By Brian Earnest
Vern Campbell hadn’t seen the 1910 Maxwell when a trio of sisters contacted him and informed him they needed to sell the car. At that time, their late father had owned the nearly century-old car for many years, but after his passing, there was nobody left to care for the venerable brass-era machine, and certainly no one to get it ready for the big Maxwell centennial celebration that Campbell was helping organize in New Castle, Ind.
That was 12 years ago, and Campbell still seems a little perplexed at how things turned out. The 82-year-old Milan, Mich., resident is the keeper of the Maxwell Registry, a true-blue Maxwell buff and a great storyteller who likes to poke fun at himself. The tale of how he adopted his gorgeous 1910 Q-2 surrey fills the bill on all accounts.
“At the time we were planning the centennial we took the names of everybody we had in the registry and sent out a letter of interest, and I got a letter from these three daughters who had owned it,” he recalls. “Daddy owned it and Daddy died quite a few years ago and the mother had also died and they wanted to settle the estate and none of the three children had any interest in the car … One of them wrote me and said they had the car and it was for sale and I wrote back and said, ‘If you can get the thing to the centennial in New Castle, I promise you won’t take it home. Somebody will buy it … They said that was impossible and that it hadn’t run in years, yak, yak, yak …
“So I had the big decision to make. The car was in Terre Haute [Ind.] and I made the decision to go down and look at it, and of course, that was a mistake. I took a couple of guys with me and I was hemming and hawing and finally one of them said, ‘Damn Vern, just buy it!’”
To this day, Campbell insists he didn’t buy the 1910, it just “followed me home.” Of course, he says the same thing about some of his other cars: a 1908 Maxwell, a 1911 Maxwell, 1918 Model T Ford and a 1924 Buick. Indeed, old cars seem to follow the affable Campbell around, and then they don’t leave. “I’ve never sold an antique car that I’ve restored,” he says. “I’m just not in the [hobby] for that.”
The 1910 Q-2 had been restored some time in the 1960s and was by no means a basket case, but it needed a lot of work to live up to the vision that Campbell had for the car. That dream meant having everything correct and as close as he could make it to factory-original.
Of course, when you’re dealing with an antique orphan from the brass era, finding parts in any condition is a daunting task. Finding specific parts for a specific car that can be used in a high-end restoration can border on impossible, even for a guy as connected and immersed in the Maxwell community as Campbell. “If you are used to Fords and Model T’s, which I am, you can go out and buy anything you want. It’s all over the place at every swap meet,” he notes. “You get into a Maxwell, there weren’t that many to begin with, and you subtract their age, all the way back to 1910, a century ago, and those parts just aren’t laying out there for you…
“As frustrating as it is, that’s part of the mystique of restoring these automobiles.”
Campbell’s 1910 needed a total ground-up makeover if it was going to meet his standards, and that’s what it got. The toughest part, and the biggest surprise, he said, was when he got the engine apart and realized how the motor had been pieced together to keep it running.
“It was not a car that you could just take and run and drive, and the wisest thing I did with it was not to try to run that engine,” he said. “What had happened is they apparently had to put new pistons in it and Chevy 250 pistons fit it. They were the same bore, but they were not compatible with the connecting rods… They had to cut off the Chevy connecting rods and then took the rods from the Maxwell and basically braised the two rods together. It was poorly done. So we had to have the rods done over on a CNC machine. There is just not a lot of material like that for Maxwells out there, so it was a matter of having them made.”
The engine also needed some welding around the water jackets in the block. The patient survived the surgery, and went on to get many refurbished parts. “The toughest part was the engine. From that standpoint, it turned out to be a fairly expensive [restoration], but a good one,” Campbell said.
Eventually, the 1910 got a coat of correct Maxwell Blue paint and authentic pinstriping. The car had been painted red at some point, but Campbell wanted it returned to its original blue. “We could tell from looking in some of the nooks and crannies that it had been blue originally,” he said. “The paint on it is a modern paint. It’s base coat, clear coat. Is that over-restored? I guess it is.
“The pinstriping, there are just enough originals around that we have pretty good documentation to get the pinstriping very close to correct. But not all the cars came out with the same pinstriping and came out of the factory looking the same. The way [the 1910] was pinstriped is pretty close to the original. It’s as close as we could get it.”
There were many other challenges along the way. The top was shot and had very little for usable parts. The interior needed new diamond-tufted leather upholstery, the wooden wheels were not finished correctly and needed to be returned to their correct cream color, and all the signature brass pieces needed help.
“There was no part of that car that you could take off, clean up and bolt back on,” Campbell said. “There was nothing that was that clean. Every part was sandblasted or chemically cleaned, including the frame. And the frame was bent, too, so that took some doing to get it straightened.
“The top on it had been replaced, but not correctly, and the pieces that were there were not usable. The top sockets and the top bows all had to be re-engineered, and, of course, you go to the Amish people for the buggy top parts. We were really starting from scratch in designing a top, and it came out looking pretty good!
“The brass was there and it was pretty good, but it wasn’t show quality. And if you are into brass-era cars at all, you know that’s a pricey item. I had all the brass redone and then clear-coated, or really powder-coated. It was either that or get a different wife. Wives don’t polish brass!”
Campbell’s insistence on authenticity also meant that the 1910 had to have its high-tension impulse magneto ignition converted back to its original low-tension system. The problem was all the linkages and original pieces were missing. Again, Campbell was forced to start from scratch. “There are only about 20 of those [ignitions] in existence and only a few are on running cars,” he said. “I was I able to get a few guys to take some pictures of their [parts]… You’re working out there in space trying to get one lever to move something else, but you don’t have anything to start with. It was a great help that I had some pictures and was able to pick up some parts that I could remanufacture.”
