By G. Alexander Chompff
The summer sun had just started to form long shadows across the still cool pavement and my feet appreciated the temporary absence of pounding heat from the ground below. I pulled the brim of my faded hat down a bit to keep the sun out of my eyes. I wasn’t really sure what I expected to see there though; I didn’t set out to find anything in particular, not there.
I had been searching for my next old car for almost a year at that point, with little to show for my efforts. So on that early morning in 2007 I found myself at the annual Long Beach California Model T Club swap meet in an effort to temper my frustration at the lack of car-finding progress. I was not looking for a Model T Ford, I was just there to get a mental dose of rust and dust, that’s all.
A year earlier I sold a 1924 Dodge Brothers roadster that the previous owner had partially restored. Even though I really liked the DB roadster, I owned the car for less than two years. When I bought the DB it came with a set of photographs taken when it was still original — before it was repainted. Something happened to me when I saw those photos; I absolutely loved the original patina. The photographs screamed of "history"and "honesty" and "real". All the restored cars and trucks that I had before, from the 1940 Cadillac to the 1929 Hudson to the 1936 Chevy, didn’t look as great as that unrestored roadster, with its age spots and all. I was a convert. No more restored cars for me, only original cars from now on. I had to have an original Dodge Brothers roadster.
Walking the rows at a vintage car swap meet can be very therapeutic. No rush, no agenda, ahhhh. The vendor turnout was good that day, and as usual, a few vendors really got my attention. Then there were those other vendors, you know the type: one small table in the entire booth that holds a half-eaten cardboard box of stuff that no one wants, and of course, a 3-pound coffee can laden with beach sand and cigarette butts, complete with a stir stick.
I give those underwhelming vendors a quick glance and then I move on. After doing this for the ump-teenth time that day, I suddenly stopped in my tracks. Stopped cold. I walked backwards three steps. There, at the top of the coffee can stir stick, three feet from the ground, was taped a single small photo of a vintage car. It showed the direct front view of the car only, and it had what appeared to be a Dodge Brothers badge on the radiator. Hand scrawled across the photo with a half-dry ballpoint pen was only “4 sale”. No manufacturer, no body style, no year, no price, no phone number… and no one was in the booth.
The vendor on the left side was busy with customers, but I got his attention long enough to ask where this vendor was. He didn’t know. I tried the same thing with the vendor on the right, but the result was the same. I was on a mission though, and I wasn’t going to let this one go without some serious effort. I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled straight into the air “WHO’S BOOTH IS THIS PLEASE?!” I looked back down again and into the isle hoping to see someone claim this booth as his own. Instead I got about 30 faces staring at me like I was a lunatic (hmm, maybe). I stood there a little longer, and just before I decided to leave, up walked the owner.
“Is this your booth?” I asked the older gentleman who seemed bothered that I disturbed him from his appointed social rounds. “What year is this Dodge Brothers?” “1925.” “And what body style is it?” “It’s a roadster.”
Stay calm, stay calm.
“Is it original, unrestored?" “Yeah." “What’s your asking price?” “Oh dear god, that’s painful” is all I could utter to myself after he told me. He was a man of few words but I heard all I needed to hear. We arranged for a viewing at his house just north of Los Angeles.
My wife came along to see the Dodge. She keeps me on a reasonably straight path and I asked her to come along to make sure I wasn’t doing something insane. A lot of urban neighborhoods near L.A. are old, and this neighborhood was no exception. The man’s unassuming house appeared no different than most houses in the area, until he led us through the gate and into the massive backyard. Parked in front of a large man-cave work shop was the Dodge. It looked like one of those calendar photos where the car is posed at a three-quarter front view when you first see it. The sight of it was fantastic! Stay calm, stay calm. I glanced at my wife and gave her that "look." She knew that was it.
“Original” is such a misused word today when it comes to vintage cars. The saying “It’s only original once” is probably the best way to approach the definition of "original." This Dodge was original. It had so many layers of dust it would have made a geologist smile. The factory black paint faded in and out of existence, and the old white pinstripe started and stopped like a trickling dessert stream. A patchwork of dull gray nickel plating still clung to the bumpers and radiator shell. On the windshield was a torn and aged 1944 California DMV registration decal.
