An Adventure With Edsel

Published by The Bee News

August 20, 2023

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Back in the sumemr of 2015, I was introduced to the story of several young men that had quite an adventure with Edsel, the man not the car that looked like a Buick sucking a lemon. As partial compensation for my assistance to the Historic Vehicle Association that was recreating Edsel’s epic odyssey in a 1915 Ford, I was gifted a copy of his travel journal from the summer of 1915.

From the perspective of an era when almost every new car is sold with air conditioning, nav systems, back up cameras, cruise control, and power windows, and without a spare tire, Edsel Ford’s adventure in the summer of 1915 seems as wild as that of Captain Cook, Christopher Columbus or astronaut Neil Armstrong. At the time, however, the journey of Edsel Ford and his college buddies H. V. Book, Thomas Whitehead, William Russel, J. H. Caulkins Jr. and Robert Gray Jr., from Michigan to California was an adventure but only so far as that it was a road trip across the heartland of America by automobile.

This is not to say that it wasn’t a challenge. After all, the first transcontinental trip by automobile had occurred a mere twelve years prior. Many companies, including Studebaker, were still manufacturing horse drawn vehicles. In the southwest the era of the western frontier was not ancient history. In Arizona, a state that was only three years old in 1915, stagecoaches were still ioperating from KIngman until 1916. And it would be 1936 before there was a single highway that was paved across the entire country.

Technically it was a business trip. The Shell Oil Company of California was a partial sponsor of Edsel’s trip. In exchange the company was given a promotional boost, especially with limited publication of Souvenir Transcontinental Tour: Detroit to San Francisco June 17, 1915 to July 25, 1915 after the trip. For Ford Motor Company it was a marketing opportunity. Additionally, Edsel was unofficially tasked with the chore of evaluating Ford agencies along the way.

In the summer of 1915 cross country trips by automobile were still somewhat of a novelty. But Edsel and his buddies were not alone on their trip to the Panama Pacific Exposition in California. Event organizers noted that in 1915 tens of thousands of people arrived from outside the state, some by train but many came by automobile.

Even though the exposition was held in San Francisco, many travelers chose to follow a southern route along the National Old Trails Road. Then as now, and in the era of Rout 66, this course was the portal to the very best of the great southwest such as the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, Oak Creek Canyon, Petrified Forest and other attractions.

As the sons of very wealthy families Edsel Ford and his friends did not lack for funds as evidenced by their vehicles. Edsel had a new Ford outfitted with wire wheels instead of the standard wooden spoke wheels. Book and Gray started the trip in a new eight-cylinder Cadillac. Russel had a new Stutz. They had new camping gear, tools and even traveled with a portable phonograph.

The travel journal entry for Thursday, June 17, 1915, provides a glimpse of travel by automobile in 1915, and the troubles faced by Edsel and his friends. “Encountered some mud in vicinity of Saline. Ford had puncture and blow out on both rear wheels. Roads good but dusty.” The following days troubles included the Stutz running out of gas, and a couple of flat tires on the Ford. The latter led to Edsel’s purchase of a hand tire pump, and a pocket lamp that ran off the magneto for night work.

On the 19th the group managed to travel a mere 85 miles. The Stutz required roadside repair after dirt clogged the vacuum pump. The Ford became mired in the mud just 18 miles after departure, and when it would not budge with use of the block and tackle, a farmer with team was hired. Then the Ford skidded on wet pavement and broke spokes in a rear wheel.

Even though the entries are concise, Edsel’s travel journal provides fascinating insight into the times; real world reports on the durability of certain automobile brands, on travel, on people adapting to changing times, and on a world in a rapid state of transition. “Wigwam Ranch, Colorado, Thursday July 1 – Took one hour to go four miles up long steep hill. Had to remove all superfluous weight from car such as cushions, tent, baggage, and tools. Had to carry items up by hand.”

“Williams, Arizona, Thursday July 15 – All got supplies at garage. Talked to Ford agent. Bought some gas and oranges at Seligman. Stutz broke another spring about 15 miles out and returned to Seligman. Very rough and dusty roads. Wired Los Angeles for axle parts. Day’s run 146 miles.”

“Needles, California, Saturday July 17 – Started west at 6:15 P.M. in procession of eight cars – a Jeffrey, two Fords, two Chalmers, two Stutz and a Cadillac. Thirty miles out Chalmers broke a spring. Roads in desert were fair. Stopped for midnight lunch. Played phonograph, fixed a tire. Stopped at Ludlow for gas.”

Judging by Edsel’s trip the Ford was far better suited for the grueling road conditions than the Stutz, but not as well as the Cadillac. The Stutz was plagued with a litany of problems large and small. There is no mention of issues with the Cadillac aside from tires. The Ford suffered a series of mechanical failures, not surprisingly. Some were serious but the ease of repair hints at the reasons for the popularity of the legendary Model T.

“Dodge City, Kansas, Saturday June 26 – Had excellent lunch in Syracuse. Afterwards went to examine peculiar noise in transmission; found universal joint housing broken. Bought new one at Ford agent and installed it at the café.” “Camp near St. John, Arizona, Friday July 9 – Took car to garage in Holbrook. Had rods tightened and rear axle examined. Found chewed up ring gear and pinion. Back on the road by 1:00 P.M.” “Flagstaff, Arizona, Saturday July 10 – Found friends with Stutz at hotel. Had left them in Albuquerque as Stutz had to be shipped by rail.”

Edsel and his friends had a grand adventure. I am confident that they talked of it often in the years that followed. Surely the trip also provided Edsel with valuable insight into the shortcomings of the Ford, and how it could be improved. Unfortunately, it didn’t provide him with the ability to buck his famous father, and so cars such as the six cylinder Ford designed by Edsel in the late teens was stillborn.

Automotive travel journals and guidebooks, as well as newspaper and magazine features written in the first decades of the 20th century are more than mere time capsules. They are fascinating windows into a world in a dramatic state of transition and a glimpse at how our now revered vintage cars were driven when still new. If you have interest in these wonderful stories, I have two great books to recommend.

The first is Motoring West: Automobile Pioneers 1900 – 1909. This book is a compilation of articles, travel journals and factory sponsored features that together present a multifaceted picture of automobile travel in the American west in an era when roads were little more than trails.

The second book was a best seller when first published in 1916. Now being reprinted, By Motor To The Golden Gate by Emily Post is an illustrated chronicle of the odyssey that she made by automobile from coast to coast.

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