Replicating an original-style ignition wasn’t the easiest path, but Campbell figures any Maxwell deserves the best treatment, considering their age and place in automotive history. The American automobile industry was still very much in its infancy when Benjamin Briscoe teamed up with engineer Johnathan Maxwell and millionaire banker/investor J.P. Morgan to launch the Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Company in Tarrytown, N.Y. Briscoe ran a successful sheet metal operation in Detroit, while Maxwell had been an automotive engineer at Oldsmobile and Northern. In 1905, the company debuted two new two-cylinder machines: a two-passenger Model L tourabout, and five-passenger Model H touring. According to the “Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942,” a total of 10 cars were assembled in 1904, with 823 built in ’05.
The company slogan at the time was “Perfectly Simply; Simply Perfect” and the Maxwells quickly distinguished themselves as excellent, durable, no-frills cars. The company evolved swiftly and, after a fire destroyed the Tarrytown plant, went on to established plants in New Castle, Ind.; Pawtucket, R.I.; Auburn, N.Y.; Cranston, R.I.; and Detroit.
In 1906, four-cylinder cars were added to the menu, although two-cylinder machines were still offered up through 1912. By 1910, when Campbell’s four-cylinder Model Q surrey was built, the two-cylinder cars were becoming obsolete. The only two-cylinder available in the Maxwell line was the Model AA runabout. The Model Q line featured three models that used four-cylinder, 22-hp engines and rolled on 93-inch-wheelbase chassis. Farther up the ladder was a four-cylinder Model E five-passenger tonneau and five-passenger Model G touring, both of which used 110-inch chassis.
For the 1910 model year, Maxwell produced more than 20,000 cars, moving it into third place among U.S. automakers.
The company’s heyday was fleeting, however. Competition from other manufacturers, questionable strategic moves and unstable leadership all combined to hinder the company. In 1913, the company was purchased by Walter Flanders and reorganized under the Maxwell Motor Co. banner. Production outpaced demand following World War I, and Briscoe’s push to make Maxwell a part of a growing GM-like family of companies that included Brush, Columbia and Stoddard-Dayton ultimately failed. Walter P. Chrysler arrived in the early 1920s and took a controlling stock interest in the venture, later becoming chairman. Maxwell was merged with Chalmers Automobile Co., but soon after, in 1925, Chrysler launched his own new Chrysler Corp., and that same year Maxwell sank for good.
In the end, the Maxwell was not able to outlast its main competition, the Model T Ford, but that doesn’t diminish their appeal to guys like Campbell. Their rarity and orphan status make them interesting and challenging machines to own.
“Maxwell and Ford were considered in competition at the bottom of the barrel,” Campbell noted. “Maxwell was trying to compete, and it did. It was about the same price as a Model T… They made bigger and more expensive cars [later]. They made some very fine cars.”
Since he owns both, Campbell is plenty familiar with the differences in personality between the early Maxwells and the Ford Model T’s. They definitely don’t operate the same — as a driver finds out quickly if he tries to shift and brake a Maxwell like a T. “This Maxwell did have a sliding-gear transmission, where the Model T and earlier Maxwells had planetary transmissions,” Campbell pointed out. “The clutch and brake are all on the same pedal. You shift it with a big lever — it’s a right-hand-drive car, and you shift it with a big lever on your right hand. Halfway down [on the pedal] is neutral, and all the way down is the brake. That sounds nice on paper, but you can’t double-clutch it that way, and it’s not synchromesh, so if you go too far when you shift and apply the brake, now we are starting over.”
“There is a subtle touch, but when you get used to it, it’s not too bad. It’s a lot of clashing and grinding when you start [learning]. But I’m getting better! In fact, I’m pretty good at it now, but it wasn’t that way to start.”
Part of the learning curve is just getting used to driving on the right side of the car. It’s best to learn that part when there isn’t a lot of traffic on the road. So far, Campbell hasn’t driven his 1910 a lot. Most of its trips are around the back roads of his Milan home — ideally with the top down. “I can’t resist getting it out and running it,” he said. “It’s fairly civil, and it goes down the road very smoothly. In power and performance, it’s comparable to a Model T, and perhaps a little better. The engine is what they called the T head, and really is a very smooth-running engine … I haven’t really had it out on a tour where you can beat it down the road for a day, but it starts right up, runs nice. It runs cool. There is no water pump on it.
“I prefer the top down on it, and my wife very much prefers the top down. It’s a fallacy that you are going to stay dry with the top up! And it doesn’t have side curtains, which don’t work anyway!”
The car is still in its “show and concours” stage. It was a Best of Show winner at the Greenfield Village Old Car Festival — an impressive feat — and was featured on the 2014 Old Cars Weekly Collector Car Calendar. Eventually, though, Campbell is looking forward to spending more time behind the wheel on tours. He’s glad the car gets appreciated, of course, but you get the impression from talking to him that he’d probably restore and appreciate old cars like his 1910 Maxwell Model Q even if nobody else noticed.
“To give a car like that life and get it back on the road, it’s a bit of an adrenaline rush, sure,” he admits. “I’m just amazed at the ingenuity of those early automobile people and what they had and how they got them to run.
“By the time I was finished restoring my third Maxwell, I felt like I was on a first-name basis with Jonathan D. Maxwell, and I’ve got a few questions I’d like to ask him.”
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