The Most Famous Antique Car in the World

The Most Famous Antique Car in the World

By Greg Riley

February 11, 2019

Most of us in the old car hobby have our own dream car collection. Sometimes it just something generic like, “one day I’d like to have a ’69 Z28.” Or in the case of Old Cars Weekly Senior Editor, Angelo Van Bogart and I there is a particular Duesenberg we both prize above all others.

1908 Welch Model 4L. Photo courtesy Wayne Leonard

One of my dream collection cars have been on my personal list since 1974 when I was 12 years. For that birthday my older brother gave me a copy of Ralph Stein’s “The American Automobile” and my life was forever changed. From that book came understanding and appreciation of the great antique and classic American cars that has lasted a lifetime.

Today it's difficult to convey just how influential Stein was in the classic car and sports car hobby in those pre-internet days. He was simultaneously cartoon editor of This Week magazine, and automotive editor of Argosy. One reviewer wrote that his book “The Great Cars” would be among the permanent literature of the field. His writing, cartoons, and photography appeared in countless publications from the 1940’s until the early ‘80’s including Argosy, Look, Playboy, This Week and many others. I’ve heard Jay Leno state that Stein was among his biggest early automotive influences and many of the standouts in Leno’s collections are right out of Stein’s books.

Noted automotive writer, historian, and sports car aficionado Ralph Stein with 1908 Welch. Photo courtesy Wayne Leonard.

Stein’s style of writing made you feel you were riding along with him. Of driving a Franklin he wrote:

“It must have been the summer of 1932 that I first drove an air-cooled Franklin, a 1925 Tourer, whose owner considered it a terribly old car. I was at the time the proud owner of a 1931 Model-A Ford Roadster, which seemed barbarously crude compared to the Franklin. True the Ford could run away and hide from the Franklin, whose chief fault was a sedate unwillingness to get off the mark very quickly. Another disturbing characteristic was its tendency to roll on corners like a small boat in the wake of a steamer.”

He was also a card carrying Alfisti. He wrote of owning a 1750 Alfa, but further investigation showed he owned several at various times and was extremely well versed in their mechanical foibles. Stein was also an accomplished cartoonist having done the cover of the program for the Bridgehampton sports car road races for many years during the 1950’s. One of his passion in the 1940’s and 1950’s was giving narrated tours of early car graveyards.

Ralph Stein cartoons from This Week Magazine-September 13, 1953-Courtesy Wayne Leonard

Cover of Bridgehampton programs, 1952 & 1953. This same artwork was used on handbills, posters, and other promotional materials. Courtesy Tony Carroll, Vintage Sports Car Club of America, Inc.

In September 1953 Stein published a piece in “This Week Magazine” titled “I fell for Americas Craziest Hobby” and the subject was his own personal 1908 Welch Model 4L automobile. In the piece Stein describes buying the car in a dark NY State barn in late 1951 for $500 in the company of legendary collector Henry Austin Clark Jr. He had many adventures in the old girl, including a 500 mile roundtrip, and once stalled her in 1950’s NYC traffic and had to hand-crank to catcalls of “get a horse.”

This Week Magazine-September 13, 1953-Courtesy Wayne Leonard
This Week Magazine-September 13, 1953-Courtesy Wayne Leonard

Later he talks about the foibles of trying unsuccessfully to restore the car himself before ultimately surrendering it to early car specialist Ralph Buckley in 1952, the only time the car has been restored. At the time his article was a lynchpin for bringing widespread attention to the burgeoning antique car hobby in what we would now call the mass-media. Due to this article and being mentioned in many other Stein books and articles numerous times over twenty years, including his regular pieces in Look magazine, the Welch was known for a time as the most famous antique car in the world.

The Welch headed to Ralph Buckley's restoration shop. This Week Magazine-September 13, 1953-Courtesy Wayne Leonard

Later on Stein devoted an entire chapter in “The American Automobile” to the Welch:

“I found the Welch late in 1951 on an estate near Montrose, New York. I first went to look at it on a dark rainy autumn day. In the dimness of the carriage house, where it sat surrounded by ancient carriages (one of them an opera coupe purportedly owned by Secretary of State Seward in the 1860’s), it was almost impossible to make out it’s shape. Even it’s color, thickly buried under thirty years of dust was indistinguishable. The Welch looked huge and clumsy and quite undesirable. But when I played a weak pocket flashlight on the filthy machinery under its hood, I knew I just had to have it. The Welch’s engine was like nothing I’d ever see in an early car. A thick camshaft surmounted its cylinder and long rocker arms reached toward inclined valves protruding from the dome-like tops of the four big cylinders. I'd long been queer about overhead cams, and to own both and early car (my first) and to have it with OHC was more than I could resist. The next day I phoned the Welch’s owner and offer him about ten times what local antique-car fanciers had previously (and unsuccessfully) tempered, and the Welch was mine.”