“Can I drive it?” I asked. “Well, yeah, but don’t go too fast. The oils tend to leak out and it’s probably kinda dry, and the brake pedal goes to the floor, and it shakes a lot over 40.” “Uhm, OK.” Right, so I was going to take this 80-plus-year-old car for a test drive and the engine or transmission could seize at any moment, or maybe I would slam into something, or it would drive like a paint shaker machine at the hardware store.
Getting into most open cars from this era takes some flexibility, and Dodge Brothers cars are no exception. Even at only 5-foot-10” and 180 lbs., I had to squeeze and contort, half standing on the running board, between the protruding door jam and the massive steering wheel before I could drop myself onto the seat. The owner climbed into the passenger seat, which was a much simpler task. He probably felt that he needed to come along, just in case I decided to make a fast getaway while leaving my wife at his house.
Set the hand brake, pull the choke out, set the timing lever to the retard position, set the throttle lever a few notches open, set the shift lever to neutral, set the ignition switch to on, press the starter switch on the floor. “Rrah, rrah, vroom.” Quick, push the timing lever to the full advance position, set the throttle lever to keep the engine from dying or ripping itself apart, push in the choke, check the oil pressure, check the ammeter. See, that was easy!
I pushed the clutch pedal in. The owner said the old clutch facings were sticky so it didn’t disengage the engine from the transmission as one would hope. I pushed the stick to the forward-left position in an effort to engage first gear, but the DB growled like a machine gun. “Don’t use first gear” he said, “that’s only used to climb walls.” OK, shift back to neutral and let the clutch out. Think. Clutch in. Pull the stick to the rear-right position to find second gear. More machine guns.
Push the gas pedal in a bit, let the clutch out a bit… shake, shutter, wobble... we were rolling. The acceleration was not blinding, far from it. I guess it was mustering up all of its 32 advertised horsepower. At the blistering speed of about 15 mph the engine and transmission sounded like they were well past their optimum speed, so it was time to push the stick shift to third gear at the forward-right position. More machine guns.
In third gear, the acceleration from 20 to 40 mph felt "‘snappy" (if that’s really the right word for it). 40 mph? I hadn’t tested the brakes yet and it was probably a good idea to do so before I actually needed them. All 1925 Dodge Brothers cars had external contracting band-type brakes on the rear wheels only. DB brakes were much more effective than brakes on a Model T, but the DB brakes were still feeble by today’s standards. I pressed on the brake pedal and, yup, it went straight to the floor. There was no wheel lockup, but it did slow down.
The owner said that the Dodge was used until the end of World War II and then was stored in a local garage. It sat there until the early 1990s when he purchased it from the original family. He got it running again, new tires, etc., but he didn’t drive it much. At some point the radiator, the seat cover, and the running boards were replaced and the rotted top material was removed.
So was it the car I was looking for? Faded paint, dull nickel, rust, squeaks and rattles, slow to go and slow to stop. Yeah, that was the one. We closed the deal and put the car on a trailer for the 35-mile ride home. I must have received about a dozen “thumbs-up” from other drivers on the freeway; some of them were craning their necks and starting to weave in and out of their lanes. I was becoming concerned about causing a traffic accident.
I got to work on it right away. Every functional part of the car was inspected. Repairs and adjustments were made with the goal of reliability and authenticity. The period-correct Stromberg OD-1 aftermarket carburetor was retained and rebuilt. Brakes were repaired with NOS drums and new woven linings. The ignition system was cleaned up and tuned. Wheel bearings were cleaned and adjusted. The clutch was cleaned and adjusted. I had a to-do list about seven pages long. One by one the tasks were checked off.
It took some time, but it slowly became a well-driving and reliable car. Every effort was made to keep it as original as possible. Even the dust and dirt was left alone. Today, the Dodge is driven more than 15 miles each week, mostly to work and running errands. It’s rare that I take it to a show; maybe once a year I take it to the local Huntington Beach doughnut shop car show on a Saturday morning.
There are some people who see it and dream of restoring it. Some dream of turning it into a rod. I dream of preserving the car’s history and originality. So far, I’m winning.
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