Monday, March 31, 2014

On the Road: Los Angeles Museums

Hanging out with the Hannibal from "The
Great Race," at the Petersen Museum
by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Last week I traveled to Los Angeles to attend the 2014 National Association for Automobile Museums annual conference. This year’s meeting took place at the Petersen Automotive Museum and was held in conjunction with the World Forum for Motor Museums. It was a great opportunity to meet with museum professionals from the U.K., Greece, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and around North America. 

Liberace's 1962 Rolls-Royce Phantom V Landau
Limousine at the Petersen Museum. He had it
custom built to match one of his pianos.
The Petersen Museum was a fabulous host and allowed us to tour their Vault and numerous exhibits. It was nice to see their museum and displays before they begin their ambitious renovation later this year. It was hard to choose a favorite car among their displays, but those related to the movies and celebrities ranked high on my list. Their town car display was also fantastic.

1936 Toyota Classic Model AA
(replica) at the Toyota Museum

In addition to a series of presentations (including an excellent one by the National Corvette Museum about their recent sinkhole incident), we were able to tour several other museums and collections. First up was the Toyota Museum, which hosted our Tuesday reception.

 So-Cal Speed Shop belly tank lakester and motorcycles
in the Bruce Meyer Collection.

On Wednesday our first stop was at the Bruce Meyer Collection, located behind a nondescript door in an alley by Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Mr. Meyer has a fascinating collection, including Le Mans racers, hot rods, a wall of motorcycles, and lofty marques like Bentley, Porsche, Jaguar, Duesenberg and Ferrari.

From there we traveled to Pasadena to visit the Transportation Department at the Art Center College of Design. A significant percent of the world's automotive designers graduate from this program, and it was interesting to see the students in action.
Student work at the Art Center College of Design

Next up was the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar, where we started our tour in their Lower and Grand Salons. Founder J.B. Nethercutt, who made his fortune with Merle Norman Cosmetics, and his son Jack Nethercutt have amassed a superb collection, housed in the salons and across the street in the Nethercutt Museum. This was my third visit to the Nethercutt, and every trip there I discover something new. I especially enjoyed perusing their collection of Cadillacs this time.

1930 Ruxton at the Nethercutt Collection
On Friday, we cruised up the Pacific Coast Highway to Oxnard, where we toured the Mullin Automotive Museum. I have been here once before and was really looking forward to seeing it again. Our visit was marred, however, by an employee who did a great job at making us feel very unwelcome. She even gave Edsel Ford II a hard time about his tour reservation. It was a reminder about how your museum's front-line employees set the tone for each visitor’s experience, which turned out to be quite negative for me and many others at this stop.

Despite the sour tone, the cars (and Rembrandt Bugatti’s sculptures) were stunning and we had an excellent docent guide. Unfortunately, most of the cars lacked signs, so I don't remember what they were besides Bugattis.

1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic at the Mullin Museum, 
reportedly purchased for over $30 million.

Our final destination was Mike and Barbara Malamut’s private collection, which included a delightful mix of vintage Porches, Volkswagons, Messerschmitts, BMW Isettas, many other cars, and a lot of memorabilia. Alas, they asked that we not post photos on line. Although this collection is not open to the public, hopefully some day you will get to see it as part of a group tour, especially since the Malamuts are very delightful hosts.

Round Door Rolls-Royce in the Petersen
Museum Vault. More info here.
I will post more photos from my trip on our Facebook page later this week. Kudos to Leslie Kendall and the Petersen Museum for putting on such a great conference!

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!

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Pedigreed Rambler

by Nancy DeWitt
Our 1904 Stevens-Duryea, when it was
at the Museum of Science and Industry
 (its 2nd owner) in Chicago.
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

One of my jobs as the museum's historian is to document the history of the automobiles in the collection. For a handful, such as our 1928 Oakland, we have very little information beyond the name of the prior owner. For others, like our 1904 Stevens-Duryea and 1918 Biddle, we can trace their provenance (history of ownership) back to the person who bought it new.

In addition to a car's provenance, we are interested in its restoration history (if any), if it has won any awards, and whether or not the car completed any tours of note. Although to our knowledge it never won more than a 3rd place concours award, our 1904 Rambler Model L is a great example of a car that carries some interesting history.

