up on time) by landing the prototype Ford Flivver airplane on Woodward Avenue near the old Northwood Inn. For his punctuality and innovation, he received a $500 ticket. “I’ll pay it this time, Brooksie, but better not do it again,” Henry Ford said.

Hailed as a flying car, the Flivver was the next plane in development after Ford’s aviation division started building the Trimotor all-metal airliner in 1925. The Flivver — so called in honor of the Ford Model T, which was widely known by that nickname — was of a compact, twin-cylinder design.

Brooks, a former high school football star from Birmingham, flew the Flivver through the open hangar doors at the former Ford Airport in Dearborn, between high-rise buildings in downtown Detroit, and even in a race against one of Gar Wood’s boats on the Detroit River.

“The Cassell Dictionary of Slang” gives flivver — of unknown origin — a range of uses from the early 1900s to the 1960s, and a broader range of definitions starting with “a failure, disappointment, or something cheap and inferior.” Its application as a vehicle name came before 1910, when the United States Navy’s new torpedo-boat destroyers were dubbed flivvers because of their shaking and rattling. “The ‘Flivvers’ incorporated a number of significant advances in marine engineering,” writes historian George Stewart.

Flivver also suggested a ramshackle automobile, and the word caught on in popular culture. “See America First” — Cole Porter’s first Broadway musical — included the ditty “Will You Love Me (When My Flivver Is a Wreck)?” It tells the story of a boy and a girl holding hands and smooching while “seated in a little Henry Ford … making love in a cow pasture, like boys and girls will do … when the price of gas went up to 42.” Then the mood shifts as the singer looks to an uncertain future and repeats the song’s title. 

The poet King A. Woodburn took up his pen, too, and the verses of “That Dear Old Flivver” were published on an edition of postcards. Woodburn compared his flivver rather ungraciously to a “faded” woman with wrinkles, weak lungs, and a squeaking voice — although she “still holds a place in my heart.” He recalls hunting expeditions and a wedding trip before concluding: “I’ve enjoyed every ride, in that dear old flivver.”

The greatest literary contribution in the flivver’s name was Upton Sinclair’s 1937 novel “The Flivver King: A Story of Ford-America.” Two decades earlier, Sinclair had written “The Jungle,” about the meat-packing industry, and earned himself a place in American literary history.

“The Flivver King” gauged the rise of Ford Motor Co. and Henry Ford against the experiences of a common employee. “Sixteen hours a day he (Ford) was rolling out lines of new flivvers, one of them every 25 seconds now,” Sinclair wrote of the Highland Park plant. The novel was published in an edition of 200,000 by the United Auto Workers and still manages to sting.

It was mostly downhill for flivver after the 1960 album “Flivvers, Flappers, and Fox Trots” by ragtime pianist Del Wood of the Grand Ole Opry. The RCA Victor release included “The Flivver Song,” but flivver was passing from the lingua franca.

Perhaps the lingering grief after Harry Brooks’ fatal accident was a factor. Completing the final leg of a Detroit-to-Miami journey on Feb. 25, 1928, Brooks’ Flivver prototype crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. When engineer Harold Hicks asked about further refinement of the twin-cylinder engine for the Flivver, Henry Ford mournfully replied, “What are they good for?” Ford continued building Trimotors, but the Flivver had met its end.