Car of the Week: 1907 Wolfe touring

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Story by John Gunnell;
Photos by Al Rogers

It doesn’t matter if you grow up in a small town or a big city, almost everybody enjoys a holiday parade. For kids, it’s exciting to see the bands march by, to catch the candy tossed by prom queens from passing floats, to watch antique cars toot by. Harry Pearce of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., enjoyed the parades he saw as a boy in Bismarck, N.D., but he also remembers them coming to a halt every time Clarion Larson’s 1907 Wolfe touring car overheated.

“I was around 8 years old when I was first exposed to the car,” says Pearce about the rare water-cooled Wolfe he owns today. “It was around 1950 — my father was a lawyer in Bismarck and his friend Clarion was the music teacher at the local school. They got the car going, but the water pump didn’t work well.”

Wolfe automobiles were made in low numbers by The H. E. Wilcox Motor Car Co. of Minneapolis between 1907 and 1909. Published production in the “Standard Catalog of American Cars: 1805-1942” states 30 cars were built in 1907 and 153 in 1908. Some Wolfes were made in 1909, before the brand name was changed to Wilcox that year. The Wilcox was built through 1911. One advertisement said the Wolfe automobile was “Made by Westerners for the West.” Another ad called the Wolfe “The Car From the Northwest.”

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Wolfe’s promotional themes may help explain why Larson found the car in western North Dakota. One family had owned it for years and had it stored in a barn. All of its original components were in place, but it was in a sad state.

“Clarion probably paid a few hundred dollars for it and brought it back to Bismarck,” Pearce guessed. “My dad — who passed away in 1978 — was a handy guy who had a workshop and mechanical know-how; he helped Clarion get it running.” Pearce said the two men worked on the car for about a year. “They broke down the engine, transmission and water pump,” he added. “They got it operating and it ran fairly well. It was a well-known old car in Bismarck.”

The Wolfe was impressive in size and seemed even more gigantic to 8-year-old Harry. “When I was still a boy, Clarion and Beth would take me for rides around the city in the car,” Pearce explained. “It ran well and those rides were always a big thrill, because I had never seen anything like the huge car in my life.”

Pearce left Bismarck to attend the Air Force Academy and became a member of the U.S. Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps (a military lawyer). It was 1970 before he returned to Bismarck to practice law in his father’s firm along with his brother. Clarion and Beth Larson were still good friends of his parents and he saw them and the Wolfe regularly. In 1985, Pearce moved to Michigan to work as a lawyer for General Motors. He became the automaker’s general counsel from 1987 thru 1994, and then moved to the business side as executive vice president and then as vice chairman of the board.

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“I got a phone call from Clarion in 1995,” Pearce said. “He was 92 years old at that time and was having trouble taking care of his car. Due to my father’s involvement with fixing the Wolfe, Clarion wanted me to have first crack at buying the car. He shot me a price of $20,000 and I didn’t dicker.”

Pearce had the Wolfe transported to Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Once it arrived, he wanted to have it completely restored and knew that the job was beyond his restoration abilities. A man named Jim Holcomb, the chief mechanic at the GM Executive Garage, was a capable man and so Pearce asked him to look at the car. After Pearce explained to Holcomb that he wanted the Wolfe “rebuilt from scratch,” Holcomb agreed to take on the complete restoration of the car.

“Jim took five years to restore the car,” Pearce noted. “It was very complete, but needed just about everything fixed or replaced. It was extremely hard to find parts made by the manufacturer. Jim had to make many parts for it or have them fabricated.” An example was the pair of matching brass levers used to operate the parking brake and shift the gears. One handle was damaged. “We found a guy who took the good handle and made a sand mold that he used to cast a mold for a new handle,” Pearce recalled. “We found a man in Texas who could reproduce the oak framing for the convertible top as a one-piece section.”

Since the old parts survived to be used as models, a very authentic restoration was possible. For example, Holcomb found a man who could reproduce the original hand-sewn stitching for the leather seats.

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Wolfes were sold with both air-cooled Carrico engines and liquid-cooled Continental engines and the engine in Pearce’s water-cooled car was “actually pretty good” he recalled. “It needed a good cleaning and we found the water pump was filled with solid rust,” Pearce said. “We took the remnants and machined new parts.”

The transmission was taken apart and cleaned, as was the double chain-drive mechanism. “When the car was finally done and drivable, we went for a ride in the country; that brought back memories,” said Pearce. “It looked like a car that had just been driven off the showroom floor in 1907. It was a handful to operate, but it was very drivable.” Pearce took it to the old car show at Greenfield Village.

Wolfes were named for Maurice Wolfe, a salesman whose skills went viral in 1903-style when he sold a Cadillac to Chief Big Mouth of the Crow Indian tribe in Billings, Mont. Wolfe hooked up with brothers John F. and H.E. Wilcox to form H.E. Wilcox Motor Car Co. to make Wolfes. The only 1907-1908 model was a touring priced around $1,800 with a 108-in. wheelbase. The 1909 Wolfe line expanded to the Model A touring, Model B runabout and a limousine all priced at $1,800.

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One distinction of the Wolfe touring was its 16-inch ground clearance and tall tires. The clearance was particularly suited to the needs of motorists driving on western roads. The air-cooled cars with the four-cylinder Carrico engine developed 24 hp. The bore and stroke dimensions were 4 inches by 4 inches. Other features included a three-speed transmission with double chain drive, a standard wheel tread, a high-tension ignition and 34 x 3-1/2-inch wheels and tires.

During 1909, the H. E. Wilcox Motor Car Co. switched to selling Wilcox automobiles. Maurice Wolfe’s connection with the firm ended. He purchased the Clark Motor Car Co. of Shelbyville, Ind., and reorganized it into Meteor Motor Car Co. in Piqua, Ohio, to eventually built funeral vehicles and ambulances. In addition to these, in 1917, Maurice Wolfe introduced a phonograph to be sold direct to the end user, the same way his professional cars were sold. He also obtained rights to market a line of recordings from several loosely affiliated firms. Although billed as “The Star of the Talking Machine World,” the Meteor label didn’t survive past the early 1920s when a Meteor-sponsored float appeared in a Piqua civic parade bearing the slogan “Kills ’em with Music and Hauls ’em Away.”

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Pearce hasn’t found another drivable Wolfe in the years he has owned his car, although a Model T Ford Internet newsgroup shows photos of several Wolfes in the old days, as well as in hobby settings, plus a couple of Wilcox photos. Pearce believes there’s a 1909 model in a museum in Sacramento, Calif.

Pearce had hoped to surprise Clarion Larson with a ride in the restored car before he passed away, but Larson left the world at age 95. Before his passing, he had exchanged letters with an Oregon man who worked as a young engineer on the Wolfe automobile. During the restoration, the number 57 was found on the chassis of Pearce’s car, and he thinks that may be the car’s sequential production number. He says the Wolfe is an unbelievable car that “looks like it’s brand new.”

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