Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Studebaker Aluminum vs. Ford?

Whether we’re talking about human nature and our tendency to be creatures of habit or the fact that comparable ideas are sometimes reborn in different packages, history does indeed have a way of repeating itself.  A few years ago, I wrote about the twin axle steering system that was offered in some Chevy trucks.  The basic idea is one that had been around for quite a while.  In fact, the wood-wheeled wagon industry had generated multiple patents on the concept at least 140 years ago. 

Similarly, the use of aluminum in work vehicles is not a new notion.  With that in mind, most readers are likely aware that the 2015 Ford F150 trucks have received a lot of press for using an aluminum-alloy versus steel in the new truck bodies.  While the switchover left many with reservations, this 21st century announcement is far from the first time a well-known vehicle brand engaged the properties of aluminum instead of relying on heavier metalwork.  In 1893, the legendary Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company demonstrated a level of superior craftsmanship as well as innovative thinking by creating a first-of-its-kind wagon utilizing aluminum in place of all of the vehicle metal – except for the steel tires.  The wagon was initially unveiled at the Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair) that year.

This 1893 wagon was especially built with aluminum hardware and structural supports to showcase Studebaker craftsmanship and innovation.  

Eleven years later, Studebaker again displayed the well-known aluminum wagon at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.  At this huge, internationally recognized event, Studebaker had one of the largest carriage and wagon displays with 75 different vehicles exhibited.  Among those pieces were exquisite broughams, victorias, depot wagons, coupe rockaways, extension and canopy top surreys, phaetons, top buggies, runabouts, road wagons, farm wagons, coal wagons, express and truck wagons, sheep camp wagons, mountain wagons, and electric as well as gasoline powered autos.

Perhaps the most extraordinary vehicle in the group was the “Aluminum Wagon.”  At the time, this precious metal was quite expensive and working it required exceptional skill levels.  The August 1904 issue of “The Carriage Monthly” carried a detailed description of the wagon...

“This metal is adaptable to mechanical and manufacturing purposes by reason of its extreme lightness, great malleability, tensile strength, beauty, and freedom from oxidation or loss of luster by exposure to the weather. 

It required 149 pounds and 2 ounces of the new metal to fit up the wagon, whereas if iron had been used the quantity required would have been three times as great or 447 pounds.  All the metal comprising bolts, nuts, screws, rods, clips, braces, chains, nails, etc. are made from solid aluminum.  Steel tires are burnished and plated and glisten like a mirror.  The feat of using aluminum has never been attempted before, and has not been imitated since the wagon has been built.   The accomplishment of such a work as the Studebaker Bros. Mfg. Co., will be appreciated by mechanical experts as an achievement of no ordinary character.  The aggregate labor in making and finishing the wagon represented an expenditure of four hundred and twenty-four and one-half days, at a total cost for the wagon of $2,110.68.

The box or body has a remarkable history.  It is made of rosewood, inlaid with a border of holly, and the 35 medals awarded to the company since 1852.  The inscription of the box is in raised gold letters.  The rosewood log weighed 1,505 pounds and cost $230.80.  It had to be large enough to cut out box, sides, and ends to suit.  This log was cut in the province of Belmonte, Brazil and was brought down the Belmonte River for a long distance in huge canoes, thence by barge to Bahia, Brazil and thence to New York by steamer.  The Astoria Veneer Mills, of New York, the importing firm, state that it was by the greatest good fortune that the log was secured, and the probabilities are that years will elapse before another one like it will appear in the market.  It required the services of a woodworker three months to prepare the wood for the finisher, and 36 different processes were gone through to bring it to its present state of finish and polish. 

The usual striping and corner scrolls are imitated with white holly, all inlaid into mahogany, and the name of the firm is in solid gold raised letters, in the shape of a graceful ribbon pattern placed in the center of the side panels of the box.”

These additional photos of the Studebaker ‘Aluminum Wagon’ show some of the exceptional detail of the vehicle.  It remains a showpiece today and is on display at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana.

Clearly, this vehicle was (and remains) a head-turner.  Several years ago, I wrote a brief piece on Studebaker’s Aluminum Wagon.  One of the best parts of this story is that the wagon still exists.  If you’re ever in South Bend, Indiana, you’ll want to make plans to stop by the Studebaker National Museum and see this amazing part of America’s transportation history.  It’s in remarkable condition.  In fact, a few years ago, the wagon underwent professional cleaning and conservation work by B. R. Howard and Associates in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Brian and his team did an exceptional job bringing back the highly polished look and rich wood tones.  Our thanks to them for sharing these photos with us.

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