As a salute to the V.S.C.C. Expedition to the U.S.A. we present an American contribution to this series, from Robert B. Gegen of Miami.
Rare was the instance when the average American boy’s first car was not a model-T Ford; especially if that boy is now in his “forties.” Such was my own humble beginning toward ownership of just over one hundred motor cars in the last quarter-century.
In 1929 I purchased the first: a Topless 1921 touring car for $25.00 from a neighbour. This amazing vehicle afforded six months of trouble-free service, only to be rewarded by being exchanged for a 1926 Chevrolet roadster. During the following few years I purchased quite a few cars; trying many different makes in my youthful eagerness to know and experience ownership of as many cars as my meagre depression-day earnings would permit. Among these makes were Dodge, Essex, Oakland, Stutz, Revere, Packard and Pierce Arrow. In the case of the two latter makes there were several specimens of each; all fine quality cars of the late ‘twenties and early ‘thirties.
In 1937 a friend who was a confirmed Cadillac and La Salle enthusiast sold me his 1935 La Salle convertible coupe; a beautiful car but sadly lacking the qualities that had made the name respected since its advent in 1927. At that time La Salle was hardly more than a glorified Oldsmobile, as Cadillac (under whose banner La Salle was manufactured and sold) had discontinued the fine, original V8 engine after 1933 and had adopted a side-valve straight-eight engine in a generally cheapened version of the marque. All this was not without reason, however, as Packard had just announced its “120” Series at $995.00; a real bombshell in the automotive industry, and the cheapened La Salle was General Motor’s answer to the new low-priced Packard. La Salle must not be left just hanging up there like this with an inferior motor car, so I hasten to add that by 1937 La Salle was again a fine V8-engined car enjoying the quality it shared with big-brother Cadillac. I enjoyed ownership of no less than five of these later V8 La Salles; some of them seeing me through the war years and one exceptionally fine sedan actually being in the stable until 1954.
Despite being a student and admirer of British and Continental motor cars from boyhood, it was 1943 before I owned my first one, a 1936 S.S.I tourer. The car had been stored for several years when I came upon it, but had been properly sheltered and was in good condition. The twin R.A.G. carburetters proved a bit of bother when I got it running, as they were “frozen” at 40 m.p.h. (in top), and I did a lot of clutch-slipping and traffic-dicing in order to get it home. I replaced the R.A.G.s with a pair of small Strombergs which were completely controllable.
A year or so’s experience with the S.S. and I was ready for greater (?) things: this time in the form of a huge Hibbard & Darrin Minerva convertible sedan. This monster turned out to be my first automotive mistake and I hold no fond memories for her what-soever. Perhaps I just never found the proper Knight mechanic, but I finally gave up trying to make her run right and turned my attentions to the first of five Rolls-Royces, a Derby Phantom I owner-driver saloon. Instead of referring to R.-R.s as English or American, we over here usually say “Derby” or “Springfield.”
I became enamoured of Rolls-Royce and subsequently purchased two more Phantom Is, both Springfield editions this time, a “Regent” convertible coupe and a “Newmarket” convertible sedan. The names were Brewster’s designations for those particular body styles, These three R.-R.s were reliable and satisfying motor cars. Before the story reaches the present time there were to be two more Rolls: a 20-h.p. with an American convertible coupe body, and a left-hand drive P.II sedanca de ville by Brewster.
During the latter war years I succumbed to the lure of antique cars and acquired a 1909 model-T Ford touring car, so here we are practically back where we started! This early “T” (No. 5574 out of 15,000,000 !) was more of a quality car than the “T’s” of later years. The body was aluminum (correct American spelling) panels over an ash frame, with genuine leather upholstery tailored in the finest diamond-pleated design of the day. The car was loaded with brass parts and accessories and was a most impressive vehicle, for all its lowly birthright. I did a painstaking restoration on this one over a three-year period, completing it in 1946 just in time to set out on a 2,600-mile journey to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to attend the Annual Fall Meet of the Antique Automobile Club of America. My wife accompanied me, good sport that she is, and we had a safe and trouble-free journey over the entire round trip. Incidentally, we won the trophy for “longest distance travelled” without even a close second!
