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Skull fractured by transmission in an old car from the 1920s

A relative of mine was killed in a car wreck in 1934. He ran a stop sign and hit another car. The occupants of the other car were not hurt, but he was killed. On the death certificate it said his skull was fractured by the transmission. I don’t know what kind of car he was driving, but it wouldn’t have been a big, new, or expensive car. Probably a Model T or Model A or something like that.

My questions:

  1. Was the transmission set in place in those days in such a way that a collision could send it flying to hit the driver’s head? (I’m clueless about cars.)

  2. I don’t doubt that it was an accident, as several witnesses attested, but just out of curiosity, would it have been possible for someone to tamper with the transmission to make it more likely to break loose and kill the driver in case of a collision?

  3. Would it have been possible to tamper with the brakes in an old car so that they would work a few times, but then gradually fail?

Thanks for any information!

The transmission wouldn’t have been tampered with, if the car was moving the transmission was in place and functioning.

As far as tampering with the brakes; some cars in that era had mechanical brakes (cables from the brake petal to the brake shoes) and some had hydralic brakes. You’d have to know more about the specific car involved in the accident. Brake tampering is possible, but not likely. Brakes in that era of cars were very weak compared to modern cars. They also were greatly affected by water, so if it was a rainy night the brakes could be fine but still not work very well in an emergency stop.

Most likely is the occupants of the car(s) could have ejected from the cars and then been unlucky enough to be hit by the car. Very common in “rollover” scenario accidents. The doors and latches were weak and doors would fly open in an accident. Passengers were not belted in and were often tossed about both inside and outside of the car.

It is also possible the passenger remained inside the cabin. The shifter that came up through the floor was directly attached to the top of the transmission. This puts the transmission right there on the floor of the cabin in the center of the car. In an accident the passengers head could have hit the shifter and the top of the transmission and the passenger could still be inside the cabin. Hard to know what happened all those years ago.

Those old cars virtually fly apart in all kinds of pieces and directions if the accident happened at 40-50 mph and involved rolling over.

UT pretty well sums it up, these old cars came apart and the occupants went flying. Nobody needed to tamper with anything, brakes included.

Thanks, UncleTurbo, for your very helpful post.

He was thrown out of the car and hit the pavement.

Thanks, texases. UT’s explanation of how the shifter was attached to the transmission makes it clearer to me. (As a child, I rode in some old cars from that era, and I can picture now what may have happened. I remember how the shifter was. I didn’t realize the transmission was right under that.)

Talk about a cold case!

He was thrown from the car and hit the pavement but they concluded the cause of death was hitting/being hit by the transmission? Seems like pretty good forensic analysis for the time (assuming some part of the trans wasn’t protruding from his skull for example).

Hi, TwinTurbo:

That’s what aroused my curiosity. (I looked up his death certificate to attach it to his profile on Ancestry.Com.) When I saw the cause of death, I wondered how they decided it was the transmission, rather than the pavement. I think there must have been something horrible, like a piece of it stuck in his head. It was in the afternoon, so the witnesses, cops, etc., got a good look at him.

We should all thank somebody- not sure who (Ralph Nader? the NHTSA? ) that cars today are so much safer. Even the cheapest car now is so much safer than the cars - that were so good looking- from 60 years ago that I grew up in. I can’t imagine how cars 80 or 90 years ago held together.

That, or it was laying on top of him.

Cops: Gee, what do you think did him in?
M/E: I’m just guessing but that transmission has a guilty look about it…

Hey Mayday- they held together just fine! It was the occupants that suffered. I knew a guy who snapped off a telephone pole and went in the ditch with his Dad’s Cadillac. The only visible damage was a small crack in the windshield and a blemish on the bumper.

I had a heck of a time drilling a hole in the dashboard of my '66 Chrysler Newport. That thing would have taken 100 years to rust away. Got in an accident with it once and the only damage was a dent in the rear quarter. The other car was a steaming heap and had to be towed away.

Cars are almost too safe today. Back then we realized the limitations and seemed to be more careful IMO. Today, people take more chances as the cars are more capable and give the occupants more protection in the event of an accident.

To your point, there was a horrible accident right in front of my old house. Kid lost control and went sideways, got t-boned by a newer car coming from the other direction @40mph. Kid died, guy in the other car had a bloody lip from the air bag…

A relative of my grandfather was killed by an old car back in 1917~1920 when the old hand crank on the front of the car slipped from his hand and spun back around and hit him in the head. The guy was only 17

Them old cars would kill you if not operated safely,sharp corners unyielding steel and metal,yep you could crash an old car and scratch and dent it a little bit,but you were the one that gave-Kevin

The ejected from the car, and the car rolled over on him with the trans ending up on his head seems most probable to me.

The certificate may have meant transmission of the force of the crash through something that his head contacted. Who knows what the catch phrases were back then?