Matt Harwood

1909 Cartercar Model H Touring

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Depending on whether you believe the stories, we have Bryon Carter to thank for the development of the self-starter. Legend has it that Byron Carter was injured helping a stranded motorist in a winter storm crank start his Cadillac. The Cadillac kicked him and broke his jaw (or arm, depending on how you heard the story) and he died a short time later of complications related to his injury. His friend, Charles Kettering, vowed that no man would ever lose his life cranking a Cadillac car. Et voila! The self-starter.

 

Had that not happened, I think Mr. Carter would be equally well-remembered for the neat cars that bear his name, including this wonderfully original 1909 Model H touring. With an innovative friction drive system that eliminates the clutch and transmission, it's the automobile simplified to its most basic operation--in fact, it's so simple, my 11-year-old son, Riley, took it for a spin in the parking lot last week. This particular Model H spent the first fifty or so years of its life with a single family, and ultimately, today, 110 years later, it has had only three owners. It remains mostly original, although I believe the interior and top have been replaced, but that was likely during the first owner's tenure and even though they're "restored" they're probably coming up on 70 years old. The paint, engine, and other components are undoubtedly vintage 1909 and in remarkable condition. Sure, the paint is faded and flaking in places, but I wouldn't change a single thing. The gray bodywork with red trim and wheels looks dashing in an era filled with somber color combinations. The brass is tarnished but complete and again, polishing it would change the all-of-a-piece look. It's worth noting that there's still gas in the tank and the headlights blaze bright, and the cowl-mounted kerosene lights glow warmly at night. Even the taillight works. 

 

The dash is a simple wood panel with four individual coils mounted in their own box. They have been recently rebuilt but not restored, so they look old but work like new. It's neat to hear them popping away as the engine idles. A functional accessory Stewart speedometer shows 3575 miles, which is likely a correct reading--it's not like this was a car for cross-country drives. There's also a fully operational rim-wind clock and bulb horn. Controls are simple: left pedal engages the friction drive--press it to go. Right pedal is the brake--press it to stop. There's a throttle on the steering wheel and the lever on the outside of the body to the driver's right is the "gear shift" which positions the drive wheel on the flywheel. Close to the center is low and the outer edge is high. There are a "thousand speeds" in-between, as the advertising said. Pull it backwards to move it to the other side of center, and that's reverse. Both pedals can be locked in position--the drive pedal for cruising and the brake pedal for a parking brake. Elegant, simple, and clever. And as Riley learned, hard to make a mistake--let off the pedal and it stops. Need to stop faster, press the brake. 

 

The 212 cubic inch 4-cylinder engine is original and I don't believe it has ever been opened. It slept for probably 50 or 60 years, going into storage shortly after the second owner acquired it in the '50s and resuscitated in 2010 by noted brass car expert Dave Heinrichs of Heinrichs Vintage Car Shop. Today, it starts on the second pull, every time. Set the choke, turn on the coils, and give it a crank. It putts to life easily and you can slide behind the wheel, push the choke in to half, and adjust the throttle to get underway. The friction surface needs no maintenance and the paper-like drive wheel traction surface can be replaced if needed with readily available modern materials. Chain drive is conventional for the era and the wood spoke wheels are in good condition with no rot or questionable areas. The tires probably date to the 1950s as well, so I'd replace those if you want to drive, but on the other hand it's been a regular attendee at the Henry Ford Old Car Festival and with a top speed around 35 MPH, you're probably not going to stress them out. Your call.

 

There's a ton of paperwork with this car, including a copy of an original owner's manual, duplicates of period advertising literature, and two or three pieces of actual 100-year-old Cartercar literature. 

 

I've only seen two other Cartercar friction-drive cars, but this is the only one that is extremely authentic and totally right. It would be a crime to restore this car and it runs and drives so well that you'll be having too much fun to bother taking it apart. Ideal for brass-and-gas tours and similar events, it will stand out in a sea of Model Ts and other early brass cars. And it's no more difficult to own, service, and drive than anything else you'll own. The price is $34,900 and I think that's the right range for such a unique artifact. Thanks for looking!

 

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Edited by Matt Harwood (see edit history)
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Good work... there is an old Russian proverb I like; "Tell a lie a hundred times and it becomes the truth." In my real work editing books on historical arms I run into this sort of thing all the time though I confess I hadn't thought to look into the Byron Carter story. The fact that he died long before the self-starter was introduced and of pneumonia, in bed at home, really puts the popular story out the window. But, it will continue to be repeated endlessly.

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I had a car that was connected with the Jackson and Byron Carter's history. As such, I became interested in the stories of Byron Carter's death some years ago. 

A few comments I could make. Reporting news incorrectly is nothing new. Even trade press of the day printed errors in the story of his death. The fact that historic reports fifty years later do not agree with each other should also come as no surprise. Stories get told, change a bit, exact years forgotten and stated incorrectly. Still not unexpected. Since both Kettering and Leland refer to the same source as the impetus for the development makes it likely that at least that much of the story is likely true. As for the cause of Byron Carter's death? Pneumonia was often the precise cause of death in many serious injuries back in the days before reliable antibiotics. Almost any injury can result in an infection. And almost any infection can spread to the lungs and result in pneumonia. Once pneumonia sets in, death quite often soon followed.

 

As a personal side note, the best friend of one of my wife's cousins about twenty years ago suffered a minor leg wound while working at a lumber mill. Three days later he died, of the infection and developing pneumonia. And THAT wasn't over a hundred years ago!

 

As for the timeline? Carter died in 1908, Cadillac had the combined starter/generator and lighting system ready and in production for the 1912 model year. Three years between the two is not an unreasonable time to conduct experiments and work out the details, plus get it into production.

 

History always needs to be considered in the context of its time.

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What a neat old car that is brimming with originality. Friction drive cars are a lot of fun to drive and make for a great conversation piece. This car will sell sooner than later. 

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