Car of the Week: 1925 Rollin touring

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By Brian Earnest
 

 

 

There aren’t many sure things in life, but Steve Jansen can be almost dead certain of one thing: Wherever he goes in his 1925 Rollin touring car — whether it’s to the grocery store or a big national car show — he’s going to have the only Rollin there.

Go ahead and ask: A Rollin? What on earth is that?

Well, it’s one of those ultimate orphan cars — so rare that almost nobody around today has ever even heard of them, let alone ridden in one or owned one. But Jansen, a resident of Madras, Ore., has one, and with it he has a bit of a claim to fame.

“To my knowledge — and, of course, there are always those ‘barn finds’ out there — but to my knowledge this is the last Rollin still on the road,” Jansen contends. “I know of two of them that are sitting at the Crawford [Auto-Aviation] Museum. They have two of them, because the Rollin was built there in Cleveland… And I got an e-mail the other day from Harrah’s — the American Automotive Museum — and they supposedly have a ’24 Rollin, but as far as I know I have the only ’25 left in America.

“There are supposedly a couple of them down in Australia, and maybe another one in New Zealand, but I really don’t know about those. That’s just what I’ve been told by somebody.”

Jansen is no stranger to owning rare and somewhat unusual iron, and he found it surprisingly easy to become the owner of the only driving 1925 Rollin. All he really had to do was turn on his computer and buy it.

“Actually I found it on eBay,” he said. “It kept coming up and getting re-listed. Nobody made an offer on it because nobody knew what it was. I gave him a low-ball offer and he accepted. I’m kind of a small collector of ’20s vehicles. I pretty much look at all the ads and stuff on the older ones … but I had to do some homework after I bought it. It took two months to get it shipped here [from La Porte, Ind.].

“I have an old 1939 Cletrac tractor, it’s fully functional, and I was looking for parts for that, and I kept coming up with this name ‘Rollin.’ My memory jogged and I remembered that this kept coming up on eBay … Basically, I was looking for parts for my tractor when I came across the car.”

That was a little over a year ago, and Jansen has yet to come across anybody who can identify the car by looking at it. That’s probably not all that surprising, considering the Rollin cars were only built in 1924-24 and only about 8,500 were produced.

The Rollin had some name recognition associated with its brand back then, however. The cars were built by a company founded and operated by Rollin Henry White, who had been the chief engineer at the White Company of Cleveland, a high-profile builder of the White steam cars from 1900-1918. Rollin White left that venture and started his own company to build Cletrac tractors, and he eventually tried his hand at producing automobiles at the same Cleveland plant under the Rollin nameplate.

The Rollin cars arrived on the market in the fall of 1923. For the 1924 model year, they were offered as a five-passenger touring, DeLuxe touring, three-person roadster or five-passenger sedan. The following year the models changed slightly and a five-passenger phaeton, three-passenger roadster, five-passenger sedan and five-passenger Brougham were offered.

The touring car was the cheapest model and listed initially at $895 — a competitive price for the time.

All the Rollins were built with 112-inch wheelbases and carried a 41-hp four-cylinder engine with four main bearings and aluminum rods and pistons.

By all accounts, the cars were given high marks by critics and were generally very likeable machines. They had pleasant styling and traditional lines.

If they had a shortcoming, however, it was apparently that they weren’t big enough. Their four-cylinder engines didn’t quicken many pulses, especially when the competition was offering bigger power plants. Another problem was that the company didn’t leave much of a profit margin for itself, and when it jacked up prices for the 1925 year, the limited demand for the cars cooled ever further and only 2,088 were built — an ominous drop from the 3,662 cars assembled for the previous year.

After two years, Rollin White had enough of the car business and the company went under, although he stayed in the tractor business until 1944. With so few Rollin cars built originally, and parts so scarce for the obscure make, it’s no great shock that few survived.

Jansen knows he has a rare prize on his hands with a car that appears mostly original and runs just fine. Even if the car needed restoring — which it doesn’t — Jansen says he would be reluctant to change much.

“I kind of hate to destroy any of the historic significance by restoring it,” he said. “It has no rust, it’s straight, and it’s functional, so what do you do with a car in that kind of shape?

