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Car of the Week: 1897 Aldrich

To understand what Robert Aldrich and his peers of the time were thinking in building their cars, one must forget all of today’s modern advantages
Car of the Week 2020

By David A. Kolzow Sr.

In the small New England town of Millville, Mass. — on Quaker Street, to be exact — lived engineer and inventor Robert Aldrich, a man from a long line of engineers within a family that arrived in America during 1636. Millville today has not changed much in the 100-plus years since Robert Aldrich lived there. In fact, Aldrich’s home with his workshop still stands as it did in the 1890s and earlier.

Aldrich, like many of the inventors of his time, received Horseless Age Magazine, the first American publication devoted to self-propelled vehicles. This included every type of vehicle, including flying machines, boats, locomotives and, of course, the horseless carriage. Inventors from around the world read this magazine. Aldrich was greatly influenced by those who shared the same dream, and he connected to them through the publication. Many of these dreams were just that: dreams.

Every type of fuel was used to propel the horseless carriages of the day: gunpowder, compressed air, ether, compressed gas, acids of all types and, in the case of Aldrich’s car, what we today call white gas (think Coleman lantern fuel). Many early car owners, as well as stationary gasoline engine owners, used white gas, because it has no harmful additives like modern gasoline. It also does not leave residue in the fuel tank like modern fuel. It does evaporate and is costly with a price of nearly $9 per gallon. (I have used white gas in all of my engines as it is not as destructive as modern fuel and it still works well.)

During Aldrich’s lifetime, he received several patents, most notably for a wrench and a carburetor in 1901. The 1901 carburetor was a great improvement over his carburetor design of 1897, yet it was probably the greatest reason why the Aldrich was lost in the passing parade of time.

Restoring a relic
Robert Aldrich was born in 1840 and died in 1923, right in the heart of the great American industrial revolution. Being born in New England was a great plus for any inventor. It was a time when America was becoming a world leader, and New England was perfectly placed for a man of his inventiveness.

I, as a collector and restorer of early horseless carriages, have been blessed during my nearly 50 years in the hobby to have been able to restore four 1900 and earlier vehicles. Without a doubt, the Aldrich proved to be the most interesting car to restore among them. I did so remembering the words of dear friend Don Mates, who said, “Remember, when we restore something, we muddy the footprints of history.” Those words were with me on each restoration, including that of the Aldrich.

To understand what Aldrich and his peers of the time were thinking in building their cars, one must forget all of today’s modern advantages. The basic ideas are the same. Engine or motor, cooling of some type, liquid or air, transmission, differential, spark coil, whatever. The basic ideas have not changed a whole lot. Robert Aldrich incorporated many of these ideas into this little vehicle that were not patented. He was just like every inventor of the time, and I wish I could go back in time and visit this man and his peers. However, I have just been trusted to help preserve this little vehicle, and I am so thankful to God for that opportunity.

The main importance of this little car is that it is powered by liquid fuel (gasoline). It was estimated that there were 30 or less fewer vehicles powered by gasoline in the United States during 1897. Most were steam, electric or some other form of power. The history of this little car is well documented by the family and fellow collector James Mead of Owego, N.Y.

Robert Aldrich loved his car greatly and preserved it at the family’s home until his death in 1923. The little car suffered under later family members. Two of the wheels were used for a cart of some type, and one of the four sections of the frame was used to mend a break in a fence.

One of the great early car collectors by the name of George Waterman found the car after World War II. Having an eye for these very early cars, Waterman bought the car from the family and saved it. The car was passed from others to Jim Mead in New York, who started the restoration, but later sold the car to an original family member years later. In 2014, I was able to trade four upright slot machines for the car.

Finding a treasure is always a story within a story. l saw a sale of a Smith Flyer on eBay. I called the owner to talk about the Smith. When asking if he had any other early cars, he mentioned the Aldrich. Since he also collects early slot machines, we were the kind of match that all collectors dream of. Just a few weeks later, the trade was made and we both were the proud owners of what we collected.

Previous owners had begun the restoration, then I found myself charged with the responsibility of completing it.


The Aldrich half-breed motor

As to the car, Aldrich built and machined the engine himself. Known as an oil motor, or half-breed engine by collectors, it is liquid cooled. (The use of the words “motor” versus “engine” is still debated today. I refer to this engine as an “oil motor” as that it what it was called in 1897.)

What is an oil motor or half-breed motor? At the time, the fuel that was used came from oil, so that is what it was called. The motor has many features of the steam engine of the period, and so this combination is considered a “half-breed” to collectors because it’s part steam and part oil. Also, the motor is a hot head, meaning that no liquid cools to the head. This design was used for several years with the building of the stationary steam and gasoline farm engines.

The motor has only small oil holes for lubrication. One single glass oiler was used to lubricate the bearings of the engine.

