A rear-axle problem and a stillborn museum make up one of the oddest combination of circumstances that ever saved a car, and that’s without even mentioning the half-century that separated those two unrelated events.
“It was run for two years and then put in storage in the back of a storage garage,” said Bob Bruce, referring to his 1905 Northern two-cylinder touring. “Probably because the rear end fell apart internally and would’ve sounded like a bag of bolts. It was discovered and taken out of storage in the early ’50s by Charles Noble, who was going to start a museum. Henry Austin Clark was a friend of his and he wanted to have a museum like Austin Clark’s. He lived in Manhattan, he collected 50-odd cars, which he had stored in Manhattan, and had them cosmetically touched up for static display in this museum, except for a few that he got running. This was not one that he got running.”
Bruce’s Northern was built in Detroit, where the company operated from 1902 through 1908, with a plant in Port Huron, Mich., added in 1907. Northern’s officials and its eventual fate tied it to familiar names; partners Charles King and Jonathan Maxwell, who would later build Maxwells, had earlier worked for Olds, and Northern would ultimately become part of E-M-F.
Northern began with a single-cylinder, five-horsepower runabout similar to a curved-dash Olds. In 1903, it advertised its car as the “Sturdy Northern” and promised “immediate shipment.” It was “five years ahead of the times. No noise. No vibration. No ‘back-kick’ from motor.” The company asked for the order by suggesting that “if you are accustomed to riding in a Pullman Car, buy a Northern.”
Whether the two-seat runabout rode like a railroad passenger car is debatable, but in 1904, it was joined by a two-cylinder touring. Not only did the new model drop the tiller in favor of a steering wheel, it also was a substantially larger car than the 67-inch-wheelbase runabout. It carried five passengers, used an 88-inch wheelbase and at an even ton, was 900 lbs. heavier. Its engine generated 15 horsepower and none of this came cheaply; the touring cost $1500 — about $35,850 in today’s dollars — or twice the runabout’s price. A top cost $200 more.
That money bought a car whose wood body was painted Northern green. Its front-mounted water-cooled engine was horizontally opposed and drove a two-speed planetary transmission and a shaft to the rear axle, where drums provided the only braking. If not state of the art, it was surely competitive, so the changes for 1905 were mostly evolutionary. That year’s big difference was the 100-inch wheelbase, but horsepower had hit 17 and the price was up to $1,800.
Northern made some interesting claims. The “engine has silent exhaust. Valve stems have cushions which muffle all sound … The Northern is peculiarly adapted to American road conditions – mechanism cannot be twisted out of alignment no matter how rough the way. The Northern fly-wheel and fan is a uniquely good feature, not only keeps a perfect cooling draft upon the radiators, but maintains a constant air current all around the engine and under the body of the vehicle, so that passengers in the tonneau do not catch the dust, no matter which way the wind blows.”
It sounds like a Northern would be well suited for touring, and Bruce expects that to be case.
“I think it’s going to be a good tour car,” he said, following its first day on “Slow Roads Through The Finger Lakes,” a Horseless Carriage Club of America one- and two-cylinder tour in New York.
Noble rescued the car for his proposed museum, but then returned it to storage when the plan didn’t work out. Noble later retired and quietly moved his cars to a Pennsylvania farm.
“They took all of the cars out of storage in Manhattan and hauled them at night in an enclosed rollback and put them in the basement or upstairs of a remodeled barn,” Bruce said. “The neighbors never knew there were cars there ... This was one of the first cars they sold; the first one was a Stanley and then this. It looked good. It had always been indoor stored and, of course, it was cosmetically (restored) in the ’50s.”
The damaged rear that sidelined the car long ago had never been repaired, and when Bruce bought the Northern, no one really knew its mechanical condition. He found that the engine — like the rear — needed help and discovered that its crankshaft was cracked, something he theorizes happened after the original owner ran it out of oil.
“Fortunately, I didn’t get it running. It could’ve been disastrous,” he said.
The engine was given a complete rebuild and the lining on the transmission’s bands was replaced with Kevlar, but Bruce said the brakes presented one of several questions since they originally were lined with babbitt. That, obviously, was changed.
All of the work was completed barely in time to make the New York tour.
“It was 9:30 last night,” Bruce said. “I couldn’t take it out and run it, but I got it all together. We ran it for the first time this morning at about 7:30 in the fog. Up and down the street, tighten bands. Up and down the street, tighten bands. Then I came down here and people were leaving, so off we went with no mileage.”
It wasn’t quite “no mileage,” but three miles from his garage to the headquarters motel was a very basic test. It passed and then finished 50 miles of touring.
“I have no complaints,” Bruce said. “We stopped and tightened occasionally … but it steers, it stops, it goes.”
Bruce is satisfied with his decision to buy the Northern.
“You always take your chances,” he said, “when you buy a car like that with the condition unknown. That was made clear to me and I accepted that. Sometimes you win and they run. Other times, they don’t.
“Could I have done something else with the money? Of course. Yes, it was the right decision, irrational as it might be.”