"something of an extraordinary nature will turn up..."

Mr. Micawber in Dickens' David Copperfield

Kit Foster's



March 23rd, 2011

A Gravely Situation

Veteran CarPorters know I’m fond of Gravely tractors. In fact, my first post about Gravelys back in 2005 generated the most comments of any since the beginning of the CarPort. It’s no surprise, then, that when I learned the Gravely Tractor Club of America was holding its annual show in Connecticut I made plans to attend. Held this past May, as part of an engine and tractor show put on by the Scantic Valley Antique Engine Club, it drew Gravelys from all over the northeastern United States and some from farther away.

Gravely gatherings are called “Mow-Ins,” although the Gravelys attending come with many, many more types of attachments. The most familiar Gravely to most people is the eponymous Model L, built from 1937 into the 1970s. Many of these have been converted to electric starting. These two-wheel workhorses evolved into the Convertible, Super Convertible and Custom Convertible models, before being joined by a range of four-wheel tractors. The largest of these had rear engines, the single cylinder 424 with Kohler power and the 816, which used a twin-cylinder Onan engine. Less well known is the front-engine 1138, and even scarcer is the Westchester, a Convertible turned into a front-drive four-wheeler. I had never seen a Gravely push rotary mower before, but they do exist (in fact they’re still being made).

It all began, however, with one-wheel tractors. Benjamin Franklin Gravely attached an Indian motorcycle engine to a push cultivator in 1911, and the eventual result was the Gravely Model D, called the “Motor Plow.”

Perhaps the most common Gravely attachments are the 30-inch rotary mower and the rotary plow, but there are larger mowers, even reel mowers, gang reels and sickle bars. You can aerate your lawn, fell trees with either a circular or chain saw, or configure your Gravely to cut cordwood. You can spray your fruit trees, chip wood, vacuum your driveway or make ice cream. There are many types of snow blowers, even a snow blade with a chain-driven slinger on the end. There are various scoop devices, this one originally owned by the West Virginia Division of Highways, and the four-wheelers can be equipped with hydraulic buckets or blades, some of them quite elaborate.

Some people have modified their Gravelys for more power. There was an aftermarket overhead-valve set for the Model L that nearly doubled the horsepower. The Kohler engines on the Convertibles were more powerful still, but that wasn’t enough for one owner, who fitted a Yamaha diesel engine.

In the afternoon there was a Parade of Power, showing off representative models, and showgoers also had the rest of the engine show see, which had a good representation of tractors, like this ancient Avery and a nifty little John Deere Model L, a tractor pull, some doodlebugs and a few cars. One of my favorite scenes was this little bus, made from a stretched lawn tractor and an old one-lung engine.

The 2012 Gravely Mow-In will be held this August in Brownsville, Pennsylvania. Gravely guys, make your plans now.

March 16th, 2011

1924 Maxwell 25-C

In 1922, the Maxwell Motor Company began an advertising campaign touting “The Good Maxwell.” Does that mean that prior Maxwells were bad? Unfortunately, some of them were.

It had not always been so. Jonathan Maxwell was a pal of Benjamin Briscoe, and Briscoe convinced J.P. Morgan to invest in their new car company. The jaunty little two-cylinder Maxwell runabout developed a fond following, and by 1909 the make achieved third place in sales. Comedian Jack Benny had one, which maintained a constant virtual presence on his radio show.

The Maxwell dealer in these parts was Palmer’s Garage in New London, Connecticut. Owner Roy Palmer made a trip to Detroit for a dealer driveaway of the 1916 models, which included this special speedster runabout. Palmer had a fondness for the old two-cylinder runabouts, too, and kept one at the back of his shop.

In a spirited bit of advertising that same year, Maxwell made a family-oriented pitch, explaining how a woman could make use of a Maxwell in her role as mother and homemaker. Why, she could even put up the top by herself. That this was a ruse became evident on the next page where we see mother and child in the back seat, with father patriachally at the wheel.

All auto manufacturers were struggling in the aftermath of World War I, but Maxwell more than most. In addition to poor market conditions, Maxwell’s quality had suffered, and sales dropped precipitously in 1920 from seventh place to eleventh. Walter P. Chrysler arrived that August, from Buick, and set about rescuing both quality and sales. A series of engineering improvements was followed by the “Good Maxwell” campaign, pointing sales upward again, although a merger with moribund Chalmers in 1922 didn’t help. Still, gains were made, as Maxwell sold a new line of open and closed cars, even a spiffy Sport Touring model. But Walter Chrysler had his eye on a car that would bear his name. Maxwell was dropped after 1925, but a version lived on through 1928 as the four-cylinder 50-series Chrysler, a facelifted and slightly re-engineered Maxwell.