Timing this motor was an experience that I learned more about than I ever wanted to know. With the help of my friend, Veri Mowery, we worked at it for over 19 hours one day and night. Timing any motor should be a simple project. Well, it was not in this case. Normally, the piston is brought up to top dead center and it fires. Simple, right? However, in an older engine, the spark is retarded by some mechanical means (on newer engines, this is done electronically). Timing on the Aldrich is not mechanical. There is no way of retarding the spark, let alone knowing where or when the ignition will take place. The ignition is made by two simple pieces of metal inside the cylinder head touching. In some cases, platinum was used as an ignition point. Much like points and coils and car ignition parts, until electronic ignition was invented. The use of platinum is why the cost of spark plugs is so much today. Todays’ spark plugs will last 100,000 miles or more. Bring the piston up on top dead center firing one would easily had the crank handle end up breaking your wrist or arm when it fired on the Aldrich.

After much trial and error and a few exciting tries of having the crank handle nearly break part of my old body, we decided to change the timing of the engine. By moving the timing gears past top dead center by five teeth, we were able to crank the engine over for it to run. This is how we retarded the ignition. Using a modern battery charger, we were able to watch the needle on the charger to see when ignition took place. This was the only safe way to see when ignition took place. It did vary some from time to time, due to the design of the motor.

The valve system is a wonder of its own. Like some of the early steam engines, it is simply a flat piece of steel on a stem that is controlled by a cam. This flat piece of steel simply seats against another flat piece of steel. There is no seat for the valve to sit in, and it is a very weak seal with low compression. The horsepower of the motor is less than 2 hp due partly to the carburetor and valve design.

For better or worse, this car retains its original carburetor. It’s good that the car has its original part, but carburetion was the Aldrich’s downfall and its greatest weakness. Oh, the many hours I spent working and consulting with more knowledgeable people to solve the car’s carburetor problems. The carburetor is nothing more than a bowl type of casting. No float, needle valve or any type of adjustment is required to regulate the flow into the engine. The fuel just pours into a bowl and all the excess fuel just pours out onto the ground. Wicking, which was a term used more than 100 years ago, was a method to control fuel flow in the bowl. Cotton, rags, metal somewhat like a chore boy or girl was used to control the extra fuel that wasn’t used by the motor.

Wicking was an early attempt by early inventors who had not yet understood carburetion. Others did understand this and were more successful than Aldrich with his carburetor. In 1901, Aldrich patented his modern type of carburetor, but it was too late because others had already developed more advanced systems.

Aldrich may have used one of the first pressurized fuel systems. He used a small hand pump to pressurize the fuel tank. This same idea was later used on steam cars and larger, more expensive cars. Aldrich was way ahead of his time as he used two rear sprockets. One was for hilly country and, as we Midwesterners call it, “flat landers country.” By changing the chain from one sprocket to another on the rear end, one would be able to travel in all parts of the country. Buick, Cadillac and several others used different size sprockets, depending on the customer’s need and the location of the buyer.

The chain used on the car’s two-speed differential is a simple casting. This was another interesting learning experience. Each piece is a casting and, in some cases, a forged piece. This type of chain was used on all early farm implements. Needing this special chain for extra links was a challenge. Using the internet and calling several dealers across the country, I was told to call a company only 25 miles away from me. The company proved to be of great help. An employee could not find one on his computer, so an older employee looked for me and found 30 feet of the two different chains that I needed. Yes, it cost a lot of extra time and money, but I am so thankful for their help.


Restoring the body
The body and seat are made of yellow poplar wood using the original oak frame. The sides and part of the seat were badly cracked due to age and I had a high school friend and cabinet maker, Richard Walters, rebuild the seat and body as original. I have never been a leather upholsterer, Andy and Beverly Miller, my special Amish friends, did all of the leather work as they have done on all of my cars for nearly 50 years.

In painting the car, I used the old-fashioned enamel with no hardeners. I sprayed some, others I brushed as original.

The frame of the car is truly of Aldrich’s own design and much like the horseless carriages of 1896 patents. It is built of angle iron made by the great steel maker Carnegie. It was such a thrill to find this maker’s mark when I sandblast the frame, just as I did when cleaning other forgings and castings. They are all bits and pieces of history long forgotten.

The unanswered questions
The question will always remain, did Robert Aldrich run this little car on the roads and streets on the roads of Millville, Mass., due to the carburation problems. It is really hard to know because so much has been lost in time. The little car, however, was mentioned and talked about in 1897 and 1898 issues of Horseless Age Magazine. His “modern” carburetor was also shown in a 1901 Horseless Age Magazine article. It is known that this car is very similar to the 1896 Frank Duryea vehicle built in Springfield, Mass., which makes sence since it was reported that the men were friends. Both were engineers and lived near each other in Massachusetts.

Robert Aldrich’s attempt to build a car was more than just noble. His designs, engineering and love of advancing the idea of transportation is well preserved in this 1897 vehicle. It has been my humbling privilege to be part of preserving this past of our hobby and American history.

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