Friday, June 3, 2011

Enthusiasm for Early Automobiles in the Valley

About noon on Monday, June 13, the rally teams of the The Great Race of 2011 will circle Court Square, park at the Turner Pavilion, and luncheon at The Smokin’ Pig. Car enthusiasts and the curious will watch about 100 vintage autos. Harrisonburg is the second leg of the 1,000 mile, seven day (June 11 -17) race between Chattanooga, TN and Bennington, VT. The Great Race is a controlled speed and endurance race that is “a test of a driver/navigator team’s ability to follow precise instructions and the car’s (and team’s) ability to endure a cross-country trip...GPSs, computers, and cell phones are not permitted and odometers are taped over." Many entrants make great sacrifices of time and money to participate. In addition to caring for a vintage car, individual participants pay an entry fee of $3000; corporations pay $3,500. In 2011, cars built in 1969 or earlier are eligible to participate.

The race is a revival of one organized in 1983 for pre-WWII cars. That race motored from LA to Indianapolis, IN and arrived for Indy Week. This year is not the first time participants stopped in Harrisonburg on the rally route. In 2005, a festive atmosphere around Court Square included country singers who welcomed drivers for the first overnight stay in the two week race between Washington, DC and Tacoma, WA. The local Valley Cruisers and the Antique Automobile Club of America were among the many who welcomed the racers. The rally prize committee awarded the Friendly City the second best overnight stop, missing out on the $10,000 awarded the first best stop. The race organizers awarded a total of $270,000 in prizes.

About 120 years ago, between the Gilded Age and WWI, Americans rapidly embraced the automobile for convenience and for racing. In 1895, on Thanksgiving Day, Frank Duryea covered 54 miles in 10 hours, 23 minutes and won the first automobile race. Horatio Jackson made the first cross country auto trip in 1903, without seeing a gas station, which did not open until 1907 in St. Louis. The first coast-to-coast road, the Lincoln Highway, was not completed until 1927

Enthusiasm in the Valley for the automobile was evident from the early days of the industry. J.L. Baugher, a local grocer, brought the first car to Harrisonburg in 1902. Ten years later historian John W. Wayland in his 1912 Historic Harrisonburg reported 40 automobiles in the Valley. An old-auto lovers from the Harrisonburg area organized in 1966.

Evans and Cline in Weyers Cave advertised “exclusive agency” in the surrounding counties for the Metz Runabout. The 1911 Metz was priced at $485, got 20 to 30 miles per gallon, and had a speed of 2 to 40 miles per hour. The car was made in Waltham, MA and like many other automobile manufacturers had branched into automobiles from bicycle manufacturing. Some automobile firms then expanded into manufacturing motorcycles and aviation. Today, depending on the condition and quality of restoration, the antique 1911 Metz Runabout would cost between $5,000 and $35,000

J. J. Hawes of Harrisonburg offered the Rambler, a brand name used by the Thomas B. Jeffrey Company of
Chicago. Local advertising focused on engineering details, such as an offset crank shaft. The Rambler price was not advertised, but other sources quoted the Rambler price as about twice that of the Metz. The mileage was comparable. Long-ago these cars passed into the antique category, though the Rambler name was carried on by successor companies into the later 1960s. The dealerships, Evans and Cline and the J.J. Hawes, have also passed from the local business scene. Another noteworthy dealership was the Rockingham Motor Company. This dealership opened in 1923 and was one of the first Ford dealerships in Virginia. Its former showroom at Liberty and West Market Streets won the 2004 award for restoration and repurposing of the Art Deco building. The firm had moved from this site in 1964.

The oldest car participating in the 2011 Great Race is the 100 year old 1911 Velie manufactured in Moline, IL. One 1911 ad bragged that it was “the raciest, snappiest, get there runabout on the road.” The car was advertised in the John Deere catalogue. The $2,000 car reached a top speed of 65 miles per hour. The Velie race-type roadster participated in the first 500 Brickyard race, finishing out of the money in 17th (out of 40) place. At the time the Velie Company, which also made touring cars, was considered leader in quality and low price automobiles. For additional information and the latest 2011 race event details contact Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.


John W. Wayland. Historic Harrisonburg 1912.
The Daily News. April 1 and May 23, 1911.
Daily News-Record. June 24, 2005; June 27, 2005; August 12, 2005; February 25, 2005; January 29, 1996

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