Classic Car October 2011 : Page 62
restoration profile They Think It’s Gold One family’s Brass roadster rises from tragedy WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID TRAVER ADOLPHUS 62 HEMMINGS CLASSIC CAR OCTOBER 2011 I Hemmings.com
David Traver Adolphus
They Think It’s Gold One family’s Brass roadster rises from tragedy<br /> <br /> Even a marque like Oakland—one that played a huge part in the history of General Motors, lasted for decades and sold hundreds of thousands of cars—can have secrets. It’s not surprising that if there were to be a mystery, it might date from around 1910, when Oakland had just become part of GM after losing its president and three years of independence. Clearly, the company was shaken up—and, unlike most car companies, both then and now, there were no big campaigns to promote their 1910 line of cars.<br /> <br /> Still, it was quite a lineup: Four were offered for the year. At the top was a pair of 40hp fours on a 112-inch wheelbase, the Model K touring car and M roadster; then there were two cars on a 100-inch wheelbase with the same new 30hp four-cylinder engine, the Model 25 touring car and 24 roadster. The weird naming convention was a legacy from the 1909 models, where the small car was the Model 20—a new engine logically got new numbers; and even though the two 30hp cars were mechanically identical, the touring car was 25 percent more expensive, so: 24 plus one. Adding to the confusion, Oakland sometimes advertised both the 24 and 25 as the Model 30, and we’ve seen a single ad calling both the K and M “40s.”<br /> <br /> Why the M and K weren’t always called Model 40s at first, we don’t have any idea, but the changes in naming eventually made sense—there certainly would have been changes in management as Oakland entered the GM fold. Once things settled down at Oakland a year or two later, everything became much more conventional: Cars were soon all logically named (30, 40, 45), and the advertising team got its act together, as well. But for a couple of years, Oakland, which was about to start selling 10,000 cars a year, could have been mistaken for a bunch of backwoods tinkerers hammering cars together in the old blacksmith’s shop, at least in terms of its organizational capability, or lack thereof.<br /> <br /> A lack of promotion did not mean the 1910 Oakland was a crude car, however. The 24 was priced at $1,000, something of a standard for a mid-priced roadster; the 25, at $1,250, was priced the same as Reo’s new four-cylinder touring. And like the Reo, Oakland sold quality cheaply, with a multiple-disc wet clutch for the three-speed selective sliding gear transmission, paired with a rugged, excellently engineered engine. Some of this quality was probably the contribution of Alanson P. Brush (HCC #19), who had designed the original Oakland twin and was rehired in 1909 by GM’s William Durant.<br /> <br /> Even without promotion, Oakland still managed to build 3,000 to 5,000 cars a year with its unchanged 1910-’11 models, one of which made it to New York to be purchased by Ernest Bailey as a curious used car in 1930. Ernest had been around cars all his young life, and was moving from working at a garage to starting a usedcar dealership, where he would soon be selling Durants and Lafayettes.<br /> <br /> Bailey’s gradually transformed into a new-car dealership, moving through brands such as Nash and De Soto before ending up with today’s Mopars, and the Oakland was on hand for all of it. Current owner Keith Bailey, Ernest’s son, has photographs of His older siblings out with the car around 1950, but it never ran in his memory; instead, it was usually either in storage or displayed as a run-down curiosity in one of the family dealerships. “I did not know it existed when I was a kid,” he said. “It was usually in a barn, and I never saw my father drive it.” Later, he realizes he did see it once, around 1970: “It was in a corner with things thrown on it. It had been there for years, almost forgotten.<br /> <br /> “After I got out of the Marines, I ran a dealership for my brother, Paul Bailey’s Used Cars,” said Keith; at the dealership, the Oakland still sat in a corner, left by Ernest in his will to Paul. Paul, though, died young, taken abruptly by a brain tumor about a decade ago. Their sister, Maureen, was running the big family Chrysler dealership in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, and asked Keith if he’d take the car. Keith said he first knew what it was when he saw it at his brother’s dealership, and “I had never even heard of an Oakland” before then.<br /> <br /> “At first I said I didn’t want it,” Keith said, and even when he changed his mind, he was thinking more of just selling it as-is, or even junking it. “It wasn’t any part of me, because it wasn’t mine,” he told us. “Nobody told me when I was a kid, ‘gee, this could be your car some day.’ It wasn’t like the car was done.”<br /> <br /> Another brother, Edwin, had started taking it apart, probably in the mid-Nineties, and it was a complete basket case, the paint stripped, body panels in one location, engine in another. “My mom thought maybe I could do something with it, though,” said Keith, so he held onto it. Then she, too, died. “I couldn’t get rid of it then,” he said. “I’d have felt too guilty.<br /> <br /> “When my mother died, I had no history with early cars, and started calling all over the country.My brother Edwin…he told me about a Pontiac Oakland club, so I called them, and that got the ball rolling.”