- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

At the dawn of the 20th century, the fledgling automobile industry was not only struggling with what a car should be but also with its motive power gasoline, electricity or steam.
Oldsmobile, founded in 1897, was almost put out of business in March 1901. Until then, the company had not produced many vehicles but had built quite a few prototypes of varying size and design to determine which offered the best chance of success.
All of the prototypes were stored together in a Detroit building when it caught fire and, according to company legend, Oldsmobile employee James Brady, braving the smoke and flames, pushed the curved-dash model to safety. All the other prototypes were destroyed by the fire.
Lost in history is whether Oldsmobile had decided before the fire to manufacture the curved-dash model, which was manufactured because it was the sole survivor.
Leading every other manufacturer, Oldsmobile reportedly sold 435 of the curved-dash models in 1901. It was easily the most popular car of the era.
The curved-dash Oldsmobile essentially was a wooden buggy body with no provision for a horse and a tiller to steer the 8-foot-long vehicle. Riding on a 67-inch wheelbase, the 700-pound Oldsmobile was powered by a single-cylinder, four-cycle engine. It sold for $650 a century ago.
Oldsmobile continually improved features on the curved-dash model and later the straight-dash model as well. They were built commercially from 1901 to 1906.
The popular curved-dash Oldsmobile runabout was advertised as costing less to own annually than keeping a horse.
Founder Ransom E. Olds, who died in 1950, left the company in 1904 and went on to build the Reo automobile.
More than a quarter century ago, when the surviving 1901 Oldsmobiles were merely 74 years old, Reed Martin acquired one of the runabouts.
Long before Mr. Martin retired from the Smithsonian Institution, he developed an interest in single-cylinder automobiles. At an antique auto show in 1975, Mr. Martin discovered one of the participants owned an early Oldsmobile of some sort.
He took the bait and was soon in rural Bremo Bluff, Va., half an hour south of Charlottesville, with a fist full of money from the sale of an unwanted muscle car.
The owner wanted more money than Mr. Martin had, but Mr. Martin pointed out that the car was far from perfect and a handful of cash was persuasive.
With the deal consummated, Mr. Martin trailered the Oldsmobile home.
"It's a pretty neat old car," Mr. Martin thought, until he learned more about the Oldsmobile.
He learned a lot from other owners of curved-dash Oldsmobiles. He thought the front and rear springs anchored at the axles, supporting the car, were connected until he saw the 1 and 1/2-foot gap under the body of the car. That space between the front and rear five leaf springs is supposed to be filled by a grooved piece of wood painted black.
Mr. Martin located a supplier, still in business, to the delight of curved-dash Oldsmobile owners everywhere.
Learning as he went along, he discovered the metal grating, painted black across the rear of the car behind the engine, was incorrect.
He was amazed to find a man who manufactures replicas of the original wooden tailgate with the appropriate horizontal louvers.
The car had a Model T Ford carburetor when he bought it, but an original Oldsmobile version is now in place.
Over the years, Mr. Martin slowly made his car as correct as he could, down to the rectangular water tank on the left side of the engine compartment and the gasoline tank on the right.
To keep the engine cool, a series of horizontal brass pipes under the car served as a radiator. Mr. Martin explains that in later years fins were attached to the pipes to facilitate the dissipation of the engine heat.
He is convinced his car is an early 1901 model because of the tapered king pins. They were not designed particularly well and later 1901 models had king pins of a better design. Ill-designed or not, they have survived for a century, although the roads today are better than those of the early 20th century.
On the left side of the engine compartment are a pair of batteries. "Working on this car is such a snarf," Mr. Martin says.
The correct ignition system came from New Jersey, the wheel rims from Michigan and the stainless steel spokes 42 per wheel from Ohio. The white rubber original style 3.00x28-inch tires came from Tennessee.
One of the advantages of the curved dash Oldsmobile, Mr. Martin explains, is that the car can be hand-cranked from the driver's seat on the right side of the vehicle.
After adjusting the two levers protruding from beneath the lip of the front seat (the right one attached to the carburetor and the left one regulating oil dripping into the cylinder) the driver depresses with his heel the pedal at the base of the seat, which releases the compression. After that, he can reach out on the right side of the car, grab the crank, turn the engine and hopefully bring it to life.
After the engine starts, the driver has to contend with two pedals, a speeder button and a brake.
To occupy the driver's left hand is the tiller. The right hand controls the spark advance and the gear lever at the end of the seat. With the gear lever straight up, the transmission is in neutral. Pulled back, the lever places the car in low gear; pushed forward, it engages high gear. That was all there was to it.
As for braking, Mr. Martin says, "It'll slow down if you don't break the chain."
He has replaced the leather tiller grip just above the bell.
Mr. Martin's Oldsmobile did not come to him with the extra cost $10 for optional fenders nor the top $40 for rubber and $50 for leather.
After he had improved his car to its current condition, he loaded the car on a trailer and drove to Pennsylvania Dutch country, where he found a maker of tops for the horse-drawn buggies of the Amish.
He was hoping to find someone who could make a three-bow top for his Oldsmobile. Instead, he found a top maker with several used tops, including the three-bow frames. He looked over the supply and, pointing to one hanging from the rafters, pronounced, "That one will fit."
Sure enough, it clamped onto the 1901 Oldsmobile like it had been made for the vehicle. Now we know where the original leather tops came from. The top is 39 inches wide and offers 35 inches of room from the seat to the top and 52 inches from the rubber-matted floor to the top.
The pair of step plates, one on each side, are standard equipment to help ease entry into the spindly car, which towers 6 feet 7 inches tall.
"It's been a real job," Mr. Martin says of his effort at restoring his Oldsmobile, which can, like when it was new, exceed 20 mph.
He completed the restoration in time for the cars' centennial celebration. The fact it is still running after 100 years is remarkable.
After 100 years, auto manufacturers are still arguing about which motive power is best.
Things never change.

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