So far we have traced this Rambler's ownership back to B. Paul Moser of Santa Barbara, CA, in the late 1950s. Its next owner was William Schamberger of Cedar Rapids, OH, who performed some restoration work on it in the early 1960s. He sold the car to the Rothman's Pall Mall/Craven Foundation of Toronto in 1972. They had Walter Heater of Detroit restore it; while touring with the car in Great Britain in 1987 they sold it to Coys of London. The Rambler then passed through three other owners in Great Britain over the course of 13 years. It required a full mechanical renovation, which was performed by Cliff Long. Peter Inston drove the Rambler in the Veteran Car Club of Great Britain's Diamond Jubilee Rally in 1990.

Ben Cawthra/London News Pictures/Zuma Press
More notably, our Rambler participated in the London-to-Brighton Veteran Car Run (LTBVCR) several times. The LTBVCR is the world's longest-running motoring event and the world's largest gathering of veteran cars (those built before 1905). The first run was held in 1896, and it has some fascinating history. It is not a race, but a 60-mile test of endurance for these old cars, a test of stamina for the driver and passengers (it is usually quite cold and often rainy), and a social gathering for veteran-car aficionados. A lot of the cars break down, and many do not finish.
A 1904 Rambler (not ours) in the
1910 London-to-Brighton Run.

Our Rambler completed its first LTBVCR in 1973 (although the run was "somewhat traumatic" due to engine problems), but failed to complete the 1987 run after throwing a connecting rod. That's why the Craven Foundation sold it Coys. It later completed runs in 1988 and 1989.

John William Middendorf

In 2000, the Rambler passed back to an American owner--Ambassador William Middendorf II of Rhode Island. Middendorf had served as treasurer for Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, as Secretary of Defense Secretary of the Navy (1974-77), and as a U.S. Ambassador (1969-1973, 1981-1987). He also owned our 1898 Hay Motor VehicleDon Meyer drove the entire 2000 LTBVCR in the Rambler in before shipping it back to North America. 

Peter Pitcher did some mechanical work on the Rambler after it was brought back to the U.S., and I believe Middendorf toured with the car before selling it to our museum in 2007. It is one of only four 1904 Rambler Model Ls known to survive. Some day we'd love to take it or one of our other Veteran cars across the pond and participate in the historic London-to-Brighton run. I can just see Willy and Tim looking like these two chaps at right!

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!

Monday, March 17, 2014

On the Road: 2014 Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance

by Willy Vinton

Recently I went on another adventure to check out a few cars at some auctions and take in a couple of car shows.This time I headed to Amelia Island, FL. There I met up with Allan Schmidt from Escondido, CA, who does a lot of our restoration work. We decided to first take in the Festival of Speed display.

Now if you're a purist, this may not be the show for you, but it is amazing the talent shown in the creation of some of these vehicles. I am not sure what the first pictured vehicle is supposed to be, maybe something from a scifi movie? Either way, it was interesting to look at.

The motorcycle with three, yes THREE, drive tires was an interesting concept bike for sure. Training wheels, perhaps? Straight ahead of that bike is one with a young lad on it, and next to him was "Bat Man" in full dress. The kids were enjoying having their picture taken on his bike.

After two days of cold, rain, and wind, Saturday turned out nicer. On Sunday, it reached a very pleasant 70 degrees for the concours. One of my favorite cars there was the one at right. This is one of the very first Duesenburg Model As built, and I have to say it is by far the most striking of the Model As I have seen. The custom body and lines of this Bender Coupe were amazing to look at, and being a 1921 it was a step ahead of its day. I would love to have this car in the museum.

The real reason for my trip, though, was to see the great collection of American Underslungs on display. Only 11 of the planned 14 made it to the show, but they were all great to see. At right is the American's famous Teetor-Hartley 4-cylinder engine. Apparently these are very rare, as we have been searching for a few years for one, with no luck. This engine is almost a mirror image of the 4-cylinder Continental engine of the same period, but has a few major differences.

