From the Editors: Cars of Yesteryear

<< Back to Robb Report, February 2008

You could read the results of recent Robb Report Car of the Year contests as condemnations of American-made luxury and sports cars. The Dodge Viper, Saleen S302 Extreme, Ford Shelby GT500, and a couple of Cadillacs have not fared well. You also could interpret the results as contradicting some of our earlier estimations. After all, we thought highly enough of the Saleen, the Shelby, and Cadillac’s XLR-V to place them on the magazine’s cover in months preceding those years’ events. But context can be everything. As guest judge Joe McCarthy noted this year, when he drove the Saleen immediately after driving the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé, "It’s like comparing apples to tuna fish. I like them both, but not together."
 
A century ago, Cadillac, with its 1908 Open Roadster Runabout, was the apple of England’s eye. It could have been the car of that year. "There was an engineering prize awarded in England, at the Brooklands racetrack," says Rob Collings, standing in front of a Runabout, in a snow-covered barn in a Boston suburb. "The prize was for whatever the greatest innovation was at that time. Cadillac took eight of these cars over to Brooklands, disassembled all of them, shuffled the parts around, and then rebuilt the eight cars, and they all ran. That blew people away. This was the first interchangeable-parts car."

The Cadillac is among the nearly 70 passenger cars, racecars, trucks, and military vehicles owned by the nonprofit Collings Foundation. The foundation has become known primarily for its World War II–era aircraft collection. But Rob Collings’ father, 69-year-old Bob Collings, began acquiring vintage cars—in the 1970s, after making his fortune by producing electronic cash registers—before he assembled his aircraft squadron. Rob, who is 33, is the foundation’s chief pilot, and he also is a car guy whose bona fides include participation in the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring.

The foundation’s collection of passenger cars, all American made, spans 1901 through 1937. "This was a time when innovation was rewarded, when carmakers were not interested in standardizing vehicles and pinching more pennies out of a car," says Rob Collings. "Today, most American designers will never have a chance to design a car like the Ford GT, because they always will be stymied by the company. The companies don’t want to build anything special."

In 1932, the Duesenberg Co. built something very special, the SJ Dual-Cowl Phaeton, which is the jewel of the foundation’s collection. "This is the ultimate blend of performance and luxury of its time," says Collings, stepping off the brick walkway that leads through the center of the barn, over a rope, and toward the car. "It’s the Bugatti Veyron of its day." Brothers Fred and August Duesenberg had built racecars in the 1920s, designing and constructing machines that won the Indianapolis 500 in 1924, ’25, and ’27. With the ability to reach 104 mph in second gear and a top speed of 140 mph, the SJ could have run with any of those Indy winners. The Collings Foundation’s Phaeton is especially notable because it was Fred Duesenberg’s personal car, though he was not killed in it, as some accounts have claimed. "He had an accident in this car," says Collings, "contracted pneumonia while recovering from the accident, and then passed away."

The foundation also owns a Stanley Steamer, the type of vehicle in which one of that brand’s namesakes met his demise. "It’s a pretty amazing car," Collings says of the foundation’s 1908 Touring Car. "It’s 20 horsepower, but steam has limitless torque, so these cars were extraordinarily fast." Indeed, a 30 hp Steamer set a world speed record of 127 mph in 1906. But the car may have been too fast for its time. In 1918, while traveling from his home near Boston to his summer residence in Maine, Francis Stanley, who founded the Stanley company with his twin brother, Freelan, was killed when his vehicle swerved and overturned. Freelan immediately sold his interest in the firm, and within six years, it shuttered.

The Collings barn houses an even earlier green car, a 1906 Pope Waverly electric carriage. That the carriage still has its original tires and leather seats indicates that it seldom saw the road. "Battery technology wasn’t so good then, either," says Collings.
 
Parked on the pathway between the Steamer and the Pope Waverly are a new Corvette Z06 and the Ford GT to which Collings earlier referred. "Ignore these two," says Collings. "They’re only in here because it’s wintertime."

Actually, the GT and the ’Vette are worthy of notice. They could serve as a kind of addendum to the Collings collection, a reminder that occasionally American carmakers still can satisfy your cravings, if not for a powerful and reliable emissions-free car, then for fruit or fish.

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