“It’s got the original patina on it. It’s hard to tell with the upholstery, it looks so darn good. I can’t say that it’s original, but I see no signs of it ever being replaced. It’s in exceptional condition … The speedometer shows 42,000. I think that’s original miles, but that’s a guess. The speedometer still works. Actually, everything on it still works.”

Jansen also has a 1927 Franklin, 1928 Pontiac sedan and 1928 Model A Ford coupe, which he calls his “daily driver,” so he’s plenty familiar with pre-war cars. Still, he’s had plenty of fun getting to know his orphan Rollin and explaining the car to others. He also hasn’t been shy about taking it out on the road. “It drives fine, holds the road good,” he said. “Top speed is about 45. It’ll cruise all day at 40. For its age, it’s very good.”

The car needed some attention before it got any road time with Jansen behind the wheel, however.

“It was running, but barely,” he said. “The guy that had it wasn’t able to work on it. … The distributor was pot metal and it was broken. There were just some minor things. It’s very, very correct right now with the exception of the distributor. I put a Ford Model A distributor in it. I had to modify it.”

Jansen said the car originally had an automatic centrifugal spark advance on the distributor, “but that’s gone now. They had mechanical spark advance, a fully pressurized lubrication system, which was unheard of back then. It’s a conventional three-speed transmission, which back then, Ford didn’t even have. The engine is actually almost a knock-off of Cletrac’s. Basically, it’s the same engine that’s in their tractor, complete with a wet clutch. You look at it, and it looks like a tractor engine. It’s got leaf springs — transverse across the back and normal leaf springs on the front. I believe it has a Walker body on it, but I’m not too sure. There is no identification on it.

“Really, it’s almost identical to a 1925 Model T Ford fordor.”

If nothing else, the Rollin cars and the company itself are remembered for a maritime mishap. In December of 1924, the freighter “The Lakeland” sank in Lake Michigan with 68 new Rollins strapped to the deck. Divers have found the wreck and the cars still on the deck. “Some people say the ship was scuttled by the crew,” Jansen said. “One of the cars was brought up in 1979 and was still in good condition until it hit the air and started to rust so bad it could not be salvaged and was junked.”

Jansen will have plenty of decisions to make regarding his Rollin in the near and distant future. At some point down the line, the car might be a good candidate to join its fellow Rollin survivors as a museum piece. On the other hand, Jansen likes the idea of having the only Rollin on the road, and he enjoys driving it.

It’s a bit of a dilemma — what do you do with a car that’s not overly valuable, but still one of a kind?

“That’s basically what it’s all about — the novelty,” Jansen said with a laugh. “It’s nothing like a Duesenberg or anything like that. It’s just a plain old poor man’s car that somehow survived all these years.”

“Even people that are car nuts, they look at that and can’t believe it. Nobody has ever heard of it.”

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18 thoughts on “Car of the Week: 1925 Rollin touring

  1. Bob Shipway

    I have a Rollin car, a tourer from 1925, and I believe probably one of the last of them. At present it is totally unrestored, but that may change next year.It is different from other Rollin cars I have seen in that it has a wider centrepillar and cut out for the rear fenders.All others I have seen have square rear doors and a narrow pillar. I have seen one car restored in Queensland, Australia, coloured green with darker green fenders.My car serial no. is 7825. Until recently all publications on Rollins suggested there were only 7000 built, so I am curious as to where the the new information has come from as to their 1925 production numbers. Obviously my car disproves the 7000 number.! There are I believe several more about. There used to be a Rollin/White/Cletrac register, If it still exists, it is not on the net, or at least I cant find it..Bob

    1. elias nyberg

      Hello Bob Shipway,
      Let me know your address as I own a restored 1925 Rollin trouring car and it originally came from Queensland. I have lots of information on the car and know many owners.
      Regards,
      Elias

  2. Steve Jansen

    Bob, My # is 7819. As near as I can tell is Rollin started with #1001 in Dec. 1923 and then jumped to #5001 for the 25 models. the changes you have seen only appear on the 1925’s If you look at the rad. emblem you should see his name spelled out. the 24’s had just the letter ‘R’. Again My research has now climbed to a total of 22Rollins left in the world, and 4 in the USA. The Rollins in Crawford Mus. are not 25’s but 24’s. This still leaves me with the only 25 still on amercan soil in road condition. Steve

    1. elias nyberg

      My research list has been sent to Steve Jansen and it lists the current known rollin cars – My 1925 is #8249, John Icacubbcci’s in Mass is #8286, Graham James in Australia is# 8572 and The Auto Museum in Uruguay is #7502. John’s car is a very nice original car with motor restored. There are several cars almost 1,000 serial number higher and the company went out of business in Dec 1925.

