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‘Back to Simpler Days’: Horseless Carriage Tour Motors Into Windsor for a Pit Stop

  • Crossing the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge yesterday, a couple is slightly lost while looking for the American Precision Museum in Windsor. Organized by the Horseless Carriage Club of America, a the New England Brass and Gas Tour brought nearly 100 cars to the museum. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Crossing the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge yesterday, a couple is slightly lost while looking for the American Precision Museum in Windsor. Organized by the Horseless Carriage Club of America, a the New England Brass and Gas Tour brought nearly 100 cars to the museum. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sitting on the running board of his 1914 Cadillac touring car, John Memmelaar, of Midland Park, N.J., catches up on work with his smartphone. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Sitting on the running board of his 1914 Cadillac touring car, John Memmelaar, of Midland Park, N.J., catches up on work with his smartphone. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The American Precision Museum in Windsor was one of the stops for the New England Brass and Gas Tour yesterday. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    The American Precision Museum in Windsor was one of the stops for the New England Brass and Gas Tour yesterday. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Crossing the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge yesterday, a couple is slightly lost while looking for the American Precision Museum in Windsor. Organized by the Horseless Carriage Club of America, a the New England Brass and Gas Tour brought nearly 100 cars to the museum. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • Sitting on the running board of his 1914 Cadillac touring car, John Memmelaar, of Midland Park, N.J., catches up on work with his smartphone. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • The American Precision Museum in Windsor was one of the stops for the New England Brass and Gas Tour yesterday. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

Windsor — Gil Fitzhugh slowly and carefully backed his 1912 Buick into a grassy parking spot alongside the brick basement wall of the American Precision Museum late yesterday morning. He shut off the chattering engine and slumped in his seat, running a sweaty hand over his white hair and beard.

“That’s a full-body workout,” the Morristown, N.J., resident said, taking a couple of deep breaths as he stretched his arms and legs. “A lot of physical exertion.”

Downtown Windsor was full of Fitzhugh and his ilk for a couple of hours, part of the Horseless Carriage Club of America’s New England Brass and Gas Tour.

Headquartered at a Rutland hotel and an adjacent mall parking lot, 97 cars, all built before 1916, are piloted on a series of day trips throughout the week. Windsor and its American Precision Museum were yesterday’s destination. Some drivers and passengers headed off for lunch at the nearby Harpoon Brewery, while others explored elsewhere on their own.

Standing on a corner, one could see an antique car puttering down Main Street, its occupants’ straw hat brims flapping in the breeze. Two other vintage vehicles halted at the Cumberland Farms convenience store gas pumps, prompting rubber-necking throughout the parking lot. Traffic on Bridge Street was briefly halted when one car laboriously navigated a five-point U-turn, its driver using visible effort to work without the benefit of power steering.

The automotive Brass Era began a little after 1900 and lasted until roughly the start of World War I. It’s named for the brass fittings used on features such as lights, handles and radiators.

“It brings you back to simpler days,” said Windsor resident George Holstein as he prepared to hop astride a friend’s 1985 Honda motorcycle after refueling it at Cumberland Farms. “When those things were made, the American economy was booming, and we were prospering as a nation and we didn’t care what other countries thought of us.”

Starting out around 8 a.m. from Rutland, yesterday’s tour participants traveled steep and winding roads to reach Windsor in about two to three hours. The top speeds reported were near 40 mph but most went slower, creeping up and down byways, sometimes on dirt surfaces. One passenger likened it to “riding a roller coaster with marbles on the track” and Fitzhugh said safety, always a HCCA priority, was pushed even farther to the fore.

“I didn’t think I’d drive this thing in first gear so much in all the years I’d own it, let alone in one day,” he said with a rueful chuckle. “But if you pretend it’s a modern car, someone’s going to get hurt. Our rule is you don’t drive any faster than your guardian angel can fly. I tell people my car was built the same year as the Titanic sank and it stops about as well.”

That’s because most of the vehicles in the tour group feature only a pair of rear brakes, with none to engage the front wheels. Few have seat belts, which wouldn’t be authentic, and Vermont law, like those in many other states, doesn’t require a vintage vehicle to have such devices if it was manufactured without them.

“You’re riding in something that’s mostly just sheet metal and wood, so a seat belt isn’t going to do you much good,” said Craig DeNagel, who piloted his 1913 Model T Ford with his wife, Susan, navigating alongside. “You hope that you’re going slow enough and that you don’t hit anything head-on.”

Alex Huppe, a tour driver and Castine, Maine, resident, said he collects cars from various times but is drawn to Brass Era vehicles because tending them “requires a lot of knowledge, skill and, frankly, dough.

“It takes a lot of experience and anticipation to drive one well,” said Huppe, who retired after serving as head of Dartmouth College’s news service from 1985-95 and enjoyed a later stint in a similar role at Harvard. “People sometimes die and leave them to their kids, but the kids don’t know what to do with them. I’ve gotten a few of them through estate sales that way.”

Raymond O’Hanlon, of Putnam Valley, N.Y., said he paid $20,000 for his 1911 Model T Ford and estimated that price to be on the low end paid among yesterday’s attendees. The former New York City firefighter said he found his car through a magazine ad and drove down to North Carolina to complete the sale.

Although the average age of yesterday’s drivers and passengers appeared to be around 65, several relative youngsters were present, including Rebecca True. The recent Fitchburg (Mass.) State University graduate was riding in a 1910 Buick driven by her grandfather Skip Carpenter, of Shrewsbury, Mass. True, one of Carpenter’s eight grandchildren, said she and her four sisters frequently rode in Carpenter’s vintage cars as kids and each has ridden in tours with him before.

“He’s teaching me to drive them,” said True, wearing sunglasses and a rhinestone-studded HCCA pin on a strap of her green tank top while holding a smart phone. “My grandmother was very interested in riding around before she passed away.”

Out on Maple Street, 20-year-old John Saylor trudged to the Precision Museum in temperatures approaching 90 degrees. The Weston, Mass., resident was accompanied by 19-year-old friend Kevin Lee, a fellow student at Northwestern University outside Chicago. Saylor said he’s a fourth-generation vintage car buff and had just parked his father’s 1915 Model T Ford Roadster at the curb. The duo said it took them about eight hours to drive from suburban Boston to Rutland, sometimes traveling at just 10 mph up and down hills.

“If cars get stuck behind you, they’re not too happy,” said Saylor, who began driving his father’s collectible automobiles at age 16. “But usually, these things are real head turners.”

Carpenter, who’s planning to drive his Buick to South Dakota in a trailer so he can pilot it in an HCCA tour later this summer, said the reaction is almost always positive when the old cars go past.

“People always wave and seem very happy to see us,” he said, wiping his brow with a rag after tinkering with his transmission’s shifting forks. “In many cases, they’re amazed we’re driving them 100 miles in a day.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.