March 9th, 2011

Chevrolet Citation

In April 1979, General Motors introduced a new line of compact cars. Designated “X-bodies,” an early use of a corporate code name in automotive marketing (the predecessor X-body, the Chevrolet Nova and corporate siblings, had not used the X-word in public), the line included the Chevrolet Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, Oldsmobile Omega and Buick Skylark. The Citation and Phoenix offered a notchback coupe and two hatchback models, two- and four-door. Olds and Buick had a more formal roofline and eschewed the hatchback entirely. The base engine was a Pontiac-built 2.5-liter “Iron Duke” four. A new Chevrolet 2.8-liter 60-degree V6 was optional. A floor shift four-speed overdrive manual transmission was standard, with automatic optional.

The big news was the X-cars’ engineering: transverse-engine front-wheel drive with rack-and-pinion steering. These were not new inventions. The British Motor Corporation’s Mini, designed by Alec Issigonis, used them from 1959, and the concept wasn’t even new in the United States. J. Walter Christie had built and raced a number of cross-engine front-wheel drive cars prior to 1910. But it was novel in the 1980 model year, when all the American competition was mired in longitudinal front-engine rear-drive configuration.

Chevrolet touted the Citation’s advantage in bad weather, which it had aplenty, and also suggested it was good for towing, which it really wasn’t. It’s quaint to look back and see how the features we take for granted today, power windows, heated backlights, moonroofs, and reclining seats, were touted options. Kitschy fake wire wheels were still in vogue, and instrument panels sported round dials in rectangular frames and vertical radio controls.

Of course there was a sport model, designated X-11, which was largely an appearance package with alloy wheels, although “bucket seats” (more like ordinary seats with bolsters), a high-output V6 and sport suspension made it more lively. A sport steering wheel and tachometer completed the package.

The X-cars got a roaring reception, and a long waiting list developed. Soon, however, the cars’ teething problems became apparent. The power steering and brakes were problematic, the latter causing uncontrollable lockup under hard use. Eventually the engineering caught up with the concept, but not before the brand had been tarnished. A former co-worker of mine had an Olds Omega that was so bad it became a cause celebre for the Connecticut lemon law.This last generation of X-cars was ushered out after 1985, but the lessons learned were factored into a new line of front-wheel drive A-body intermediates, the Chevy Celebrity, Pontiac 6000, Olds Cutlass Ciera and Buick Century in 1982. For all their faults, the X-cars really paved the road for volume production of front-wheel drive in America.

The X-cars have yet to make much of a dent in the collector marketplace. Most of the survivors are weathered veterans like this Citation. However, last October’s Hershey had a decent example in the Car Corral, whose only obvious flaw was a scarred bumper fill panel. Moreover, some brave souls are entering serious competition. Wayne Kieffer’s 1980 Buick Skylark has achieved Preservation status at AACA.

March 2nd, 2011

Nick with Tonkas in driveway

Nicholas Elgin Vernam Foster was born in the wee hours of the morning, 34 years ago today. The firstborn of his parents, he was much loved and doted upon. It wasn’t long before he was eager to drive a tractor. When he was about two he got his first Tonka, a dump truck in the late 1970s series modeled, with artistic license, on that era’s Dodge truck. The dump truck was soon joined by others, which he was proud to demonstrate to his mother. He had a certain fascination with Jill’s Triumph Herald, often eager to help me work on it.

When he was five, after a good breakfast he went off to school, returning full of knowledge and enthusiasm.

By the time he got to high school he was a self-assured student, which stood him well in higher education. Although Nick and his sister Harriet accompanied us to many car shows, he never inherited my infatuation with automobiles, instead focusing on computers (to which I owe the existence of the CarPort), biology and music. With regard to the latter two, you can find him as Dr. Nick, a post-doctoral research neuroscientist by day, and Professor Groove, a world-class funk music DJ at night. Both of these personae make his parents very proud. You can hear his show each Friday at midnight on radio station CKUT in Montreal, or catch up to it at wefunkradio.com. If you’re going to be in Austin, Texas, in two weeks, you can check him out at South by Southwest.

