Living Rooms on Wheels
Do you think the Cadillac Escalade or the Lincoln Navigator are oversized? Do you think something like a 1966 Imperial is a living room on wheels? Do you think a Hummer H2 or a mid-70s Eldosaurus is a brazen example of conspicuous consumption? Well, lemme school you--compared to the cars we're going to look at today, those are mere poseurs. Wannabees. Also-rans. Pikers.
You want opulent? You want oversized? You want a real living room on wheels--with living-room furniture? The Crawford Museum's got your fun-sized brazen examples of conspicuous consumption right here, pal. Three of 'em, in fact.
In 1906, Alco decided to add automobiles to its portfolio. It began by building cars to designs licensed from Berliet in France, but after the first two years all Alcos were designed in-house. They were expensive, hand-built, high-end cars for the elite. Alco built ultra-colossal limos like this one, and race cars that won the Vanderbilt Cup twice and competed at Indianapolis.
The Berline shown here is longer, and significantly taller, than an Escalade. It sold for $7,250 in 1912, which is about $162,000 in today's money. For that price, you got a vehicle with a 579-cubic inch six-cylinder engine making 60HP, and an opulent passenger compartment (ten-inch thick upholstery!) tall enough to stand up in. The railroad-style "clerestory" in the roof kept things cool on hot days.
Alco sold automobiles from 1906 to 1913, and lost an average of $500 (equivalent to $11,500 or so today) on each and every one of them. Much of that loss came from an expensive and inefficient manufacturing process--Alco boasted that each car took 19 months to build!--but some of it was due to the fact that many cars were given away to railroad executives as "promos" to encourage locomotive sales. Of the 5,000 Alco autos built, only fifteen are still in existence.
Not far from the Alco sits our next exhibit, the SUV-sized 1907 Studebaker-Garford:
In the early part of the last century, Studebaker teamed up with Garford Manufacturing of Elyria, Ohio to offer high-end rides combining Garford's heavily customized bodies and chassis with a Studebaker drivetrain. This particular car was built to specification for Mrs. Bertha Palmer, the widow of Chicago real estate magnate Potter Palmer. It's painted in her two favorite shades of purple ("heliotrope" and "amaranth") and the passenger compartment has such amenities as quilted door panels and vases for fresh flowers. While the driver's compartment is not fully enclosed, the hired help does at least get a comfortable leather seat to sit in. The 280-cubic inch straight four makes 30 HP, adequate power for the in-town shopping trips Mrs. Palmer used it for.
I've saved the biggest for last. It's located in the upstairs gallery, and when my son Alex first saw it, he quipped, "It should have 'RTA' painted on the side." Here stands the hugest of the huge, the mother of all large-barges, a 1929 Minerva AK town car:
As you can see, it literally towers over everything else in the gallery. It's too tall for many parking garages. You could stuff my GTI in the passenger compartment--the rear doors are about wide enough to squeeze it in!--and it would fit with room to spare. It makes a Hummer H2 look puny in comparison.
It's powered by a 150 HP 5.9-litre Knight sleeve-valve straight six and rides on a colossal 149.5-inch wheelbase. The second-row seats are swiveling captain's chairs, the third row is a wraparound sofa, and the upholstery is as thick and plush as they come. With a curb weight well past 5,000 pounds, the monster Minerva needed dual wheels on the rear axle to hold it all up.
Founded in 1902, Minerva was a Belgian firm that built ultra-high-end luxury cars. Some of its open-top touring cars were converted to armored cars with machine guns in the summer of 1914, and they were used quite energetically in the opening weeks of World War One, until everything bogged down into trench warfare. After the Armistice, Minerva continued to build "The Car of Kings and Queens" into the 1930s. While Minerva the corporation survived World War Two, its postwar attempts to restart its car business were unsuccessful.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner