Monday, September 12, 2016

The Boyertown, Pennsylvania, Museum of Historic Vehicles, September 12, 2016

After our enjoyable visit to the Radnor Hunt Concours, we continued our old car long weekend by visiting one of the more interesting car collections we have had the opportunity to see.  Located in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, the Museum of Historic Vehicles is about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia, or 15 miles southeast of Reading.  Boyertown is a small town of around 4,000, much the same as its population was in 1930.

The museum building, on South Walnut Street, has its own notable history as the building was the home of Jeremiah Sweinhart's Carriage Factory from 1872-1914, after which it became the Boyertown Auto Body Works from 1914-1990, building specialized commercial vehicle bodies.  The various buildings have been joined together to form one structure today.  The son of the founder of the body company, Mr. Paul Hafer, established the Museum of Historic Vehicles in 1965, and it gradually took over the old bodyworks facility.  Its Mission Statement includes: "To operate as a museum of road transportation, vehicles, artifacts, roadside culture, alternative propulsion, and vehicle builders focused on Pennsylvania and the Greater Delaware Valley."  Of course, there is also a particular interest on vehicles constructed in the museum buildings themselves.  This focus on local history is what perhaps makes the Boyertown museum so unusual as many of the vehicles are very rare and, in some cases, completely unique.

Passing through the lobby/gift shop, we came to a special exhibition of lightweight cars.  While admittedly pretty modest (four cars on display!), it was a fascinating look at the early days of automobiles when there were attempts by brave entrepreneurs to build affordable cars for the average person.  Of course, all would be swept aside eventually by the mighty Ford Model T but the four cars on display at Boyertown had a real charm of their own.

1921 Hanover Roadster
The super lightweight and primitive cyclecars had long come and gone by the time the Hanover car was produced from 1921 to 1927 in Hanover, Pennsylvania.  This snazzy 850 lb. roadster model sold for $345 and got 50 miles to the gallon.  It seems 133 cars were built the first year but sales declined afterwards.  The company had export plans and offered the car in either left- or right-hand drive and, remarkably, the majority of Hanovers went to Japan.  This particular car was once part of the huge and noteworthy collection of William Harrah in Reno, Nevada.

1914 Dile Model A Roadster
This adorable car, powered by a four cylinder engine, was built in Reading, Pennsylvania.  The company, whose name is a contraction of the surnames of the founders, Messrs. Dick and Lengel, was in business from 1914 until 1916 only as World War I caused a materials shortage that doomed many such small manufacturers.  Dile manufactured most of its own parts rather than offering a typical "assembled" car of the period and its lack of economies of scale without an assembly line and interchangeable parts meant that it cost more than the competing, and larger, Ford Model T.  Only three Diles are known to exist, all in Pennsylvania.

1910 Kelsey Motorette
The Kelsey was the brainchild of a successful Maxwell dealer in Philadelphia, Cadwallader Washburn Kelsey, whom everyone called "Carl."  Around 200 were built in Hartford, Connecticut (probably from parts from Philadelphia) before production ceased in 1914.  It is powered by a water-cooled two cylinder Lycoming engine, weighed 900 lbs, and had a top speed of 25 mph.

1917 Duryea Gem
The Duryea Brothers had begun to build gasoline-powered automobiles in 1892, the first in America, but eventually parted in acrimony.  Charles Duryea established himself in Reading and built three- and four-wheel vehicles from 1900 to 1908 (of which the museum has five examples) before going bankrupt.  Setting up once more in Philadelphia, he came up with a simple, lightweight three-wheeler that was, in his view, a revolutionary concept: a cross between a motorcycle and a car.  The Duryea Gem was Charles Duryea's final attempt at car manufacturing and lack of financing meant that only a reputed six examples were constructed.  Three still exist, with two in the possession of the Boyertown museum.

1923 Ace XP3 Experimental (replica)
The Ace Motor Corporation was founded in Philadelphia in 1919 by William G. Henderson, who had earlier founded the Henderson Motorcycle firm, which was sold to Excelsior in 1917.  Ace built motorcycles from 1920 until 1927.  This replica is of the motorcycle that set a world speed record with sidecar in 1923, reaching 106.8 mph, and it uses the original Ace engine from that run.  The sidecar weighed a mere 34 lbs.

1952 Masano
Inspired by a California company manufacturing fiberglass boats, Reading, Pennsylvania auto dealer Tom Masano built his own plastic sports car in 1952, using a junkyard Henry J as the mechanical underpinning.  Working with a firm experienced in statue and plaster work, Masano built up a mold using a wooden frame, chicken wire and Plaster of Paris.  While the mold took months to make, the one-piece body was popped out in one day.  It is 1/4" thick and weighs only 250 lbs, requiring additional weight to be added to the rear of the car for stability.  Coming into existence a year before the first Chevrolet Corvette, the one-and-only Masano was the first plastic car to be registered in Pennsylvania.

Vintage high wheel  bicycles
Products of the Light Cycle Company of Pottstown, Pennsylvania

The early years of US automobile production saw an amazing number of small manufacturers that produced a small number of cars and then disappeared or were reorganized and renamed.  By 1920 most of these firms were out of business and remembered (when even remembered) as local history.  The Boyertown museum, with its regional focus, has some fascinating examples, including three S.V.G. cars, a marque totally unfamiliar to us.

1910 Acme S.V.G. Model Roadster

1912 S.G.V. Roadster

1913 S.G.V. Touring Car
The Acme Bicycle Company of Reading switched to automobile manufacturing in 1903 and was sold to a Chicago businessman in 1905 but went into receivership a year later.  It continued operations under the receiver until 1907, when it was purchased by Herbert Sternbergh.  In 1911, the name of the firm was changed to the S.G.V. Company (after the initials of Sternbergh, Graham, and Van Tine, company officers) and production of higher end cars influenced heavily by Lancia, apparently through reverse-engineering.  The cars met with some success with a wealthy clientele, with production running around 35-40 cars per month. The model range included eight styles and custom bodies were constructed by noted firms such as Fleetwood.  S.G.V. was quite innovative in their technology and offered the Vulcan electric shifting system in their cars.  However, it was an uphill battle financially and S.G.V. went into receivership in 1914, continuing to operate until purchased by a group from New York that moved the operations to Newark, New Jersey, in 1915.  The new incarnation of the company built a few S.G.V. cars before renaming itself Phianna but did continue to supply spares for the older S.G.V.s.  After ceasing production during World War I, the Phianna Motor Company was reestablished on Long Island in 1918 and built expensive, high-quality "carriage-trade" cars until 1922.  It does not appear that any Phiannas survive today.

1907 Duryea Buggyaut

Frank and Charles Duryea were automobile pioneers from Massachusetts who produced cars in small numbers before going their separate ways over financial issues in 1900 and Charles established himself in Reading and, after numerous difficulties, was producing one three-wheeled car each week by 1902.  By 1905 there were fifty workers in the plant but disagreements among the partners caused the collapse of the firm in 1907.  Charles Duryea went his own way and produced a car with a two-cylinder, air-cooled engine and high wheels for rural roads.  This light and simple car, priced at $700, must have already seemed archaic with its tiller steering and rear engine, along with its horseless carriage appearance, and by 1914 Duryea was out of business once again, leaving Reading in 1914.  The museum hosts a "Duryea Day" celebration each year.

1915 Pullman Speedster
This handsome car was built in York, Pennsylvania by the Pullman Motor Car Company, which was founded in 1905 as the York Motor Car Company.  It used the Pullman name to connote luxury and elegance but was in no way connected with the more famous railway carriage company.  After a disastrous attempt to market a weird six-wheel car, the company focused on powerful 40 hp 4 cylinder cars.  Although the company had some public relations success through racing and endurance trails (including one in Russia), increased demand brought about a decline in quality.  In serious financial difficulty by 1915, the company launched a less expensive Junior line but was out of business by 1917.  The Speedster on display at the museum is a fine replica built to original specifications and based on an original 1915 Pullman Junior chassis.

1922 Daniels Eight D-7 Touring Car
Another product of Reading, the Daniels was custom-built between 1915 and 1923 by Mr. George Daniels, formerly with GM, and this touring car cost a staggering (for the day) $5,350.  It also typically weighed 2 1/2 to 3 tons and was lavishly constructed.  The car featured a proprietary narrow-angle V-8 engine, developed in-house in 1919, as standard equipment.  No two Daniels cars were identical as each was built to a specific customer specification.  The firm ceased operations in 1924.  A similar Daniels may be found at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks, Alaska. 

1909 Middleby Roadster
After the bankruptcy of the Duryea Power Company in 1907, the assets of the firm in Reading were purchased by Joseph Middleby of Connecticut, who initially produced air-cooled engined vehicles, similar to the Duryea, and around 400 were built by 1910.  Six models were offered, and the engines were changed to water-cooled by 1911.  At this point the cars were no longer really competitive with the Ford Model T and following Middleby's death in 1911 the company was wound down, ceasing operations in 1913.

