Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Drivable Dream

1913 Stevens-Duryea C-6

It takes a well-made car to stay original through 92 years in New England

Words and photography by David Traver Adolphus

We couldn’t originally go see Rod Rice’s 1913 Stevens-Duryea when we wanted to, because he was driving it some 30 miles (each way) through hilly mountain roads for a friend’s 85th birthday. His friend wanted the Model C-Six right-hand-drive Touring Car there, because he remembered playing on it when it was stored in a barn during the Depression.

Rod was driving around in a 1922 Studebaker when he heard from a friend that a junkyard in Barre had a couple of Stevens-Duryeas hanging around. “I’d just driven the [Studebaker] back from Boise, Idaho—that car had about 125,000 miles when I bought it. I drove it up to Walla-Walla Washington, then back to Boise, then I drove it out here.

“A fellow mentioned that there was a Stevens-Duryea up the street. When I went to investigate, sure enough, there was another one up the street in a garage. The fellow wouldn’t sell either one separately.” He didn’t know anything about them, but bought them “just bccause it was a nice old car. I had heard the name Stevens-Duryea, but it didn’t mean anything to me. When I saw the car I realized it was a quality old car.”

He “scraped together [his] nickels and dimes” and managed to acquire both of them, the car you see here and an even larger seven-passenger long wheelbase version. He didn’t keep the bigger car that long, and soon sold it to Jerry Duryea, son of American car pioneer Charles Duryea, for as much Rod had paid for both cars. “I thought it was a pretty good deal at the time,” he says. “It paid for the whole deal. I had an aunt who lived in Springfield, and she said there’s a Mr. Duryea that lives in Springfield and he’s interested in old cars…she called him up.

“He didn’t even see the car; we talked on the phone. That was quite a little trip down to Springfield, Massachusetts. The magneto froze up partway down, so we had to finish the trip on the battery. 1913 was the first year for battery & generator systems.”

The C-6 he had towed up to Burlington, a distance of about 45 miles, behind a friend’s Ford Model A roadster. That was an epic journey in itself, considering a Model A makes in the vicinity of 40 horsepower and Rod estimates the Stevens-Duryea weighs in the neighborhood of 5,000 pounds.

He didn’t drive it much for a few decades, as he was limited in time and money, and the car has only accumulated about 4,000 miles over the last 59 years. Encouragingly, most of those have been in the last decade, including a 600-mile run with the Horseless Carriage Club of America and the Vermont Auto Enthusiasts in 1999. “Just as I was leaving Rutland,” he recalls, “I heard a clunk.” A tooth had broken off the ring gear, and it wasn’t until he had an entire new gear cut that the car was drivable again.

Rod has done little to the car other than maintenance; “I really don’t do a lot of maintenance on it. You have to make up your mind to get dirty and use the grease gun. Quite a lot of fittings on the driveline and suspension. You give it a lot of grease once and a while and that seems to take care of it.”

He installed new rings and Babbitt bearings a few years ago, “I had a rod bearing that I was a little suspicious of, so we got to pulling things apart, “miked” the shaft and they were a little looser than they should be, so we had new bearings poured.”

He has also added a fuel pump to complement the gravity-feed gas tank under the front seat. “I almost had to go that way because back at some point in its history someone had removed the original Stevens-Duryea carburetor. Apparently, they must have had some problems with the original carburetor, because they replaced it with a Stromberg, which was popular in the teens. It sits up higher than the Stevens-Duryea, so it’s questionable whether you get gas, especially up a grade.” A handsome nickel lever under the dash controls small turn signals in the rear.

Over its 92 years of life, the car has otherwise seen very little modification. Most remarkable is that despite residing in Vermont for almost a century, it not only retains all its original upholstery, top and bodywork, but the original paint. Some credit must go to the aluminum skin, which, although impervious to rust, is starting to show through. “The only thing I’m worried about, “says Rod, looking nervously at the huge piles of salt where we’ve parked the car for photography, “Is salt.” Even the dash clock works, keeping good time although as Rod notes, “It’s a little fast.”

Taking a look under the hood, we see an engine that looks just about as good as the body. The three pairs of heads show light surface rust, and the two copper tubes, which carry wires for the twin ignition systems, are nicely burnished. Rod points out what he thinks may be original Rajah spark plugs mixed in with more recent Champions—he’s looking for a full set.

Inside, the tufted black leather seats are well proportioned, firm, and much more comfortable than those in other cars of the time. We have seen twenty-year-old leather that doesn’t look nearly as good. A dead pedal for the driver’s right foot still has part of its original protective paper, which reveals the car’s original dark green color underneath. Close inspection of the exterior yields hints of that green within the now almost-brown paint, and once you start to see it, the careful pinstriping from the factory is found everywhere.

The big six has a compressed air starting system, but the tank isn’t holding pressure well so it takes Rod a few cranks of the hand starter before it catches with no smoke, but an impressive puff of loose soot. “The air starting system has its own idiosyncrasies,” he says. “The tank is about five feet long, must be ten inches in diameter. It originally was tested for 600psi, but that got to leaking at some point, so I just sort of forgot about it and got to cranking. To build up the pressure, a four-cylinder Kellogg water-cooled engine hooks into the transmission and runs off a countershaft gear. I have hesitated to use the pump too much…after you’ve used it for a few minutes, it starts to get noisy as though the bearings might be worn. It’s easier to charge the system with shop air…then park it on a hill.” The little Kellogg, original to the car, is a neat engine in itself. “It’s a little miniature engine—about seven by seven inches. It should build up about 150 pounds of pressure, but you really have to keep the thing engaged for quite a while to get it up over 100 pounds.” Two buttons on the floor operate the air system: One to engage the Kellogg compressor, and the other for the air starter.

