Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

Bobby Boy’s motor pool

We get ideas for Old Curiosity Shop issues from many sources.  The other day, one of my musical buddies, Mike Schnee posted a page from a Los Angeles Times classified ad section from the early 1930s.  It contained ads for numerous automobiles, including many makes (or “marques” if you’re an auto snob) that are now rarely, if ever seen on our streets.

Auburn:  The Auburn was an upscale brand that is probably best known for its sporty Boat Tailed Speedster model. When one of these appears at a car show, it’s sure to draw lots of attention.  It was built by a company that also included Duesenberg and Cord.

Buick:  The Buick name goes back over 100 years, and it was part of the original General Motors company.  With the exception of a relatively small number of cars produced in 1907, Buick has always used valve-in-head engines.  When the Chevrolet brand started, this became their standard engine type.  There are various reasons why some builders used valve in head and others used side valve or flathead engines, but by 1955, the flathead had for the most part disappeared from production.  

The first Buick engines were two cylinders in an opposed configuration, rather like a BMW motorcycle.  As the years went by, they started using an in-line four cylinder mill, then a six, and in 1930, introduced the Buick Straight Eight.  

Back in 1958, my girlfriend (who would soon be my first wife) needed a car, and one of my mother’s colleagues at Monroe School had a 1948 Buick Roadmaster for sale.  Fortunately, this was back when gas was about 24 cents a gallon, so fuel mileage was not a concern.  In 1962, the primordial Dynaflow transmission failed, and I sold the Buick to a co-worker who had plans for the big engine.  About 15 years later, when I was working El Monte, I noticed that one of the nearby residents had an old Flxible bus in his driveway. Since any kind of old vehicle gets my attention, I wandered over for a look.  The rear end was open and I could see the engine.  The owner came out and confirmed why it looked familiar-- it was a Buick Eight.  A few years earlier I had ridden a similar bus in the Modesto area.  I was so impressed by the 1940s interior that I don’t remember whether it still had the Buick engine or been dieselized, but I did get a photo of it:

Chevrolet:  Chevy has been a part of American motordom since 1914.  Many years ago a Chevrolet agency in Pasadena had a very early Chevy that had one of the first electric starters in a lower priced car. Ford wouldn’t provide this feature until around 1920.  Chevy did have a crisis that was an even bigger failure than Ford’s Edsel-- back in the early 1920s, 

Charles Kettering, inventor of the electric starter, and later the developer of the 2-stroke diesel engine, developed the Copper-Cooled engine, which was air cooled and eliminated the radiator, water pump and hoses.   Drivers in colder climates liked the idea of avoiding freeze-ups in the winter time.  But the new design had fatal flaws.  The model was introduced in 1923, but less than 1000 were built and many were scrapped before leaving the factory.  Those that did get out into the real world were recalled, and all but two were destroyed.  Ironically, one of the survivors is at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn MI.  

The division managed to pick itself up, and soon saw sales (of water-cooled cars) climbing enough to challenge Ford.  Getting into family history, my dad salvaged a 1925 Chevy 4-cylinder engine and used it to power the big circular saw that he used to cut up firewood.  The mandrel for the saw was the block and crankshaft of a 1927 Essex that threw a rod.  In 1929, Chevy came out with the Stovebolt Six a straight six-cylinder engine with overhead valves that made Fords then-new Model A look old and outdated.  With various upgrades, the same engine would be used in cars up to the 1950s. 

 One thing the 29 model didn’t have was an all-steel body.  One of the fringe benefits of working in a wrecking yard was that my day would get first chance if something interesting came in.  When a Chevy arrived with a stove-in body, and an Essex came in with a good steel body but a blown engine, he took the best of both worlds and created the Swoose, adding parts from other cars to make everything work properly.  And this was long before Johnny Cash recorded “One Piece at a Time.”

Cadillac:  The Cadillac brand goes back to the horseless-carriage days, when the remnants of the first Ford company were gathered by Henry M. Leland to produce the first Cadillac, named after the French explorer who founded Detroit in 1701.  Leland was a pioneer in using precision manufacturing technology to make car parts interchangeable.  The company was bought by the early version of General Motors in 1908, and went on to develop the first mass-produced V-8 engine and the first car with a modern electrical system, including the starter motor to replace the dangerous hand crank.  

