Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Fageol Safety Coach is Rescued

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Earlier this year Frances Erickson, daughter of Alaska automotive pioneer Robert Sheldon, loaned me some of her family photos to scan. Among them was this one of a most unusual-looking bus, resembling a stretched-out limousine. Frances recalled that Bobby used it to transport tourists into Mt. McKinley National Park and that it was very upscale and dependable. 

Naturally, I was curious as to what kind of bus this was. I found a second photo of it in Snapshots from the Past: A Roadside History of Denali National Park and Preserve, and it clearly showed the name “Fageol” on the radiator. Thus began some internet research, which led me to John Fageol (pronounced “fadgl,” rhymes with “fragile”), a descendent of one of the brothers who founded Fageol Motors Co. in Oakland, CA. John identified it as a ca. 1924+ Fageol “Intercity” Safety Coach with a cast aluminum cowling and Gruss shocks in front. It had a seating capacity of 22 and a wheelbase of 218 inches. Each bench seat had its own door, disappearing wide window, interior light, and adjustable side and ceiling vents. A “parlor” model carried movable wicker chairs, attached to the floor by suction cups. One of these can be seen at the Museum of Bus Transportation in Hershey, PA.

It turns out the Fageol Safety Coach, the first bus built from the ground up, was quite revolutionary. Until its introduction in 1921, most buses were built on stiff-riding truck chassis, and their poor ride quality, high centers of gravity, and low-performance engines made them unsatisfactory for transit use. Fageol coaches had a double-drop frame and underslung axles, which lowered the floor to 21 inches above the ground and an overall height of just 76 inches. Power was initially supplied by a Hall-Scott single overhead cam 4-cylinder engine designed by Fageol. Each one came equipped with all-weather tread cord tires, with duals on the rear. An extra-wide tread of 72 inches between the wheels provided extra stability on turns. Beginning in 1923, Fageols were equipped with air brakes, the first use of such on a motor coach. The interior was heated by hot water from the engine, run through pipes along the floor.

Frances told me that Bobby and his partners were forced by the Park Service to close their transportation concession in 1941, and the bus was sold to the Alaska Railroad. The ARR brought it to Fairbanks, where it sat rotting in a lot on Davis Road. When I mentioned this to Willy, he said, “I remember seeing it there!” In fact, a number of people in Fairbanks remembered seeing it, but no one seemed to know of its history. Willy and I went by the lot Frances described, but it was fenced and we could see no sign of the old coach. Willy left a note on the gate, and several months later he finally heard from the owner.

Not only was the Fageol still there, but owner Diane Dawson said she would donate it to the museum! I had assumed it was black, but red paint is still present on the aluminum panels. The distinctive ventilation louvres on top of the hood—a key Fageol design feature—are intact. The Hall-Scott  engine and Brown-Lipe 4-speed gearbox with an overdrive top gear are still under the hood. The high-grade leather seats are long gone, except for some seat frames. Much of the wooden framework has rotted and the side panels have collapsed. The running board, which sits just 16 inches above the ground, is still fairly intact.

Around 2,500 Fageol Safety Coaches were built, and there are only five known survivors in addition to this one. Clearly, ours is in bad shape, but a rare artifact like this deserves to be saved. We moved it to the Fountainhead Development headquarters earlier this month, and will work to stabilize and preserve its remains, rather than try to restore it.

The Fageol buses manufactured for Safety Coach Lines of Muskegon, Michigan, were nicknamed "greyhounds" because of their gray paint and sleek appearance. One legend says this inspired the name of what became America’s most well-known bus line. 

Who would have thought an old rusty bus could be so interesting?

 Calloway, Dick. “Fageol: A Higher Standard.” Wheels of Time (American Truck Historical Society), July/August 2013.

“Fageol Motors Co., Fageol Truck and Coach Co., Fageol Motors Co. of Ohio.“ Retrieved on 5 September 2014 from

Herman, Gene. “ The Fageol Safety Coach: A Breakthrough in Bus Design.” The Old Motor, 15 January 2014. Retrieved on 5 September 2014 from /?p=111779

Juneau, Bud. “Safety Coach: Fageol’s Innovative, Trendsetting Coach of 1927.” Special Interest Autos, September/October 2001.

Coming to Fairbanks to see the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum and other area attractions? Support the museum by staying right here at Wedgewood Resort. All guests receive half-price admission to the museum!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Trivia Time!

by Derik Price
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Two of the most common questions we are asked by museum guests are, “Where did you buy all these vehicles?" and “Who did you buy them from?” The short answer is, we’ve traveled all over the United States and bought them from individual collectors, auctions, and museums alike. One vehicle was even purchased in the U.K. and flown to Alaska. Do you know which one?  If not, here’s a refresher… 

But being interested in the history of these vehicles, I’ve often wondered where they were all produced. It was a rainy summer, and I had some extra time on my hands so I decided to map it out. I made an iPhoto album containing one photo of each vehicle in the collection and assigned each one its original place of manufacture.  You might notice a few things about this map.  First off, it’s not weighted, meaning, there is only one pin drop in Detroit, Michigan, even though a full 27 of our vehicles were produced there. These include the manufacturers Ford, Cadillac, Cartercar, Hudson, Chalmers-Detroit, Everitt, Dodge, Chrysler, Fordson, Hupmobile, and Packard. And in case you’re curious, the runner up is Indianapolis, Indiana, with eight vehicles produced there, including the nameplates American (Underslung), Premier, Henderson, and Stutz. Rounding out the top three is Cleveland, Ohio, with five vehicles in the collection made by Peerless, Rauch & Lang, White, Cleveland (motorcycle) and Owen Magnetic.

