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Rearview Mirror: Delta Ted’s Excellent Adventure

That’s no moon, it’s a checks notes Ford 1930 Model A Sport Coupe!

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The Ramblin’ Wreck, date unknown.
Georgia Tech Archives/George C. Griffin Photograph Collection

Since 1961, the Ramblin’ Reck has not missed a home football game. However, throughout history, it has been through its own ups and downs, including a fateful wreck on the interstates south of Atlanta. The story begins long before the 1960s, though, when the first precursors to the car we know today as the Ramblin’ Reck came ambling out of the woodwork.

NOTE: This article written with assistance from the author of the history page of the Ramblin’ Reck Club website, Akshay Easwaran. You may have heard of him.

Before we begin this column, it’s important to establish terminology. As per Easwaran, 2017,

“The name of Georgia Tech’s automobile mascot is a point of fierce contention. The problem comes from varied use of the word “Wreck” and its contraction “Reck” when referring to the modern-day 1930 Ford Model A sport coupe or even the mechanical contraptions built by Georgia Tech students for homecoming parades before the school’s acquisition of the official mascot car in 1961.”

Therefore, for the purposes of Rearview Mirror, we prescribe to the views of the Ramblin’ Reck Club, rather than Institute Communications or the Georgia Tech Athletic Association. Thus, the term “ramblin’ wreck,” a descriptive phrase, refers to the student body as a collective, while “Ramblin’ Reck,” a proper noun, refers to the Ford 1930 Model A Sport Coupe that has served as the principal piece of mechanical iconography of the Georgia Institute of Technology since 1961. Sorry, institute seal. In this historian’s viewpoint, there is more evidence to support the different spellings, with the earliest references to the car dropping the ‘w,’ while the previous references to all were confused and inconsistent. It’s also helpful to differentiate the two very different things, singular trademarks be [Duran Duran]ed.

Of course, the name first came from the early days of football, when Tech took its first trip to Athens. After winning the game 28-6, despite vitriol and unidentified projectiles being hurled from the onlookers, the Engineers were chased by an angry mob of townspeople and opposing players alike back to their waiting train. The probably-not-coincidental use of the colors white and gold, seen as imposing on the symbolism of the school out east- they eliminated gold from the palette after the game because yellow was cowardly - and recruiting local coeds to root for themselves rather than the hometown team from Athens. Anyhow, as they sped out of town on their special express run of the Seaboard Air Line mainline from Bessemer, Alabama to Hamlet, North Carolina by way of Atlanta and Athens, the message had not been properly relayed to all trains to clear the tracks. Left in the lurch was a freight train outside Lawrenceville. The Tech train plowed into the back. Their original train now a wreckage, it was said the Techs “rambled back to Atlanta” by hitching a ride in the freight train boxcar.

If that origin of the nickname isn’t quite your speed, fear not, because Tech has another one. In an interesting example of Wikipedia outclassing a legitimate website, the other commonly accepted origin of Ramblin’ Wreck as the descriptor of the men of Georgia Tech was as they served as foreign engineers in the construction of the Panama Canal in the wilderness of Central America around the twilight of the 1800s. The contraptions the young men built - which ran seemingly off of sweat and ingenuity alone - were calling “rambling wrecks” as they managed to make their way through the woods. The reason I call out the Institute traditions page, which states that they were in South America in the 20th century building out a transportation system, is because it’s close, but, not really correct. I expect better from the school that sets high standards for my degree. But it might, honestly, be another example of the cogs of the Tech bureaucracy simply not knowing anything better. But that’s a story for another time.

Back to the Reck.

The first mechanical Ramblin’ Reck appeared on campus in 1916 as the personal transportation of Dean of Men Floyd “Bobcat” Field, and was a 1914 Ford Model T. Since the man habitually drove the metallic black car to and from class every day for years, notable for the chest on the rear, by 1926 it was a campus icon known as Floyd’s Flivver. When it went in for an overhaul that year, the car was referred to as a Ramblin’ Reck after the campus machine shop restored the car. The car steadily aged, though, and a few years later a Model A inherited the title when it replaced Nellie, as Field named the car, which was in turn replaced by a Ford V8.

