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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Roadside Attraction: 1st Impressions of the Academy of Art University Auto Museum

It's been a long time since I walked past a showroom window displaying Packards, and I can't remember ever seeing like-new vintage Bugattis, Duesenbergs or Delahayes on display.  But you can see these great makes, and others which expired long before today's dreary corporate fad for labeling makes mere "brands", if you visit a former Chrysler dealership now occupied by San Francisco's Academy of Art University Automobile Museum. It's a long moniker, but then again it's a big collection, with around 240 cars in all, of which 52 are on display at their 1849 Washington Street showrooms as part of a rotating display that changes every autumn.  Before entering, you catch a glimpse of two cars sharing nothing but an appealing roundness of form: a lightweight Alfa Romeo 2500 road racing coupe built right before World War II, and behind it a lush boulevardier, a Delahaye 175 from the immediate postwar period...

Standing nearby, there's one of the 17 Bugattis bodied in the Atalante style; it's a Type 57 from 1937 and is believed to have been used originally by Jean Bugatti.

This Type 57 features the flat, horseshoe-shaped radiator rather than the vee-shaped prow of the lower-chassis Type 57S and SC. No matter; it has enough presence to distract attention from some imposing land yachts across the showroom floor...

The 1926 Belgian Minerva pictured above featured a sleeve-valve 6.6 liter six cylinder engine built upon Knight patents* and was bodied in aluminum by Le Baron in the United States.  It's thought to have been the New York Auto Show car when new.  

The very British Daimler Double Six from the same era is even larger, and features sleeve-valves like the Minerva, but here in a V12 engine.  The Hooper-bodied car was built for a bus company magnate in Australia.  Perhaps it was appropriate that his personal transport was bus-sized, but in the cavernous interior he would have avoided anything like the crowding associated with public transportation.

This Duesenberg Model J is one of around 480 produced by the Auburn Cord Duesenberg combine from 1928 to 1937, with 2 cars completed after the bankruptcy. That figure includes all variants, including the supercharged SJ, the JN  and the  short chassis, two passenger SSJ. Like many modern cars, the Duesenberg's 265 hp engine features twin overhead cams and four valves per cylinder.  Unlike any modern cars, however, the Duesy's engine is an inline eight... 

So is this Auburn 851 boat tail Speedster introduced in 1935.  The body design, by Gordon Buehrig (who also designed the revolutionary 1936 Cord) was actually a clever restyling of the previous V12 boat tail.  The Speedster was built for two years, and with supercharging, the flathead 280 cubic inch engine would propel the car to 100 mph. 

*Museum Notes and Thanks:  
I want to thank Gogo Heinrich for arranging a special tour of this collection, and Museum Coordinator Paul Borgwardt for spending over two hours with our group, graciously opening up engine compartments and answering questions. Tours are normally available on Tuesdays from 11 AM to 1 PM, and on Thursdays from 2 PM to 4 PM.  Museum proceeds go to the Rotary Club, and Boys and GIrls Club.  Tours can be scheduled at the web site: academyautomuseum.org.

*Car Notes:  The Museum seems to have an interest cars with sleeve valves, and has a rare
Willys Knight roadster. There's more to say about Duesenbergs as well, and we'll get there eventually.  And we haven't even started on the Packards, the Stutz Super Bearcat, the Delage and Delahaye, or the Talbot Lagos...

Photo credits:  All photos are by the author. 

Monday, April 23, 2018

Forgotten Classic: Adrian Squire's Namesake Car

Adrian Squire's habit of sketching cars in class was not unique among schoolboys, especially not among English lads.  What was unique was his engineering talent and his skill at devising fetching visual forms.  And unlike the legions of other kids who followed his example of doodling dream cars in study hall (for  example, this writer), young Squire was able to get his dream car into production (well, something approaching production) when a modest inheritance fell into his lap.*

Judging by the expense of the components he specified for his sports roadsters and tourers, and the amount of hand work that went into assembling them, I've always assumed that he spent the entire inheritance.  He was aiming at the kind of clientele who bought Bugattis and Alfa Romeos, and in the matter of the price tag, at least, Squire hit the target.  

Squire's first car appeared in late 1934, when he was 24 years old.  Expensive components included a twin overhead cam inline four cylinder with a single Roots type supercharger, a pre-selector 4 speed gearbox from ENV, giant 15 inch diameter hydraulic drum brakes, and a chassis with deep side members and cross bracing aimed at a level of rigidity uncommon on English roadsters.  Despite this, some cracks appeared upon early chassis, and it was thought they resulted from enthusiastic use of those brakes.  And despite provisions like twin water pumps and a big, finned oil cooler, the 1496 cc (69 x 100 mm cylinders) R1 engine sourced from British Anzani (originally a subsidiary of the Italian aero engine firm) could be troublesome.

The prototype and at least one subsequent car was clothed in an elegant interpretation (shown below) of traditional English lines built by Vanden Plas on the short (102 inch wheelbase) sports chassis. Vanden Plan also built a 4 place open tourer with similar lines on a 125 inch wheelbase, but the logic of Squire's high-strung small displacement engine (110 hp in supercharged form) seemed to argue for the smaller car.  As with 1.5 liter Maseratis, the earliest Ferraris and most OSCAs*, the idea was to get a lot of performance out of small engine displacements, though not without large displacements of cash...

Note the tidy way the hood louvers on this Vanden Plan roadster echo the angle of the radiator and the windshield.  Also note the way the brake drums fill the opening back of the lacy network of wires in those wheels.  

