Would you lend your brand-new car to a total stranger? What if he promised to chain himself to the steering wheel, stay awake for five days and drive around continuously?
Why, yes, of course you would — if you owned an Akron auto dealership in the 1920s. That was good publicity!
Texas rancher Fred Mathews Jr., better known as Daredevil Mathews, took Akron by storm in May 1928 with a headline-grabbing offer to break the local record for nonstop driving. Was there such a record before he arrived? Who knows? It sounded impressive.
Mathews, who billed himself as a cowboy from the Rio Grande Valley, ambled from town to town, making a career out of endurance driving. In Akron, the 29th city on his national tour, he approached William A. Hahn, the owner of a Gardner Motor Co. dealership at 30 N. Summit St., and offered to publicize a new model through “five days and five nights of continuous driving.”
“I brought a letter of introduction to Hahn, telling him to give me a Gardner car of the smallest type to make this nonstop drive,” Mathews told reporters in 1928. “He offered me a car and I told him it would stand the gaff.
“Hahn offered to make a gentleman’s agreement, which I did and which I win if the car fails to stand up without my resorting to unreasonable abuse. If it stands up under the running it will get, I will have to admit that it is some car.”
Daredevil Mathews agreed to drive a Gardner Model 85 for 120 hours without stopping “except to comply with traffic regulations, a signal or a passing train.” He arranged for Akron police to handcuff him to the steering wheel and keep the key at headquarters.
Believe it or not, this was a common act. Jack Allen, Al Blackstone, Jack Derby, Harold Lockwood and Bennie Mercer, all billing themselves as daredevils, performed similar stunts in cities across the country in the 1920s and 1930s.
Mathews pledged to Akron officials that he would stop the car if he ever felt too tired to drive. Joining him on the road was Barbara Cox, his nurse and business partner, who was to “administer nourishment and lend aid in all possible ways during the long hours,” the Beacon Journal reported.
Mathews lined up a dozen merchants to supply food, gas, tires and other supplies for the drive. He became a rolling advertisement for their products, touting them at every turn.
His only stimulant was black coffee. His only food was milk and ice cream. His only vices were cigars and cigarettes.
“I’m in good condition for the test,” he said. “It doesn’t pay to go to sleep.”
Officer Thomas Lynett handcuffed Daredevil Mathews to the Gardner steering wheel at 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 28, in front of the Beacon Journal’s headquarters at East Market and Summit streets. The car was topped with a large sign promoting Mathews and Hahn.
Mathews pulled away from the curb as hundreds of spectators cheered. His daily schedule was published as follows:
7 a.m. — Courtney Dairy Co., Merriman Road Extension, for milk.
8 a.m. — Akron Pharmacy, Main and Market streets, Portage Hotel, for coffee.
8:30 a.m. — B.F. Connelly service station, 970 N. Main St., for Freedom oil and gasoline.
9 a.m. — Beacon Journal, 140 E. Market St., to talk to reporters about his condition.
9:30 a.m. — Hahn & Co., 30 N. Summit St., for a cigar.
10 a.m. — Rudick’s jewelry store, 143 S. Main St., to have a Bulova wristwatch rewound.
10:30 a.m. — Sokol’s Furniture Co., 66 S. Howard St., for a cigar.
11 a.m. — Dewitt Distributing Co., 447 S. Main St., for a spotlight check.
11:30 a.m. — Furnas Ice Cream Co., 34 N. Broadway, for ice cream.
Noon — Banner Tire & Service Co., 316 S. High St., for inspection of spark plugs.
12:30 p.m. — Instant Tire Service Co., 440 S. High St., for inspection of Miller DeLuxe balloon tires.
1 p.m. — Dewitt Distributing Co. 240 W. Exchange St., for a cigar.
1:30-5 p.m. — Akron neighborhoods to meet new friends.
5 p.m. — Beacon Journal for another chat with reporters.
5:15 p.m. — Sokol’s Furniture Store, 66 S. Howard St.
5:30 p.m. — Rudick’s jewelry store, 143 S. Main St.
5:45 p.m. — Akron Pharmacy, 173 S. Main St., Ohio Building, for coffee.
6 p.m. — Hahn & Co., 30 N. Summit St.
6:15 p.m. — Instant Tire Service Co., 440 S. High St.
6:30 p.m. — U.S. Barber Shop, East Market Street and Broadway.
7 p.m. — Courtney Dairy Farms for more milk.
7:30 p.m. — B.F. Connelly, 970 N. Main St., for fuel.
7:45 p.m. — Akron Pharmacy, Market and Main streets.
8 p.m. — Hahn & Co., 30 N. Summit St., for a last cigar.
8:30 p.m. — Sunset Gardens for cigarettes.
9:45 p.m. — Brady Lake Park to drive around carnival rides all night.
Crowds gathered to see the daredevil in action. Pedestrians waved along the way, and Mathews waved back.
Technically, he didn’t stop for public appearances. He rocked the car forward and backward, making sure it was always in motion — even when guests hopped aboard.
That made his daily shave a little bit frightening.
“A day’s growth of beard gave the cowboy record breaker a somewhat haggard appearance when he drove up to the barbershop about 6:15 o’clock, with 23 hours, 45 minutes of continuous driving already to his credit,” the Beacon Journal reported. “In a few minutes, a barber was busy lathering Mathews’ face, standing in the tonneau while the driver’s head rested on the seat back.
“The automobile, however, continued in motion. Forward a foot, then reversed a foot, then forward again. Mathews drove as the barber struggled to soften the beard.”
The crowd held its breath when the barber whipped out a straight razor. Despite the rocking of the car, Mathews didn’t even suffer a nick.
The driver averaged about 200 miles per day. By Wednesday, he suffered fatigue, headaches and neck pains. He had a chiropractor treat him in the car and he felt better afterward.
“Good coffee also helps, and they surely do make good coffee at the Akron Pharmacy Co.,” he said.
That’s the way the daredevil spoke — always mentioning his local sponsors.
“The help I am receiving from the Akron merchants in this drive is in no small part responsible for my ability to remain on schedule,” he said. “Then I have the Bulova wristwatch, given me by Rudick’s jewelry store, and set daily by them. Night driving has been helped considerably by the spotlight provided by the Dewitt Distributing Co.”
Mathews insisted that he never fell asleep during his endurance run. Skeptics might wonder if anyone was present in the predawn hours to see the car circle Brady Lake, or if Mathews’ sidekick nurse ever steered while he took a nap.
Nobody wanted to imagine how Mathews heeded the call of nature while cruising around with a manacled hand.
Spectators cheered when the daredevil rolled to a stop at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 2, breaking the local endurance record. The car traveled 1,200 miles in five days, according to the odometer. Police unlocked the handcuffs and Mathews eased himself out of the car.
He took a bath at the Taylor Hotel and fell asleep at 7 p.m. in the front window of Hahn & Co., where curious onlookers could spy on him all night.
“Watch me when I hit the hay in the Hahn Co. window in the bed that will be provided by the Sokol Furniture Co.,” Mathews said.
Upon waking at 8 a.m. Sunday, Mathews had nothing but praise for the Gardner vehicle.
“What a car! What power! What smoothness!” he said before leaving Akron.
After five days of cigar smoke and driver perspiration, though, it surely had lost its new-car smell.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.