The offices of Auto Driveaway, the company John Sohl founded in 1952, fill most of the 14th floor at 310 S. Michigan. Sohl's company, the largest driveaway outfit in the world, is responsible for about 60,000 car deliveries a year. Some of those are made by truck, but the bulk of Auto Driveaway's deliveries are made by nonprofessional drivers in need of transportation, known in the business as "casuals." Though it is perfectly legal, a cloud seems to hang over this practice; some ads for auto movers in the Yellow Pages assure car owners "no casuals."
"That's the truckers," says the 78-year-old Sohl, smiling; he enjoys talking about the business. "They try to tear down the casual business. They put the fear of God into people by saying it's safer to move a car by truck, but it isn't, really, it's just more expensive. A fair amount of damage occurs on trucks, especially if the car has a low undercarriage. About 25 percent of our own business is by truck, and damage claims are fewer on our casual cars."
The auto driveaway business is a hybrid--part moving service, part travel agency--whose history centers on two years, 1932 and 1965. The first, according to Sohl, is the year the first casual driveaway business was started, by a woman named Catherine Raye in Detroit. "No one knows much about her, though I met her a few times. She told two Cadillac owners in California that they could have their new cars driven to them at $25 apiece or shipped by truck from the factory at $350 apiece. She went through about five husbands, all of whom opened driveaway companies. When some agents from the Interstate Commerce Commission came to check on her one day, she opened her desk drawer, laid a gun on the desk, and said, "Get out of here." She was quite a character. I liked the gal.
"Before 1965 there were hundreds of casual driveaway agencies. Now there are only four major ones left, I think. The Interstate Commerce Commission decided to regulate it in that year because it was full of fast-buck operators. Some would agree to deliver a car, then rent it for a few days before sending it. Others would book rides on a car at $25 a seat and make the passengers take turns driving to speed up the delivery. They used to do that a lot in Texas, as I recall. It upset bus companies and airlines, for obvious reasons. The ICC set up hearings in Chicago and every automobile trucking company in the country came to testify against us. They were telling the ICC, 'These guys are gypsies.' Our witnesses were private individuals, corporations, and auto dealers we had worked for. We won the right to apply to the ICC for a Certificate of Convenience and Necessity, which subjected our rates and safety precautions to government checking. It put us on the same footing as the truckers. We only won the right to operate in 16 states, but by 1968 we could operate in all 50."
The driveaway business, having a countercultural quality from the time of its founding by Catherine Raye, has benefited from the loosening of social ties over the past few decades. "The most common users of driveaway cars are couples," Sohl says. "We used to put only husbands and wives together because we were afraid of the Mann Act," he says, referring to the 1910 statute that prohibits the crossing of state lines for immoral purposes. "When we first went into business in 1952 we had a copy of the Mann Act on every office wall. It's still mainly couples who travel, but over the past 15 years many of them have been two women."
Someone who agrees to deliver a car to an owner is required to stick to the most direct route (I-80 if one is going from Chicago to California, for example), keep "pets, liquor, narcotics, guns or any other articles which are in violation of federal, provincial or local laws" out of the car, and pay for gas. There's a clause on all driveaway contracts that makes the driver guilty of theft in the event of "willful failure" to honor the contract, but "it's almost never a problem, because people basically are honest," Sohl says. "They will take care of someone else's property. People are pretty nice in this world." Despite this vote of confidence, casuals at Auto Driveaway still have to put down a $300 cash deposit and submit to a mug shot and a fingerprinting of all ten digits. "Auto theft was much easier in the 50s than it is now, because there were only 17 key companies in the country. They didn't publicize that fact, but professional thieves knew it and collected keys. We have problems with theft about two or three times a year, but it's almost never premeditated. Sometimes a driver will put down the $300, and when we mention the fingerprinting and the photography say 'I have to make a phone call,' and that's the last we see of them."
Sohl is necessarily more knowledgeable than the average person about obscure laws and customs in various parts of the country. "If you hit a cow in Texas it's the farmer's fault; in dairy states such as Wisconsin or Pennsylvania you have to compensate the farmer for the milk the cow would have produced. In the south the police used to run whiskey traps by stopping cars from the north and impounding them if there were bottles in the trunk. The AAA [American Auto Association] eventually killed that practice. Twenty-five years ago in Arizona drivers had to know that Indians slept on the roads at night to keep warm.
"Every person is going to need our service at least once in their life. Older people who go to Florida might prefer to fly and have their cars driven to them. Someone might buy a new car and want to give his used one to a daughter or son across the country. A man on vacation has an accident but isn't hurt and has to leave his car on the spot to be repaired and driven back to him. Divorce settlements: she gets the car, but she's across the country and isn't speaking to him, so they use one of our drivers. Someone going overseas drives to New York and doesn't want to leave his car at the port. New Yorkers or midwesterners can't stand driving across the flatlands to get to California but want their cars when they get there."
The driveaway business is strongly linked to the American west, Sohl argues, and couldn't exist in a more compact country, such as England. "Australia and Brazil are the only other countries where it would work," he says, "but Australia doesn't have enough cars and Brazil doesn't have enough roads. America is perfect because the major cities are fairly far apart. A lot of foreigners use our cars to see the country. Australians are our best customers. They're always roaming around this country. A lot of them meet the owners of the cars and strike up friendships."
It is true that traveling by driveaway car is more unavoidably human than taking a bus or a plane. "The main reason people use driveaway cars is excitement. It's a great way to see the country. We have a fax list that goes out twice a week to all our offices telling which cars are ready for delivery; we're the only company with this service. You can pick up a car in Chicago, deliver it to Des Moines, get another car there, deliver it to Albuquerque, and keep going as long as you want. Two summers ago two nuns from Boston covered the country in one of our cars in five weeks." Despite the catcalls of truckers and other detractors, the driveaway industry has found a niche.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.