Moving up through the years, I naturally had to try the allied makes that made every red-blooded American’s heart beat faster; Auburn and Cord. First came the Auburn, a 1936 supercharged boat-tailed Speedster that was a joy to behold, if less joyful to handle. A good feature of these cars was their “dual-ratio” two-speed axle which permitted high cruising speeds at nominal r.p.m. Each of these Speedsters carried a dash plate, like the early XKI20s, stating that the car had been personally driven by Ab Jenkins, famous U.S. record setter, to “over 100 m.p.h.” My plate read 100.2, which makes me think Mr. Jenkins had to try rather hard to attain the mark.
More exciting to drive, and even to look at, was the front-wheel-drive supercharged Cord convertible which I purchased while still having the Auburn. They made a striking pair. Although a heavy car, the Cord’s performance was outstanding for its day. The centrifugally-blown side-valve V8 engine developed 175 h.p. and could pull her along at over 100 m.p.h. With the car doing 60 m.p.h. in top, the big engine was loafing along at 1,800 r.p.m. Notwithstanding the woes that accompanied Cord ownership, I have many fond recollections of the car and would “go” again for another as good.
In 1948, just following the Auburn-Cord episode, I acquired a brace of Continental macines that satisfied the urge to own specimens of those fabulous makes. These were Bugatti and Talbot-Darracq. The latter did not have the word Darracq on it at all, but if I didn’t add it to the Talbot mightn’t it be pronounced “Tawlbutt,” which is a different breed of car altogether. Pronounce it as you will, I can assuredly state that this Figoni & Falaschi Talbot was the most exciting and beautiful car I have owned. Even the manner in which I acquired the car was exciting to me.
Seventy miles northward up the Florida coastline from Miami, where I live, lies the lush Palm Beach “Gold Coast.” Immense mansions of long standing are hidden behind great walls and iron gates, much the same as your castles but on a smaller scale. I had always wondered what wonderful motor cars might lie in the vast garages of those estates. I gained admittance to one of these through a chauffeur, and saw there two cars on blocks: a 1936 “pre-Wraith” Windover limousine and the low, racy-looking Talbot. Not all that quickly, but I was able to purchase the Talbot shortly thereafter. I did not try to buy the Rolls. The Talbot was a delightful motor car in every way. It had the Wilson box, complete with the leg-breaking clutch action. An outstanding feature of the car was its steering; the nicest I had ever handled. My wife and I toured the Eastern United States in this car and it never lost a mark in anything I asked of it.
The Bugatti that joined the stable was anything but genuine, as far as being a pukka racing car is concerned. Many years before it had been a touring model Type 38, but a previous owner had made it into a Grand Prix Replica of sorts. This, then, was the machine which I entered in the Sports Car Club of America’s first road race at Watkins Glen, New York, in 1948. It didn’t look too bad in the company in which it ran, and it is to the old car’s credit that it did finish, anyway.
Next, in 1949, came an A.C. 16/80 two-seater. This attractive car was in good solid condition throughout with the exception of the engine, which had a gaping hole in the block where the rod had emerged. Retaining the original four-speed gearbox, a popular Yank 3½-litre six-cylinder o.h.v. unit was installed. Contrary to the usual result from the mating of such unrelated parts, the conversion was a successful one. I owned the A.C. for five years, which set some sort of record for me.
Among the A.C.’s stablemates during its tenure with me was a lovely P.II sedanca de ville, termed a “Newport,” by Brewster. This was one of the AJS series of left-drive chassis that were shipped over here immediately after the demise of Rolls-Royce of America, and on which American coachwork was fitted. Of all Rolls-Royces the P.II remains my favourite. It was the last of the big sixes; the end of the era in which the radiator set back a respectable distance from the bumper.
For the past four years I have turned any automotive attentions largely to a 1932 Cadillac roadster. During this era Cadillac built multi-cylindered engines of three sizes: 16, 12 and eight cylinders. Mine is of the latter type: a 355 cubic inch side-valve V-type. This car was purchased “sight unseen” from a distance of over 3,000 miles across the entire span of the United States. It had been a motion-picture “prop” car in our film capital, Hollywood, California, for many years and had only done service in occasional scenes in films dealing with its particular era. It was amazingly preserved, and other than a complete engine overhaul, re-upholstery, new top and paint, very little was necessary to return it to its original condition.
So, there we have just the highlights of twenty-eight years of motor-car ownership.. An accurate record has been kept of the one hundred and three cars owned over that period, and photographs are at hand for almost all of them.
In retrospect, it is only natural to lament some of the fine cars that passed across the scene and to wish that some of them were back. Perhaps the future years will present many more colourful motor cars to the list. It is certainly interesting to think about, anyway.