  3. Jeff Zgonc

    Bob and Steve,

    I was the volunteer at the Crawford who was responsible for getting both Rollin’s running and road ready in 2008. What we identify as a 1925 Touring Car (Phaeton for 1925) is actually a 1924 (it probably was sold and titled in 1925). The main differences between the two years is that the windshield was split, built-in sunvisor added, special gas manifold, the nameplate said Rollin instead of an “”R” and the spare tire mount on the ’25 tilted forward slightly. Rollin changed the name plate to his name from the “R” because the Rolls-Royce Company objected to the similarty between the two name plates.

    The Crawford’s Touring Car received a new engine and transmission (yes, we had NOS in a crate) in 2008. The car is very peppy and can pull a moderate hill in third gear. We have used this car extensively to attend meets and to give people rides in the car. It is a great driving car and the brakes are very good for this period (they are four wheel mechanical) The car was advertised to get 25-30 MPG and we were getting these numbers. The engine was also advertised as a 100,000 mile engine and was considered very durable.

    I have copies of pictures of the original prototypes and these early cars show two-wheel rear brakes only. The early prototypes also have a “Cletrac” nameplate. These pictures show 4 different types of front axles that were evaluated before production.

    The Rollin was very popular in Europe (Germany) because of its size, power and quality.

    We believe approximately 8500 cars were produced. I also believe that about 22 Rollins still exist in the world.The Rollin plant (Cletrac) still exists in Cleveland.

    The Crawford’s 1924 is a sedan and looks like Steve’s. This car was donated by a member of the White family. The Museum’s car has an original interior and I do not believe that your car has an original interior. The dash would not have had a wood grain paint on it, it would have been painted the color of the body. The instruments would have been nickel plated also and not chromed. Production cars (not show cars) would have had a radiator shell painted the color of the body and would not have been chromed (chrome plating was not used then, nickel plating would have been used.

    I really admire your car, It is truly beautiful. Since I have retired I no longer live in Cleveland (now in Fountain Hills, AZ). I Really miss driving and working on the Rollins.

    As you may have guessed I am interested in acquiring a Rollin’s.

    1. elias nyberg

      I would be very interested in touching base with you as i have owned no less than 7 rollin cars and have an extensive literature and knowledge on the car. Look forward to your reply.

  4. Steve Jansen

    Jeff, Just read yout reply to my car on Old Cars weekly. Would sure like to get in touch with you about my Rollin. It sure looks like you are in the know. What you stated in your reply is 100% correct. This artical stated the Rollin had 4wheel hyd. brakes but i was never sent a proof copy before it went to press.I also researched both cars at the Crawford before then and and noticed that they were both 24s. I believe my 1925 is still the only one still Reg. and driven on American soil. I still love her and named her Old Betty after Betty King (Rollin’s great grandaughter). Thanks, Steve (541)475-0366

  5. Bob Shipway

    Thanks Steve and Jeff..I had one of each type of badge for the car with no prior knowledge as to which was correct.. My car was a tourer or Californian hardtop,the rear body was removed to make it a ute (pickup) , a common modification in Australia..It has a few differences to others i have seen, First up it has a split windshield.It has more vertical windscreen pillars than any that i have seen pics of, it also has parklamps,mounted on the scuttle.(these MAY have been a registration requirement??for this state, i dont know. they are the same as Dodge, but as this car is not as yet restored they were definately there when the car was new).The ’24 which i saw in Queensland also had a gear lock system on it, which mine does not have.Brakes on 4 wheels, but mechanical, not hydraulic. The big difference is the centre pillars…All models I have seen have pillars only 2 inches wide, mine are about 6 inches wide, thus the rear doors would require cut-outs to clear the rear fenders, and not be square as the ’24 rear doors are..Is there anyone out there with a later serial number than mine?…..Bob

