80 years in the Family

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Every collector dreams of that “barn find” — a forgotten treasure, complete but neglected. Well, it does happen, even now, Bill Ford, an American collector, has just extracted a remarkable survivor from an estate in Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania, only miles from his home.

Its a 1913 six-cylinder 22hp Renault, type DU, With landaulet deville body, in an astonishingly unspoiled state: the body panels are all numbered to correspond to the chassis, the interior fittings are complete from the jump-seats down to the silk blinds and the door-keys, and the finely-crazed dark-green paint has every sign of being eight decades old.

Bought new as a wedding present for his daughter May by the President of Singer sewing machines, Fred Bourne, when she married Ralph Strassburger in 1913, the car was used for the honeymoon in France and then registered in Britain before being shipped to the USA in advance of the war. Bourne had a Normandy farm and a Paris town-house, so it was natural to recruit a chauffeur in France to accompany the car. What is remarkable is that, having gone to the US with the car, the chauffeur remained with the family and looked after the Renault for over 60 Years. William Obidine was selected in 1913 aged 25, and was still in the family’s employ until his death in the 1980s. And the car stayed on in the family until May’s son died in 1991.

In the dry, heated coach-house “Obie”, as he became known, lovingly cared for the huge machine as it went from state-of-the-art, to mature, to old-fashioned, to laughable old crock — and then quietly back again to rare classic survivor. He washed it, but never repainted it; tiny RS Monograms are still visible on the doors. He fettled it (signing his name under the scuttle every time he did a major service) and took it for its regular “MOT”, but changed almost nothing save tyres. He fitted a Penn state plate. but put the British one into the tail locker — it’s still there (XE 4105), He removed the folding Auster windscreen, but stored it carefully in the coachhouse. He drove Mrs Strassburger in it, but not very far: the odometer reads 6700 (yes, six thousand seven hundred) miles. Mind you, the flywheel-driven speedo was disconnected when Obie fitted a ring-gear and a truck starter in the Sixties: but by then it is hard to imagine that an Edwardian Renault was the regular first choice for family outings. Instead, barring its annual inspection and the odd car-show, it joined an accumulation of forgotten family transport, including carriages and sleighs, which gathered dust until the estate sale in 1993.

Now, I am used to keen owners telling me “it’s all perfectly original”. In this case, I can vouch for what I saw myself at the restoration shop on the afternoon two years ago when the Renault arrived, straight from the coach-house, still coated in dust. Scarcely believing its undoctored condition, we checked the serial numbers from the SEV magneto, they were bang in the middle of 1913. Last run some 20 years ago, the massive 5.1-litre engine turned over easily, and the mechanical parts seemed as sound as can be, bar a sticking valve.

Even more exciting were the boxes of spares which came with it. In Renault packing we found unused valves and guides, bearings, a drive pinion, oil pump, u/js, wheel spanners and Renault multi-point spark plugs, while the accessories include a leather-cased air-pump, Michelin jack, a lovely folding-tripod electric inspection lamp, and a velvet-lined box of magneto spares. The car had a Smiths mph speedometer fitted for its trip to England, but still has its original kph nickel-plated Renault speedo, showing 70km delivery mileage, in a linen bag, (The “new” one is labelled “fabrique en France” and must have been fitted in Paris, hence the low mileage on the original.) And, clipped under the dash in a leather case, is a graduated ebony stick for checking the level in the scuttle-mounted fuel tank.

This meant that when restorer Dave George removed the damaged valve and guide, he was able to fit brand-new 80-year-old replacements. Since then, the towering machine has been put back into service, and I naturally went to have a look when I was nearby a few months ago.

Remarkably, that valve was virtually the only mechanical work required: the shoe-less iron-onsteel rear-wheel and transmission brakes (noisy but efficient) needed only adjustment, while the leather cone clutch wanted no more than oiling. Even the 83-year-old braided wiring is largely intact, only a section over the fuel tank being replaced for peace of mind. (As Obie retained the mag instead of substituting a generator when he fitted the starter, the system is total-loss; Bill has to charge the battery regularly.)

A centrally mounted four-speed gearbox is managed by a quadrant change — push down on the long lever to click through R-1-N-2-3-4, like a motorbike. High and low ratio pinions came with the car and were easy to change, it’s a straight-cut bevel diff, and the alternative pinions were accommodated by simply sliding the bevel over slightly within the diff casing. Currently the Renault is on the high ratio, and Bill says it will cruise at 60-65mph — faster than a Silver Ghost. And as owner of both, Bill’s opinion that the Renault is comparable in refinement and has the edge in speed over the RR ought to mean something. Certainly as he manouevred it around for our pictures, it chuffed almost silently, with only a faint tick-tick-tick audible from under the brass-trimmed ally bonnet. And on a day of baking humidity, it idled on the drive for 30 minutes without boiling, the huge scuttle radiator dumping its heat without need of a fan.

Renault’s prewar top-end quality is everywhere apparent: the wooden wheels are retained by single hub nuts with machined release catches: much of the body is in aluminium; the doors, even now, click shut with the lightest pressure, the original kph speedometer has a swivelling brass eyeball behind to accept drive from any direction, the cabin screen has a brass-framed opening panel to allow Obie to hear Mrs Strassburger’s commands.

Advance warning comes via an amazingly loud mechanical klaxon driven from the aluminium flywheel on pushing a lever. And the interior is trimmed in luxurious but restrained wool-cloth and grey silk, with braided door pulls and tasselled blinds for privacy, and a cut-glass lamp in the roof. This compartment is taller than it is long, so there is room to wear your best peacock-feathered hat: but despite the 144in wheelbase (!) legroom gets a little tight if you fold down the occasional seats on the bulkhead.

Even the leather has lasted well: the patent leather which joins body and metal mudguard is still sound, while the thick, stiff hide of the landaulet top has been repeatedly dressed, although Bill has not been brave enough to try folding it so far. Obie’s worn and torn leather bench is the only damaged area, and it has a temporary cover on while Dave and Bill consider how little repair they can get away with.

The watchword of this restoration has been no restoration as far as possible. Mrs Strassburger’s pride and joy has been rejuvenated with soap and water, hide food, oil and elbow-grease instead of cellulose, epoxy and replating. Years of grime have been gently swabbed from the crazed paintwork with toothbrush and cotton buds while breaks in the light-green coach-lining have been touched in – but without disguising where. The few new items are some hoses, the tyres, and running-board mats, and the only hidden mod is that to restore a working speed-readout. Dave has machined a split pulley for the gearbox output shaft.

Few cars are lucky enough to have had such caring attendant as Obie for so many year refusing to throw anything away. It even means that if Bill or Dave need any maintenance advice they can look in the owner’s handbook – Obie kept that too. G C