Virginians REALLY had license to drive in 1932
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Illustration by Rob Ullman
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Virginians today may be laughing about joke DMV photos made popular on YouTube by “Teenagers from Uranus,” but in 1932 photos weren’t required. In fact, driver’s licenses weren’t even required. Virginia was slow to adopt the paperwork law initiated by Missouri and Massachusetts in 1903. Next door, West Virginia had mandated licensing 15 years earlier. But in 1932 Virginia, adults and kids alike were still careering around cities and back roads, happily untroubled by driving exams, traffic officers or bad DMV photos.
In June, all that began to change. The state announced that by July 1, 1932, all drivers must have a driver’s permit. In this uncharacteristically low-key government plan, the initial permits were offered at no cost and with no examination required.
At the time, drivers still donned gloves, driving coats and lap robes before climbing into their well-used Model T Fords. The latest fad was “driving spectacles,” with a small tinted section of the lens, to be rotated toward the sun during the day and toward oncoming car headlights for night driving.
Virginians drove a wide range of vehicles. Ford stopped making the Model T in 1927, but the reliable car still stood next to many Virginia houses. Better-heeled drivers raced about in Ford’s new enclosed V8, which went for $500. The truly posh were chauffeured in their $14,000 Duesenberg J models. At a time when even the V8 couldn’t quite reach 100 miles per hour, the 320-horsepower Duesenberg claimed top speeds of 140. Not that the chauffeurs would have pushed it.
Drivers as young as 14 were welcome to apply for adult permits, provided they had already driven at least 500 miles. That would have been quite an achievement at a time when logging 40 to 50 miles on a long-distance road trip was an impressive day’s work. Although the precursor to today’s DMV wasn’t befuddled by prankster photos, it was willing to take a 14-year-old’s word for distance driven.
The government’s easygoing generosity was limited, however, to a year. After that, permits would only be granted to those passing an exam, at a cost of 50 cents.
Of course, as with most government regulations, one could squeeze through a loophole. The permit was only required for driving on state highways. City drivers or rural dwellers sticking to local roads could continue doing what they had always done and what drivers were still doing in 22 other states: Step on the gas and hope for the best.