The tapered tail and swoopy fenders wrap up a package that was long considered the quintessential British roadster…that is, by anyone lucky enough to actually see one.  Owing to high prices (over $5,300 in 1935 dollars for this roadster) there were few orders for Squire's brainchild. The firm made an attempt to reduce prices with a "skimpy" model bodied by Markham and aimed at racers, but after producing a total of 7 cars, declared bankruptcy in 1937. Adrian Squire then went off to work for engineer W.O. Bentley at Lagonda, and died during a bombing raid in 1940. He was thirty years old...

After the bankruptcy, enthusiast Val Zethrin bought the remaining parts and manufacturing rights, and produced another three Squire cars before the war started.  One of these 3 cars is featured above and below in the color shots.  The body on this car was built in England by the Corsica Body Works, and during a restoration by a recent owner the body was modified for a sleeker profile.  For historians this raises questions of originality and authenticity*, but there is no doubt in the minds of most observers about the car's beauty. This Squire Corsica roadster lives at the Academy of Art University car collection in San Francisco, and we will soon be featuring some of her garage mates...

*Footnote: For another story about how to spend an inheritance making sports cars, see "Timing is Everything: Reventlow Saga" from 6/2/17, about the Scarab racers. The OSCA adventure is treated in "Almost Famous" from 4/20/16, while the question of "Authenticity vs. Originality" is reviewed in our archives on 6/11/17 in a history of the Bugatti Atlantic.
Photo credits:
Top thru 4th from from top:  the author
5th from top:   pinterest.com
6th:  simeonemuseum.org
7th & 8th:  the author

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Lost Roadside Attraction: Before Cars and Coffee, There Was Zumbach's

Ralph Stein's The Great Cars, published in 1967, was almost as much a memoir of a life spent chasing classic cars as it was a depiction of the machines themselves.  Many of the cars he describes were encountered at Zumbach Motor Service in Manhattan. Zumbach's, as it was called by its fans, was more than a service and repair facility.  It was a kind of motoring shrine, and a meeting place where lovers of exotic machinery could meet to exchange technical information and racing lore. Seven decades or so before there was anything like "cars and coffee", there was Zumbach's.  In the decade preceding World War II, if you had an ailing Bugatti or Alfa Romeo or Duesenberg, and you were somewhere on the East Coast, you took it to Zumbach's.  By the early 1950s, Zumbach's fame had spread so far that actor Gary Cooper drove his Lagonda from Hollywood to New York once a year to the garage for tuning, and a collector from Michigan shipped his Talbot Lago there for expert attention.  Zumbach's built a famous racing car too...

This is Halley's Comet, a kind of early road racing hot rod based upon a modified Mercedes chassis for car collector McClure Halley.  The car was powered by an engine from the legendary Harry Miller, a high school dropout and intuitive engineer whose power plants ruled American tracks in the 1920s through  40s. Miller designed engines which inspired the Duesenberg brothers and also led to the Offenhauser engines which dominated the Indy 500 for decades.  In Halley's Comet, the engine is a Miller 151, a  twin-cam inline four with four valves per cylinder. The photo above, taken around 1935, shows Zumbach's team lined up behind their handiwork. The photo below shows the completed car as it competed at the Vanderbilt Cup Races in 1936. Today Halley's Comet is restored, and has hit the concours circuit...

Swiss mechanic Werner Maeder had joined Zumbach's in 1925, and took over the business in 1947 after the death of founder Charles Zumbach. Like Harry Miller, he was of the intuitive school of engineering and mechanics. In the photo below, he listens attentively to the idling straight eight of a Bugatti Type 57.

By summer of 1951, when the picture below was taken at Zumbach's for The Saturday Evening Post, phrases like "classic car" and "sports car" had begun to seep into American English.  GIs stationed in Britain had encountered small, nippy roadsters like MG's TC, and that car was credited after the war with making sports cars (and amateur road racing) affordable Stateside. Late in 1949 the Jaguar XK120* appeared, and by the early 50s it transformed American road racing as well as the U.S. market for imported cars, making performance previously attainable only in cars costing $12,000 (a fortune in 1950) available for the price of a Cadillac.  With its advanced twin overhead cam inline six and swoopy mix of modern and traditional lines, it formed a link to prewar classics like the Lagonda parked behind it, and the Bugatti lurking in the garage entry...

…and to cars like the Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 B, shown below with Maeder at the wheel and owner McClure Halley observing a road test in Central Park.  Today these cars would be welcome in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, but in 1951 some of them were serving double duty as weekend racers and grocery haulers.

While catering to wealthy collectors and racers, Maeder expanded the business to include maintenance and repair of everyday cars like Buicks, Hudsons and Studebakers, and advocated for careful and meticulous maintenance over the growing postwar trend of trading in cars every three years. When interviewed for the article in the Post, he was still driving the only car he'd ever bought new, a 1936 Buick.  In the photo below, he consults with the owner of a Singer*, another of the popular-priced British roadsters then entering the U.S. market, which would soon see Triumph TRs and Austin Healeys as well.

At the other end of the marketplace from Maeder's mainstream clientele, but just down the street (in fact, right next door), Luigi Chinetti would soon be seeking customers as the first U.S. distributor for something called the Ferrari. In 1951, not too many Americans knew about the car that Chinetti had piloted to victory in the 1949 Le Mans 24 Hours.  But the kind of people who cared about this achievement, and could possibly afford the eye-watering price tags on Chinetti's little red cars, were often the men and women who hung out at Zumbach's garage...

*Footnotes:  For more on the design and impact of the XK120, see "Game Changer" in these posts for 7/16/17. The Singer and its close relative, the HRG Twin Cam, is reviewed in the "Forgotten Classic" post for 3/28/18.

Photo Credits:

Top:  Zumbach Motor Service, photographer unknown
2nd:  vanderbiltcupraces.com
3rd thru 6th from top:  Hans Knopf for The Saturday Evening Post 
7th:  The Henry Ford collection