Fact Check

Pushed Car

A stranded motorist gets more than he bargained for when he asks for help push starting his car.

Published Dec 10, 2000


Claim:   A stranded motorist gets more than he bargained for when he asks for help push starting his car.



[Collected on the Internet, 1998]

One day I went to the supermarket with my wife. It was 1956, and cars with automatic transmission were new on the market, and not very common. When we were ready to leave, we found that the battery in our car had gone dead.

Seeing an old man in the car parked next to us, I asked him if he had battery jumper cables, and if he could give me a jump start. The old man explained that the car he was in was not his, but was his son's new Buick. He did not have jumper cables either, so he suggested that he give my car a push to get it started. I told him that my car had an automatic transmission, so he would have to get the car moving at about 30 miles per hour before my engine would turn over.

The old man backed out of the parking lot, and lined up behind my car. Then he backed up. He backed up more. He KEPT backing up. I was wondering what the heck he was doing? Finally, he stopped, and started accelerating forward.

Then, I figured it out. He thought that HE had to be going 30 miles per hour! Too late. BANG. He hit my rear bumper and smashed in the grill of his son's brand new car.

[Cerf, 1956]

How quickly can a joke get round the whole U.S.A.?

A Boston columnist, with some space to fill, made up a story about a motorist whose car stalled on the Merritt Parkway. He stopped a lady driver and asked her to give him a push, telling her, "You'll have to get up to about thirty-five miles an hour to really get me rolling." He thereupon climbed into his jalopy, took the wheel, and waited for the push. It was a bit tardy in coming, so he stole a look behind him. There was the lady — bearing down on him at thirty-five miles an hour! "The damage to the man's car," concluded the imaginative columnist, "was approximately three hundred dollars."

Well, there wasn't too much real news that day, and the Associated Press sent the story out over its wires. Result: about five hundred newspapers printed it as gospel, and about fourteen radio and TV comics made it famous inside of a single day from Connecticut to Oregon!


Origins:   This

Cartoon of the legend

venerable urban legend dates to the 1950s. In 1954 the Providence Bulletin ran this tale as a news story only to discover they'd been had — it had appeared as a joke in a Boston paper and had been phoned in to the Providence paper as a news piece by a prankster. Before the Providence Bulletin had figured out its mistake and run a piece disavowing the item, Associated Press had picked up the story and spread it across the country.

A persistent feature in a number of urban legends is the denigration of a looked-down-upon group (senior citizens, foreigners, women, etc.) by those who feel they're of a higher order. (Other legends of this nature are the Cruise (un)Control tale, wherein cruise control is mistaken for auto pilot, and the Microwaved Pet legend, in which an old lady kills her dog by trying to dry it in a microwave.) By portraying someone from one of those groups as having egregiously misunderstood some new but fairly simple technical device, all members of that group are put down. Brunvand says about this:

As we observe many times in folklore, the prejudices and stereotypes that people are reluctant to voice in direct terms will often surface in very obvious ways in their oral-narrative traditions of joke or legend.

Barbara "typing in stereo" Mikkelson

Last updated:   11 April 2011


    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Choking Doberman.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.   ISBN 0-393-30321-7   (pp. 65-66).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good To Be True.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 294-295).

    Cerf, Bennett.   The Life of the Party.

    Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1956   (pp. 175-176).

    Torgenson, Dial.   "Twice Told: The American Legends."

    Los Angeles Times.   6 January 1974   (p. 1).

Also told in:

    Holt, David and Bill Mooney.   Spiders in the Hairdo.

    Little Rock: August House, 1999.   ISBN 0-87483-525-9   (p. 15).

    Linkletter, Art.   Oops! or Life's Awful Moments.

    Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967   (p. 124).

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 21).