By Brian Earnest
Bob Benz keeps his 1908 Black high-wheeler stored just the way it should be – nice and cozy in his garage, surrounded by a bunch of other beloved old cars from Benz’s eclectic fleet.
But even if Benz parked the Black out on the street in front of his house with a sign on it that said “Steal Me,” it’s not likely any car thieves would make off with the venerable orphan — at least not under its own power.
“Well, it’s not that hard to start, I guess,” said Benz, a car buff from Lebanon, NJ.. “You have to turn the kill botton off … And then all you have to do is choke her a little bit and give it a couple pulls and it should fire right off. But you have to retard the spark, of course, and set the gas … And you have to stand beside it to crank it.”
“Then you have to let it warm up a little bit, and hopefully you can drive it a little bit before it fouls!” he adds with a laugh.
No, it’s not likely Benz’s rare high-wheeler will be walking off on its own, but it does occasionally roll around his yard a bit and make a few appearances as a conversation piece at old car hobby events, and that’s a pretty good life for any centenarian.
“I’ve never had it out on the road, but I’ve driven it around the lawn,” said Benz. “I’d love to get it out on the road, but it’s got a little oil problem that I need to get corrected first. Basically, it’s got a ring problem, but I know exactly what it is.”
Benz isn’t in a hurry to get the Black in perfect running order because he has a bunch of other old vehicles that need his attention, including a Maxwell, a couple of Kaiser Darrins, a 1954 Kaiser Manhattan he’s had since 1962 that he’d like to get back in running condition, an Isetta with a similar story, and a 1933 Harley-Davidson that he’s restoring. His garage is also home to a 1972 Monte Carlo and a 1987 Oldsmobile GT four-door sedan. “There aren’t many of those around!” he says of the Olds.
But the Black is a unique machine even by Benz’s standards. There were several early automakers that used the Black name, and the Black Manufacturing Co. of Chicago built cars from 1908-1910. Production figures for those three combined years are not known, but the “Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942” claims that 1,410 Blacks were built for 1910 — the company’s last year.
Benz bought his high-wheeler in 1996 from a friend and says he has done very little to the car. “I got it running, and it needed a couple little parts I had to pick up, and I messed with the timing and did the normal screwing around with it,” he said. “It’s my first high-wheeler. The only other high-wheeler I had ever been in was one of those 1890s Mercedes things — it was a replica. But this car, you’re about 3 ½ feet off the ground. You’re WAY up in the air. It has a totally different feel than the Maxwell has.”
Benz’s car is a Model 12, which was an open, two-cylinder runabout. The air-cooled engine has opposed cylinders, produces about 12 hp, and has removable heads and overhead valves. It was center-mounted beneath the single seat, and supplied motivation through a two-speed (plus reverse) planetary transmission with dual chain drive on the rear wheels.
The standard wheels were actually steel, but for $25 you could upgrade to hard rubber. Base price of the Model 12, with leather upholstery, was about $450, and options included two oil burning lamps ($10), a horn ($2.50) and Timkin roller bearing axles ($25).
The top speed was estimated at about 25 mph, according to Benz. “Trust me, that 25 mph sitting on top of what is essentially a horse-drawn buggy without a horse can be pretty exciting. It seems like you’re going a whole lot faster.”
“It’s a very basic car,” Benz added. “No top, no fenders, no running boards, no lights. Behind the seat, instead of having an open box like most of them had, it had a locking trunk, kind of like a modern car. It was only eight inches deep, but it was kind of neat and you could keep stuff back there.
“It has nothing in the front. It looks like a buggy. You could hang a couple lights off the front of the frame. I’ve got pictures from auto shows from the time that show them.”
Benz has been able to dig up some history on the car — some of it he is certain about, while other details he admits might be more lore than fact. Either way, we’ll let him relate what he knows about the car’s past:
“This particular car was purchased new by Miss Jessie Fullerton, the daughter of a prominent minister in the Ringoes, N.J. area. It was delivered by rail, crated with the wheels off as was typical at the time. At the rail station, it was uncrated and the wheels assembled. Miss Fullerton and a friend then took it for its first ride. They met a team of horses, which were frightened causing her to turn the car into the ditch. Her friend was thrown over the front, broke her neck, and died. The car was put into a garage and Miss Fullerton never drove it again! The car came into the hands of John Scott, [Scotty] the local blacksmith in Flemington N.J., sometime thereafter. No record has yet been found as to the timing of this transfer. What is known, is that George Vocke purchased it from Scotty in 1928.
“At the time Scotty sold it, the 10-inch-high portion of the body between the top of the frame rails and the bottom of the seat had been replaced. It also had been widened 8 inches, and the original leather dash had been replaced with wood. The original seat was still retained. Judging from the pictures taken in 1929, these modifications had been part of the car for a long time. There have been comments that the body was widened early on in an attempt to make the vehicle more stable. It certainly has made the seating position more comfortable, as the driver and passenger can now sit with their feet directly in front of them, rather than towards the center of the car as required by the original narrower body configuration. The timing and logic of these changes has been lost in the fog of passing time. Possibly it was damaged in the first day accident, but no one knows. Miss Fullerton passed away in the 1960s, leaving no family members who might be able to clarify any of this.
“George Vocke had it restored in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s to basically the condition it is in today. The car passed on to his son Carmine, from whom I purchased it in 1996. Its ownership has remained in Hunterdon County, NJ since new! “
To learn more about the Black, and hundreds of other pre-war American cars, check out the “Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942.”
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