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. 

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