Not coincidently, you may also notice the outlined pin drops almost precisely define the area traditionally known as “The Rust Belt" (from the Dictionary of American History, 
----  The 1984 Democratic presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, is generally credited with coining the term. During the campaign, Mondale, the former vice-president from Minnesota, attacked the economic policies of incumbent Republican president, Ronald Reagan, stating that the president was "turning our great industrial Midwest and the industrial base of our Country into a rust bowl."  The media, however, repeated and reported the notion as "Rust Belt," and the phrase stuck as a good description of the declining industrial heartland, especially the steel and automobile producing regions in the Northeast and Midwest ---  

And finally, for your quiz, there are two vehicles in the Fountainhead Collection whose birthplaces are not shown on the map, as they were produced outside the boundaries of this area. Can you name them? I’ll give you a hint, the two States they were produced in are each known for their rich ‘Gold Rush’ history.  

Coming to Fairbanks to see the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum and other area attractions? Support the museum by staying right here at Wedgewood Resort. All guests receive half-price admission to the museum!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Owen Magnetic Restoration Update

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Certainly one of the more interesting cars in our collection is our 1917 Owen Magnetic, one of about a dozen known extant. I have seen only a handful of other Owen Magnetics, including ones at Jay Leno's, the Nethercutt Museum (2), and the Tupelo Automobile Museum. Ours came to us from the J. Parker Wickham Collection, in fair shape with a burgundy paint job. We've had it out on the road several times. It drives great, but a crack in the top of the block was a concern.

Clockwise from top left: 1917 Model M-25 touring (formerly at Nethercutt); 1921 Model 60 phaeton (Nethercutt);  1916 M-25 touring 1916 (Leno); 1916 M-25 touring (Tupelo).

1916 Owen Magnetic Model O-36 7-passenger touring car
Photo courtesy of the Western Reserve Historical Society

Other Owen Magnetics can be found in the Crawford Auto Aviation Collection (right) and at the Louwman Museum.

In October of 2012, we sent our Owen south for a frame-off restoration and block repair at Murray Motor Car in Monroe, WA. It's been in the talented hands of Al and Paul Murray ever since, and boy, have their hands been full! They completely rebuilt the engine and had the block repaired by "Cast Iron Mike," the northwest's preeminent cast-iron welder. The water pump, carburetor, and magneto were rebuilt, a new muffler was installed, and the rear springs, real wheel bearings, and front hub seals were replaced. The car now has all new nickel plating, new windshield glass, new front floorboards, a new top, and new carpet in the rear.

The Murrays also completely stripped and repainted the car and powder coated the wheels. It still needs some finishing touches, but we'll have it ready for the Pacific Northwest Concours d'Elegance at the LeMay - America's Car Museum on September 7. We can't wait to see and drive the newly restored car, and hope to see you at the show! If you miss it, the Owen Magnetic should be back in Alaska in October.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Gift Shop Update

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

During the planning stage and first years for our museum, I had the good fortune to visit a number of other car museums in the United States. One of my tasks was to check out their gift shops and find out which items were popular sellers. Alas, many of these were too area- or brand-specific for our shop, such as Route 66 signs, Duesenberg coffee-table books, die-cast models of 50s and 60s cars, Bugatti trading cards, and fuzzy dice.

So, we set out to find items that were more closely related to our museum's artifacts, and to create products that you wouldn't find in other stores. Our most popular items are our book, Alaska's Fountainhead Collection: Vintage Treads and Threads, and postcards featuring our cars. The success of our book has encouraged us to produce others. We'll soon have for sale a guide to the museum's photograph collection, and a coloring book about Bobby Sheldon illustrated by Fairbanks artist Sandy Jamieson. This winter we also hope to produce books on Alaska automobile history and our historic fashion collection.

This year we expanded our selection of reproduction vintage hats, which quickly became hot sellers--especially the stylish cloches. Even ladies in the Red Hat Society can find something here!

T-shirts and ballcaps remain popular with our visitors. This year we added three new silk-screened designs, plus some women's shirts featuring our White Steamer and a Packard in Swarovski crystals.

We've had copper ornaments of our Stanley Steamer, Model T (with Santa!), and Argo electric car custom made. You can also find custom bookmarks, lapel pins, mints, mugs, onesies, keychains, and magnets featuring our cars, and earrings made of jewel beetle wing cases like the decorations on one of our vintage coats.

For fun, we have a very popular book about the little Abernathy boys, who drove a Brush automobile cross country in 1910, and a selection of coloring books, paper dolls, model cars, and books on fashion.

Our most recent arrival is a shipment of vintage-inspired Grandmother's Buttons jewelry, made with 100-year-old buttons (below). GB jewelry has been sold in places like Anthropologie, Lord & Taylor, the Palace of Versailles, and The Smithsonian. We carry other jewelry too, including crystal car brooches by Lauren Spencer, Model T earrings, and pieces by Harlow.

We don't have an on-line store, but if there is a book, shirt, cap or other item you'd like, just call us at 907-450-2100 with a credit card and we can ship the item(s) to you. Better yet, stop in the museum soon for some shopping. In mid-September we will switch to winter hours and will only be open on Sundays.

Coming to Fairbanks to see the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum and other area attractions? Support the museum by staying right here at Wedgewood Resort. All guests receive half-price admission to the museum!