The American Automobile-Ralph Stein. Pg. 62 Fig.1

“My friend Henry Austin Clark, Jr., who owns the Long Island Auto Museum, offered to drag the Welch home to Long Island for me. But the ground near the carriage house was a quagmire unable to bear the weight of his trailer-plus-Welch. Early in 1952, when the ground was frozen, we went to Montrose to remove the Welch from its nest. The car sat on jacks and its big 36 x 4 ½” tires looked as if they might hold air. We plugged in an ancient electric air pump which lay in the carriage house and attached its hose to the tires. The result was a sad wheezing from multiple lesions. The tires looked plump and round only because they had petrified into that shape. After we had removed the jacks and crowbarred the long-shut carriage-house doors open to roll out the car, the tires broke like so much thin papier-mâché. After much labor (mostly on the part of Clark), we at last winched the Welch aboard the trailed and hauled it to my garage.”

The Welch is quite an amazing piece of engineering for 1908. The engine is 50hp with an overhead camshaft driven from a vertical shaft. The combustion chamber is hemispherical with removable valve cages for quick removal to service the valves, a big concern on early automobiles. In one article Stein described lapping the vales on his kitchen table much to the chagrin of his wife. It also has dual ignition with both trembler coils and a Bosch magneto and two sparkplugs per cylinder. Oh, and that huge sum Stein offered? Five hundred dollars. He sold it in 1977 for Fifty Thousand, a very tidy return indeed.

Courtesy Bonhams/Simon Clay
Hemispherical combustion chamber in Welch engine-Photo, Greg Riley

The driveline is equally as non-conformist. Transmission gears are in constant mesh and freewheel until locked onto a hexagonal shaft when engaged. There is no foot operated clutch like in a modern car. To shift you just silently ease the gearshift into one of its three forward gears. Reverse is by a separate lever. Chassis is of Krupp chrome-nickel steel with oak inserts inside the front goosenecks to increase stiffness. The Welch brothers seemed to have had a disdain for ball bearings and Stein reported that only the rear wheels and steering box use them, all others are poured and fitted Babbitt bearings.

Courtesy Bonhams/Simon Clay

The Welches built their first car in 1901 but production really got going in 1905 with a move to a new plant in Pontiac, Michigan. By 1910 they were yet another marque vacuumed up by the acquisition-crazy Billy Durant of General Motors, and after his ouster in 1910 Welch’s day were numbered as the Welch-Detroit, Welch-Marquette and soon oblivion. In the 1970’s Stein reported four surviving Welch cars. One in his possession, another at Harrah’s, number 3 in the Henry Ford, and the last in the Los Angeles County museum. I cannot remember seeing another in person other than this example

Courtesy  Bonhams/Simon Clay

Stein obtained the car in 1951 from the estate of a man named Perlman who reportedly developed an early demountable rim that was eventually the subject of a lawsuit between him and Firestone. An unused rim was included with the car at his purchase that said “exhibit-a” and was claimed to be part of the court case. Stein owned the car until 1977 when it was acquired by Colorado brass car collector Wayne Leonard and his brother.

Leonard says he took the car on many tours and it always proved very reliable and quite easy to drive for an early car. He recalls photographs of this car or its exact twin transporting Teddy Roosevelt in New York City.  He retained ownership until the early 2000’s when it was traded to Don Boulton for a 1907 double-chain-drive 50hp Pope Toledo. Boulton was the Welch’s fourth owner from new. I had the pleasure of visiting Don and the Welch on numerous occasions.

Boulton collection-Photo, Greg Riley

The auction catalog says the Welch was part of the Harrah’s collection, but this is incorrect. Harrah did indeed have a Welch, but it was a 1909 model, with Leonard also being familiar with its history.

The Welch will be offered as part of the Boulton collection sale by Bonhams at Amelia Island March 7th at the Fernandina Beach Golf Club featuring 24 cars and two motorcycles manufactured between 1899 and 1914. Marques offered include Austin, Columbus, Haynes, Knox, Locomobile, Matheson, Mercer, Oldsmobile, Packard, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, Pope, Rambler, Simplex, Tincher and Welch. Also of great importance is the fact that no less than seven Boulton cars could be eligible for the annual London-to-Brighton Emancipation Run, the world’s longest continuously held automobile run, and an event for which entries are limited to cars of 1904 and earlier.

https://www.bonhams.com/press_release/27461

Tincher-Photo, Courtesy  Bonhams/Simon Clay
Simplex-Photo, Courtesy  Bonhams/Simon Clay
Pierce-Arrow-Photo, Courtesy  Bonhams/Simon Clay

Matheson-Photo, Courtesy  Bonhams/Simon Clay

In addition to the Boulton cars, the Bonham’s sale will feature numerous notable racing and sportscars, as well as such notable marques as De Dion, Jaguar, Minerva, and Porsche. https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/25219

Four outstanding cars from the Robert Randolph collection will also be offered; 1906 Stevens-Duryea, 1911 Stoddard-Dayton, 1913 Stutz, 1930 Cord.  https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/25219

It isn’t an overstatement that the Bonham’s Boulton Amelia auction will be one of the most exciting brass car sales in recent memory. GarageDlx will have a full post-auction report and I will be front and center to bid adieu to an old friend.

Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest and most renowned auctioneers, offering fine art and antiques, motor cars and jewelry. The main salerooms are in London, New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, with auctions also held in Knightsbridge, Edinburgh, Paris, San Francisco and Sydney. With a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 22 countries, Bonhams offers advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full list of forthcoming auctions, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments, please visit https://www.bonhams.com

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