Car Jack History And How To Identify Antique Models

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Many classic car collectors enjoy finding old accessories from years gone by, from signs to antique car jacks. Ever wondered how the car jack came to be?

Car jacks have been an integral part of the automobile since its inception. Early models used screw jacks or lift jacks, which were used for covered wagons or early farm equipment. Later years saw the introduction of scissor-jacks and hydraulic units, making lifting the vehicle for repairs easier.

Even before the development of automobiles, users needed a way to lift their covered wagons or farm equipment to change broken wheels. Many blacksmiths provided wheel repair services as a means of making a living. When the horseless carriage emerged on the road, flat tires were a daily occurrence. Automobile manufacturers knew they needed to include a portable car jack that could handle the weight and be simple enough to use. When did the first car jack first appear, and who developed it? How have car jacks evolved over the years? How can you make a competent antique car jack identification when browsing a swap meet? Let’s explore the history of antique car jacks and help you learn how to spot the rare one when you find it.

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The History of Car Jacks

As mentioned, the use of jacks as a mechanical lifting device has roots centuries before the invention of the automobile. One of the earliest versions of a screw jack was a part of Leonardo Da Vinci’s work, who designed the jack as a means of lifting heavy loads. His work led to the development of jacks and pulley systems embraced by the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many companies used old-fashioned lifting screws to enhance workers’ production, increase manufacturing, and reduce employee turnover due to injuries.

As the world began to expand in the mid-18th century, the use of mobile wagon jacks became more and more prevalent. Early wagon jacks were used on the farm and industry to lift a wagon high enough to grease or change the wheels. These simple jacks came in various forms (some applied a crank method with a horned-styled lift base, and others used a basic fulcrum approach with groove slots). There is no question that they were instrumental in helping foster the pioneering spirit by keeping wagons moving. Every day, these jacks helped settlers explore the vast American landscape, searching for better futures.

In 1851, Richard Dudgeon was credited with the first invention of the hydraulic lift. As the construction of bridges, railroads, and buildings saw the need to lift heavier loads, hydraulic jacks became a part of that development. Still, it would be almost 50 years before the principles were applied to the automotive industry.

Early Model T jacks were single lever lift units were made of cast iron and quite heavy. A lever would be pumped up and down, engaging the internal gears to move the lift into position. After a bit, the system was refined using smaller cogs and a tripod or dual-legged stand to provide stability. Both the cast-iron and tripod leg carjacks are highly prized by collectors.

In 1910, the first Weaver Auto-Twin Jack was produced for the burgeoning auto-repairs shops exploding across the country. This early trolley jack was designed to attach to a vehicle’s front or rear axle, and lift it. Mechanical trolley jacks would develop over the next twenty-five years with increasing lift and handling capabilities. Eventually, the hydraulic floor jack replaced their mechanical cousins because they were easier to use, could handle heavier loads, and were virtually indestructible. For an example of an antique blue floor jack on eBay, follow the link here.

The car lift that most boomers remember is the Basic Lift Jack, developed in 1905. Most early car owners called it the Handyman’s or Shepherder’s Jack. Early jacks of this type used a tripod or dual-leg design like the one shown here until eventually being replaced by the single-stand long pole type that was so prevalent among car owners in the 40s - 50s.

Using a single latched notched pole attached to a small base, this jack was activated by a hand lever. The lift base would raise the car as the gear mechanism moved up the pole. The advantage of this type of jack was that it could be positioned next to the corner of the vehicle that needed to be raised. The trouble with these kinds of stands is that they were not always safe. If the gears failed or the jack stand toppled over, the car would slam onto the pavement, often breaking an axle. (I remember my father always warning me to stay away from the car jack when he was doing a brake job or changing a tire).

The invention of a scissor jack in 1908 (expanded in 1913 and then again refined in 1920) is credited to Joseph LaFrance of Quebec. His invention is still similar to the scissor jack that is still in use today in many cars.

Although in the mid-sixties, every Mustang had a scissor jack as part of its package, it wasn’t until the mid-80s that manufacturers began to place scissor jacks into the trunks of cars. The rise of smaller imports whose trunk space couldn’t accommodate the bulkier lift jacks forced car companies to rethink the design. Scissor jacks were lighter, cost less, and didn’t take nearly as much cargo room. Companies began hiding them under spare tires or in compartments between the fender well and rear bumper.

While the car jack has its place in automotive history, unfortunately, the future of car jacks is rather bleak. Many car companies have sought to improve mileage by eliminating the spare tire, preferring to rely on tire pressure monitoring systems and run-flat tires. Exceptionally few cars are equipped with spare tires today, and if they are, most manufacturers offer small donut spares to reduce weight.

How To Identify An Antique Car Jack?

There are several ways to identify an antique car jack to add to your collection.

Look For A Trademark Or Logo

Begin by looking for some sort of manufacturing label or logo. Some manufacturers, like Barrett or Hi-Lift, have identification stamps or stickers on their units. These jacks will have serial numbers, which can be a great resource. Online resources will often contain descriptions of particular makers or models. In addition, more info can be obtained by contacting the manufacturer directly. If there is no information, post photos on social media or a website to see if anyone can comment to help with identification.

Construction Material

Wooden lift jacks or wagon jacks are exciting antiques. Many early Model T car jacks were made of cast iron, and the material can be a good clue as to whether the jack is an antique. Heavy, simple mechanized units are showing signs of rust and age. (The chances of finding an antique jack in pristine condition are not likely).

Date Codes

Mustangs from 1967 on were stamped with date codes to identify their use. (Most car manufacturers would follow the process soon after). If no date code is visible, then you may be looking at a pre-sixties automobile jack.

Look for Condition

If a jack continues to work as designed, that functionality increases the unit’s value. Look at the gearing mechanism, the lever or crank, and any exterior metal or wood casing. Many older wagon lifts still have the outer wooden casing, and although worn, the appearance is quite remarkable.

Check Threads, Seals, or Rings

Many older jacks used wax rings rather than rubber or single flat threads to help identify an older jack. If you spot hydraulics that appears cleaner than they should or newer (due to replacement), these improvements can affect the value.

Look For Jacks Tied To A Particular Car

Car jacks used for a particular car, like a Mustang or Corvette, can account for advantages. Not only will the jack be a part of American nostalgia with the open road, but the specific knowledge will help maintain the value for interested parties looking to purchase.

What Do Most Antique Jacks Sell For?

Many antique jacks sell for less than $100, although some can fetch more than $500. You should always do your research before making any kind of purchase decision. Many classic car appraisers can assist in determining the values of the car jack you may be considering purchasing.

Will A Jack Be Worth More if Reconditioned?

Reconditioning an old car jack is usually worth the time and expense. However, you should be careful about repainting or cleaning the product to ensure that the jack looks like it did when it was first manufactured. Jacks from the wagon era or early days of automobiles are often worth more when not restored. Remember that depending on the jack, replacement parts may be very limited.