1939 Plymouth Coupe

The first couple of chapters of the existence of this 1939 Plymouth coupe have been lost to history. We can only speculate that the first chapter was that of a proud new owner caring for his prized new ride.

The second chapter was most likely that of a used car owned by someone who also took good care of this once proud ride. It may have involved multiple owners as the car got used up and its roadworthiness declined.

Eventually, the third chapter was inevitable. The car became worn out and was relegated to a junkyard. Parts were removed to help keep other cars on the road. With most of the usable parts gone, the car sat in the junkyard and deteriorated to the point that it was not worth much.

1939 plymouth coupe bill erskine
Les Erskine, and his Coupe, doing a victory lap

That brings us to the coupe’s fourth chapter. Here is where my involvement begins. I grew up in a dirt track racing family. Nothing big, just local small time racing. My father, Les, had been racing since he was 20 or so. My brother, Dave, and I had helped on many projects, but the build of the ‘39 coupe was the first where I really had more input and more hands-on involvement. It was 1974, making me 17 years old. The previous race car had been raced for a few years and suspension technology had progressed from stock frames with stock suspension to purpose built frames and purpose built suspension. It was time to build a new car using the latest technology. The frame and suspension was engineered, designed and built. While that was going on it was time to figure out what body to use. Most others were using Pintos, Chevettes or Gremlins. We wanted something different. We went to a couple of local junkyards and found this 1939 Plymouth coupe. It was just the body shell on a frame. The engine, transmission, axles and front clip were all gone. The glass was broken out and the bottom 6 inches of the body was rusted away. It was perfect for what we wanted. We gutted the body, cut about 10 inches out of the width, cut off most of the bottom and put the body on the new chassis and we’re off racing, Dad as driver and me as chief mechanic. We raced it until 1978. I was in college and went off to a summer intern job in NC. Without a chief mechanic, Dad decided to end his racing career. The Old Coupe got passed to my brother. 

Now for chapter five of the coupe’s journey. Suspension technology had again progressed so my brother, also being a racer, cannibalized the Old Coupe to build a new car. Parts and pieces got scattered to the winds. The Old Coupe faded into just a memory. Now jump ahead to last year. After a long struggle with dementia, my father passed away at the end of September. In looking through old photos for the funeral, we came across many pictures that brought back all those fond memories. Among these pictures were some of the Old Coupe. Like me, my brother found it hard to get rid of anything. He said that there were still some parts of the Old Coupe around. The body had been given to a guy that was going to build it into a vintage race car. The intake manifold, Malery racing distributor and the performance camshaft were in my fathers garage. The frame, rear axle, front axle, and fuel cell were in my brother’s barn. I told my brother that if we could get the body back, I would rebuild the car as a tribute to Dad. He contacted the guy who he had given the body to, to see what had happened to it. The guy had not done anything to it except let it deteriorate outside. The guy said he would have to check with his sons to see if they were ok with its return. A couple of days later it was returned to my brother. He called me and the resurrection was a go. Tragedy struck again and my brother passed away at the end of October. The project now became of highest priority. All the other projects can wait. Others would consider the Old Coupe just an old race car. It is much more to me. It represents my relationship with my dad and brother and all the time we spent working on cars of all sorts. It was my first true engineering project that took me down the path to becoming an engineer. I believe that describing the engineering and build of the race car was instrumental in my initial hiring at IBM and a 40 year career there. The Old Coupe was a major part of my life and will be again, for a long time. 

We are now in chapter six of the Old Coupe. That is, its rebirth as a functioning race car. My plan is to build this car as close to its racing configuration as possible. I am using all the original parts and as many period correct parts as I can find. I want it to look as it did in its glory days. The old pictures are being used as reference. My hope is that all future chapters are not as tragic as chapter three and five and that it lives happily ever after. 

1939 plymouth coupe frame
There is a ways to go yet, but you can see where this coupe is heading.

I dedicate this project to three of the most influential people in my life. First to my dad, Les, who instilled a love of all things mechanical, who taught me many life lessons, who put family above all else, who instilled a strong work ethic and who supported me in sports, education and life. Secondly to my brother Dave who had one of the biggest hearts of anyone I ever knew. His grandchildren say that he could do anything. Although he was a very accomplished mechanic and could do most everything, I think it is more that he would do anything for anyone. He went through many hard times but always moved forward with dedication and humor. Thirdly, to my mom, Janice, who supported my dad, two sons and three daughters unconditionally. She instilled dignity and respect for all. She, also put family above all else and sacrificed so that her children would have what they needed. 

1910 Sears Motor Buggy

1910 Sears Motor BuggyMany VAE members have seen Bill Erskine’s Sears Motor Buggy. Some have even seen him arrive at a VAE meet with the crated motor buggy just like it arrive by train from Sears, Roebuck in 1910 and watched him assemble the vehicle.
Bill has had this Motor buggy since 1999.

