Wednesday, February 25, 2015

On the Road: LeMay Family Collection

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

I recently traveled to Seattle, Washington, for a vacation and decided to spend a day visiting the two LeMay museums in Tacoma. I started off at the LeMay Family Collection at Marymount, which is less well known than the newer and flashier LeMay – America’s Car Museum next to the Tacoma Dome.

Harold LeMay made his fortune hauling garbage, and it’s clear that he loved to spend his money on old cars and trucks. It doesn't appear that there was a particular theme to his collecting--if it was an old vehicle, he wanted it! That is reflected at Marymount. The numerous cars seem to be arranged rather randomly, and many lack signs or much information about them. Still, it is incredible collection to see, and this history of the Marymount facility is as interesting as the cars. I really enjoyed my visit.

The original buildings were all part of the Marymount Military Academy run by the Sisters of St. Dominica from 1923-1975. Eric LeMay, one of Harold’s grandsons, gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the former housing complex, chapel, visiting priest’s quarters, and miscellaneous collections that aren't open to the public (though the chapel and some rooms are rented out for events). The cars are displayed and stored in the old gymnasium, auditorium, swimming pool, indoor rifle range, shower room, and several newer storage buildings. Expect a surprise each time you round a corner into another room.

I had been told I would see warehouses filled with cars, many fork lifted onto shelves, and parked so tightly that it was hard to fully appreciate them. The cars were indeed packed into the warehouses, but it was still fun to cruise the rows of trucks and automobiles looking for favorites. It's amazing how many marques and styles you will find. There is more elbow room in the main Red Building, and the gymnasium is quite spacious. I had to chuckle at the cars parked up in the bleachers!

You won't learn a lot about automobile history at this museum by reading signs, but they have excellent docents to fill in the blanks. And you will be blown away with the sheer number and variety of cars and how their styles changed over time. There are some very nice and rare vintage vehicles in the collection--Harold LeMay had a good eye and his vehicles here are very well preserved. I especially loved seeing trucks that I had never heard of before, and how could I not love the stiletto art car? Sweet Tucker, too. There's something for everyone here, including some interesting memorabilia and even a few vintage fashions.

Do go if you get the chance. And stay tuned for a post about the LeMay - America's Car Museum.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Another Book! Alaska's First Automobiles

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Our latest exhibit, "Extreme Motoring: Alaska's First Automobiles and Their Dauntless Drivers" has been very popular, and many visitors have asked us to publish the stories about these men and their machines. So, I've spent the winter writing a book with the same title, which we hope to have printed by July of 2015. Local author, journalist, and historian Dermot Cole has agreed to edit it.

Alaska has a rich and colorful automotive heritage, but it has largely been overshadowed by its more charismatic aviation history. Yet our pioneering motorists certainly deserve recognition for the important role they played in Alaska's transportation history and improving life in the Last Frontier.

This book will feature stories about the very first automobiles in the far North, how they got here, what they were used for, and who drove them. I am also including sections about Alaska's early motorcycles, buses, trucks, snow machines, "boat cars," and automobile racing. The vehicles are interesting, but the pioneering motorists behind the wheels are the heart of the stories. Their adventures, innovations, and trials were quite remarkable, and in some cases, very entertaining.

The book has taken much longer to write than I predicted, partly due to the wealth of information I kept discovering, and also because a lot of fact checking has been required. I was surprised at how much contradictory information I found among newspaper articles and interviews. For example, multiple cars were credited as being the first to arrive in several towns, including Fairbanks, Juneau, Skagway, and Dawson. Some newspapers contradicted what they had written just months earlier. Sorting through these mysteries was both maddening and a fun challenge.

