The chuffing and clattering charm of pre-1916 automobiledom comes alive when The Horseless Carriage Club of America gets together. Their “tours” with Brass Era cars saunter throughout America and soon, internationally, with rumors bubbling of a tour through Ireland. Part rolling museum, part living history, part mobile art, these automotive elder statesmen are all of the above.
In mid-February, Ford Model Ts, Buicks, REOs, Cadlliacs, Abbot Detroits, Chalmerses, Mitchells, Maxwells and Renaults gathered their owners for a week-long fling in the Arizona desert where they can flex their low-rpm muscle. Pre-selected low-traffic routes to and from a home base in Sierra Vista, south of Tucson, recapture an era before world wars, before fuel injection and before an Interstate highway system siphoned most of the challenge, adventure and romance out of the road.
The most significant component of pre-1916 automobiles’ charm –- and simultaneously, their biggest limiting factor –- is no uniformity in configuration or engineering.
In that era, if you manufactured a car, you literally manufactured just about every part on the car, except perhaps its tires. There was an enormous variance in engineering solutions to common issues. One extreme example was the Adams-Farwell, which used a rotary engine, but not like the rotary we understand today. It had a stationary crank mounted vertically in the frame and the engine’s cylinder cases rotated around it like satellites. Clearly, the brass era was an engineer’s delight.
“Also, if you wanted the best car in 1905, you bought European,” said Travis. “The business climate there was much better for success with these new contraptions. Imagine that in 1905, Cadillac only had single-cylinder motors. Several years later, though, they were ‘The Standard of the World’ with the first electric starter, ignition and lighting, and then the first with a series-produced V8 engine.”
Often, if you do need parts, you’re going to machine them yourself.”
— Bill Ottemann
[/pullquote]Until 1912, most cars in the United States were actually right-hand-drive for several reasons. First, horse-drawn carriages were always controlled from the right side. Second, road conditions and signage was universally suspect. Most roads were still dirt or worse. You needed a very clear line of sight to the roads’ edge, especially when oncoming traffic approached to see what kind of trouble awaited you. Third, European cars –- which were about 10 years’ more advanced in metallurgy, engineering and organization at the time than domestics –- were largely right-hand-drive.
When Ford’s Model T debuted in 1909, it was left-hand-drive and the T’s bombshell success steered almost the whole industry.
“This Brass Era section of the old car hobby has been pretty level, perhaps gaining somewhat,” said Bill Ottemann, the Horseless Carriage club’s president. “Where most clubs have gone down in memberships, we’ve increased slightly, but this hobby is kind of limited. Most people don’t have the time to devote to it. It’s more time-consuming because there are so few specialists really conversant with how these cars work. They all work differently! Often, if you do need parts, you’re going to machine them yourself or rely on another owner with the tools to machine them.
Horseless Club members dance to the beat of a different drum.
Better put, they drive to the rhythm of a slow-turning engine. And the world’s richer for it.
About The Horseless Carriage Club of America: Started in 1937 in Los Angeles, the club has always been keenly interested in welcoming even non-owners to socialize and find which cars appeal most to prospective members. Members are tinkerers, engineers, some who have no mechanical ability and some old hot rodders. But the common thread among members is that everyone loves keeping these old Brass Era cars running. The National Club does three to four tours per year. Through the 40-50 regional chapters, the club holds a total of around 200 local tours each year. see www.hcca.org for more information.
Four for the road:
Jim & Donna Bunch of Glendale, Ariz., were miraculously reunited with a 1909 Sears that had left Donna’s family for 55 years. On a lark after joining the Horseless Carriage Club, Donna searched for the car her grandfather owned back in Pennsylvania when he was a big political campaigner. After verifying a few details, they knew they found the exact car. Her grandfather had painted his name on the back, his initials across the sides and the Sears had two Pennsylvania state inspection stickers under the seat. They began a campaign of their own, lobbying the then-present owner to sell it back to the original family. After a multitude of calls and e-mails, the owner relented: “Between you, your family and all the others always calling, I can’t take it anymore! I’ll sell it to you for what I have in it.” Three years hence, Jim and Donna bring it out for special occasions, though it’s too slow even for Horseless tours, so they trailer it to events.
Keene Brewer bought his 1911 Chalmers Model 30 M Touring after it won the Ansel Adams award at Pebble Beach in 1996, but he found it wouldn’t go up a hill very well. It won at Pebble but you could tell it had no grease anywhere and was a looker, not a runner. Brewer redid the entire car mechanically and is now a regular on Horseless Club tours.
Robert Trenley restored his 1912 Abbott-Detroit roadster in the early 1990s. It’s powered by a 350-cubic-inch, four-cylinder engine rated at 44 hp whereas a Model T of the time made 20 hp; very powerful for the period. This Abbot-Detroit won the President’s Choice award at the 1996 Tour of the Century in Wisconsin, competing against more than 200 other Brass Era cars.
Bill Paul’s 1911 Cadillac Model 30 had been in dead storage for 80 years. The car’s second owner bought it in 1927 to deliver newspapers in Beverly Hills, Calif.,and Bill has the photos to prove it, along with the original sales receipt from the Cadillac dealer in Los Angeles. The only items replaced on the car from new are the mats on the running boards (they turned to dust), the top (replaced in 1960) and the tires. It is otherwise completely original with the paint brought back to life with tons of elbow grease and the brass revived with treatments of muriatic acid. As for the engine, Bill freed it up and rebuilt the original parts. It fired up on the second crank.
Editor’s note: Tune in Saturday for an ‘Eye candy’ photo gallery from the Tour.