In memoriam of that original Ford, though, Field started a race to Athens called the “Old Ford Race,” the only rule of which was that the car had to be a pre-1926 four cylinder car. Of course, the extreme danger of the event, run at blisteringly high speeds like 55 miles per hour, and depression-era shortages led to the event’s cancellation after its second iteration. It was revived a few years later by the Yellow Jacket Club, minus the boys in Athens, as a parade now known as The Ramblin’ Wreck Parade, an annual homecoming event.

1945 proved to be a crucial year for the idea of a Ramblin’ Reck. Of course, it was the last year before the mostly-unchanged current rules of the parade were set down, but it was also the last year of Dean Field, and his classic car would vanish with him. In that year, the Yellow Jacket Club would get shut down, or more accurately, reformed, after not organizing a school dance and chronic infighting. With the help of ANAK, they would reform into the Ramblin’ Reck Club.

It would be a decade and a half before the Ramblin’ Recks - car and club - would be put on a metaphorical collision course by future Dean of Student Affairs Jim Dull. Dean Dull noticed the students’ obsession with vintage cars had not faded in the booming postwar years. Most notably, fraternities would display their House Wrecks - considered a rite of passage - as a symbol of school spirit. 1960 marked the year in which Dull started scouring newspaper classifieds, radio advertisements, and physical journeys in search of a pre-war Ford like Floyd Field had driven around campus for decades.

Meanwhile, Ted Johnson, Chief Pilot of Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, was puttering around town in a yellow Ford 1930 Model A Sport Coupe. In 1956, the airman had bought the car off the scrap heap intending to refurbish the car as a father-son project with his son, Craig. After finishing the restoration, notably using Convair 440 paneling to replace the floor, as befit a Delta pilot, Craig went on to college at Florida State, where he ran track. The car was issued Historical Vehicle Plate 563 with the state in 1958. In the fall of 1960, the Seminoles were in Atlanta for a track meet, so Cpt. Johnson took the car down to Grant Field. After parking it outside of Towers Dormitory and heading in to watch his son, the car caught Dean Dull’s eye. Johnson returned following the meet to a note on the windshield. Would Ted Johnson sell the car to Georgia Tech?

Initially, it looked like the odds were long that Dull would be able to negotiate for the car. It was, after all, a cherished family project. However, eventually a price of $1,000 would be agreed upon for the restored classic car. Eventually, Johnson would return the sum in order for the car to be recognized as a donation to Tech and the A-T Fund. Ownership was transferred to Georgia Tech on May 26, 1961. On September 30th, 1961, it was unveiled to the denizens of Georgia Tech as it led the football team, fresh off a season-opening win over the University of Southern California on to the field for the first time at the home opener. Tech would go on to beat No. 7 Rice 24-0. It has not missed a home football game since.

Though it would not be turned over to the student spirit organization, the Ramblin’ Reck Club, until 1968, the Reck was still busy in and around campus growing into its new role as the mechanical mascot of the Georgia Institute of Technology. It would be at three more home games - all wins - as Tech rocketed into the top ten. Thus, it seemed almost natural that the driver, Dekle Rountree, would pull out all the stops to get the Reck to Legion Field in Birmingham for Tech’s November 18th game with no. 2 Alabama.

And it was in that game that Tech, a school already in the midst of great change - integration of the student body, institute symbolism, physical plant growth - would see one of its great calm harbors, its proud football tradition, blown far out into the chaos of the open ocean, as well.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.

All the narratives are finally starting to intertwine. We’ll get back to the history of the Reck in the future, as there is certainly more to the story than what we have seen so far, but next week, it’s time for our ongoing threads to intersect in the 1961 Alabama game. Thank you for reading the latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.