Monday, July 14, 2014

Australian Builds Reproduction of Alaska's First Car

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Don Langley of New South Wales, Australia, recently finished building a replica of Robert Sheldon's 1905 runabout. The Sheldon car was the first automobile built and driven in Alaska, and is on display in our museum,courtesy of the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Don's story is a fun one, and we appreciate that he allowed us to share it.

In 2012, Don had just finished building a Daimlan motorbike and wanted to build a four-wheeled vehicle. He found the story about Bobby Sheldon's car on the internet, which piqued his interest. "He was my kind of guy," said Don. "And to make that car, without ever having see a car--only pictures--far less driven one, was a marvelous achievement. I figured I could do that also. I would make a replica of his car using only a picture.

"Being an old chippy (woodworker), the chassis and engine compartment presented no problems and I made those components as close to possible to the dimensions given to me by Willy (Vinton). The engine is a Tecumseh 13 HP from a ride-on-mower and the differential, with the built in gear box, likewise. The axle assembly incorporated a four forward and reverse gears, a disc brake component and a main drive pulley for a V belt. To the engine (it had a vertical shaft) I fitted a centrifugal clutch, with V belt drive pulley.

"In the engine compartment I fitted a vertical steering column in a steel frame, a fuel tank, and battery compartment. The steering tiller works well and it is light to steer when moving. As for carbide lamps for headlights, I found such items impossible to acquire with having to mortgage my home, so I found some gas headlights which looked similar.

"The seating was a bit of a problem. Bar stools of satisfactory shape were not available. So I made a frame and upholstered it myself. It does not conform exactly to the original one but it was the best I could manage.

"The wooden wheels I designed and made myself, although I have no lathe, so a friend turned the spokes for me on his. I fitted steel rims to the perimeter, shrinking them on, and then glued solid rubber to the steel rim. The wheels look a bit chunkier than on the original car but I did that on purpose."

The project took Don over eight months to complete, and he drove it just prior to his 80th birthday. He named the car Isabella in honor of his wife Isabel, who graciously agreed to all the time and costs involved. We have never been able to determine the name of "the girl" for whom Sheldon built the car to impress. But, there was a girl in Skagway back then named Belle Everest and Sheldon did mention his girl was "the belle of the town," so maybe Don is on to something here!

Don admits the car isn't an exact replica and refers to it as a "Mark II Sheldon." A lack of information on details like the original transmission, locating items such as the same barstools and buggy wheels Sheldon salvaged, and limitations of time and money make building an exact replica impossible. Plus, Don enjoyed doing what Bobby Sheldon did--scrounging for local and readily available materials and adapting them to suit or making them himself.

Still, Don has built a great reproduction of the Sheldon car--AND it runs! Don sent us a video of it being driven and we will post it on our YouTube Channel soon. Many thanks to Don for letting us share what we think is a "marvelous achievement."

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!

1 comment:

  1. Amazing this car , I've read about Robert Sheldon , I would like to inform me the car dimensions


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