Like most of the Brass Era cars of the day, there was plenty of brass to see under the hood. It is always a joy to see this brass contrasting with the aluminum crankcases and cast blocks. When you look at the progress that was made in the first 10 to 12 years of automobile engine development, it is amazing how fast they progressed and improved.

This 1910 American Underslung Traveler from the Seal Cove Museum once belonged to Austie Clark. Allan and I spent a lot of time among the Underslungs, scrutinizing details and talking to folks there. What a great bunch of cars we saw--too much to put in here at this time!

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!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Early Snow Vehicles in Alaska: Part 2

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Last week I wrote about several of Alaska's first "snowmobiles," including some air-propelled contraptions (see Part 1). Like a lot of inventions designed to conquer the north's winter terrain, the first two featured here never actually made it to Alaska. The Burch Auto Sleigh at right sat upon skis and two revolving augers, similar to what would be used on the Fordson Snow Motors covered below. Brothers Charles and Frederick Burch made successful runs with it in the Atlin, B.C. district in 1909 and intended to use it to haul passengers between Cordova, Fairbanks and Nome. As far as I know, it never made it across the border.

Frank Horner of Ruby, Alaska (and the namesake for Horner Hot Springs), patented the unusual vehicle above in 1916, which he was sure would replace the dogsled. The Horner Motor-Sled did borrow a few traits from dogsleds. It was long and narrow like a toboggan and had a hickory frame, mounted on runners and reinforced by flexible rawhide. The similarity ended there. Two driving wheels were mounted at the rear and two "idler" wheels near the front, all pneumatics. Two cleated belts connected the font and rear wheels, so it ran somewhat like a caterpillar tractor. The front steering wheel could be raised and lowed depending on the snow's depth and consistency. Horner tested two prototypes of his machine in Ohio, Washington, and Canada, but never brought one to Alaska.

Meanwhile, Alaska automotive pioneer Robert Sheldon's auto stage business was booming and he began modifying his Model Ts to run on snow. In 1914, he cut down the width of the axles so the wheels would fit in sleigh tracks on the trail to Valdez. He also planned to patent an invention he called the "snowshoe wheel." I don't know if it resembled the snowshoe wheels at right, made by an Idaho inventor in 1912. I have doubts he found much success with his creation, as by 1915 he was simply wrapping chains around his rear tires and strapping skis under the front ones for driving on snow. Still, he was always looking for a better way to get from point A to B. In early 1918 he built a caterpillar tractor automobile that was patented by a Mr. Chambers of Salcha. Nicknamed "Sheldon's Tank," I could find no mention of it after its first few runs.

Three Fordson Snow Motors were shipped to Alaska in 1926 for the Wilkins transpolar flight attempt. Two were brought in to haul trains of sledges loaded with supplies and fuel from Nenana to Barrow. The first day was a disaster. After sitting through the night at -25 F, both motors were damaged while trying to start them. Once going, they covered less than three miles the first day due to the machines and sleds bogging down in snow drifts, while several members of the crew suffered frostbite. Two days later, after covering only 65 miles and burning through their fuel supply, the Fordsons were declared failures and dog teams were organized to move the supplies north. You can see one of these Snow Motors on display outside our museum.

In the 1920s and 30s a series of production vehicles adapted for snow began appearing in Alaska. These included two Eskimobiles shipped to Nome. These were typically built on Fords, but the company would modify any car with the tracks.

I found this photo, labeled "Gawne Motor Sled in Nome," on eBay, but know nothing about it. Perhaps one of our readers has some information? It appears to be a Model T mounted on a dogsled-like toboggan, driven by two ridged wheels in the rear and stabilized by side runners.

The vehicle below is equipped with a kit similar to our Snow Flyer, as was the rig I discovered in Valdez several years ago (below right). There were probably a number of these ski-and-track kits sold after the mid-1920s, and I imagine there are more than a few of them slowly deteriorating around Alaska. There was even a Super Snow Bird in Dillingham!

