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Ken Alderson and his 1931 Essex Roadster. Credit: Andrew Stamper
Ken Alderson and his 1931 Essex Roadster. Credit: Andrew Stamper

Classic Cars

48 years worth of memories - and counting Add to ...

The most fondly recalled experiences with old cars are often those that involve mundane things modern motorists would never experience, or if they did would just as soon forget - like getting soaked by a summer rainstorm.

Rain might dampen the spirits but rarely the persons of those riding in most vehicles these days. Even in roadsters, it now takes just the push of a button to raise the roof. When you're caught a long way from home in your 1931 Essex Super Six Boattail Roadster, however, you're going to emerge from the experience drenched.

It might not be funny at the time, when you're handing your dripping wet lady down from the passenger seat, but many years later, you will still get a chuckle out of relating the incident.

"I haven't got side curtains for it and the rain just blew right through one side and out the other," laughs Ken Alderson of Brooklin, Ont., who has owned his rare example of this short-lived American make since 1962.

That was the only time Alderson and his Essex were caught in the rain, but for almost half a century now the car has been part of a life you get the impression has generally involved more hard work and self-reliance than self-indulgence.

This great-looking classic hasn't been used extensively since its long-ago restoration by Alderson. He says he was always "too busy to be out playing around much." But it has always been available for taking grandchildren on outings and to make appearances at the occasional old auto show, giving enthusiasts a look at an Essex body-style of which Alderson says only three others are known to be in restored condition.

The Essex brand was created in 1919 by the Hudson Motor Car Company as a lower-priced, entry-level line. Hudson itself, which had been founded in 1909 - funded in part by Detroit department store owner Joseph L. Hudson who got to put his name on the radiator - had proven successful by this time. But by the mid-1920s, it would, with the aid of Essex, become a top-five runner among U.S. car makers for the rest of the decade.

It would remain a leading brand through the first part of the 1950s - although a merger/takeover with Nash resulted in some of the last rather-unfortunate designs being dubbed "Hashes" by the wits of the automotive world. The Hudson name was last seen, produced by what was then American Motors Corp., in 1957.

But all that was a long way in the future when the first car to wear the new Essex badge was introduced - a fabric-topped, touring-bodied five-seater powered by an F-head (inlet valves in the head/exhaust valves in the block), 50-hp four-cylinder that proved surprisingly potent, reliable and even reasonably frugal.

A specially prepared model promptly set a 50-hour endurance record of 3,037 miles at an average speed of 60.7 mph on a track in Cincinnati, which caught people's attention, and the Essex proved a hit. By the mid-1920s a number of different four- and very competitively priced six-cylinder models - sold at not much more than most were asking for their four-cylinder offerings - were available.

But it wasn't fated to be around long. A new Challenger six was launched in 1929 with restyled bodywork and an improved engine, but rejigging the range to meet the exigencies of the 1930s sales slump resulted in the arrival of the Essex Terraplane in 1932.

The car with the cleverly contrived name was launched with the aid of aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who had just become the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo. The vehicle was then apparently provided to aviation pioneer Orville Wright for his personal use.

Another had a more infamous driver. Bad guy John Dillinger engaged in a Thompson submachinegun duel with the police while escaping in a 1933 Essex Terraplane 8. The Essex name was dropped for 1933.

Alderson's 1931 model boasts trendy-at-the-time "boattail" aerodynamic rear-end styling with a pointed tail section, which was also employed by more famous firms such as Duesenberg, Auburn and Packard. A rumble seat accommodates additional passengers in this open two-seater, which sold for about $1,000 (U.S.) new.

A small, 175-cubic-inch, flathead, inline-six with a three-speed gearbox provides 60 hp and adequate power for the 2,400-lb car, which has an I-beam front and semi-floating rear suspension and drum brakes all round.

And driving it was a familiar experience for Alderson, who earned his licence at 16 in a 1928 Dodge shortly after he and a brother took over operation of the family farm. He worked briefly on the line at "The Motors" - General Motors Oshawa, Ont., plant - in the early 50s building Chevys and Pontiacs, but preferred the outdoors. He spent most of his life as an equipment operator with what was then the provincial Highways Department, retiring in 1989.

Aldershot found the Essex among other old cars in a barn. The body and engine had been removed, but he bought it anyway and spent three years putting the pieces back together, doing virtually everything from woodwork to paint himself.

"You had to learn how to do things on the farm," he says of the skills he picked up that helped put the Essex back on the road. That included making a set of interior door handles from scratch. The final chore was installing a missing radiator ornament, found at a flea market 20 years later.

Aldershot has been battling cancer for 11 years, so hasn't had the car on the road much in the last few years. "The way the traffic is these days, it's hard to keep up and people get impatient. I've just about given up driving it," he says.

His main interest in the car these days is to preserve it so he can hand it on to his grandson Scott Jones and granddaughter Leanne Stamper. But he'll likely roll it out of the garage and fire up again this spring, just as he's done for going on half a century.

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