The burning question

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Did this Oldsmobile Autocrat, dubbed ‘Yellow Peril’ by its first owner, really finish a 1911 Labor Day race in flames? We’ll never know for sure…

The Yellow Peril’s saga is as much the provenance of a racing car as it is the life story of the man who christened it – first owner, John Henry Greenway Albert. It’s a story rife with fantastic and sometimes unbelievable events shaped, and even embellished, by a wealthy American eccentric.

Four decades after his passing, several accounts exist, including an AACA article from 1976 and another by the late Beverly Rae Kimes in Automobile Quarterly, published in 2001 (Vol 41, No 4), which enlisted the efforts of Yellow Peril’s current owners and other historians.

The year was 1911 and Baltimore-born Greenway was looking to go racing. He was born into privilege, the son of an established Maryland family with an expansive country estate named Cedar Lawn, and a distinguished ancestry that included military heroes and the upper crust of Baltimore society.

Upon finishing his schooling at the Virginia Military Academy, where he was classmates with George S Patton, Greenway either worked in civil engineering or banking, and perhaps both. He had an interest in cars and his family’s garage housed notable American marques such as Franklin, Marmon, Hudson and Cadillac. Kimes suggested that his choice of a 1911 Oldsmobile Autocrat would have afforded him the bragging rights he so desired. Essentially a toned-down version of the Limited, the Autocrat was an impressive car and a formidable performer thanks to its engine, one of the biggest four-cylinders in the US at that time. It even fared well in the 1910 Vanderbilt Cup, and at about $3500 would have been considered a status symbol.

With racing in mind, Greenway replaced the Autocrat’s tourabout body with aluminium coachwork of his own design. Another noteworthy feature was a rudimentary fuel injection system he developed with the family chauffeur and mechanic, Columbus Ridge. Worried it might explode he tested it at the Cedar Lawn lake, where it promptly blew up!

Despite the inherent danger, Greenway installed this system on his Autocrat and set about competing at various East Coast events, from Delaware to DC, supposedly never losing a race. Yet the race for which man and machine are most remembered, and questioned, occurred on September 6, 1915 – Labor Day. The first annual AAA event at Washington DC’s Benning Race Track was a free-for-all in which the relatively unknown 28-year-old Greenway pulled up to the start-finish line in his modified Oldsmobile alongside such names as Mercer, Simplex and Buick. Despite early reports to the contrary, Barney Oldfield and Gaston Chevrolet were likely not in the field.

Leading the race, Greenway later said he hit a wet spot in the rain and skidded into the brush. He rejoined with honeysuckle vines trailing from the car and caught up with the pack before his volatile fuel injection system sprayed gas onto the exhaust manifold and engine, starting a fire that billowed out from underneath the hood. Greenway charged on and finished the race in spectacular fashion, although he didn’t beat the Stutz of millionaire sportsman Irving C Barber.

Ever the adventurer, Greenway subsequently intended to travel to Panama with his friend, Charles H Tilghman, to assist in building the Canal. But these plans never came to fruition and instead he went to Arizona, where he intended to work in the copper mine of his uncle, General John Campbell Greenway. General Greenway famously rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and was one of two people chosen to represent Arizona in the US Capitol Building’s Statuary Hall. Although his uncle made him a lowly “mucker” at $2.25 per day, to everyone’s surprise the privileged East Coaster thrived in the mines and quickly moved up the ranks before sustaining a knee injury.

Kimes concluded that the name Yellow Peril was probably given to the car in around 1919, as earlier photographs revealed a darker finish. Photographic evidence also suggests the hood was replaced at this time with a longer one that covered the cowl, and perhaps any fire damage. By 1920 Greenway’s mother had died, Cedar Lawn was sold and Greenway wound up once more in Arizona, where he amassed a sizable fortune. A sought-after mining consultant, he remained in Arizona for the rest of his life, settling in Tombstone where he built a home with his first wife which they called Casa de Sueños (House of Dreams). So expansive was this property that it included an airfield, a tennis court and a golf course. Greenway brought Yellow Peril to Arizona and it became the centrepiece of the wild stories he recounted to party guests. Everything from the fuel injection system to the fateful Labor Day race became part of the car’s character.

He married twice more, but Yellow Peril always remained in his collection, along with other pre-war cars – grand American classics that he likewise bought new. Greenway was a local philanthropist as well as a noted and respected member of his community, and promoter of its economy. He died in 1968 after his car plummeted into a ravine on the highway between Tucson and Tombstone. It was his first and only automobile accident.

After his death Yellow Peril remained in the care of his widow and continued to participate in Tombstone’s Helldorado Parade, of which he was a founder. In 1973 it was sold to Greenway’s friend Tom Hubbard, a noted Franklin collector. Thereafter it found its way to Curtis Graf of Texas in the early ’80s, who fully restored the car, replacing the fuel injection system and modified hood in the process. Graf competed with Yellow Peril in the Great American race from 1984-86, wherein it reportedly performed beautifully and finished in the top 10 in ’85. The car was in Bill Lassiter’s collection for most of the ’90s before being acquired by its current owners eight years ago from the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum in Maine.
Devoted enthusiasts, the owners have toured the car for over 15,000 miles across North America. Restored earlier this year, it was presented at the Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance where it collected a Best in Class Award. It will be offered at auction on March 14 at RM’s Automobiles of Amelia Island.

In the end how much of Yellow Peril’s story is fact and how much was embellished by an enthralling conversationalist in his dinner jacket? Kimes’s research uncovered numerous inconsistencies, including the Washington Post article following the Labor Day race which never mentioned a fiery spectacle or Greenway. Then again, restoration efforts decades later revealed an elongated hood and a scorched firewall beneath it…

And what of his other racing exploits? Records of AAA-sanctioned events make no mention of Greenway, so it seems unlikely he exchanged paint with men like Oldfield and Chevrolet. It is far more plausible that Yellow Peril’s first owner was an ambitious young racing driver on the East Coast’s amateur circuit whose exploits were matched only by his ability to recount them in spellbinding, if not embellished, detail.

Nevertheless Yellow Peril owes much of its known history to this colourful eccentric – the custom aluminium body, the early fuel injection system and, of course, the Tombstone garage compound where it was housed for many years. Decades later, it remains as alluring and intriguing as ever.