Monday, September 24, 2012

The Unusual Compound Automobile

by Nancy DeWitt, Historian
Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

It's easy to overlook our 1906 Compound (#168) as just another Brass Era automobile, but in my opinion it is one of the most interesting cars in the museum. Its color isn't very exciting and it lacks flashy brass fittings, but underneath the hood is a design that was quite innovative for its time. In fact, you could say the Compound was one of the first "green," internal-combustion automobiles.

The Compound was named for its unique engine that expanded--or compounded--the exhaust gases through two stages. Compounding steam engines date back at least as far as 1781, while a limited number of internal combustion compound engines were patented or built later in the 19th century to run mills, boats and streetcars. In 1903 the Graham-Fox Motor Company exhibited a prototype automobile called the Graham-Fox Compound Engine Car. The following year it went into production as the Compound under the Eisenhuth Horseless Vehicle (E.H.V.) Company in Middletown, CT.

The Compound's engine has three cylinders, but note the size difference. The outer two, 4-cycle high-pressure cylinders "explode alternately" and exhaust into the larger, 2-cycle low-pressure cylinder rather than into the atmosphere. Here the exhaust gas expands further and drives the piston down before exiting through a small muffler. This compounding of the exhaust gas allowed for more complete combustion that allegedly resulted in a cleaner, odorless and very quiet final exhaust. It also increased fuel economy.

According to Willy, this is a car that requires lots of attention from the driver, from starting to applying the brakes. "First, if you follow a series of minor details, the car starts rather easy, much more so than you would expect. Once you step into the car you need to stay focused on what you and the car are doing. As you select a gear (it has a sliding gear transmission, with the pattern to shift being in a straight line), one must be very careful not to miss a gear or you could cause some damage. The engine does not like to idle for long periods, as it tends to load up the center cylinder. Then when you put the car in motion and speed up the engine, it will smoke a little and begin to give a little pop from time to time until it clears the center cylinder. At that point it becomes very smooth and you can feel the power increase. All in all, this is a rather fun car to drive and exciting to see and hear run."

Dennis Gage from the Speed Channel drives the Compound
while filming an episode for "My Classic Car"
Of the 300 Compounds produced, this Light Touring Car is the only one known to survive. It is also one of the few cars in the museum whose provenance can be traced all the way back to its original owner, John Unser, chief engineer at the E.H.V. Company. After Unser sold the car in 1934, it passed through a number of owners, including Henry Austin Clark (Long Island Automotive Museum), Harrah's Automobile Collection, General William Lyon, Bill and Doug Magee, and Carl Schmitt. While at Harrah's, it received one of their famed Gold Star restorations.

Another unique feature of the Compound is its power brakes, which operate on pressure from a small engine-driven air pump. Also, the rear section (tonneau) of this Compound can be removed and replaced with a "tuxedo," or rear deck and trunk. This simple operation converts the Compound from a tourer to an open roadster. Despite all of its novel features, production of the Compound automobile ended in 1908 after a brief, final run under the Eagle Motor Company.

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