  6. Steve Jansen

    Bob, As I stated futher up in the Post the brakes were a typo. Yes the brakes are mechanical not hydralic. Rollin never offerd Hyd. Brakes. Your Rollin was probably built the same day as mine as they are only 6 numbers apart. Mine was sold in Nov.1925.the same month Rollin went under. Don’t think you will find any out there later than yours. What country do you live in? Steve

  7. Bob Shipway

    Hi Steve..I’m in Sydney, Australia….I have recently had information as to Rollin cars here …reckoned to be 7 cars which are, or can be restored.Many Rollin cars in Australia in 1924 were imported and fitted with Holden bodies, as were many other US cars, up till the time that company was taken over by GM.Most of those had a body plaque on them with Holden Body etc..my car does not.. What you have told me means my car would not have seen the road till well after it was general knowledge the company had wound up.. My understanding of that was the White motor company was financing Rollin, (ie, his father) and he pulled the pin on the finances…probably because it was believed the way to go was 6 cyl. cars and tool up costs would have been too great..anyway, if my car had been a full import it would have cost here about 3 times what the US FOB price would have been….If it had a Holden body, then about one and a half times..
    I was in touch with a a guy in the US about 25 years ago, who had a Rollin Cletrac register. His name was Robert Scoon.I have no idea if he is around still, or if the register still exists, but there is no evidence of it on the net….or at least none that i have found….Bob

    1. elias nyberg

      Robert Scoon died in I believe 2001 and I purchased his last rollin car (and one many years before that) , then sold it to a guy in Ohio and I wound up last year buying it back again with two other Rollins. My engine shop (Bessette Motor works) has since purchased two Rollins from me including a coupe (the only one known) and is well on the way to restoration of the car

  8. Graham James

    Hi
    I have owned the remains of Rollin Chassis number 8571 for the best part of 30 years and can also account for part of Rollin chassis number 5182. Robert Scoon was quite an authority on anything related to White and a good source of assistance. The plan with my Rollin is to have up to Rolling chassis stage in time for the White Truck Muster early 2013. The muster showcases anything related to the White dynasty, last time I went there was a Rollin on show.

    Graham

  9. Bob Shipway

    Looks like we were all wrong… Graham, your car postdates any that I or anyone else has knowledge of….and it also proves there were more than 8500 produced…I have recently seen pictures of a Rollin tourer in Australia with wide pillars like mine.. My guess is that was another change along with the badge, spare, and windshield… Does anyone out there have hubcaps for a Rollin??or a tail lamp lense? ..I can get the caps made in Aus. but i would prefer not if possible… Also, the radiator shell on my car was originally plated, I assume nickel rather than chrome, BUT im glad to know they they also made in body color, as mine is too rust pitted to replate.. Sad to hear of Robert Scoon.. I was in contact with him a lot during the 80’s, but lost contact….

    Bob

  10. Graeme Sutherland

    Have just read all these posts on Rollin Cars. During a clean out of my Fathers estate we came accross a manual for a Rollin Car. My Brother-in law and I are both interested in old cars and had never heared of this before. We were both supprised at the “inovations” that were in the car such as balanced pistons and rods and pressure lubrication.The car was one my grandafther had owned at some time. We gave the manual to the Temora & District Museum, NSW Australia. What became of the car? well apparently it was deposited into a salt lake with all the other scrap to disintergrate. Such a pity

  11. Jean Bastiaans

    I own also a Rollin from 1924, Touring. My father bought it in 1963 in our country, The Netherlands. The car came in Europa throuh Switserland. The car is in verry good condition, the engine is just complete restored. I also have a original brochure and received many information from Elisha Nyberg. I invite all Rollin owners to visit me and let’s make a nice car-tour in our beautifull countryside ( a pity that I live so far from you all).
    Here is a link to a small YouTube from me in my Rollin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V83CczyTSkE

    Jean Bastiaans , The Netherlands

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