<br /> <br /> As Keith became more involved in researching the car and investigating a possible restoration, he started hearing people mention Steve Bono’s M and S Auto Restoration in upstate New York. “Mention” is the correct word, too, because Steve’s only ad is in the Reo club newsletter (he’s a past president of the club), yet his shop is continually busy with both restoration and repair of Brass Era automobiles.After three years of research, discussions with Steve and time spent on the waiting list, Keith packed the car up in boxes and shipped it off to M and S. <br /> <br /> Concours restorations are not Steve’s mission.He tours with the HCCA and others, and he and Keith agreed the Oakland should be a high-quality tourer. Taking a look at the car in early 2005, Steve found it completely stripped, with the engine apart, and he was impressed with its condition and completeness. Problems were relatively minor, such as having a number of accessories that had seemingly been borrowed from later Model Ts, and incorrect wheels. While there are an unknown number of Model 24s surviving, it’s certainly not more than 10, and they were very fortunate the car was mechanically complete. For the rest, Keith had found an owner’s manual and other period materials, and Steve visited another owner in Illinois for additional measurements and information. A little while after the car arrived at M and S, Edwin Bailey found he had additional boxes of parts—from the diverse streams of the family, the parts slowly fl owed together.<br /> <br /> While it hadn’t run in 50 or 60 years, the car had never been truly neglected—it had never sat in a field, or been driven to destruction. That allowed the reuse of many original mechanical components; for instance, the transmission was overhauled, rather than reconstructed, and machined to accept modern neoprene seals. A GM Turbo 400 transmission clutch disc also found a home as part of the new clutch.<br /> <br /> “It’s a well designed, good engine,” said Steve. “The oiling system is set up well and it doesn’t overheat. It’s rugged and easy to work on.” Harkin Machine Shop in Watertown, South Dakota, poured new babbitt bearings, and M and S did the rest of the engine rebuild in-house. Arias in California supplied forged aluminum pistons in place of the stock cast iron, and M and S bored the cylinders and balanced the engine. When we photographed the Oakland, Keith was having steering issues, and this winter, Steve will change the pitch of the axle and caster of the wheels through a combination of shims and reshaping the axle. Work such as that would have been in the repertory of any blacksmith a century ago, clearly showing part of the evolution from carriage building to carmaking.<br /> <br /> The Oakland’s body was not as good as its mechanicals, sadly. If you look closely at the photographs, you can see a rib riveted to the underside Of the fenders. In between the two pieces of steel was bare metal, and as you’d expect, there was serious corrosion. They also unearthed considerable other repair work to the fenders, and Steve decided to fabricate new ones.<br /> <br /> “Sometimes it’s cheaper to make new stuff, rather than repairing old parts that wouldn’t have looked as good when they were finished,” he said.“They didn’t look bad until you stripped them, but they had been welded, and were full of holes— solid Bondo.” M and S redid them correctly; if you see one of the other 24s in existence, take a look at its fenders, because they should look like the ones on Keith’s car. The missing gas tank was replaced, and the only visible incorrect part of the car today is an absent brass reserve tank on top of it, as they couldn’t locate anything from which to make a pattern.<br /> <br /> There isn’t too much more body than that, but there’s a sort of inner structure of wood that’s More than just framing; a wagon box that supports the seats and connects the two sides of the car.That original wood remains, sealed with a twopart epoxy and painted. The firewall is new birch plywood, comparable to the laminated wood of the period, and even the radiator core is the original, reskinned.<br /> <br /> Keith got the car back in 2009 and started driving it, although much more as it would have been driven 100 years ago than like Brass cars often are today—around the neighborhood, or maybe out to the bar at night. As with any fresh restoration, it required some sorting and adjustment, and with years of very expensive work just completed, he worked slowly on its minor needs to ensure he didn’t damage anything. “That’s when I decided to spend some more time and money and get everything as perfect as I possibly could,” he said.<br /> <br /> “I said after I left the Marines I’d never polish brass again,” he told us, but now spends dozens of hours a month keeping the Oakland concoursready, and each show he attends requires a full day on the brass alone. Look closely and you’ll find each fastener head aligned: “I think I only have two months off out of a year,” he said. “But I think my marriage has extended because of not being around. When you’re in the garage, you’re not getting in trouble.<br /> <br /> “I complain when I’m doing the brass, but when I sit back and see it done, I know it’s been done right. There’s nothing better than greatlooking brass, and if you don’t have the knack for it, you don’t just throw the polish on it and wipe it off. Everything has to be buffed, and it’s very time consuming. But I’ve had people who thought it was gold.”<br /> <br /> I have always been intrigued with automobiles, since it is in my genes. I am also somewhat of a perfectionist: It took me three years of research to decide who would do my restoration. The car was finally shipped off to be totally restored by Steve Bono of Bouckville, New York; it was taken away in boxes.<br /> <br /> It was finally finished after four and a half years, a total of seven and a half years from when I started thinking about restoring it, on May 16, 2009. The carriage top and seats were completed by the Amish, starting with the horsehair in the seats. My only wish is that my father, brother and mother were able to see the results.
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