Reprinted from old publications Wheel Tracks found that…..Lincoln Motor Car Works was an automobile company in Chicago, Illinois. It produced cars for Sears Roebuck from 1908 until 1912. Nine models were offered, priced between US$325 and $475. They were sold by mail, out of the Sears catalog. Sears had a very lenient return policy: cars were sold on a ten-day trial basis.

The cars had an air-cooled, two-cylinder, horizontally-opposed engine, similar to that later used on BMW motorcycles. The engine was located under the floorboards, beneath the drivers feet, and started from a hand crank in the front. Early cars were rated at 10 hp, and later models developed 14 hp.

In the interest of simplicity, all models used a friction-drive transmission. A roller (a metal wheel with a rubber surface vulcanized to increase its grip) on the front sprocket shaft was pressed against the machined rear surface of the engine flywheel, thus driving the sprocket shaft, the drive chains and the rear wheels. Moving the shift lever set the drive roller to various positions on the flywheel, either nearer the center or nearer the edge, effectively changing the “gear ratio” for climbing hills or driving on level roads. Moving the roller past the center point spun it backwards to give reverse gear. The “clutch pedal” worked differently from most other cars, in that the operator had to hold their foot on the pedal to keep the roller pressed against the flywheel (the catalog claimed that the weight of the operators foot was sufficient to provide forward motion). Removing the foot from the pedal allowed the roller to spring back from the flywheel, effectively providing “neutral” so the car could be cranked without moving forward.

1910 Sears Motor Buggy advertisementThe engine was lubricated by an “oiler”, essentially a tank mounted under the seat which had several adjustable drip feeds with separate lines to the engine bearings and other areas. All components of the transmission were exposed, so several bearings and pivots had to be oiled or greased manually from time to time.

Despite Sears’ solid financial bases and great marketing ability the Sears Motor Buggy was doomed from the start. Sears competitors were making many advancements and by 1912 Sears automotive division had lost $80,000. After selling around 3500 Motor Buggys in four years Sears decided to stop. Lincoln Motor Works continued into 1913 to make vehicles under their name until they also stopped.

1910 Sears Motor BuggyToday we call the vehicles “High Wheelers” but the term very likely will confuse any ‘old timers’. Sears had it’s Motor Buggy and International Harvester had its “Auto Buggys” and “Auto Wagons” like the picture to the left. Auto Buggys had a back seat and Auto Wagons did not. IHC made this type auto wagon from about 1909 through about 1915 when the term motor truck slowly took over. IHC made many models of vehicles during this period: from the auto wagon and auto buggy to the roadster and the touring car, in all over 11,000 vehicles were built.

Have you ever seen a Sears Motor Wagon and an IHC Auto Wagon race?
Watch here, or go to this address on the web, it is a hoot. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qLpBv4qm6A

If somehow we could take ourselves back to visit 1910 when the Sears and IHC were trying to make a buck building motor vehicles you will find a few competitors. No wonder Sears stopped and IHC went to trucks! Here is a partial list of the other car companies.

1910 auto manufacturers
By 1910 there were 290 auto manufacturers in the U.S. with over 458,000 cars on the road.

Of Highwheelers and Cadillacs

A tale of how a 1912 IHC Highwheeler begat a 1906 Cadillac…

It all started out with a search for some parts for a 1912 International Highwheeler. Somewhere through the grapevine, I heard about some Highwheeler parts in Washington State. I tracked them down and called their owner.

He stated that they were not for sale but possibly could be had through a trade. I asked what he was looking for and he listed a series of cars that I did not have any parts for. One car the he mentioned was a One Cylinder Cadillac. Between 1903 and 1908, Cadillac cars only had one cylinder and therefore are called One Cylinder Cadillacs.

I did not have any parts but started searching my memory banks for possible sources. I remembered that a gentleman in my hometown had a 1906 Cadillac. On my next trip to visit my parents I stopped in to see this gentleman.

I explained that I was looking for Cadillac parts that I could buy to trade for Highwheeler parts. He indicated that he had an extra engine but was not sure if he wanted to sell it. I told him that if he ever decided to sell it, I would be interested.

A couple of months passed. I was talking to my father on the phone and he said that the gentleman had called and said the engine was for sale. My father had no further details. I called the gentleman and asked for the details.

He spent the first ten minutes telling me how rare the engine is and how valuable it was. I then asked the price. The response was $450. I said “sold” since I knew that the engine was worth much more that that. A couple of weeks later I went and picked it up.

Not knowing anything about One Cylinder Cadillacs, I attempted to figure out what year it was. I found the serial number and it was 345. I did some research and found that Cadillac built about 2000 cars in 1903, their first year of production.

Now this is where I got to use this expensive education of mine. I figured that if 2000 Cadillacs were built in 1903 and the serial number on the engine I had was 345, I could deduce that the engine came in a 1903 car. Isn’t higher education wonderful?

