Jul 27, 2009

Winston Goes to a Car Show...

A week ago I decided to take my 1932 Plymouth coupe, Winston, to a car show in Huntsville. My friend Monty Love came up and we drove into Huntsville together. The show was held at the Landers-McClarty Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealership. There were probably 200 cars, mostly modified muscle cars and street rods. We didn't get a trophy. That was no surprise, since the car is a driven car, having participated in 4 Great Race events. Also, the restoration is now about 12 years old, so the car is not a pristine "trailer queen."

Monty and I both forgot two key items -- cameras and sunscreen! Thus, I can not share any pictures of that car show. And, I'm still peeling from a pretty substantial sunburn.

This weekend there was another car show much closer to home. Again, I decided to attend to see what cars might show up. This time, in spite of the fact that I didn't prepare the car, I came home with two awards! I got a nice trophy for 2nd place in the antique car class. More amusing was the award for "Best Rims." The judge said he had a thing for the wood spokes!

A young man came by during the show and asked if he could take a few pictures of my car. I was flattered. You may enjoy them:

Jul 24, 2009

Louie's Hispano...

A 1927 Hispano-Suiza Coupé Chauffeur identical to Louie's sold for $304,000 at the 2006 Bonhams & Butterfields Quail Creek auction in Carmel, California

As a young boy, I pumped gas and worked on cars at Louis Brzoza's College Garage in Schenectady. I learned a lot there under the tutelage of Louie, who had served in the infantry in World War II. We worked on a great variety of cars, from Model A Fords to sports cars of the early fifties. The boys at Union College, only a block away, and an all-male school at that time, often showed up with fascinating cars. Specifically, I recall a 1927 Rolls Royce coupe with cane trim that one boy's mother had bought at an estate sale and given to him. I also recall a 1939 Mercury convertible sedan that I'd love to have today. But then they were just cars that some kid brought to college and we tried to keep running.

One day a uniformed chauffeur came into the station looking for help. It seems that he was driving a 1939 Packard Twelve town car (limousine) and it had died a short distance from our service station. Louie went to the scene, determined that a dead battery was the culprit, sold and installed a replacement battery, and the gentleman was able to continue his trip.

The lady owner of the car was impressed at Louie's courtesy and helpfulness. She thenceforth called the shop any time she needed help with one of her cars. The unusual fact surrounding this was that she lived in Amsterdam, some 20 miles away! The lady's name was Mrs. Clark. Her late husband had been a senior executive with Mohawk Carpets, one of the leading industries in Amsterdam at that time.

On one of Louie's trips to Amsterdam, he spotted another car in Mrs. Clark's garage. It was a 1927 or 1928 Hispano-Suiza Model H6B town car (or, as the Hispano-Suiza catalog described it, a Coupé Chauffeur) that had not been used in many years. Hispano-Suiza was a company that was known for crafting superb and extremely expensive cars. They had built aircraft engines in World War I and built products of exceptional quality. There were very few in the United States.

The story that was related to me was that the car, with Parisian coachwork, had been purchased by George Kissel, a member of the family that manufactured a highly regarded American car, the Kisselcar, in Hartford, Wisconsin. Many personalities, including movie star Fatty Arbuckle and aviatrix Amelia Earheart, drove Kissels. Kissel's intention was purportedly to reverse engineer the car to determine how such a high-quality car was manufactured and then to attempt to duplicate its quality in an American car. That never happened, and the car ended up in Mr. Clark's possession. Once Louie Brzoza expressed an interest in the car, Mrs. Clark sold it to him.

The Hispano-Suiza ended up in a storage building that was located behind the shop. It languished there gathering dust until I left for college. Years later, when I was in the Navy, Louie contacted me and offered to sell me the car for $5,000. Much as I would love to have acquired the car, there was no way I could have come up with that kind of money. The car was sold to someone else.

In the late '70's, I was at the Antique Automobile Club of America's Fall meet at Hershey, Pennsylvania -- the largest of all car meets. I saw a Hispano Suiza and talked to the owner. He was knowledgeable about all things Hispano-related. He knew of the car that I had been so familiar with and said it had gone through a very meticulous restoration and was then in the possession of the President of the Hispano-Suiza Society. The car was at that time located in San Francisco.

It would be interesting to see the car once again after all these years.

Jul 16, 2009

The Clarence Johnson Story...

I have always had an interest in science. I am an admitted nerd. I have also been fortunate in having met many individuals along the way who nurtured my interest in science. Such a man was Clarence E. Johnson. And he was among the most unlikely.