Moving up to the 1930s, Cadillac was offering V-12 and V-16 engines, but outside of the movie industry, weren’t finding many takers.  My dad told me about a V-12 turning up at the wrecking yard where he worked—it had 8-ply tires that were worn down to the last two plies, and the owner couldn’t afford new tires for it.  By the end of the '30s, the larger than V-8 engines were history, but the newly developed Hydra-Matic transmission foreshadowed the time when manual transmissions would be a niche market. 

World War II halted production of passenger cars for civilians, but post-war prosperity meant that the 1950s would be boom years for the Caddy.  From the modest tailfins of 1950, to the flamboyant fins of the ’59, Cadillacs cut a bold figure on the streets and boulevards of the US.  In popular music one hears references to Cadillac in Chuck Berry’s first big hit, “Maybelline.”  In the followup, “No Money Down,” he lists all the options he wants on the car of his dreams, including “railroad air horns” (my kind of car!) and a “military spot[light].”  Also on the request list are, “short wave radio, TV and a phone” which in 1956 were either rare or nonexistent.  About 20 years later, he would have ordered a CB radio to pick up on all the trucker talk. “That’s a big Ten Four good buddies!”  Mid-1950s TV sets were much too large and power-hungry for mobile use unless you had a commercial van with a portable generator.  There were car phones, but they required special electrical systems to power them.  About two years later, the brand was featured in a novelty song by the Playmates, “Beep Beep” not related to a certain bird native to the southwestern desert, but the sound made by a Nash Rambler whose driver wanted to pass a Caddy. 

Chandler:  An obscure brand, very few have been preserved.  The company was bought out by Hupp Motors in 1929, so by 1933 a Chandler was probably considered an orphan car.

Franklin:  The Franklin had nothing to do with Benjamin, the company was founded by Mr. H. H. Franklin and based in Syracuse, New York. It pioneered the use of air-cooled engines, and many of the earlier models had a sloping hood like the Renaults and Mack trucks of around 100 years ago.  But there were disputes among the company officials, including one that resulted in a more usual front end configuration, which made it look like the car had a radiator, even though it just needed an air intake.  Like many high-end companies, it fell on hard times during the 1930, but the name was revived and used for many years by a manufacturer of aircraft engines.

The only time I saw a Franklin in regular service was the mid-1960s, when I’d drive from Duarte along Foothill Boulevard to my work at Bell & Howell in East Pasadena.  There was a service station owner who would be driving eastward just as I was heading west.  If I encountered his Franklin in Arcadia, I’d know I was on time, but if it was parked at his station east of Myrtle in Monrovia, I’d know I was late.

Graham: Back in the 1980s, when I was following the light-rail system construction in Sacramento, I was driving through the residential area along Folsom Boulevard and spotted a car from the late 1920s in a driveway.  I saw a man working on it and stopped to chat.  The car was a 1929 Graham-Paige sedan, and the owner and his lady friend were into the 1920s.  I was invited up to their residence and it was like a time warp.  I kept in touch, and one evening when I was in town, I joined them for a ride in the relic to a Sons of the Desert meeting, a group that admires and preserves the works of Laurel and Hardy.  The were dressed to the nines, and I got a photo of them looking like they’d just beamed down from the land of nostalgia.  This car was one of the last built before the Depression; Graham-Paige struggled through, and managed to come up with newer models in the late 1930s.  The 1938 model had an eye-catching front end design, with rather bizarre looking headlights.  I remember seeing one of these around Monrovia in the late 1940s.  But even a joint venture with also-ailing Hupmobile couldn’t save the company, and it quit in 1941, although the plant was used for war production.

Hupmobile:  Back around 1968, Rosemary and I were looking at vintage cars, and we found a Hupmobile from the early 1930s in Rosemead.  It seemed to be all there, but we were wise to just look and not buy.  The Hupp Motor Co. started back in 1909, and lasted until 1939.  Poor business decisions and the Depression led to its disappearance, and not even a Raymond Loewy-designed body in 1934 could save the brand.

Time to lock the chain across the driveway and lock up the office shanty, but we’ll return to Motorville in another month or two, unless something else comes rolling down the street.  Happy Motoring!

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