By Jim Hinckley
In the summer of 1915, Edsel Ford, then 21 years of age, set out on a grand adventure from Detroit to the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, California. Accompanying him in a new Ford Model T were friends Horace J. Caulkins Jr. and Thomas Whitehead. Herbert V. Book and Robert T. Gray Jr. followed in a 1915 Cadillac; Frank Book and William Russell joined the tour with a new Stutz 6-F touring car picked up at the factory in Indianapolis.
Daring automobilists had been traversing the continent since the dawn of the 20th century but now the American road trip was in full swing. The U.S. Department of the Interior had launched a “See America First” campaign. Henry Joy, President of Packard Motor Company made a highly publicized trip to San Francisco to promote the Lincoln Highway, and Packard built automobiles, and an estimated 25,000 people crossed the nation to visit the exposition in San Francisco just as Edsel and his companions did.
One hundred years after Edsel and his companions traveled west on the National Old Trails Highway, the Historic Vehicle Association recreated that adventure in a 1915 Ford. As with the Edsel’s adventure, the association was also promoting America’s love for adventure on the open road. The secondary goal for this odyssey through time was a bit loftier.
“The purpose of the trip is to elevate national awareness to the importance of our automotive heritage and how it helped shape American culture,” said Historic Vehicle Association President, Mark Gessler. “Over the last century the road trip became an expression of American lifestyle and the Ford Model T helped make it possible for most Americans. With this trip, we hope to celebrate how it all began with developing roadways, the Model T, and youthful adventure.”
Working with the Antique Automobile Club of America Library that has in its collection an original souvenir photo journal of the 1915 trip created by Edsel Ford for the participants, the Historic Vehicle Association was able to follow in the tracks of their predecessors. Further blurring the line between past and present was the use of a 1915 Model T acquired from the Leon Brown family estate and prepared for the trip by D.L. George Historic Motor Cars.
In 1915, Edsel began his adventure from the family farm where the Fair Lane Estate was under construction. A century later, the Historic Vehicle Associations departure from the former Ford estate was also a special event, this time for the MotorCities National Heritage Area, an affiliate of the National Park Service.
“Dearborn, Michigan, Thursday June 17, 1915 – Party consisting of H.V. Book and R. T. Gray, Jr., in 8 cylinder Cadillac, and T.C. Whithead, J.H. Caulkins Jr., E.B. Ford in Ford Touring Car, left Dearborn, Michigan at 7:55 AM (Central Time). Encountered some mud in vicinity of Saline. Had lunch in Wauseon, Ohio. Ford had puncture and blowout on rear wheels. Bought some food at Ft. Wayne; had supper at Marion, Indiana; arrived at Indianapolis, Ind. At 11:30 PM, stayed at Hotel Claypool. Weather hot; roads good but dusty. Day’s run, 293 miles.”
Modern highways and support vehicles, a Ford Mustang convertible and a Ford F-150, both 2015 Ecoboost models, and a trailer with tools as well as spare parts were but a few concessions to the modern era. They also provided a contemplative opportunity for reflecting on the evolution of the automobile, and the roads upon which it traveled.
Adding to the sense of time travel were attempts to utilize the roads from 1915 where possible, which made for some adventures worthy of Edsel and his travel companions, and legions of travelers a century ago; flat tires, mud, sand, searing heat, steep grades, and getting lost.
International media coverage during the thirty-five day odyssey ensured that the association team consisting of Mark Gessler, association president, Casey Maxon, association historian and photographer, John Paul, media coordinator, Paul Ianuario, association advisor, Chris Paulsen, associate professor at McPherson College, Jim Gallagher, transportation specialist, and Kurt Gessler, media intern, accomplished the primary goal of putting the nations rich automotive history in the spotlight.
Stops at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, McPherson College for a pit stop, an attempt to climb Pikes Peak, sunset at the Grand Canyon, and a day at Santa Monica Pier, and the adventure associated with traversing the nation in a century old car stirred the imagination and gave rise to thoughts of road trips.
The Model T following in the very tracks of Edsel Ford also made for some stunning photo opportunities. Between Holbrook and Winslow, Arizona, the National Old Trails Highway of 1915 remains a well used gravel road, and the beautiful steel arch bridge built in 1913, recently refurbished, still spans Chevelon Canyon.
Though closed, the Brunswick Hotel, Edsel’s lodging choice in Kingman, Arizona provided another period perfect photo opportunity.
“Williams, Arizona, Thursday July 15, 1915 – Found Cadillac and Stutz crews at Harvey Hotel at Williams waiting for us. All got supplies at garage. Talked to Ford agent. Got going about eleven. Had lunch at Ash Forks. Loafed along; found it very hot. Bought some gas and oranges at Seligman. Stutz broke another spring about 15 miles out and returned to Seligman. Cadillac and Ford went on to Kingman, arriving at midnight, Brunswick Hotel. Very rough and dusty roads. Wired Los Angeles Branch for axle parts. Day’s run 146 miles.”
West of Kingman, the National Old Trails Highway that served as the course for Route 66 until 1952, provided ample opportunity for testing the cars mountain climbing abilities on the east slope of Sitgreaves Pass, and as well as the period correct, aftermarket Rocky Mountain brakes on the west side of the pass.
Edsel’s destination was the exposition in San Francisco where a highlight of the event was an operational Ford assembly line that produced more than 4,000 vehicles during the course of the fair. For the Historic Vehicle Association team the destination was the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the last existent building from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
Surprisingly, the association team encountered few mechanical issues in their 3,500-mile adventure, a flat tire, a battery issue in New Mexico, a carburetor problem in Kansas. Perhaps, in addition to sparking discussion about our automotive history and inspiring a road trip or two, the associations journey westward in the tracks of Edsel Ford will encourage the owners of vintage and historic vehicles to pull off the dust covers, and take to the open road in search of adventure.