Presidents, slaves, frontiersmen and industrialists all occupied America’s historic houses: That’s extensively documented in books, scholarly journals and national registers.
What’s not so widely researched — yet should be, aficionados and preservationists say — are accounts and whereabouts of rare, landmark and famed vehicles. Surviving models carried a famed architect cross-country in the 1950s, broke the color barrier in racing, helped civilians pitch in overseas in World War I and set land speed records in Utah salt flats, an automotive heritage pioneer told car buffs and students at the College of Charleston last week.
Car people at one time “took automotive heritage seriously,” said Mark Gessler, president of the national, Maryland-based Historic Vehicle Association (HVA). But that wasn’t necessarily the case later on. “A lot of it just got lost,” he said.
Gessler spoke Nov. 12 to about 50 automotive collectors, students and guests at the Simons Center for the Arts. He displayed information about the HVA’s work, including videos on prominent vehicles and the people who owned or drove them.
The association is a collaboration of carmakers, owners, insurers, collectors, car clubs, museums, conservators, car show organizers, suppliers and academics. According to a lecture flier, the HVA strives to document vehicles within the Historic American Engineering Record, whose partners include the National Park Service, and eventually archive them at the Library of Congress. The association also advocates for launching a national Register for Historic Vehicles modeled after the National Register for Historic Places.
“Arguably, automobiles have had the most significant impact on American urban and rural landscapes of any development of the past century,” stated the lecture flier.
Gessler said the association is in its infancy — founded in 2009 — but has obtainable goals. He said more than 2,500 automobile makes were built in the U.S. “Even if we have one (example of each), we would have 2,500 vehicles on the register.”
The College of Charleston’s Historic Preservation and Community Planning department said it wants to design courses or programs and grant scholarships for the study of automobiles while working with the HVA. The move would put the school at the forefront of automotive preservation as an academic pursuit.
According to the lecture flier, the association visited Charleston “with the goal of developing an academic partner to teach and publish scholarly research on this dimension of historic preservation.” The historic preservation department sponsored Gessler’s lecture, entitled “Undocumented: Preserving and Recording America’s Automotive Heritage.”
The trip came about through a chance meeting between Gessler, an auto collector, and R. Grant Gilmore III, the college’s director of Historic Preservation & Community Planning.
After the lecture, Gilmore said developing a vehicle research program will take time, with the earliest start-up being next fall. He said top college officials, including President Glenn McConnell, have been briefed and support the concept.
The Historic Vehicle Association organizes and manages photos, three-dimensional scans, physical documents, unveiling events and press releases. “If we don’t get word out to the general public, we’ve failed,” Gessler said.
A 1964 Shelby Daytona Coupe built by famed designer Carroll Shelby was the first vehicle granted HVA historic status. By converting a convertible to a hardtop, Shelby was able to push speeds from 160 to 180 mph. “This is probably the most valuable historic car in the U.S.” Gessler said.
Gessler also stressed that “it’s not all about the most valuable vehicles.” California “surfer guy” Bruce Meyers designed the first fiberglass dune buggy but didn’t hold onto patents or get rich with his invention. “It’s the most copied design on the planet,” Gessler said.
The HVA unveiled the original 1964 Meyers Manx dune buggy on the car’s 50th anniversary at National Mall in Washington, D.C.
According to Gessler, other important vehicles the HVA has documented include:
• A 1918 Cadillac sent to Europe to help in the war effort as part of the American Expeditionary Force. Owned by a dentist, the vehicle chauffeured Teddy Roosevelt’s wife around France and took a bullet at the front. It’s the only known example that returned to the U.S. out of 2,000 sent overseas, Gessler said.
• Craig Breedlove’s 1963 “Spirit of America,” the work of a self-taught California mechanic who crafted a jet engine and topped 500 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats to break world land speed records. The first vehicle crashed into a lake, but Spirit of America II would surpass the 600 mph barrier.
• The 1975 Viceroy Lola race cars and team, which included famed drivers Mario Andretti and Al Unser, as well as Benny Scott, who became the first black race car driver in the Indy Car series.
• Mercedes-Benz’s 1954 Type 300 SC, best known for its iconic “gull wing” doors.
• General Motors’ dozen Futurliner buses that toured America in the time of the Communist scares, touting U.S. manufacturing skills.
• A 1952 Crosley roadster that architect Frank Lloyd Wright drove with an entourage each winter from his Wisconsin home to Taliesin West, his winter abode in Arizona.
• The first Ford “Pygmy” Jeep, which despite Willys and American Bantam’s simultaneous production is “America’s oldest Jeep, tagged JP-1,” Gessler said.
Noting that one honored car was a 1938 Maserati that won the Indianapolis 500 more than once, Gessler said, “It’s the American history, not (necessarily) American cars.”
Gessler also noted that the association would be involved in the Kiawah Island Motoring Retreat and Concours d’Elegance in April 2016. Notably, the HVA secured one of seven Andersons known to survive. Built in Rock Hill from 1916 to 1925, the Anderson was one of the very few carmakers headquartered in South Carolina and manufacturing cars in the state at the time.
As part of America’s manufacturing renaissance, automotive advancements were made “not just in Detroit, but South Carolina and Silicon Valley,” he said.
Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or email@example.com.