Finally, there was Roaring Boring Alice (a play on Aurora Borealis), a modified Ford Model A that was built by Stanley Morgan of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Point Barrow in the early 1930s. You can see a video of Alice in our museum. Alice initially carried skis under her front wheels, chains around the rear ones, a second set of skis attached to the rear axle, and a canvas box for a cab. Morgan later replaced the rear assembly with a track from a Ford Snowmobile kit. At one point Morgan became stranded in Alice on an ice floe drifting near Barrow for two months. In 1937, he used Alice to rescue pilot Harold Gillam, who had been forced to land on the tundra during a "Santa Claus" flight to Barrow. I'm told that Alice is still in Barrow. Can anyone out there confirm that?

  • "At Army's Most Isolated Outpost in Arctic A Lone Soldier Wins Renown." The Weekly Kansas City Star, 9 October 1935.
  • Allan, Chris. "Auto Sleighs and Iron Malamutes: The History of Alaska's Earliest Snow-Machines." In Alaska History, Vol. 26, No. 2. Fall 2011.
  • "Auto Sleigh To Make It In 2 Days." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 19 May 1909.
  • Cole, Terrence M. "Klondike Contraptions: Inventions in Transportation." Northern Review, No. 3/4. Summer/Winter 1989.
  • Gaulois, George. "The Motor Sled Versus the Dog Sled." Scientific American, Vol. 124. 29 January, 1921.
  • "In 1924, Ford Plus Tracks Plus Snpw Equaled 'Eskimobile.'" Best of Old Cars Weekly
  • Prosser, W.T. "New Auto for Snow Travel." Technical World Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 1. March 1909.
  • "Tough Going for Snow Motors on Pt. Barrow Trek.: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 16 February 1926.
  • "Utah Sergeant Goes to Aid of Arctic Pilot." Salt Lake Tribune, 14 December 1937.
  • "Wilkins Motor Expedition Stranded First Day Out." Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 13 February 1926.

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!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Early Snow Vehicles in Alaska: Part 1

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Last Sunday, we fired up our 1917 Model T Snow Flyer and gave rides around Wedgewood Resort. The Snow Flyer was made from a kit one could buy to covert a Model T into a rig that could travel on snow. A similar kit, pioneered by Virgil White in 1913, was the first time the word "snowmobile" was applied to a tracked snow vehicle. I have yet to document that a Snow Flyer or Snowmobile kit was used in Alaska during the first part of the century, but there were certainly similar kits in use by the mid-20s (Part 2).

Let's first take a look at some earlier creations for motorized snow travel in Alaska. I believe the very first one here was a 2,000-lb steam sled, brought to Valdez by some Connecticut gold seekers in 1898. It consisted of two heavy bobsleds on runners, one fastened behind the other. The front sled carried a 10-hp boiler and an 8-hp reversible engine. The second one carried gearing and a  spiked cylinder. The idea was that the spikes would dig into the snow or ice as the sled pulled 15 sledges carrying the miners' freight over glaciers to the Copper River. After being dragged to shore, the boiler was fired up but the sled failed to move and was quickly abandoned on the flats. One historian wrote of the steam sled, "It had the record of being the first automobile in Alaska and was never guilty of exceeding the speed limit."

Boyce Motor Sled
Claus Rodine papers, 1898-1919. ASL-MS-134
In 1903, Nome miner James Dawson built an automobile sleigh that he claimed would replace dogs and reindeer. The vehicle featured a crude oil burner and revolving paddles made from the baleen of a bowhead whale. The motor sled at right was invented by William A. Boyce in Nome in 1909. I have yet to find a follow-up story on the sled, which must have caused quite a sensation on the streets of Nome. A similar contraption was described in the Tanana Leader in December of 1909--an autosled made by George Tiffany of Detroit and sent to his son G.H. Tiffany in Tanana. The article said that the 10-hp auto engine failed to develop sufficient power, although the sled did manage to run through the town before breaking down.

From Motor Age, Vol XX No. 2
Another interesting rig appeared in Alaska in the summer of 1911. The caterpillar motor car consisted of two wooden tracks attached to a 4-cylinder runabout. Each track could be operated separately, and a tracked, "tail-like rudder" in the rear also helped steer the machine. It was built to order for Charles Dankert of Candle, Alaska, by the Emery Machine Company of Seattle. Popular Science magazine claimed it was "probably the first automobile to make an appearance in Alaska," which we know is false. Dankert intended to use it to pull sledges loaded with food and supplies in the Candle Mining District, but I don't know if he succeeded.

