A 1910 Chase express that’s survived in its native New York probably owes its existence today to a series of strange flukes, the last of which occurred in 1931.
Chase Motor Truck Co. operated in Syracuse, N.Y., from 1906 to 1917 and like its far-more-famous neighbor, Franklin, it used air-cooled engines of its own design. Putting aside arguments over the relative merits of air-cooling versus water-cooling, it was an era when the automobile in a sense was still being invented and to many visionaries, anything that even seemed like a good idea was worth a try. Aurin Chase’s approach was nothing, if not interesting.
A 1910 Chase is given the once-over by spectators. It’s been in the same family for more than 80 years.
Just as there was no solid consensus on engine cooling, there was also no real convention as to design; a two-, three- or four-cylinder – all of which Chase would offer – was entirely acceptable. The Chase engines were two-strokes, and although four-stroke engines have been the norm in American cars for decades, that hasn’t been true in other parts of the world. Saab and DKW sold their three-cylinder, two-stroke models here in the 1950s and 1960s, but only at the lowest level did they have anything in common with the Chase. The connection was in those engines that reflected similar thinking. For the Chase shown here, that resulted in the first of the flukes mentioned above.
“It started its life as a fire truck in Almond, N.Y.,” said its owner, Stan Herdman of Newark, N.Y. “[With] a two-cycle, three-cylinder engine, it wasn’t too good in starting and they didn’t understand it. Then, they had a fire and it didn’t start, so they got rid of it. It floated around Alfred and Almond for a number of years and then it got to the point where it was 1924 when it went up for auction.
“At that time, nobody wanted it. It was an old truck and by that time, they had self-starters. It would’ve been sold for a farm wagon and they could not get a bid on it, so my father hollered ‘50 cents!’ He was a serious man ... my father was a real dealer. He never paid much for anything, but he wanted it because it was odd and the auctioneer struck it down to him, so we’ve had it ever since then.”
The 50-cent bid was in 1924 dollars, of course, but buying it for the 2008 equivalent – about $6 – would be about as much of a fluke today and Herdman’s statement that the truck has been in the family since the auction is true, only because of yet another fluke.
“But in 1931,” Herdman continued, “he got short for money and was going to sell it. A guy up the road said he’d buy it to build into a tractor, if it’d pull a plow. Dad said he thought it’d pull a plow, but he wasn’t sure and after he took it and paid him $25, Dad was hoping it wouldn’t and it didn’t. So it came back and Dad never put it up for sale again. That was the way it was.”
Herdman estimated that he invested about 3,000 hours in the Chase’s restoration during the 1970s and 1980s. The important pieces were there when he began, he said, but they didn’t include the body. That raises another point about the Chase’s time, namely that trucks and cars weren’t always very different. Aurin Chase understood that and designed his trucks for a smooth conversion to cars and back as needed; being high wheelers, they looked perhaps a little strange when configured as cars, but when wearing truck bodies as “expresses” or “runabouts,” they looked much like early Brockways. That’s unsurprising, given that the already established Chase was apparently involved with early Brockway production in 1910 and later supplied components to the Cortland, N.Y., firm.
Beyond the body, Herdman replaced his truck’s drive chains and the engine required only new rings and pistons. The frame and wheels are original, other than paint, and although he said it’s an easy truck to drive, it does ride on solid tires.
“I’ve driven quite a lot of old cars, very early cars,” Herdman said, “and this one is probably one of the nicest driving. If I could drive it on a (grass) field like this, with the hard rubber tires, it’d be wonderful. But on the road, no, it’s a little rough. On a soft road, it would do quite well.”
With that qualifier, he said the Chase is safe and reliable enough for a 25-mile trip, but in the real world, it doesn’t get out often. While its two-speed planetary transmission is fairly simple, starting it is another matter. The combination of a long series of preparatory steps and infrequent use means Herdman checks his memory against a step-by-step sheet that he’s prepared.
“I try to go down through that list,” he said. “If I don’t get it just right, what happens is that it gets flooded, and when you get the plugs on this thing wet, it won’t run. And if it does, it won’t run good and you might not even be able to get it to run long enough to clear out the gas.”
The Chase is not alone among its contemporaries in being complicated to start, but as Herdman said, it’s reliable and drives well. His experience with the truck is probably representative, as he was able to track down several former Chase-owners who spoke well of them. An area funeral home had several, a family member learned to drive on one that provided good service and a hardware store’s owner recalled his as the toughest truck he’d ever had. The latter’s sole problem arose from its inability to run on molasses; unknowingly attempting to do so forced a complete teardown, but notwithstanding such unusual incidents, Herdman found that owners liked their Chases.
“Many of the others (that) had one of these cars, the truck or the car, they had really good luck with them,” he said. “That’s probably what sparked me to go ahead and do it because I heard nothing but good things from those people.”
One source places Chase production at 5,000 or more units and Herdman estimated that 40 to 50 remain today.