The Stevens-Duryea, which still runs, is on loan from a Springfield-area collector who has purchased it from an owner in Georgia.
The Republican | Mark M. Murray06.14.2012 | SPRINGFIELD -- Guy A. McLain, Director of the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, stands next to the oldest surviving 1893 Stevens-Duryea automobile, now on view at the museum.SPRINGFIELD -- A 1903 Stevens-Duryea Model L, the oldest surviving car built by the company that made Springfield an automotive center and helped put America on wheels, is on display at the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History for at least a year.
But after that one year, no one knows if local people will be able to see a piece of the Pioneer Valley’s auto history firsthand. The Stevens-Duryea, which still runs, is only on loan from a Springfield-area collector who has purchased it from an owner in Georgia, according to Guy A. McLain, director of the history museum.
The car is for sale at $135,000, according to New Jersey antique auto dealer Donald G. Meyer who is representing the owner. He said there are six or eight Duryeas in existence made in 1903 through about 1905.
The museum is open Monday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday at the Quadrangle, 21 Edwards St. Summer admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and college students and $8 for children ages 3 to 17. General admission is free to Springfield residents with proof of address.
Buyers for these extremely rare and very expensive collector cars today are typically overseas in China or possibly Germany, said McLain.
“Once a treasure like this goes overseas, it is extremely doubtful that we would ever get it back,” McLain said. “But those countries have a tremendous interest in these types of rare cars. And they have the money to spend.”
He said the Springfield Museums would like to buy the car and add it to the permanent collection. But as yet there is no formal fund-raising campaign.
When it was built, the Model L was at the forefront of an automotive industry that focused exclusively on building luxurious playthings for rich hobbyists while most of the population still lived in a horse-drawn world. It had a 7 horsepower engine, a three speed transmission plus reverse, leather seats and a sort of rumble seat that folded out from the front of the car so passengers rode before the dashboard. Top speed was 15 or 20 mph, McLain said.
Frank Duryea created the first marketable car in 1893 in Springfield. In 1901 he partnered with gunmaker Stevens, experienced in large-scale manufacturing, to create Stevens-Duryea. By then, Springfield was the hub of the American auto industry. Henry Knox built his three-wheel car here in 1899. The museum has one of those. He later went into business as the Knox Automobile Co.
In 1907 Knox had a falling out with his investors and left to start Atlas.
“For a time in the first decade of the century, you had three of the largest automakers right here,” McLain said.
But then came Henry Ford, his Model T and the assembly line that produced it. The 1903 Stevens-Duryea cost $1,300 in 1903 dollars when it was new.
“That’s more than a middle-class house cost at the time,” McLain said.
In 1909 Ford sold early Model Ts for $850 and that price continued to fall through the 1920s as Ford’s assembly lines got more efficient. Ford and later General Motors made it hard for the smaller carmakers to compete.
“When the Model T first came out, the Springfield automakers scoffed at it,” McLain said. “The quality just wasn’t there.”
But price and quantity were. Stevens-Duryea ceased production in 1915. Atlas lasted only until 1913. Knox built tractors and fire trucks into the 1920s.
British luxury carmaker Rolls-Royce tied to take advantage of the automaking expertise here by establishing a Springfield factory in 1920. McLain said the museum has Springfield-made Rolls.
But the Great Depression did in the American market for Rolls-Royce. The company stayed open in Springfield doing repairs on cars it had already built, McLain said.