The '60s were beginning and the nation's academic climate was stormy and there were danger signs at Tech. The mischief which caused the Georgia Tech president to hand over the Ramblin' Reck Club to Dull was more serious than just missing Sunday school. Clearly the Club and Tech needed some positive focus, something tangible. When Dull left the office he thought he knew the very thing. He would find a mascot which would become Tech itself, a real ramblin' wreck.
The term "Ramblin' wreck" and its variations (1) go so far back in time that it could not possibly be related to a car. Cars at that time were only a dream. There is a respected source that states the term was first used in 1890. In this seminal happening, a student is said to have adapted an old drinking song with new words to cheer on the Tech baseball team against perennial rival, the University of Georgia. Another source has it that the song was sung during travel to and from a game at Auburn in 1892. Perhaps equally respected is the legend (2) that South American residents were charmed and probably amused by inventive Georgia Tech alumni who came to that continent to seek their fortunes early in this century. The gadgetry and vehicles contrived by a group of these young engineers to outwit the jungle were dubbed "ramblin' wrecks" by onlookers.
The earliest published version of the song was titled The Ramblin' Wreck and it appeared in a program of the school's cheers and fight songs possibly around 1910. We know the song has always been riddled with the words "hell" and "helluva" and this early printing was a piece of typographical swiss cheese. The campus bluenoses simply would not allow those words. In a footnote, the editor intimated that certain words were too hot to print.
When Jim Dull and the Ramblin' Wreck Club decided they wanted a sporty old car for a mascot, the odds were it would turn out to be a Ford. Aside from the continued enormous popularity of the Model T and Model A, there was also ample precedent for that marque in the life of the school. For instance, the beloved Dean Floyd Field had clung to his 1914 Ford until 1928, finally disposing of it after much goading by the students. The campus newspaper even tagged the car the "Ramblin' Reck" in 1927. At about this same time, the paper announced an "old Ford race" to Athens, Georgia and back, which was soon broadened to an "old-car race" for worn out cars only.
In 1932, the race was transferred, by an apprehensive administration, to the Tech campus and converted to a parade. This was the first official "Ramblin' Wreck" parade and has since become an annual tradition during homecoming week. From the worn out runners of the ill-fated Athens race, the cars quickly evolved into contraptions almost unrecognizable as automobiles. According to old photographs and witnesses, Ford was still the dominant marque in the annual Ramblin' Wreck parade, and would be so for years to come.
Traditions are acts performed invariably and over a long span of time. Customs, on the other hand, are neither so durable nor reliable. The appearances of the Ramblin' Wreck parade-winners and other special vehicles at Tech homecoming games usually fit into the latter category. The attempts of these contraptions to circle the track around the held were never boring and there have been notable, but minor, fires and explosions. But clearly a reliable "wreck" presence was a winning idea and the solution was an "official" Ramblin' Wreck.
Given this background, Dull and his crew started their search for just the right car. Want ads were placed and the good-old-boy network was tapped, but nothing appropriate turned up. Then, by coincidence, the car destined to become the "Wreck" was found parked in front of Dean Dull's apartment on campus: 1930 Model A sport coupe.
The driver, Craig Johnson from Florida State University, was competing at the track meet down the street. When he came to claim his vehicle, he was warmly escorted into the Dull residence. Johnson and his father, Ted, had just completed its restoration in a somewhat unusual way. Ted, a Delta Airlines pilot, was able to fetch needed parts from around the hemisphere. For instance, the wood frame and top bows were replaced with Venezuelan Mahogany and the floor became an aluminum section used in airliners. Johnson had found this car rusting in an Atlanta junkyard. After long negotiations which began as horse trading and ended with begging, Jim Dull and renowned Tech coach Bobby Dodd committed the athletic association to buy the Ford for $1000. Later on, the Johnson's refunded the money and attained donor status.
It was planned that at each home football game and a few select others, the Ramblin' Wreck would burst onto the field leading the team and cheerleader amid much honking and engine-racing. For the past thirty years, the Wreck has done exactly this and more. Always present at rallys, graduations and school milestones (and even available for weddings), the little Model A has scaled the summit which was once the sole territory of Tech's other mascot, the Yellow Jacket, one of the best known symbols in all of academia.
The road was not without potholes. The car has been shot once (at an Auburn game), painted orange (courtesy of Tennessee) and stolen twice (the University of Georgia is suspected). Just plain wear and tear also has taken its toll. What better place could an ailing Model A go to recuperate than the local Ford assembly plant with its Tech alumnus general manager, Pete George.
Upon invitation by George and Ford Motor Company, the car has been regularly maintained and face-lifted. In 1974, a new paint job in the school's colors was performed (selected by coach Dodd directly from the Lincoln paint chart). Ford also reinforced the running boards and fender support system to counter the inevitable piling on of cheerleaders and fans. Recently retired, George exercises great modesty about the possible cost, but he and Ford have put untold numbers of dollars and man hours into its upkeep. In 1983, well in time for the school's 1985 centennial celebration, Ford took the car apart completely and gave it a ground-up rejuvenation.
The following year, George and Ford teamed up again to restore an identical car found in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A casual visitor to the Ford assembly plant would have done a double take as the body made its way down the rustproofing and paint lines sandwiched between 1984 Thunderbirds and Cougars. George and Company donated this centennial car and a custom-built trailer to the school. The car was raffled off and generated $250,000 for the Alexander Tharpe Fund, Inc. Knowing the Ford from the inside out, Pete George subsequently went to the winner and bought the Wreck for himself.
Jim Dull, vice president/Dean of Student Affairs, felt only slightly
better when he left the Tech president's office than when he went in. It
is now 1991 and the new president agrees things are going well. The
school's centennial celebration is well behind them and Tech has a winning
sports program unequalled since the '50s. Best of all, the Ramblin'
Wreck is in immaculate condition and has become Tech itself--its past,
present and future; the core of its exuberant school spirit. It was
agreed that Dull was free to retire. But in that bargain, a new mantle
had fallen upon him. He is presently assembling a history of his work at
Tech (specifically the Office of Student Affairs), the people, the
pictures, the memories and the car. He will not forget the car.
(2) The legendary guru of the Industrial Management School, the late professor Fred Wynn, passed this lore on to Dean Jim Dull. We like it because it is an early connection between song and machine, a connection most necessary to this article.