February 25th, 2011

Trains and cars

Long ago I noticed that people enamored of cars often harbor another transportation interest. For many it is airplanes and I’ve met a few who dote on ships. Probably that largest dual constituency, however, favors cars and trains. One manifestation of this appears in elaborate model railroad layouts. Dennis David, the CarPort’s northwest Connecticut correspondent, recently attended the annual Amherst Railway Society Railroad Hobby Show in West Springfield, Massachusetts, and brought back these photos.

Model railroad layouts demand more than trains and track, to achieve a degree of realism. Trees are helpful, buildings essential, but it takes model cars to fill out a world in miniature, be it streetscape or landscape. Some of the cars rival the finest collector models, and all of them appear in appropriate context.

As you’d expect, there are railroad stations, a roundhouse, grade crossings, fire houses, diners, fast food and factory buildings, each with its appropriate complement of cars and trucks. There is usually construction going on, leading to backhoes, draglines and post hole diggers. There are gas stations galore, and service stations and used car lots. We can see containers being loaded for a rail journey, and cars and tractors also on their railward way. The train show even had its own version of Wikileaks.

Familiar marques like Mercury, Divco, Greyhound and Checker were in abundance; less iconic but nicely detailed was a 1948 Ford convertible. Not all cars are that nice, though, for the layout comes complete with a junkyard.

Some features, like the drive-in theater, not only had real movies but replicated cultural icons in their own communities. There was a Big Top circus, with a full cast of performers, a Goodyear blimp, and a circle-track raceway, complete with little Miller racecars. And, for the record, NASCAR was not neglected.

These big layouts seem to run themselves, but in reality there’s someone in the background manning the controls. Dennis couldn’t resist putting himself in the frame, but he made sure to show us that the miniature train show comes with its own set of miniature railfans.

February 18th, 2011

Donkey cart on road in Mai Mahiu

This past August, Jill and I spent nearly three weeks in Kenya, visiting our daughter and son-in-law, who were working there with the US State Department. Generally considered a developing nation, Kenya has a long and interesting history, which involves, not surprisingly, the automobile.

Kenya’s British colonial heritage dictates that traffic keep to the left. While there are recently-built good roads, others are in poor shape and the transition between the two is often abrupt. Maintenance is frequently casual, and building of new roads can seem illogical and usually involves much manual labor. Traffic is less disciplined than we are used to, and departures from the established lanes are common, which results in vehicles coming from unexpected directions. In rural areas, one must watch for animals on the road. Even on main routes, animal traffic is often encountered, and bicycles, too, carry cargo.

Roadsides in Kenya provide a nationwide marketplace, where one can buy fruit and vegetables, furniture, pottery or plants. That’s not to say the country lacks mercantile infrastructure. The Nakumatt chain is the Kenyan equivalent of Super Wal-Mart and Best Buy rolled into one. There is no domestic oil, so all petroleum products are trucked in from elsewhere.

The car of choice in East Africa was formerly the Peugeot, and examples of 404s, 504s and 505s are still seen on the roads. However, the most popular car is now the Toyota Corolla, most often a station wagon and almost invariably white. A few upscale, even American, cars can be seen, but luxury SUVs, like in the States, rarely go off-road. There’s a good parts network and numerous, if primitive, facilities for fixing cars, although the vast majority of repairs seem to be carried out at the side of the road.

Few Kenyans, however, have cars of their own and must rely on buses or matatus. The latter, (whose name means “for three” in Swahili, as originally the fare was three ten-shilling coins – now about 35 cents). are 14-passenger minivans (nearly all Toyota HiAce vans) that ply established routes and make frequent stops. They operate erratically and are frequently overloaded, and the careful motorist will give them wide berth. Only in Nakuru, the principal city in central Kenya, did we encounter scooter taxis, known as “tuk-tuks,” and real freeway-style highways.

School buses are nothing like those in the United States, but it came as a surprise to see a bus-like hearse. It seems that since few people have cars and many burials are conducted in the deceased’s home village, the family and other mourners ride with the coffin on its homeward journey. Moreover, most towns have a convenient coffin shop.

While Kenya can be seen as a throwback to the motoring past, it also provides a glimpse into our future. While we were driving in Nairobi I spotted my first Chery Tiggo. Chinese cars may be coming to America, but they are already very much in Africa.

February 5th, 2011

1935 Squire Tourer

In the middle ages, the word “squire” denoted a knight in training. More latterly it has meant a village leader or the dominant landowner. In the case of this car, it was simply the surname of the maker.

