Car of the Week: 1911 Buick Model 33

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By Bill Rothermel, SAH

Over the years, Buick has had some of the most memorable advertising slogans, the best-known being “Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?” And when it comes to Buicks, Judd Houser’s unrestored 1911 Model 33 touring car is certainly among the most desirable, if for no other reason than its interesting past.

The nearly century-old car has had just three owners in its lifetime. Houser, a Utah resident, first saw the car advertised in 2001 in the Horseless Carriage Gazette, the publication of the Horseless Carriage Club of America. Fellow club member Douglas Rich’s ad for the car stated, “1911 Buick, unrestored, complete” and the price. Houser called Rich, who relayed the history of the Buick as he knew it, along with an accurate description of the car’s condition. Three photographs followed, and it all sealed the deal for Houser, who prefers original cars — he bought it sight unseen. The Buick would soon join his collection, which currently includes a 1911 Sears Model X light delivery, 1909 Hupmobile Model 20 roadster (last repainted in the 1950s) and unrestored 1921 Model T and 1929 Model A Fords.

Saved from scrap

In their early conversations, Rich told Houser that he had been aware of the Buick since the 1960s and tried to purchase it from the original owner as early as 1970. Despite repeated monthly visits, the owners just wouldn’t budge, and all the while the Buick remained stored in an old shed.

The original owners were Russian immigrants who lived in Sebastopol, Calif., where they operated a winery. As time passed, Houser followed up less frequently, but was alerted by a co-worker when the car’s status appeared to be changing. As Houser’s co-worker passed by the winery on the way to work one day, he said it appeared that workers with torches were cutting up old farm machinery and tractors for scrap. Houser immediately left work, arriving just in time to see the old Buick being pushed out of the shed. Upon inquiring, he learned the Buick’s owners had died with no surviving heirs. The workers had been being directed to scrap everything by the state of California. Houser asked that the car be spared and was able to contact the executor of the estate. He purchased the Buick by simply offering more than its scrap value, then loaded it on his trailer and took it home. Once there, he realized it was more of a project than he was willing to tackle and he considered selling the vintage Buick.

Houser said his first sight of the vintage Buick perched on the second level of the carrier nearly took his breath away. Once “out of the box,” he noted slight damage to one side and that the transmission and components around the engine were disassembled. The transmission was in a cardboard box in the back seat. The engine’s rocker arms and exposed lifters had apparently frozen and bent, thus breaking the bronze casting at the bottom, as well as the aluminum crankcase. Exactly what happened is unknown, but it was believed that the car was last run in the 1950s. However, there remains an original California license tag on the wooden dash that dates to 1915, possibly indicating the car’s last road-worthy days were much earlier.

Despite the excitement of his new purchase, Houser barely had a chance to look over the car. His family was leaving for a trip, and he had to rush to make his flight.

To restore or walk away?

Upon returning, Houser began examining the car and formulating a plan for making it driveable. However, the damage to the engine made him second guess his purchase. After about a year, the engine was taken out and shipped to Idaho Antique Engine in Idaho Falls. The owner, Bud Cheney, was confident his company could make the necessary and correct repairs. Very little work and no machining was necessary to repair the engine, which appeared to have had very little use over the years. Idaho Antique Engine also reassembled the planetary transmission.

Several months later, Houser visited the repair shop to check on the progress of the Buick. Work had progressed nicely, but the cradle that held the transmission in place was missing. Houser said Buicks of this era have both an internal and external frame. The internal frame, made of wood, is bolted to the engine and transmission, which is supported by a steel frame. There are two wooden supports that hold the transmission in place, but they were not in the box of parts. Thinking they might still be attached to the car, Houser checked when he arrived home, but they were not present. The reality of being able to tour with his family in this vintage Buick was slipping away, and Houser was discouraged that he would never drive it.

About a year passed when another vintage car crossed Houser’s path. He traded a Utah farmer his restored Model T for an unrestored 1911 Sears high-wheeler. One month after the trade, the farmer called Houser to say that he found some vintage parts and Houser was welcome to pick them up. While there, Houser asked if the farmer might have any other vintage parts to which he answered, “just some old Buick parts.” As luck would have it, sticking out of a bucket (along side an entire transmission) were the two missing transmission support brackets Houser needed! The generous man kindly gave Houser the two transmission brackets, enabling him to complete his stalled project. Houser says he remembers driving down the road, pulling over and getting out of his car and letting out screams of joy — and disbelief — that he finally had the parts he needed.

The parts were subsequently delivered to Idaho, enabling the machine shop to complete the engine and transmission repairs. The combo was delivered to Houser complete and reinstalled in the Buick. With the help of his wife, neighbors and friends, the engine and transmission were positioned into the Buick’s frame. Houser’s good fortune continued when he met another man from Texas who had restored a similar 1911 Buick. The owner not only had an original 1911 Buick shop manual, but also took detailed photos of his car’s restoration and shared them with Houser. This enabled Houser to hook up pedals and linkages properly, as well as adjust the carburetor and magneto with great accuracy. Houser notes that he was very fortunate. “All the parts were there. It was just like a jigsaw puzzle, having to figure out where all the parts went.”

The first ride

The engine was initially reluctant to crank, so Houser towed the vehicle around the block about a dozen times to loosen it. At the first hint of a chug, he knew the engine would again come to life. Within a half hour, it was running.

It then became obvious the tires would need to be replaced. They had solidified to the point that a hacksaw was required to break them up. A set of used tires were installed and, as Houser says, “there was nothing then left to keep me from driving it.” Soon after, the Buick took home honors for the Best Original Car at the Utah Concours d’Elegance in August 2009 in Salt Lake City.

These days, the Buick is used for an occasional errand, trip to the grocery store or visit to church on Sunday.

“Come summer time, we almost always take an old car,” Houser said. “There’s just something about an old car and making it a part of our life.”

Got a car you’d like us to feature as our “Car of the Week”? E-mail us and tell us about it: brian.earnest@fwmedia.com
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