My Grandfather’s First Car

Angelo DiLella was my maternal grandfather, and I knew him well, at least as well as one could know a grandparent who spoke almost no English and didn’t talk much anyway. From researching my ancestral history, this I do know: he was born in Italy in 1894 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1911. Consider the timeframe for a moment: There were no automobiles in 1894, and when he arrived here at the age of 17, self-propelled cars and trucks were just starting to take over from the horse (possibly to his detriment at first, as upon arrival, he was employed as a blacksmith making horseshoes!).

He got married in 1921, and by 1930, was living with his wife and four children in Hoboken, N.J. Whatever the public transportation options, at some point he decided that the family needed its own set of wheels. And so he became owner of the 4-door sedan pictured here, a fact passed on to me by my Aunt Rita who gifted me this photograph a few years ago.

My grandfather died in 1969 when I was 15; I never spoke to him about this car, or any car. I never saw him drive. By this time, my Aunt Rita did all the driving for her parents (my grandmother never had a driver’s license). Had I the opportunity, I would have loved to know where he got it, what he paid for it, and what it was like to drive. Of course, that imagined conversation would have started with: “hey Grandpa, what year, make, and model was it?”

Today, I’m left to my own devices to find the answer. After several hours of working the Google machine, here is my overarching conclusion: most 4-door sedans of the 1920s look remarkably similar. The upright grille, separate headlights, double-level bumpers, louvered hood, running boards with step plates, and suicide-hinged rear doors are features of almost every car I found. The decade of the ‘20’s was a transition from 4-doors with folding tops to metal tops; from wooden spoke wheels to metal disc wheels; and from rectangular side glass to the introduction of some curvature to the forms.

This last point brings me to the D-pillar on Grandpa’s car: note how thin it appears from the side, and how that rear quarter-glass has square corners. By the late ‘20s, many sedans incorporated a slope where the roof came down to meet the top of the D-pillar. The one other distinguishing characteristic on this car is the 2nd (lower) horizontal side molding, below the door handle. In the online photos I found, very few cars had two moldings like this one does. Finally, an extreme blowup of the photo, focused on that rear tire, shows what looks like the Chevrolet bow tie on the wheel hub. I think this car is a 1927 Chevrolet, and if anyone has supporting or contradicting evidence, I’d love to hear from you.

What else can we see in this photo? The car is not in great shape. Both front and rear fenders show body damage; the right rear outer door handle is missing; and if these are 6-bolt wheels, each wheel has a lug missing. It amuses me to imagine my mother as a 10-year-old girl riding in this ‘jalopy’ with her parents, quite likely her first-ever automotive experience.

How long did my grandfather keep this car, and did he replace it with something else? My Aunt Rita lived with her parents her entire life; if she got her license at the age of 18, she would have started driving in 1946. Around 1950, the family moved from Union City, N.J. to Staten Island, N.Y. I was born in 1954, and I have good memories of my Aunt’s Ford sedan, a ’52-’54 vintage she bought used. Maybe the old Chevy lasted until she got that Ford. It’s all speculation from here, as we lost Aunt Rita in 2015. But she was the ‘car enthusiast’ in the family, owning a succession of Oldsmobiles and then Volvos. I have a few photos of her and her cars, so I think I will write an article about her in a future post.


All photographs copyright © 2022 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.