One Cool Car Collection: The Fountainhead Museum, Fairbanks, Alaska
Hot for rare classics? Check your anti-freeze and motor north to Alaska.
Hosting 30,000 visitors a year, the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks is three museums: pre-WWII American-made vehicles, including four one-offs; vintage fashions; and artifacts and documents celebrating the pioneering automotive spirit of the 49th state.
The museum’s 102 cars include horseless carriages, roadsters and racers, beginning with a 1898 Hay Motor Vehicle Stanhope Phaeton through a 1917 Owen Magnetic, 1934 Packard 1408 Series dual windshield touring Phaeton and, the youngest car, a 1938 Southwest Chrome Special Elto Midget Racer.
Other rare automobiles include a 1906 Compound, the one remaining 1920 Argonne, 1921 Heine-Velox Victoria and a 1905 Sheldon by Robert Sheldon, the first and only car manufactured in Alaska.
“Some of our cars have won best in their class at premier shows around the country,” says Willy Vinton, the museum manager and long-time car lover. He notes that all but three are operable, and many are regularly driven as weather permits –– especially during the summer at the 105-acre Wedgewood Resort.
Just three miles from downtown on 105 acres, the all-suite hotel is next to Creamer’s Field Waterfowl Refuge, the Wedgewood Wildlife Sanctuary and Refuge, both with trails, and Activity Island, including outdoor exhibits about life in interior Alaska.
Antique bicycles and vintage clothing to the 1740s are also shown, about 1,000 clothing items, the largest collection of vintage apparel in the Northwest, says Vinton. “It’s a stunning illustration of fashion design stories and, like the cars, the elegant outfits are rotated periodically throughout the building, which keeps the museum fresh and interesting.”
Celebrating Alaska’s unique motoring history are large photos with write-ups of the historical significance of the photo. The museum also offers a book about transportation in Alaska, informative videos and an outdoor display of unrestored items depicting the state’s story.
In 2007, museum founder Tim Cerny purchased much of the J. Parker Wickham automobile collection. The following spring, his Fountainhead Development broke ground for the new museum.
In the interim, Cerny and his colleagues researched and acquired more cars throughout North America and Europe. “Each represented a significant or unusual development in American automotive technology or design or were examples of the earliest cars to reach Alaska,” explains Vinton.
“We are a world-class museum in a relatively remote location,” he says. “When it comes to extremely rare finds, the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is the only place where you can see a Compound, an Argonne, an Argo Limousine, a Columbia Mark XIX or a McFarlan Type 125, all the last of their kind in the world. And, our Sheldon, Heine-Velox Victoria and Hay are the only models of their kind ever built.”
A Hay, a Hertel and a Cord
•1898 Hay Stanhope Phaeton –– Featuring meticulous horseless-carriage coachwork, this one-off car was discovered in a barn in the 1940s, near New Haven, Connecticut, where it was built by the short-lived Hay & Hotchkiss Company. The museum purchased the car in 2007 and took two years restoring it. Excepting the tires, every part was handcrafted for this lone prototype.
“We believe it’s the earliest known American-made four-cylinder gasoline-powered automobile in existence, and the fact that’s it’s an eight-cycle engine makes it that much more special,” says Vinton.
Weighing 1,150 pounds, the 5-horsepower car is coupled to a 2-speed transmission and is capable of about 6 mph.
Creator Walter Hay thought that his eight-cycle engine would provide two full revolutions for cooling and purifying the cylinders. On every fourth turn, a firing stroke would occur in each cylinder. Around each cylinder are air-cooled radiating fans; no water cooling is used. Hay also said that the car could run without oil.
But, “The Hay did not make it into production because a few short runs revealed the shortcomings of the eight-cycle concept,” says Vinton.
•1899 Hertel Runabout –– With components such as hand-forged suspension ironwork, this is one of three Hertels known to exist. This 19th-century pioneer, one of America’s earliest gasoline-powered cars, was manufactured by the Oakman Motor Vehicle Company in Greenfield, Massachusetts.
A stellar example of the transition from bicycles to automobiles, the car features front wheels mounted to bicycle forks. The car is steered with a tiller, and a lever controls the starter, forward gear, throttle and brakes.
The Hertel does not have belts, chains or gears. “Instead, the motor drives friction pulleys which rotate against the inner rims of the rear wheels, so this is the first American automobile to have the engine in the rear,” explains Vinton.
The 2-cylinder, 2-speed car weighs 500 pounds and can do 20 mph. The factory called it “free from odor” and “practically noiseless.” Price: $750.
Four-wheel independent suspension was also innovative, providing the Hertel, the manufacturer boasted, “an air of strength and durability.”