Mr. Johnson was a mailman. He lived in a tiny apartment over the bus station at 102 State Street in my home town of Schenectady, New York. He was a lifelong bachelor. And he just happened to have a lifelong passion for the science of astronomy. That passion led to an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. He could rattle off the scientific names of hundreds of heavenly objects routinely -- "Bobby, that's NGC 205, more commonly known as the dwarf of Andromeda. It's a satellite galaxy of M31, the Great Andromeda Nebula..."

My first recollection of Mr. Johnson was when he was delivering mail to our home at 901 Union Street (now 849 Union Street, since the city for some reason renumbered all the houses in that neighborhood). One day, he mentioned to my father that he had heard that "Bobby had a real interest in science." My father confirmed that fact. Mr. Johnson went on to say that he was the President of the Schenectady Astronomy Club. The club was going to conduct free classes in telescope making at the Schenectady Museum (at that time on Steuben Street) and that he would be happy to have me participate and build a telescope if my parents would agree.

My parents thought I would benefit from participating in the Astronomy Club's activities, and so began my adventure of grinding and polishing a 4-1/4" Newtonian reflecting telescope. And every week, I rode to the museum in Mr. Johnson's ancient and rusty Plymouth. I was the youngest person in the class, by far. I was surrounded by engineers from the General Electric Company, headquarted in Schenectady, and hobbyists from many other walks of life. Clarence Johnson was one of the instructors, since he had built dozens of telescopes.

I also was invited to join in the "Star Parties" that the astronomy club held on clear weekends. The club had acquired some land on a high hilltop in the so-called Glenville Hills, not far from Schenectady. We would assemble there late in the evening, set up our telescopes, and observe whatever the objects of interest might be for a given night -- It might be lunar observing, or a specific planet that was observable, or some deep-space object.

Mr. Johnson's passion was the so-called variable stars. These are stars whose brightness varies over time, usually on some predictable schedule. He told me that his interest in astronomy had been born when he saw Halley's Comet in 1910. Although he had never attended a university, he had become an internationally recognized expert in the science of variable stars.

He also had a passion for teaching. He was the editor of a newspaper called The Junior Astronomer, published by the international Astronomical League. This newspaper was published ten times a year, to coordinate with the school year, and was provided to schools as well as individual subscribers.

In the early 1950's, the astronomy club embarked on a construction project to build a permanent observatory at the Glenville site. Mr. Johnson recruited me to help and I spent many Saturdays with him mixing concrete in a metal trough and pouring the foundation for a telescope mount as well as the footings for the walls. We carried a lot of jugs of water each week, since there was no water available at the site. We constructed the building with a sliding roof that was supported on steel rails. The roof would slide off onto a section of rails that was supported on posts. This exposed the telescope to the heavens. My recollection is that we had an 8" Newtonian reflector, although it may have been larger than that. The observatory looked like this:
About the time the observatory was completed, I left for college and gradually lost touch with Mr. Johnson. I do recall being told my my parents that he had passed away a few years later. I don't know what ultimately happened to the observatory and it's instrument.

I'm certainly grateful that our paths crossed, even for a few brief years.

Postscript: I sent an email to Alan French, who is an officer in the Albany Area Amateur Astronomers Inc. This group absorbed the remnants of the Schenectady Astronomy Club many years ago. I asked Mr. French if he knew whatever became of the old observatory. I received a very informative response which I share here:

Bob, Your e-mail was a very pleasant surprise this morning. I've pieced together much of the story over the years, but it was nice to read a report from someone who knew Clarence Johnson and helped with the observatory.

I'd have to look up the dates, but the Albany Amateur Astronomers learned about Johnson Observatory in the 1970s. The Schenectady Astronomy Club had been inactive for some years, so we visited the site.

The field was overgrown, with waist high brush, and the building was in very sad shape. By then the site was in Sanders Preserve, a Glenville Town Park. The Albany Amateur Astronomers got permission from the Town Board to restore the observatory.

We cleared the field and soon had grass take it over. We put a new roof on the building, put in a concrete floor (lugging water from a spring), fixed up the rails and installed a club member's 10" f/5 Newtonian.

There was a 12" DeVany Cassegrain there, but it was it sad shape and didn't work well. I don't think the optics had even been properly finished (a recollection of another former Schenectady Astronomy Club member was to that effect).

We held public star parties there for many years. The observatory eventually got modified into a club house and workshop, and a new domed observatory was built to house a 12" Tinsley reflector. One summer the observatory was robbed and virtually everything was stolen. We also started using a new, dark sky site in Esperance, and interest in the Sanders site diminished. The encroaching tree line, which we had little control over as it was a nature preserve, also became a problem. We stopped holding star parties there several years ago. The old building was demolished some years ago, and the new dome was burned down last year. The dome was made of masonite and plywood, and the years were not kind to it.

I'll share your link with other club members. I am sure many of them know little about the old observatory.
Clear skies, Alan