I then made a call back to Washington State to attempt to make a trade. I described what I had and that I would be willing to make a trade. The response from the other end was “is that all you have of the car?”. The guy did not have a One Cylinder Cadillac and was not willing to trade unless I could provide more of a car. Now I am left holding the bag, or in this case the engine.

I then started to talk to people who know of or had One Cylinder Cadillacs. I would tell them that I had a 1903 engine and inevitably the response would be “no you don’t “. I would ask why they did not believe it was a 1903 engine and I would be told that there is a very tight One Cylinder Cadillac following and that all the 1903 parts are known of.

There is no way that I could have discovered an unknown 1903 engine. They would then ask about some of the dimensions and casting marks. Their next comment would be that it sure sounds like a 1903 engine.

The grapevine then came into play again. The word got out that I had a 1903 Cadillac engine. Calls starting coming in. It seems that there are quite a few 1903 Cadillacs out here with newer engines in them.

I think I got calls from about 10 people interested in buying the engine. Then offers started coming in. The highest offer for the engine, sight unseen, was $4000. In all cases I stated that it was not for sale. The more I talked to people, the more I thought I wanted a One Cylinder Cadillac.

One of the people who called was a gentleman from Nebraska by the name of Homer. I had never heard of Homer and did not know anything about Homer. But, Homer would call me once a month to see what was happening with the 1903 Cadillac engine. I kept telling him that it was safe and sound, I did not need to do anything with it, it did not make any noise, I did not need to feed it, it was not bothering anyone and I was thinking about keeping it and building a car around it.

Homer said I would never find enough parts to build a 1903 Cadillac. To which I replied that it did not need to be a 1903. I would be happy with any year One Cylinder Cadillac. That was my demise in keeping the engine. Homer then said he would see what he could do in trading material and call me back.

A couple of weeks went by and Homer called. He said he had parts to a 1906 Cadillac that he would sell me if he could get the 1903 engine. He indicated that he could not trade outright since he would be supplying about ¾ of the 1906. The price was my engine plus $3500. I indicated that I did not have that kind of money and that I could not commit to the deal.

I did know however that the parts that he was offering were worth much more than his asking price. But, since he was so hot on the engine, I figured I would see if I could get a better deal. Then the monthly calls from Homer resumed. I kept telling him that I was interested but needed a better deal.

He would not budge on the price. Then one time he called, he asked what else I was working on and needed parts for. I told him what I had and needed. He indicated that he might be able to help me out on my 1907 Buick.

He indicated that he would see what he could do and call me back. On the next call from Homer he asked if an engine for my 1907 Buick would make the deal. He said that he could not just include it and that the price would go up by $1500. I again said that I did not have that kind of money, hoping for a better deal.

Since each year I make a trip to Wisconsin to visit my wife’s parents and attend the car show in Iola, Wisconsin, Homer and I agreed that I would put the engine in the truck and that I would stop by and see him.

Now who is Homer? In my discussion with old car people, I started asking questions and getting information about Homer. Most people said that Homer is hard to deal with and that if you could deal with him, he always gets the better end of the deal. It turns out that Homer is an 80 something year old widower who has been collecting early cars and parts since he was a pup. He has a collection that is totally unbelievable.

He has two restored One Cylinder Cadillacs, probably 10 other One Cylinder Cadillac engines and probably enough parts to put together about another 5 cars. He also has early Buick cars and parts, early Brush cars and parts, early Ford cars and parts (both Model T and before), 1909-10 Cadillac cars and parts and who knows what else.

If it does not have gaslights, he is not interested. Electric lights came out around 1912. He has buildings and tractor-trailers loaded with cars and parts.

For that summer’s trip, I had arranged to pick up parts for an IHC Highwheeler in Arkansas, Buick Parts in Wyoming and Buick parts in Iowa. By the time I got to Homer’s, I had a truck and trailer full of parts. We met for the first time when I pulled into the driveway but we were not strangers since we had many phone conversations.

Homer looked the engine all over and stated that it was just as I had described it and that it was what he was looking for. We then went into his barn where he had laid out the 1906 Cadillac parts (3/4 of the car) and the 1907 Buick engine. The parts were in very good condition. I tried one last time to get a better deal. He was firm on his side of the deal. The money exchanged hands and the parts were transferred.

We then took a tour of his collection, which took several hours. I was then on my way, the proud owner of a 1906 Cadillac and an engine for my 1907 Buick. By the time I got home I had traveled about 6000 miles in two weeks.

And that is how a 1912 IHC Highwheeler begat a 1906 Cadillac. Homer turned out to be a very pleasant man. Since my first trip to make the trade, I have been back to see Homer every summer. I stay with him for a couple of days and we always find something to trade, but that is fodder for other stories.

Homer has been very good to me and has always allowed me to borrow anything that I need to copy for anything that I may be working on. Our dealings have been fair and I look forward to each visit.