Some might term the time-worn, American-built, 1923 Locomobile Model 48 recently purchased at auction a “survivor,” others a “barn-find,” and it’s really a bit of both, but it’s also an example of a classic car class that’s becoming increasingly popular.
Its grey paint is faded, its brass tarnished, its seat leather cracked, its dash dull, and the bezels on its Chelsea Clock Co. of Boston timepiece and other instruments (one an odometer indicating just 24,269 miles) are tarnished.
That’s not much mileage for a car built nine decades ago to have accumulated. And despite looking genteelly shabby, its battleship-searchlight-sized brass headlamps still stand proud before its prominent brass-topped radiator. Its 525-cubic-inch, 95-hp, six-cylinder motor still runs strongly, the new clutch bites firmly and the new tires roll true – the only parts replaced over the years.
Which means it is still capable of motoring along in as stately fashion as it did when a well-heeled member of a New York investment firm’s top brass drove it through the streets of New York in the 1920s.
But why would someone raise their hand to make the winning $176,000 bid for a car in this condition at RM Auction’s recent Amelia Island sale, when they’re spoiled for choice by countless other cars restored to flawless perfection? Well, those others may be pristine, but they can’t match the Locomobile in one respect: something can only be original once – although someone made the contrarian case recently that rust, rot, wear and tear isn’t “original” either.
Unrestored cars are the trendy darlings of the collector car community. Whether they’re survivors, which often means they’ve been in regular use through the decades, or barn finds, which refers to vehicles hidden away for extended periods – finding a neat old car in a “barn” has always been the Holy Grail for old-car guys – before being rediscovered.
And if you thought the prices being paid for restored vehicles is bending the gravitational forces of some sort of fiscal warp, so is the money changing hands for dusty, rusty automotive relics. Providing they are wearing the right badge, of course. No need to haul that rusty Chevy Chevette out of the chicken coop just yet.
But a neglected 1959 Austin Mini recently sold for $65,000, a dull and dented 1956 Lancia Aurelia, hidden away for 49 years, for $800,000, and a couple of years ago, a California collector paid $370,000 for a Bugatti dredged from the bottom of an Italian Lake. Silly prices are being paid for any number of cars, from ancient MGs to barn-find Buicks, as long as they’re covered in the mandatory layer of dust and pigeon poop.
A subset of old-car types have always enjoyed owning vehicles bearing the patina of time, but today’s originality enthusiasts are increasingly being catered to by survivor-car shows, and categories for unrestored vehicles at even the classiest of Concours d’Elegance, where awards are handed to owners who’ve saved perhaps hundreds of thousands on restoration costs.
The recently purchased 1923 Locomobile Model 48 Series III, with Sportif phaeton coachwork by Bridgeport Body Co., looks splendid. And there is an undeniable “something” about a car whose first owner’s backside made the initial impressions in its seat leather, and whose fingerprint whorls might still be imprinted on its wheel.
New Yorker Albert. M. Barnes must have thought it looked grand when he ordered it from pioneer auto maker and early racer Locomobile.
Locomobile was created when John B. Walker, publisher of Cosmopolitan Magazine, became interested in cars in the 1890s, and bullied the twin Stanley brothers (of later Stanley Steamer fame) into selling him their company, which was producing one of their early designs. In need of money to close the deal, he roped in wealthy paving millionaire and neighbour Amzi Barber, and between them came up with the name Locomobile, from locomotive and automobile.
The pair soon split, however, Walker to sell versions under the Mobile name before packing it in in 1902. Barber, who’d discovered the $250,000 he’d put up for his half was actually the total price paid to the Stanleys, operated successfully under the Locomobile for a while, but also stepped aside and new management steered the company into internal combustion-engined vehicles by 1903.
By 1905, gasoline-powered Locomobiles designed by engineer Andrew Riker were living up to the company motto – “The Best Built Cars in America” – and were also proving among the fastest, finishing third in that year’s Vanderbilt Cup races. Tire problems hampered the effort in 1906, but when the next was held in 1908, a Locomobile won, becoming the first American car to win an international competition.
Locomobiles had developed into large, luxurious, expensive, but also conservative in looks and engineering, cars by the century’s teens. And according to The Locomobile Society of America, were driven by “a who’s who of Upper East Coast aristocracy” made up of Vanderbilts, Melons, Goulds and Wrigleys. While on the West Coast, a faster crowd that included Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix and Cecil B. DeMille drove them.
The Model 48 came along in 1919 and remained little changed – even after Locomobile’s purchase by Durant Motors in 1922 – until its demise in 1929.
According to RM’s research, Barnes’ grey and brass Locomobile still occupied the carriage house (not quite a barn) on his country estate on his death 29 years after purchasing it. It was then acquired by a local car dealer, and then two other East Coast owners, who essentially hid it away (maybe in barns) until 1989, when it was sold again, and given a minimal mechanical resurrection.
It has since won Pre-War Preservation class honours at Pebble Beach, and Best Original Unrestored titles at Amelia Island and Hilton Head concours. And it will likely go on to collect more “pots” for its new owners.
|Back in 1923|
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