Gibson Papers, UAF Archives, 1978-76-23
In March of 1912, Fred Lewis of Fairbanks built a motor sled consisting of a single front runner, two runners in the rear, a 20-hp engine, and a large, spiked drive-wheel. It was able to reach a speed of 20 mph and successfully covered 20 miles out the Valdez Trail and back on its trial run. After that, I found mention of a number of air-propelled snow vehicles, including one owned by "Reilly" in February of 1918. Apparently it was stuck in Chitina being repaired and reinforced before attempting a run to Fairbanks. The machine at right is Corbett's Air Sled, photographed in Chitina in 1916. I wonder if Reilly built his own air sled, or acquired Corbett's? I have not found documentation that Reilly reached Fairbanks with his.

Photo courtesy of Candy Waugaman
Probably the most famous air-propelled snow vehicle back then was the aero-sled built in 1916 by well-known musher Scotty Allan of Nome. One newspaper described it as "a combination aeroplane, automobile and the Yukon bobsleigh." It was powered by a 6-hp airplane engine and the propeller "had a tendency to lift the sled when wet snow is encountered." Several newspaper claimed Allan drove his aero-sled from Nome to Valdez and back in 12 days, although I am curious how he was able to obtain fuel along the route for his "gasoline-consuming speedball."

J.H. Miles of Nome also built an air-propelled sled, in 1917. In fact, that were a number of such vehicles built over the next several decades in Alaska, one of which can be seen in a video playing in the museum. These ranged from bobsled-type rigs to ones that resembled airplanes without wings. Here are just two examples:

Haines' first snowmobile, the Jitterbug,
built by Felix "Whitey" Hakkinen in 1937.
The propeller was powered by a 25-hp
motorcycle engine converted for aircraft use.
During the summer, Hakkinen drove the
 area's first "airboat" by mounting the Jitterbug's
engine and prop on a skiff. This photo and
the Jitterbug's propeller and skis are on
display at the Sheldon Museum in Haines.
One of two snowplanes built by Reverend
Augustus "Gus" Martin, shown in Bethel around 1933.
Martin built this one in Kwigillingok on the lower
Kuskokwin coast, using a Ford Model A engine for power.
Martin found his snowplanes to be much faster, less
expensive, more protected, and more practical than
running a dog team between villages for his missionary
work for the Moravian church.

To see some other air-propelled snow rigs made outside of Alaska, check out this blog.

  • "Aero Sled Proves Wonder in Alaska." Dawson Daily News, 12 February 1917.
  • "Air-Propelled Auto Coming." Fairbanks Daily News, 27 February 1918.
  • Allan, Chris. "Auto Sleighs and Iron Malamutes: The History of Alaska's Earliest Snow-Machines." In Alaska History, Vol. 26, No. 2. Fall 2011.
  • "An Auto For Frozen Alaska." Popular Science, 1912.
  • "Automobile Arctic Sled." The Yukon Sun, 21 October 1903.
  • Colby, Merle. 1939. Alaska: A Guide to Alaska, Last American Frontier. MacMillan, New York.
  • Lenz, Mary and James H. Barker. 1985. Bethel: The First 100 Years. A City of Bethel Centennial Project.
  • "Makes Trial Run With Motor-Sled." Fairbanks Daily Times, 5 March 1912.
  • Margeson, Charles A. 1899. Experiences of Gold Hunters in Alaska. Published by author.
  • "Overland Record in Frozen North By Airsled." Moderator Topics, Vol. 37, No. 17. 14 January 1917.
  • Powell, Addison M. 1910. Trailing and Camping in Alaska. Wessels & Bissell, New York.
  • "The Caterpillar Motor Car." Motor Age, Vol. 20 No. 2. 13 July 1911.
  • "Tiffany's AutoSled." Tanana Leader, 23 December 1909.
  • "To Copper River for Gold." New York Times, 23 January 1898.
  • Vitt, Kurt and Jim Henkelman. 1985. Harmonious to Dwell: The History of the Alaska Moravian Church, 1885-1985. Moravian Seminary & Archives, Bethel, AK.

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!