Twenty years ago, when my own interests in western vehicles began to accumulate more questions than I could keep up with, I started a journey for answers that has led us to countless regions of the U.S. Throughout the process, we’ve accumulated a significant number of rare details and insights into America’s early western vehicles. The results have driven the Wheels That Won The West® Archives far beyond a casual collection of literature into a real repository for answers. That said, this is a subject that doesn’t surrender secrets easily and, as a result, we still struggle to find elusive vehicles along with a broad array of lost and unknown details.
In the beginning, the information and lessons came slow. As time passed, though, it became clear that one of my greatest weaknesses was also a vital strength. Since I was a bare-bones beginner, my mind was a blank slate. Believe it or not, those initial levels of inexperience were a true blessing… (And should serve as encouragement for anyone wanting to know more about this subject. Don’t be intimidated. Dive in and hold on!) I was fortunate that I hadn’t been exposed to best guesses and unsubstantiated claims and opinions. I hadn’t had a chance to develop preconceived notions about why, when, how, and where things were done. Devouring the content of vast amounts of original sales materials, this first-hand schooling from America’s most legendary builders helped me look at every aging set of wheels with century-plus-old eyes. As the years have passed, that knowledge has opened huge doors of understanding while the depth of the subject continues to fuel my enthusiasm for even more of what this history can teach.
David Sneed, speaking to a group in Santa Ynez, California about early western wagons.
Collectively, the study of early western vehicles involves a substantial part of America’s heritage. As such, it continues to reflect our nation’s background as a ‘melting pot’ of civilization. People from all walks of life… men, women, children, doctors, lawyers, bankers, brokers, business owners, CEO’s, mechanics, welders, photographers, historians, curators, electricians, plumbers, builders, farmers, ranchers, athletes, retirees – you name the occupation and age – It’s a safe bet that I’ve met someone with that background looking for more details on early vehicles. It’s truly amazing to see such diversity in a crowd of western vehicle enthusiasts. One thing’s for certain, any time these varied groups come together, there are going to be questions.
With that as a backdrop to this week’s blog, I thought I’d share a few basic pieces of information that help us communicate this subject more effectively. First, let’s talk about the wheel height of a wagon. Honestly, there’s more to discuss in this one topic than what we can get done today. So, we’ll focus on just one aspect... how do you measure the height of a wheel? Okay, right now someone is saying, “Is this guy for real? Just take a tape and measure it.” That’s exactly what many folks do and often they come up with numbers that don’t coincide with original manufacturer specifications. In other words – the measurements can easily be wrong. One of the more common reasons for inaccurate calculations is that someone has included the thickness of the tire in the dimension total. (While it may sound strange in today’s world, the outer metal band on the wheel was/is referred to as the “tire” on early horse drawn vehicles) American wagon builders typically measured wheel heights without including the tire. So, if a catalog stated that a wagon had 52” rear wheels, it will actually measure a bit taller when the thickness of the tire is included. That said, it’s important to note that the aging process, with its years of wear and tear on an old wagon wheel, can also affect accurate measurements, requiring consideration when stretching a tape alongside a wheel.
Determining the correct height of well-worn wheels may require extra attention.
The actual process of measuring wooden wheel heights can encounter other barriers as well. For instance, since the protrusion of the hub can prevent the tape from lying perfectly parallel, it’s easy to make a quick ‘guesstimate’ with a bent tape that’s less than accurate. This is especially true of wheel heights that might only vary by an inch or so. In other words… Is that rear wheel 52 inches or is it 53 inches? One of the simpler measuring methods we’ve experienced is to place the leading end of the rule in the center of the skein lag bolt, then stretch the tape to the outer felloe edge. If you’re working alone, measuring half of the wheel like this and then doubling the amount can be a quick way to learn an accurate wheel height. Even with proper measurement, examination of original period literature may also be an important part of the process, especially with reference to authentication.
Accurate wooden wheel height measurements typically do not include the metal tire.
Similarly, accurate track width measurement is important because it not only communicates the correct details of a wider or narrower wheel base but, it can also hold potential insights into the age, rarity, authenticity, and purposes of a vehicle. Here, the correct way to obtain an accurate track width is to measure from the center to center (at the ground) of the right and left wheels on an axle. Keep in mind that excessively worn skeins, boxings, and wheels can leave the system out of alignment and make original track specifications more difficult to determine. As with the wheel heights, sometimes you may be alone and knowing whether you have the tape centered on the opposite side tire surface can be tough. As long as the tire edges aren't significantly misshaped, the easiest way is overcome this challenge is to hook the tape under the outside of one wheel (again at the ground) and extend it to the inside of the opposite wheel. This renders the same distance as ‘center to center’ of the tire and is much easier to accomplish when help isn’t available.
Wheel track measurements can convey more information than the track width, itself.
When it comes to antique vehicles, it’s sometimes tough to find even the most basic information such as I’ve just shared. It’s this type of knowledge, though, that helps us communicate more effectively and understand more about the rolling witnesses to our country’s history. All in all, the road to learning is lifelong and full of opportunity. Plus, this transportation subject is filled with some of the world’s most interesting people, places, and experiences. So, while you’re out there looking for answers, keep your eyes wide open and enjoy the ride!