August 10, 2013

Century-old Olds still chugging along

“My dad was one of the original car guys,” Dean Davis says, his voice filled with admiration.

“My dad was one of the original car guys,” Dean Davis says, his voice filled with admiration.

The bright red 1909 Oldsmobile Model 20 automobile sitting before him is testament to that.

“This was the start of my dad’s car collection. He was a member of the Horseless Carriage Club of America back in the 1950s,” Davis says.

“When dad brought this car home, I was about 3 or 4. I remember him bringing home boxes full of parts. Dad had to cut down a tree which had grown up through the frame to get the car out.”

Max Davis had found the abandoned Olds in a field on the Danner farm southeast of Walton in the early 1950s.

“For several years after, he would go back to the farm and look around to find more pieces and to talk to Mr. Danner about the car and what it had looked like,” Dean Davis said. “Mr. Danner said he had bought the car to drive it to California.”

Considering the state of roads back then, it would have been an incredible achievement, but Davis doesn’t know if farmer Danner achieved it or even attempted it.

Ironically, Max Davis was unable to buy the original headlights for the car from the farmer’s family after the Oldsmobile was reassembled and running. So every time he entered it in a parade, he would have to go to the Danner farm and borrow the headlights for the day. Eventually, he was able to buy the correct lights for the car.

Missing pieces couldn’t exactly be ordered, so they were replicated by Max Davis, including one side of the hood, along with the complete radiator core and brass radiator shell, right down to the Oldsmobile logo embossed into the soft brass.

Teddy Roosevelt had just left the White House and William C. Durant was just piecing together General Motors when this particular car was built, 104 years ago. Dean Davis said Durant wanted a new model Oldsmobile, to put some distance between it and the old-fashioned curved dash Oldsmobiles steered by a tiller. One report indicates Durant took a Model 10 Buick and had it modified to become the new Oldsmobile, using various Buick parts in the process.

“They wanted a car to compete with the Model T Ford,” Davis said. The right-hand drive Oldsmobile uses a very similar transmission setup, with “reverse, slow speed and brake” pedals mounted through the wooden floorboards. A high-speed shift lever and hand brake were mounted to the outside of the car, next to the driver’s seat.

“They built about 1,200 cars that year and every one of them was unique,” Dean Davis said. The curved 1908 Buick dash board on the car tends to support that.

But the car had an incorrect Chevrolet engine in it when Max Davis discovered it. Dean Davis said his father was eventually able to find a more correct 1911 Buick 4-cylinder, 22 horsepower 165 cubic inch engine, which he rebuilt and installed in the car.

But the car had been retired by then, and Max Davis never started the rebuilt engine.

“While he was in the hospital with cancer, during his last days, he asked us, ‘Would you start it for me? I would love to hear it run,’” Davis said. “We tried, but were unable to accomplish his wish. I was really disappointed about that.”

After his father died, the car was hauled to the McPherson Auto Restoration Program, where Chris Paulsen, one of the instructors, was able to get it going. When magneto problems sidelined it again, Kevin Moore of Lefty’s Garage in Newton was called on to get the old ignition system up and working again.

Dean Davis decided to do a full restoration of the century-old Oldsmobile in 2009, taking the car completely apart, cleaning and reconditioning it thoroughly. The missing back seat was rebuilt at that time and reupholstered, along with the twin front bucket seats, in correct diamond-tufted black Ultraleather by Loewen Upholstery in Newton. Brenneman’s Body Shop, also in Newton, did the bright fire engine-red paint job.

“My dad was kind of partial to red. He started the Walton Fire Department in 1954 and was the first fire chief,” Dean Davis said.

“In 2010 after the Rural Life Festival, we loaded the car up and took it out to the cemetery. I started it up and let it sit there and run so Dad could hear it.”

“This isn’t a perfect restoration. When he had the time, he would go and scrounge parts and what he couldn’t find, he made the rest.”

But he said that the Antique Automobile Club of America’s research center lists only one other surviving 1909 Oldsmobile Model 20 in the country.

Even if the bright red machine with the brass bulb horn and wood spoked wheels weren’t rare, it would still be a prize beyond measure to Dean Davis and his family. It’s a link to the memory of Max Davis that’s still going strong, having even outlived the company that built it.

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