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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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