I have been able to find photographs of most of Alaska's first automobiles, and will include these and many other wonderful photos in the book. I am very grateful to the various archives and people who have made their photo collections available to me. I am also grateful to museum owner Tim Cerny for investing in this publication. We look forward to sharing it with you.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In the Shop: 1934 Offenhauser Engine - Update

by Derik Price
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

I stopped by the museum this weekend to find the Offenhauser engine back on the table and the crew starting reassembly. Hard to believe it's been over a year since our last In the Shop update on this project. Last summer we were focused on our Model T Race Car project and so the little midget racer didn't get much attention. But we're back on it now and starting to reassemble the engine. The first thing you'll notice (inside) this engine is that it has had a full, exuberant racing life.  :-)

We have found a few problems which probably retired this engine from racing. Namely a nasty crack near the spark plug hole in one cylinder, and another crack closer to the water jacket. The front bearing and seal are slightly loose as well. So far, these issues don't appear bad enough to do any damage while running the engine for short periods of time--which shouldn't hinder our immediate goal of getting it operational. But, we'll have to decide whether or not we want to tackle a restoration/rebuild to get much more than that out of it.

To help with that decision, and answer a few questions about tolerances and the cams we have, we have scheduled a phone appointment with the experts at - Strykers Custom Offenhausers. With our 110 OFFY Overhaul Manual written by Harry Stryker Sr. in hand, we'll be giving them a call, and hoping they have good news for us. In the event the prognosis isn't promising, we'll keep on with the goal of just getting this wonderful piece of history back to running condition.

We've been working on this project (off and on) for a long time. But since I don't get to the museum as often as I'd like, it has given me the chance to see the inner workings of this amazing piece of technology. It's a real treat to experience the craftsmanship and design of these engines. But to also get the chance to see the inner workings and how it was built is simply a privilege. Hopefully, this summer, we'll even get to hear it roar to life once more. And that part is always worth the wait....

The Miller/Offenhauser/Goossen story is a wonderful chapter in American race car history. There are dozens of books written about the trio, their engines, designs and the racing legend they created.

Coming to Fairbanks to see the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum and other area attractions? Support the museum by staying right here at Wedgewood Resort. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Mystery of the Alaskan Imps

by Nancy DeWitt
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

The skinny little 1914 Woods Mobilette in our museum is a type of cyclecar. Cyclecars were narrow, lightweight automobiles powered by engines no bigger than 71 cubic inches. They essentially were little more than a motorcycle with four wheels and seating for two. Cyclecars had fewer features than typical autos of the day, but served as very inexpensive and efficient alternatives. The Woods Mobilette sold for $380; optional equipment included speedometer ($11), windshield ($15), top ($15) and, according to at least one source, brakes ($10). The 12-hp, four-cylinder engine could power the little car to a top speed of 35 mph. Its reported fuel economy of 35-40 mpg would be the envy of many of today’s drivers, although its low clearance and narrow tread restricted it to city driving.  

We have no record of a Woods Mobilette ever being shipped to Alaska in the early 1900s, but we did find mention of another type of cyclecar destined for the far north. In early 1914, several magazines and newspapers reported that the Milwaukee agents for the Imp Cyclecar Manufacturing Company had received an order for ten cyclecars from someone in Nome. Made in Auburn, Indiana, the belt-driven Imp was powered by a 15-hp air-cooled motor and weighed only 600 lbs.

Imp Cyclecar at the Auburn Cord
Duesenberg Automobile Museum
The Imp had no axles; instead, the wheels were mounted on the ends of transverse springs. The ten Imps ordered for Nome were to be outfitted with runners in front and spiked rear wheels for winter use. “The car is so light it is expected to negotiate the crust of the snow very successfully,” reported the Santa Cruz Evening News. Another article claimed the Imps would run “…in the dog sledge tracks and the trails which predominate, and Alaska welcomes the small cars for that country.”

It is not known if the Imps were used successfully, or if they even made the journey to Nome. I have found no mention of them in any Nome newspapers or other sources. If the Imps were shipped to Alaska, the fragile, high-maintenance machines probably fell apart after a few runs on Nome's rough roads, just as the Imp Cyclecar Company did by the end of 1914.

Only a handful of Imps survive today. Perhaps there is a graveyard outside of Nome containing the remains of some, but I have my doubts.

Coming to Fairbanks to see the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum and other area attractions? Support the museum by staying right here at Wedgewood Resort.