•1905 Model B 6-Passenger Touring Winton –– This is the only Model B known to exist. Its four-cylinder vertical engine produces about 25–30 horsepower; altogether it weighs 2,100 pounds.
Two years earlier, in 1903, Dr. Horatio Nelson, his mechanic Sewall Crocker and a dog named Bud had become the first to drive from San Francisco to Manhattan in a Winton. The arduous trek took 63 and a half days over roads that weren’t.
The Winton-patented air-pressure system controls the speed. When the car is started, the air intake and fuel are minimized to maintain idle; as the driver initiates throttle, a waste gate allows the intake valves to open for the additional power.
The car maker claimed the transmission was “unbreakable”; for servicing, the owner could access it through the foot board of the front seat. In turn, the engine could be easily worked on by opening the hood.
“‘Unbreakable’ it wasn’t, but the Winton was easier to repair than many other vehicles of the time,” Vinton says, “and because roads were poor where they existed, this car was particularly attractive.”
Base price was $2,500, which attracted only the moderately well off.
•1905 Sheldon –– Robert ‘Bobby’ Sheldon was taken with a young lady living in Skagway, but her rival suitor had a horse and a fancy carriage. Sheldon muttered, “I had to figure out a way to beat that (darn) horse.”
Sheldon, 22, had never seen an automobile before, but he was intent on having one, one way or the other, and winning the woman.
The museum describes his innovative procedure: “He built a wooden frame and axles, salvaged wheels and full elliptic springs from a discarded wagon, made a tin hood, added two barstools for seats, created a steering tiller from a gas pipe, attached two carbide miner’s lamps for headlights and ordered a brass bulb horn from Sears & Roebuck.”
The engine: marine, one cylinder. Sheldon snagged it from a sunken boat. He connected it between the front wheels and ran two bicycle chains to the rear wheels so that he could beat the horse, the rival suitor and visit his gal.
“It really worked,” Sheldon said. “She went with me on many rides.”
•1906 Type XV Pope Toledo –– They called the first car in Fairbanks a “Devil Wagon,” “Road Monster” and “Carmine Demon.” The fiendish car arrived from the Pope Motor Car Company of Toledo, Ohio, in August 1908 for David Laiti, owner of the Fairbanks Flume Hose Factory.
Laiti transported passengers to Fox, just north, in 80 minutes, with one terrified passenger exclaiming that the “Red Devil” did 50 mph! The owner of the local barber shop, Dave Courtemanche, bought it from him and started a taxi service to Chatanika, also north of Fairbanks.
Robert Sheldon bought another of the town’s Pope-Toledos –– a 1907 Type XV, shipped from Dawson City in 1909. He hired out to drive people around town, to Ester and the Valdez Trail. An October 1911 newspaper article recounted how he drove some young ladies out to Noyes Slough where they “spent an hour on the ice.” In 1913, the Tanana Valley Railroad purchased the car and converted it to a railcar.
•1923 Mercury Model T Speedster –– Here’s an example of one of America’s first hot-rods, a “speed-buggied” “Tin Lizzie,” the car that Henry Ford built for the masses. Some of those masses, though, wanted to go faster. With after-market components, they could work the engine, build a new body or “soup” the engine.
The best kits were from The Mercury Body Company, which offered them for the Model T and the Chevrolet Superior. Vinton: “The kit gave the speedster a dropped axle, radiator, hood, step plates and cycle fenders and added 10 to 15 mph to your car. You also had to buy new rear brakes for the ‘whoa’ you needed for your new thoroughbred.”
This car is one of the 70 original Mercury speedsters known.
•1931 Cord L29 Cabriolet –– America’s first production front-wheel drive car, the L29 is considered one of the most beautiful cars ever, to a great extent because of the design opportunities from the lack of conventional rear-wheel-drive structures.
The front-wheel drive also helped create the low racy look by lowering the car 10 inches than other rear-wheel-drive cars requiring a central drive shaft. The long hood covers the engine, clutch and transmission and differential.
The almost 300-cid Lycoming 8-cylinder produces 125 horses and propels the 4,500-pound car up to 76 mph. Only 1,243 were produced for those who could pay the $2,495 sticker price to the Auburn Automobile Company in Auburn, Indiana. This magnificent survivor has only 14,000 original miles.
“Cord was the first to introduce the false grille to hide the radiator,” explains Vinton. “Inside are shutters that thermostatically control the amount of air entering the radiator. And, the innovative Duplex Pilot Ray Driving Light pivots as the front wheels turn.”
The museum is open year round. Adults are $12, children $6, and ages 5 and under are admitted free.
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