Friday, April 7, 2017

Locomobile and auto racing
Part three- killed by another empire builder
postcard of the Locomobile factory
As part of the Locomobile reorganization in July 1922, W.C. “Billy” Durant who had recently lost control of General Motors was named president of the Locomobile Company. Durant assured customers that production of the Locomobile ‘48’ would continue from the Bridgeport Connecticut harbor-side 40 acre factory. Later that month “Billy” formed Durant Motors and Locomobile joined the low priced Flint, Durant, and Star nameplates under Durant’s control as he began to build another automotive empire.
Photo by the author

This car, a 1923 Locomobile Model 48 Sportif is on display at the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM) in Hood River, Oregon. In addition to the 4-passenger Sportif, (athletic in French) body style, the standard 1923 Locomobile Model 48  142-inch wheelbase chassis could be ordered as a 7- Passenger Touring car, Touring Limousine with open driver compartment, Brougham (four-door sedan), Victoria Sedan, Enclosed Drive Limousine, and Cabriolet (a limousine with a top that could be lowered over the passengers).
Photo by the author

The 1923 Locomobile is powered by 525 cubic inch non-detachable T-head straight six-cylinder engine which produced 95 horsepower. The cylinders cast in pairs sat atop a crankcase made of manganese bronze with seven main bearings. As the car itself was assembled by crew of six men, legend has it that the man who assembled the engine stamped his initials into the main bearing caps.   
 Photo by the author

1923 Locomobiles of which only 116 were built featured two mounted spare tires and four-wheel brakes. The rear wheels used contracting brakes while the front axle used expanding brakes, and a four-speed manual transmission of which part of the case was also manganese bronze. This Sportif model sold for $9,900 ($139,000 today) as it featured balloon tires mounted on wooden wheels and nickel-plated trim. 
Photo by the author

Photo by the author

The Locomobile model 48 which weighed an estimated 3 tons was advertised as the 'Best Built Car in America’ and in 1923 advertised as the 'The Exclusive Car for Exclusive People.' The model 48 the only Locomobile offering was in such demand that the automobile was produced at a rate of two per day during 1923. Indeed the Locomobile Model 48 was one of the most expensive and elegant automobiles ever manufactured in the United States and counted Hollywood greats Tom Mix, Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille as customers.

In 1925, Durant Motors brought out the all-new Locomobile “66” “Junior Eight” with a straight-eight 201 cubic inch engine rated at 66 horsepower. The Brougham and Touring cars were priced at $1,785, with the Roadster listed for $2150 and the Sedan sold at $2285. Only twenty surviving Locomobile “Junior 8” cars are registered with the Locomobile Society.

During the 1926 racing season, WC Durant advertised the new Locomobile ‘Junior Eight’ automobile through sponsorship of his son, Cliff’s pair of racing cars built by Harlan Fengler  powered by Miller 91 cubic inch double overhead camshaft (DOHC) 16-valve inline eight-cylinder engines with superchargers identified by researcher Michael Ferner as Miller chassis numbers 2609 and 2610.

The first appearance of a ‘Locomobile Junior 8 Special’  which was painted blue with a white frame and trim came at the high-speed 1-¼ mile Culver City board track on March 1 1926 driven by Ralph Hepburn to a sixth place finish which was probably considered a shakedown session. Hepburn appeared again in the Locomobile racer at Charlotte North Carolina three weeks before the Indianapolis 500-mile race but the engine blew a head gasket after just five laps around the 1-¼ mile high-banked wood oval.

At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 1926 '500,'  builder Harlan Fengler was originally entered as a team driver with Leon Duray as his designated relief driver. Fengler known as the “boy speed king” had been seriously injured at Indianapolis in a May 15 1924 practice crash and had sat out the entire 1925 AAA (American Automobile Association) racing season as he recuperated. Duray was signed up because there were doubts as to whether Fengler “would be strong enough to ride for the entire 500 miles” according to published reports.  

