- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 30, 2016

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - Among the classic Duesenbergs, Cords and Corvettes at this year’s Auctions America Auburn Fall Collector Car Weekend is a modern marvel that has little to do with cars, except for maybe its trunk.

Wendell, formerly Jumbo, is a life-size, walking, water-squirting mechanical elephant ready to drive off the lot for the right price.

Built in England in 1951 for a Detroit drugstore chain, Wendell was rebuilt a couple of years ago to mint condition, so he won’t go for peanuts. Think $250,000 to $400,000.

“We rebuilt that thing from the ground up,” Tom Davis, whose Auburn company, Interiors by Thomas, refurbished the elephant, told The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette (https://bit.ly/2bDQKgP). “When I went over and looked at it and they asked me to do it, it looked like an old broken-down combine in the corner. It was really in bad shape.”

The elephant, owned by Auctions America, is one of the many attractions as the auction and the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival gets underway this week. The weeklong festival, celebrating its 60th anniversary, kicked off Saturday with a fundraiser at a local winery. The auction begins Wednesday with a car preview.

Festival officials expect about 100,000 people to attend the various activities, from today’s tour of local enthusiasts’ garages to music and art shows.

“While we appreciate that the cars are absolutely the stars of the show, I find that there’s a lot of people that are surprised how much diversity we have beyond the cars,” said Sarah Payne, festival executive director. “So, come for the cars, but then stay for the live music and the kids activities.”

As for the cars, Auctions America has a couple of Duesies, as usual. A 1933 Duesenberg Model J sunroof Berline by Franay valued between $750,000 and $950,000 is one of the company’s three featured cars. A 1937 Cord 812 supercharged phaeton ($250,000 to $300,000) and a 1929 Auburn 8-90 cabriolet ($80,000 to $100,000) round out what the company calls its “superb ACD trifecta.”

But top dollar could go to a pair of legendary American sports cars: a 1965 Shelby AC Cobra roadster, CSX 2442 ($1 million to $1.15 million), and a 1964 Shelby AC Cobra roadster, CSX 2216 ($825,000 to $875,000).

“So, you have one that’s more of a race car and one that’s just more of drive around and enjoy a classic car,” said Megan Boyd, a car specialist with the auction company. “Like we like to call them: One is for show and one is for go.”

As fine as the cars are, an elephant powered by a four-cylinder gas engine and a three-speed transmission (with reverse) will steal some of the limelight.

Wendell, built by theatrical prop maker Frank Stuart, will be auctioned Saturday. Stuart had hoped mechanical elephants would be a viable venture, but he went bankrupt after completing Wendell and two similar models, according to Auctions America.

Originally named Jumbo, the elephant was bought by Detroit’s Cunningham Drug Stores in 1951 to promote its jumbo photo prints and jumbo milk shakes. It carried about 10,000 children on rides during its first four weeks, according to newspaper clippings posted on cyberneticzoo.com, which explores the “history of cybernetic animals and early robots.”

The thrill ended on Week 8 when a mechanical leg failed, spilling six to 10 children to the curb, according to differing news accounts. Three or four were slightly injured. Two years later, in July 1953, the pretend elephant was up for sale.

Ownership changed several times. Wendell was repurchased by Cunningham Drug Stores in 1961 for a static display. He was sold and used as an attention grabber at a riding stable, according to Auctions America. In 1978 he was bought and restored, and for the first time since 1962 it provided rides to neighborhood children.

Over the years the elephant was used in Dwight Eisenhower’s and Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns and other Republican events.

Auctions America bought it two or three years ago, Boyd said.

Restorer Davis, who normally works on automotive and commercial upholstering, recalls the elephant being in sad shape. Its engine had not been run since the 1970s, he said. It took a year to get the 1,400-pound elephant back in running order.

“We rebuilt the head. There was no head on it at all,” Davis said. “We made it so it shoots water out of its nose. We actually got taxidermy eyes for it.”

The elephant’s movements are determined by a hydraulically operated blocking clamp that allows wheels in each foot to rotate in one direction.

“So, what it does, you lock them in forward. When the unit goes forward, the wheels lock and it pulls it,” Davis said. “It’s only allowing the wheel to go one way.”

The ideal walking condition, according to an original brochure, is a smooth level hard surface.

“But you don’t want to go very fast with it,” Davis said. “Because the problem is, what we would call stubbing your toe, if it catches a rock or pothole, it’s going down. And it’s going to hurt somebody.”

Wendell likely will be bought by someone wanting a one-of-a-kind item for his or her collection or by a business wanting a unique promotional tool, Boyd said. A portion of the proceeds will go to Kate’s Kart, which provides free books to hospitalized children.

Boyd pointed to several new kids activities at the auction, including a scavenger hunt and an activity center with ridable toys. Among the new features for adults are a wine-and-beer garden and a cars-and-coffee event.

Payne said the Labor Day event is recognized all over the world and she hears people say Auburn is on their bucket list of things to do before they die.

“Like, Auburn, cars, Labor Day weekend, bucket list,” she said. “So, oftentimes people from northeast Indiana don’t always even recognize how big of a deal it is right in their own backyard.”


Information from: The Journal Gazette, https://www.journalgazette.net

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