Jalopy

archie

A jalopy [juh-lop-ee] (also clunker or hooptie or beater) is a decrepit car, often old and in a barely functional state. A jalopy is not a well kept antique car, but a car which is mostly rundown or beaten up.

As a slang term in American English, ‘jalopy’ was noted in 1924 but is now slightly passé. The term was used extensively in the book ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac, first published in 1957, although written from 1947. The equivalent English term is old banger, often shortened to banger, a reference to older poorly maintained vehicles’ tendency to backfire.

When a jalopy gets to a state in which its maintenance becomes too expensive, its owner would be required to make a decision about its fate. Some owners abandon it in the street as a parked car (an action forbidden by law in most jurisdictions). If it remains parked homeless people may sleep in it or the local authority commonly tows it to the junk yard. Other people may then sell it (or deliver it) to be stripped for spare parts for use in other vehicles. During the 1930s, this word was used frequently when the market for used cars first started to grow. Cheap dealers could obtain the cars for very little, make aesthetic adjustments, and sell the car for much more. Early hot rodders also purchased jalopies as the basis for racers, and early stock car racing was called ‘jalopy racing.’ In the United Kingdom this sport is known as banger racing.

The origin of the word is unknown. It is possible that the non Spanish-speaking New Orleans-based longshoremen, referring to scrapped autos destined for Jalapa, Mexico scrapyards, pronounced the destination on the palettes ‘jalopies’ rather than multiples or possessive of Jalapa. Jalopy seems to have replaced ‘flivver,’ which in the early decades of the twentieth century also simply meant ‘a failure.’ Other early terms for a wreck of a car included heap, tin lizzy, and crate, which probably derived from the WWI pilots’ slang for an old, slow and unreliable airplane.

The character Archie Andrews of ‘Archie Comics’ was well known for his jalopy, which has been referred to as an ‘1912 Maxwell.’ Chet Morton, from the ‘Hardy Boys’ series of books by Franklin W. Dixon, also drove a Jalopy, called ‘The Queen.’ In ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck, a used car dealer takes advantage of desperate dust bowl refugees fleeing to California by selling jalopies to them at a large profit margin. He misrepresents the condition of the vehicles by painting over rust, making false claims about their reliability, and using sawdust to deaden excessive engine and gear noise.

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