There’s a bit of a racket when the car is first started, but with a little tweaking of the hand throttle, choke and spark advance it soon settles down into a very slow, clean idle. The sound is muted but beautifully mechanical, and you can hear each individual valve close—we imagine it might be possible to figure out the firing order strictly by ear. With each massive piston in the oversquare L-head inline six displacing around 75 cubic inches, you’d expect it to turn over slowly, and it does (in the neighborhood of 350rpm), but you might not expect it to be so incredibly, nickel-balancing-on-the-block smooth. It’s a reminder that for your $4,550 1913 dollars you got a car that was unquestionably state-of-the-art, even if it was tied with their roadster as the lowest-priced model in the Stevens-Duryea range. “Peerless, Winton, Lozier and Pierce each had their selling points, but Stevens rated up there with the top makes,” said Rod. The Stevens-Duryea specialty was “Three Point Support,” which refers to their proprietary engine mounting system (the engine, clutch and transmission housing are all bolted together into a single unit as in a modern car). “In some of their publications they would show pictures of the chassis jacked up with one front wheel much higher up, but it didn’t distort the drivetrain. With the three-point it didn’t put as much strain on it as if it had been bolted at all 4 corners.” Rod describes the system: “The arms come out from the crankcase—real rugged enclosed box section arms on each side, which fit into a pocket that comes out from the frame.”

At the very top of the market, where quality and luxury were expected, Stevens-Duryeas were lavishly equipped with a fully lined top, adjustable leather and brass seats, combination electric and kerosene side lamps, electric headlamps and small locking storage compartments all around the body at the top of the running boards. “One thing that intrigued me when I got it was the kerosene electric sidelights. They didn’t quite trust electricity; 1913 was the first year they used electric lights.

“It has an electric klaxon horn, but it also has a bulb horn. For years, they used a bulb horn, and they knew that if you squeezed it, it would work. They weren’t so sure about the electric horn.”

Closed cars, incidentally, carried a truly remarkable set of standard equipment, including a notebook, assorted flower vases, water bottles and a telephone, presumably to communicate with the driver sitting out of earshot in the front. Rod’s car has water bottles of its own; a pair of gallon jugs tucked between the rear folding footrest and front seat for the radiator, which leaks at seemingly random moments, especially just after starting. “I haven’t quite figured that one out,” says Rod.

“It has power steering,” he remarks after moving it into position for us to photograph. He points to his arm. “Right here.” Certainly, moving the 35 X 5-inch tires around requires a crank-rest-crank technique, but Rod manages it with aplomb, and notes that the vehicle was advertised with 37 X 4.5-inch wheels. The current 35s are too wide to fit a pair into the single sidemount, so it’s unclear whether they are original. The wood artillery wheels do have a matching “Lakelet green, striped with a hair line of light green” color scheme and Stevens-Duryea logo caps. That logo appears all over the car, in large part because Stevens-Duryea built almost all of the components for the car in-house.

The ride quality is exceptional for a vehicle of this era—smooth and controlled, although you can definitely feel the weight of the suspension moving around. “I like the way it drives and handles, but you have to pay attention in modern traffic,” says Rod. “It’s a full-time job driving it…35 or 40 is probably about as fast as you want to run it.” But 440 cubic inches are 440 cubic inches. “I like the power; it has good torque,” he says, “But the progressive transmission is sort of a challenge…and the waste oiling system you have to stay on top of.” How much oil it uses “depends on the speed you’re traveling. If you’re driving around locally, you build up oil in the crankcase. If you’re out on the highway, it doesn’t have oil rings, and it uses up some oil. It is designed to use some. To check the oil, you have to crawl up underneath and open up the [three] petcocks—if oil runs out, you’ve got oil. It’s a little bit awkward by modern standards…” He says that the progressive transmission “works fine, but I would prefer it was a selective. It’s a little bit tricky in modern traffic…you think you’ve got it in first, but it may have slipped back into neutral. It’s a little hard to tell what gear you’re in. It’s simple in a way: you don’t have to wiggle a lever around, all you have to do is slide it forward or back.” His lightning-fast double clutching makes it seem easy and the oiling system, which is under pressure to the main bearings and splash elsewhere, seems more than up to the task of a brisk drive through rush-hour traffic. Looking out over the long clamshell hood, he mentions that the brass radiator shell was painted when he bought it, but that the paint was falling of in sheets and he decided to take it down to bare metal. It makes a nice spot of brightness among the soft nickel and dark paint. “People seem to get a kick out of seeing it on the road, even though it’s not a pretty looking car with it’s lack of paint.”

Today, the Stevens-Duryea shares space in Rod’s garage with a 1922 Cadillac (which uses the wind wings from the 1922 Studebaker he sold in 1950), a 1952 Bentley, a 1949 MG and another brass-era survivor, a 1910 Maxwell that may be his next project. There’s also a 1949 Harley-Davidson motorcycle that he’s owned for over 50 years…and still sometimes feels moved to take out on a nice spring morning.

But the Stevens-Duryea holds a special place in his heart. “The appearance is quite different from the earlier models. The early ones were quite angular and squared off. This is more streamlined—not the way we think of it, but smoother lines of transition in the hood and the cowl.

“I’ve obviously had opportunities to get rid of it, but I’ve had it so long I haven’t thought about making any change,” he says. “I’ve always been proud of it: It’s a fine, quality-built car. It’s sort of hard to convey my feelings about it.”

No comments: