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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

November 14, 1997

I visited the land transportation section of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC last month and learned that its concept of an "auto museum" is very different from that of auto enthusiasts. Its acquisitions are based mainly on social significance, but also on availability of suitable displays. It obviously doesn't engage in trying to outbid the Blackhawk Museum, for example.

Last time we examined those Smithsonian vehicles that represent the American auto world from 1991 back to World War II. This week we'll describe its selections from WW II back to the turn of the century:

'29 MILLER INDIANAPOLIS 500 RACE CAR - The newest pre-World War II car in the transportation section was really a surprise. Christened the "Packard Cable Special" after is sponsor, it's a front-drive single- seat racer built by Harry Miller. It's a classic in design in that its tiny supercharged, intercooled straight-eight engine is a direct ancestor of the purpose-built race car engines of today. This particular car was driven at the '29 Indy 500 by Leon Duray (it broke on lap 65), taken to Europe where it met with little competitive success, and later established a world speed record for its class at 139 MPH on the Montlerey track in France. Etorre Bugatti bought the car in the early '30s and used its engine as a model for his world-famous race cars.

'28 CHEVROLET COACH - In 1933, Peoria school teacher Nellie Ellis put her '28 Chevrolet two-door "closed" sedan into storage where it languished until 1965. At the time of its rescue, it had only 9080 miles on the clock. For the Smithsonian, its significance in American automotive history is that it marked the evolution of the car into an inexpensive means of comfortable personal transportation that a woman could operate with ease. In its early days, the automobile for the average person was open, stark and had to be started with a hand-crank. Cars like Nellie Ellis' cozy little Chevrolet Coach civilized motoring.

'17 WHITE BUS - Originally, urban public transportation was provided by horse-drawn street cars, later to be replaced by electric trolleys. Then came gasoline power for public transportation and the curse of urban air pollution began in earnest. The 1917 White 15-passenger bus was a staple of the Charles Street Line in Baltimore for many years and the one on display still shows the scars of hard duty. Its Brill-built body sits on a White Model TBC 1.5-ton truck chassis, and its four- cylinder engine produces 22 low-RPM horsepower. A four-speed manual transmission allowed the operator to control its speed with gear selection and to keep the engine in its maximum torque range. With titanic suspension springs and solid tires, the ride on Charles Street must have been brutal.

'13 FORD MODEL T - By 1913 the versatile Model T Ford had been in production for five years and had literally put the American rural community on self-propelled wheels. The example seen in the Smithsonian display is black, although the Ford factory archives state that dark blue was the only color offered. The example in the Smithsonian sports such amenities as a front-wheel-driven speedometer, a slanted two-piece windshield whose upper half folds down for ventilation and enlarged doors that extended to the bottom of the body. History records the fact that this first "easy-entry" model was so flexible the doors would pop open while the car was in motion. The car on display had an accessory device on the front of the engine that helped reduce the risk of a broken arm if the engine backfired while being started. If it backfired, the standard crank would sometimes spin backward violently and the operator's arm was often in the way.

'12 KNOX MARTIN TRACTOR - In the days before World War I, businesses engaged in hauling didn't trust trucks, believing that they would break down frequently, leaving their merchandise stranded. To counter this, the Knox Martin tractor was produced to pull trailer-like wagons attached to a modern-looking "5th wheel" circular plate laid on the chassis between its two rear driving wheels. What differentiates it from the modern long-haul highway tractor is that up front is only one wheel, which made it tricycle. The Smithsonian considers it the direct ancestor of the big-rigs that ply our highways by the thousands.

'03 WINTON TOURING - At $2500, the Winton Touring wasn't cheap. Alexander Winton, an expatriate Scot, made his first experimental car in his Cleveland bicycle shop in 1891. He began building "automobiles" (a term coined by a journalist who accompanied Winton on a harrowing trip from Cleveland to New York City in 1899) in earnest in 1897. He's credited with bringing auto making from the bicycle or blacksmith shop onto the industrial manufacturing scene because he made his vehicles on speculation rather than on order. In 1903 Nelson Jackson and Sewell Crocker drove a Winton like the car on display in the Smithsonian across the U.S. It was the first transcontinental trip ever made by a trackless, self-propelled vehicle.

OLDS CURVED-DASH RUNABOUT - The Olds Curved-Dash Runabout is the simplest car on display at the Smithsonian. It uses a buggy-like platform under which is located a single cylinder engine, a two-speed transmission and a chain-driven pair of sprockets to drive the rear axle. There's room for two on top and the driver uses a "tiller" to steer. The Curved-Dash Runabout is credited with being the first mass-produced automobile ever made, and although a fire destroyed everything in the factory except a prototype in 1901, R.E. Olds pulled the company back together and produced 2100 copies in 1902. By 1904 Olds was turning out 4000 units annually. The company is still with us today, which makes it the oldest ongoing auto maker in America.

There are obviously gaps in the Smithsonian display and it lacks the "glitz" of displays like the Peterson Museum in Los Angeles or the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. The reference to the Smithsonian Institution being the "America's Attic" is appropriate, but in the case of its automotive display, I like "America's Parking Lot" better.