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Restoring the 1903 Cadillac took owner Hugo Vermeulen about 2-1/2 years. Bob English for The Globe and Mail
Restoring the 1903 Cadillac took owner Hugo Vermeulen about 2-1/2 years. Bob English for The Globe and Mail

Classic Cars

The little Caddy that could Add to ...

It used to be said of old, slow-turning, big-bore, single-cylinder British motorcycle engines that they "only fired at every lamp post."

Obviously an exaggeration, my '67 Velocette's 500-cc engine fires quite a bit more frequently than that. But I swear the sturdy little open 1903 Cadillac I recently toured through some of the residential streets of Port Hope, Ont., only produced a propulsive eruption at every driveway entrance we passed.

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Our progress was punctuated by the slowest-paced Bang-pausssse, bang-pausssse, bang-pausssse, bang-pausssse of internal combustion I've ever experienced, each accompanied by a distinct and torque-y thrust forward I could feel through the leather seat and the back pockets of my blue jeans.

The distinctly hesitant gap between such percussive events, as we climbed a long sloping hill, gave me plenty of time to think - okay, it's going to die this time for sure.

But the little Caddy's "one-lunger" engine, aided by a massive flywheel, never failed to produce the next big thump. As it has for much of a century and promises, with a little luck, to keep doing forever.

Which would make it a sort of eternal combustion engine. A notion that would undoubtedly please precision manufacturing technique developer Henry Martyn Leland, the creator of Cadillac and later Lincoln.

Leland had cut his manufacturing teeth with Colt, of revolver fame, moved on to hair clippers, sewing machines and then the auto industry, eventually helping R.E. Olds set up volume manufacturing, picking up the pieces after Henry Ford's first efforts failed and then in 1902 setting up Cadillac. In 1903, the cars sold for $850 and proved an immediate success.

The idea of perpetual motivation of the car would also suit its current owner, Hugo Vermeulen of Port Perry, Ont.

"I'm really just its caretaker," he says of the recently restored pioneering automobile, one of the first to begin establishing Cadillac as one of the world's premier brands.

A 1903 model exported to England won an award in a 1,000-mile trial and finished seventh in the tough Sunrising Hill Climb, beating bigger multi-cylinder cars. No doubt it exhibited the same slogging ability it did in my brief experience.

In 1908, Cadillac won the Dewar Trophy after three new cars were uncrated, dismantled, their parts jumbled, then reassembled. All ran, proving Leland's production techniques and lending credibility to Cadillac's "Standard of the World" slogan.

"I didn't buy it and restore it to make money on, but to drive it and enjoy it. And I hope some day my kids will do the same," Vermeulen says. "Cars like this will never end up in a scrap yard. They'll be fixed and fixed again. They'll be around for ever."

Now 46, Vermeulen was born and grew up in Winona, Ont., near Hamilton, and following high school went to work as a delivery truck driver. He then met his wife, whose father owned a trucking company, which Vermeulen joined and has since become a partner in.

In his younger years, he says he had little interest in cars, other than as daily transportation, but eventually treated himself to a 1974 big-block-engined Corvette, and followed it up with a 1963 Chevy II.

He then experienced an automotive epiphany; His father-in-law and now partner Doug Puckrin had an interest in vintage vehicles and had just purchased a 1927 four-door Ford Model T.

Vermeulen, who was driving the Corvette at the time, says he asked him, "What the heck did you buy that for?

"Then we went for a ride. Five guys in this old Model T and I thought, 'Hey, this is pretty neat.'"

Puckrin went on to acquire more old cars, which were used by his four children and seven grandchildren for Sunday outings.

"We had our own little old-car tour going on," Vermeulen says.

And it didn't take long for his enthusiasm for "old and slow" to replace the one he had for big-bore muscle. "When you drive down a street in an old car, you see things you don't see in a modern one."

The Corvette was sold and Vermeulen found his first old auto, a 1909 Model T "in a pile" that he brought home in the back of his Astro van.

After fixing it up, it became part of the family. "The kids grew up in it. We've driven it on the East and West coasts (hauled there on a trailer) and covered a lot of miles in it."

The 1903 Cadillac was another "pile of stuff" - this time located in Seattle in 2005. The restoration took Vermeulen about 2-1/2 years with help from the Fawcett Motor Carriage Co. in Whitby, Ont.

It was back on the road, with neat rear entrance tonneau bodywork, a year ago and immediately took the First Junior Award, plus a National Award at the Antique Automobile Club of America's Fall Meet in Hershey, Penn., and this year won a Senior Award.

But collecting trophies isn't why Vermeulen owns it. "I'm pretty much done showing it. Now I just want to drive it."

Which is just a tad tricky. The 99-cubic-inch (1.6-litre) motor aptly named Little Hercules single, which lives under the left seat, is started with a hand crank and sends eight horsepower to the rear wheels through a two-speed and reverse planetary transmission and a drive-chain.

"Low gear is [engaged with]a foot pedal and high gear by a lever beside the seat, which gives reverse when you pull it backwards," Vermeulen says.

There's also a brake pedal operating barely effective drums on the rear axle. Not a big issue as top speed is perhaps 25 mph (40 km/h) and cruising speed only about 15 mph (25 km/h).

This obviously limits its use, but not Vermeulen's enthusiasm for going slowly in ancient automobiles. "I'm looking every day for old cars to fix up and drive," he says.

"I'm not a buyer-and-seller kind of guy; I'm a buyer-and-keeper."

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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