1915 Biddle Victoria Touring Car

1918 Biddle Roadster
An example of the "assembled car," the Biddle was built in Philadelphia from 1915 to 1922, aimed at filling a niche in the medium-sized luxury car market.  It was constructed from high-quality off-the-shelf parts (including engines made by Duesenberg) and adopted European styling cues, such as the deep-V Mercedes-style radiator shell..  Many of the bodies are believed to have come from the Fleetwood concern.

1907 Dragon Touring Car
The short-lived Dragon Automobile Company began in Detroit in 1906 and retained an experienced European engineer to design its cars, which boasted four cylinder engines and a sliding gear transmission.  There were quality control issues and a move to a large factory in Philadelphia and numerous legal problems doomed the project by December 1907.  A successor company, Dragon Motor Company, went nowhere and assets were sold at public auction in April 1908.  It appears that the buyer then completed the final 50 Dragons from inventory.

1940 American Bantam Roadster
With its founders operating under the mistaken notion that Americans wanted a low-cost, economical car, the American Austin Company was founded in 1929, producing cars on an English Austin chassis in Butler, Pennsylvania.  In spite of a number of celebrity customers, only 10,000 were sold in the first two years of production and operations ceased in 1935.  Surprisingly, the company was reborn as the American Bantam Company in 1937, using an new engine similar to the Austin one but different enough not to warrant a royalty fee.  40 mpg and great body styles were still not enough and by 1941 wartime priorities saw production finally end.  American Bantam would go on to immortality by building the prototype of what became the legendary Jeep.

1919 Daniels Convertible Coupe, showing coachbuilt construction

1924 Ford Model TT Truck (featuring a multi-level electric train layout inside!)

Commercial vehicles on display including a number with specialty bodywork by the Boyertown Auto Body Works

1913 Commercial Electric Truck, used by Curtis Publishing of Philadelphia to move newsprint rolls until 1964

Electric vehicles on display

1928 LaSalle Convertible Coupe
The 1928 LaSalle, designed by famed GM stylist Harley Earl, was groundbreaking in that the car was designed as an integrated whole.  Drawing on the elegant Hispano-Suiza as a model, Earl's cars were the first for this new line of junior Cadillacs.  Custom bodies were constructed by Fleetwood in, yes, Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, a coachbuilding firm acquired by the Fisher Body Company in 1925 and merged into General Motors the following year.  Fleetwood continued to build custom bodies until 1930 and this particular car was restored by four retired craftsmen from the plant.

1920 Packard Twin Six Touring Car
This 12 cylinder Packard in unrestored condition boasts an aluminum body constructed by Fleetwood while that company was still and independent coachbuilder.  The Packard includes an on-board air pump system for inflating tires after the inevitable flats of the era.

1910 J. Max Meyer Motor Tractor
The concept behind the Motor Tractor, produced in West Chester, Pennsylvania, was as a replacement for horses allowing the continued use of the formerly horse-drawn wagon and saving replacement cost.  Only this prototype was built; it apparently was not as easy to switch from wagon to wagon as the inventor envisaged.

c. 1870 Fire Pumper
The museum has an interesting selection of horse-drawn vehicles, including some pieces of fire-fighting equipment.  This pumper, built in Reading, is different in that the firemen themselves would have been the motive power, with four men on each side pushing the unit to the blaze.  They would then have to reposition themselves to stand in front of the pump handles and pump out water that would then be transported by bucket brigade by other firemen.

1921 Sunoco Gas Station
Originally located in Strausstown, Pennsylvania, this little gas station was acquired and restored by a collector and displayed in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania and was obtained by the museum in 2012.  The Sun Oil Company was founded in Ohio in 1886 and opened its first gas station in Ardmore, Pennsylvania in 1920.  The company moved to Philadelphia in 1903, where it was a major presence for many decades.

1938 Reading Diner
Built by the Jerry O'Mahoney Dining Car Company in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the Reading Diner stood for many years in Exter, Pennsylvania until the owner moved it across the street in 1950 and made it part of a larger restaurant.  This closed in 2003 and the diner element was removed and stored, subsequently donated to the museum in 2009 by a foundation wanting to preserve its history.  A two year cleaning and restoration process followed and the Reading Diner celebrated its grand opening in May 2011.

The Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles is well worth visiting and the friendly staff can offer details on all the exhibits.  There is also a regularly changing exhibit near the lobby as well.  For more information, check out the museum's website here

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