As the situation worked out, Leon Duray qualified his Locomobile for third place on May 27 1926 while teammate and team owner Durant started eleventh. On lap 33, Duray retired the #10 car with a terminal fuel leak, and on lap 42 Durant, who reportedly spent two months of physical training preparing for the race, needed a relief driver. Veteran Eddie Hearne, who first raced at the Speedway in 1910, took over for Durant and completed 18 additional laps before the #9 car also retired with a leaking fuel tank.

The pair of “Locomobile Junior 8 Specials” continue to appear through the 1926 AAA season, with Fengler and Hearne as the team drivers though the Altoona race in September after which the cars were raced by Hepburn, Wade Morton and Frank Elliott. At the end of the 1926 racing season, Cliff Durant disbanded the team and Harry Hartz took both the “Locomobile Junior 8 Specials” to California to sell for Durant.  

One car, identified by Ferner as Miller chassis #2609 was raced as the “Locomobile Junior 8 Special” in the first three 1927 AAA races by Elliott before it was sold to Cliff Woodbury for his “Boyle Valve” team. Under Woodbury’s ownership the car was raced by Fred Comer, Hepburn, Russ Snowberger, and Billy Arnold through the 1929 season. After the 1929 AAA season it was sold to Fred Frame who cut it down into a ‘big car; ’in this shortened condition the car reportedly was raced by a succession of owners into the nineteen fifties.

Norm Batten and the flaming former "Locomobile Junior 8 Special"
rolls past the pits engulfed in flames during the 1927 Indianapolis 500-mile race
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies
According to Ferner, Miller chassis #2610 was raced at Culver City Speedway on March 6 1927 by Fengler after which it was sold to Norm Batten. This car became renowned as the flaming car that Batten drove through the pits during the 1927 ‘500.’ 

Batten recovered from his burns,  completed the 1928 ‘500’ fifth place in the same car but later died along with his friend Earl Devore following the sinking of the SS Vestris in November 1928. Batten’s widow Marian entered the car in the 1929 Indianapolis 500-mile race for Wesley Crawford and later in the season for Jimmy Gleason and Gordon Condon at the two Altoona board track races. 

After the 1929 season the one-time ‘Locomobile Special’ disappeared until it re-appeared at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1938 with a different engine, entered by former driver Henry Kohlert for Dennis "Duke" Nalon. Kohlert was a friend of the Batten family from the time he and Norman shared a hospital room as they recovered from their injuries in 1927. The car was sold again after Kohlert’s 1939 death to an unknown owner and researcher Ferner surmises that the second Fengler car was “probably raced to death in the Midwest.”

In 1926 Durant Motors introduced the Locomobile ‘Junior Six’ in coupe, sedan, and brougham body styles, all priced at $2100. These cars offered for sale only one year were a failure despite mid-year price cuts. Also during 1926 the venerable Model 48 was replaced at the top of the line by the Model 90 which was powered by a new 371 cubic inch straight six cylinder engine built in Bridgeport that developed 86 horsepower. Built for three model years, these cars are exceptionally rare as only three model 90 cars are known to exist today.

The Locomobile ‘70’ model powered by a Continental 246-cubic inch (70 horsepower) straight-8 cylinder engine was introduced as a 1927 model. The engine was shared with Stutz, Elcar, Graham-Paige, Henney, and Jordan, Moon, Peerless, and the Reo and to many loyal Locomobile buyers a car powered by anything other than a smooth Locomobile engine merely cheapened the marque and sales continued to drop.

For 1929, two new Locomobile models known as the ‘86’ and ‘88’ powered by Lycoming 298 cubic inch "L" head straight eight engines (purchased from Cord) were introduced  but it was too late to save the company. Locomobile produced its last car during 1929 as its parent company, Durant Motors, was failing but hung on until 1933. That same year futurist Buckminster built his experimental Dymaxion cars in a section of the old Locomobile factory in Bridgeport.

Today the stately Locomobile Model 48 cars of which only 167 are known to survive, are among the most prized of collector antique cars, and the WAAA museum in Oregon is fortunate to have such a beautiful example on display.


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