Adrian Squire (1910-1940) was just 21 when he decided to build his own motor car. He founded Squire Motors, Ltd., and set about designing a road-going Grand Prix car. Into a chassis of his own conception he put a 100-bhp Anzani twin-cam engine, clothed in a coachbuilt body. Squires are said to have had exceptional top speed and braking. Only about ten were built during 1935 and 1936. The still-young Mr. Squire was killed in a bombing raid during 1940 while working at the Bristol Aeroplane Company.

This Squire burst onto the scene as a much-vaunted barn-find at this year’s Rétromobile show in Paris. Offered by Fiskens of London, purveyors of fine historic automobiles, it reportedly lay dormant for 30 years before recent exhumation.

The 1,500-cc Anzani engine is force-fed by a Roots-type supercharger, and the car’s legendary stopping power is apparent in the size of the brakes, which are equipped with magnesium-alloy finned drums. The gearbox is a Wilson pre-selector unit, and the wood dashboard is instrumented with a clock, 120-mph speedometer, two oil gauges (the purpose of which is indeterminate – one reads 0-160, the other 0-1000), a combination vacuum-pressure gauge (for the supercharger), ammeter, temperature and a 6,000-rpm tachometer.

There’s been a lot of speculation about this car on one of the more influential auto blogs, in particular regarding the provenance of the barn-find detritus. We can report with authority that the straw, while authentic, is of a modern replacement variety, and the egg in the rear seat is supplied fresh daily – the yolk is on us…

A steady stream of onlookers paid homage to the Squire during the show, admiring its handsome aluminum body by John Charles (Ranalah) Ltd. and vintage India rubber tires.

February 3rd, 2011

Bugatti Club stand at Retromobile 2011

Rétromobile, Europe’s largest indoor old car event, began its 36th year yesterday with a new format. Previously a ten-day show encompassing two weekends, this edition has been downsized to a five-day run, with just a single weekend. But as is often the case, less is more.

More, this year, means more exhibitors. Over the past three decades, some traditional participants had fallen away, as the costs of supporting a ten-day extravaganza had multiplied. Particularly affected were many of the club participants, but major automakers, too, felt the pinch. Renault, for example, had not had a presence in years, and BMW, once a stalwart, had been replaced last year by Mazda.

From appearances, though, this year things are well again. BMW is back, in league with its French club, and Mazda is too, celebrating the LeMans success of 1991. Fellow Japanese carmaker Nissan features its sports models, while Mercedes-Benz touts a 125th anniversary. Peugeot and Citroën are perennial exhibitors, but it was good to see Renault back in town, honoring the anniversary of the Renault 4. New at the show is Czech automaker Skoda.

Orphan makes are usually represented by their clubs, and Panhard, Amilcar, LorraineDietrich and Bugatti are just a few of these. Specialty clubs include the French Vintage Corvette Club.

The Rétromobile organization has mounted several topical displays, including a roundup of Grand Prix driver Duncan Hamilton’s Gulf ROFGO race car collection and a celebration of “Youngtimers,” the cult cars of the 1970s-90s. Centerpiece of the show, however, was a recreation of the fardier built in 1770 by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, generally considered the first real automobile. Constructed by French-American industrialist, collector and engineer Alain Cerf, the modern-day vehicle dazzled Rétrogoers by operating under live steam.

And there is plenty to buy. Oldtimer enthusiasts can find books, literature, petrolia, and lighting old and new. There are whole villages of model cars, and objets d’art in the automotive vein. Collector car dealers, too, are in abundance, Fiskens of Britain offering a much publicized “barn-find” Squire sports car. An arresting sight is the Lancia Aprillia “woody” on the stand of Marreyt Classics. There’s always an auction at Rétromobile, and this year the French concern Artcurial takes over from Bonhams, with a sale tomorrow evening. Bonhams have not left town, however, and are holding their own event at the Grand Palais on Saturday.

It’s a cosmopolitan event, offering even authentic New York hot dogs. But Rétromobile is short and sweet, so you must join the crowds before Sunday in order to enjoy the treats. Rétromobile runs through February 6th in Hall 7.3 at the Parc des Expositions, Porte de Versailles, Paris.

January 27th, 2011

Uriah the Heap- 1973 Dodge Camper 9000

After our second child was born, it became apparent that not all of us could ride in my standard cab pickup truck. There were times when we wanted to haul something with the whole family aboard, so I started looking at alternatives. A crew cab pickup would have solved the problem, but in 1980 there were no compact “shorty” crew cabs and I didn’t care for the idea of a 160-some inch wheelbase. However, Dodge had introduced the Club Cab model in 1973, and they were starting to appear on the used market.

After some searching in the media we had in the world before Craig’s List, I found a hot prospect in Rhode Island, about 50 miles from home. It was solid, if well used, and I made a deal on the spot and drove it home. The extra cab space was useful, for tools and other items as well as people, and there were desirable features like a tailgate that was easily removable. Jill named it Uriah, after Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield (not the British rock band), because it was, well, a heap.

When I inspected it more carefully I found that Uriah was a “Camper 9000,” designed especially for slide-in camper units (although I didn’t have one). The number 9000 was Uriah’s GVW, achieved by putting one-ton brakes and springs on a 3/4-ton chassis, along with a package of camper-useful features. (Observant CarPorters will have noticed that his grille was the later 1974-76 style rather than that shown in the 1973 literature – I’m not sure why.) As it turned out, he needed brake work, no big deal, but I soon noticed that he didn’t accelerate worth a darn. Someone had replaced the original 360 engine with a 318 from a 1978 Dodge passenger car. That was okay because the 318 had a good reputation in truck circles, but in 1978 Chrysler Corporation had used an electronic spark advance. But there was no control unit on my truck, so Uriah was running permanently retarded. A junkyard distributor with vacuum advance fixed that problem. The only other malady occurred on a trip to Cape Cod when the electronic ignition module failed. As a result I bought a spare and always carried it with me, and of course I never had another failure.

Uriah’s principal shortcoming was that even with the “shorter” 149-inch wheelbase he didn’t have much traction when empty. Four years later I replaced him with a similar Dodge Club Cab, with four-wheel drive, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

January 19th, 2011

1909 Corbin Model O radiator

New Britain, Connecticut is known as “The Hardware City,” home to the Stanley Works and the Corbin Lock Company (later part of American Hardware), Fafnir Bearing, North & Judd and Landers, Frary & Clark. Stanley, North & Judd and Landers concentrated on building, household and marine products, but Fafnir bearings often found their way into cars, particularly cars built by the Corbin Motor Vehicle Company. It was fitting, then, for New Britain’s Klingberg Family Centers to feature New Britain-built cars, and those from other Connecticut cities, in their 2010 Vintage Motorcar Festival held this past June 19th.

Over the years, more than 130 makes of automobiles have been built in the Nutmeg State, most of them prior to World War I. Thus, the Klingberg show was largely a celebration of brass, and there was plenty of it. The oldest Connecticut car present was a 1903 Pope-Hartford Model B, made in nearby Hartford. In fact, cars from Colonel Albert Pope’s various entrprises that were best represented at the show, with other Pope-Hartfords from 1909, 1910, 1912 and 1913 and a 1907 Columbia, the engine of which was a major attraction. Next most populous and perhaps more remarkable was a clutch of five Corbins, probably the largest gathering of the marque since the last one left the factory in 1912. Corbin contenders dated from 1908, 1909, 1910 and two 1911s.

Surprisingly, the longest-lived Connecticut marque, Locomobile (1900-1929) fielded only one car, a 1908 Model E. Cutest by far was the 1914 Trumbull cyclecar of Bridgeport dealer and restorer George Dragone.

Other brass-era makes, like International Harvester, were represented, and there were plenty of Full Classic makes on hand, including Packard, Brewster-Ford and an imposing Inskip-bodied 1940 Cadillac. Best of Show was judged to be John Parker’s 1921 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.

Overall an eclectic show, the Klingberg Festival welcomes collector cars from more modern times, as well as rat rods and unusual postwar vehicles like this 1948 three-wheel Davis. Of particular interest to me was a newly-awakened 1930 Model A Ford panel truck that had come from my home town.

What more could a proud Nutmegger want? Well, perhaps a Houpt-Rockwell, built in neighboring Bristol, if any have survived.

The Klingberg Family Centers, a private, nonprofit multi-service agency aiding children and families, will be holding the next Vintage Motorcar Festival on Saturday, June 18, 2011. If you’ll be near New Britain you should check it out.

Serendipity: n. An aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.
“They were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
Horace Walpole, The Three Princes of Serendip
© 2004-2018 Kit Foster
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