Blog 288 Fairbanks again and the car museum.

Having successfully conquered the Dalton Hwy we headed back to Rad and Marianne’s. They were not only a big help on our outward journey but they also helped get us get ready to roll again on our return.

The bike was plastered in corrosive mud mixed with calcium carbonate but thankfully Rad had a pressure washer so after a good blasting the bike looked clean ish again. The main thing we had to do was clean and repack everything back in its right place, the clothes we had worn were filthy and we were really grateful for a base to re organise everything before we got going again. They treated us like family which made for a really laid back relaxed feel and Leo and JB the dogs were great company too.


Rad also recommended a visit to a car museum in Fairbanks before we left so we took a bit of time out from our chores to take a look.


If you thought 4Wheel Drive was a new invention, think again.

It was a great recommendation and without Rad we would surely have missed it. The museum is the private collection of a Fairbanks hotelier and the building is within the hotels complex. IMG_0105

We liked it because the collection is a bit different from most, for a start most of the cars are from motorings very early history. It also integrated some interesting stories and examples of pioneer motor vehicles in Alaska and American models which we had never seen except in pictures.IMG_0071


The collection had an interesting historical twist curtsey of the owners wife who had displayed fashions of the period with the respective automobiles. One car is set up so you can dress up in motoring attire of the day and take your picture.

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The collection started with the so-called horseless carriages and traced the history of the motor car from its earliest beginnings. We have not detailed every car but have concentrated on some of the more unusual or interesting ones. Here is a sample of the different eras.

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The horseless carriages were just that,  it was not uncommon for the motor manufacturer to supply the rolling chassis and a separate coach-builder to build the bodywork. The legacy of the horse-drawn era is still very much in evidence.


You will notice the first horseless carriages were all open-topped, it didn’t take too many years for people to realise this wasn’t much fun in the rain especially as cars started to reach higher speeds. Here are a few variants of early roof designs ranging from what looks like a bolted on parasol to a frilly canopy.

It would take much longer for people to realise that sitting on a motorcycle being pelted by rain is just as unpleasant but that’s another story.


As they grew more popular other innovations to make driving safer and more comfortable were developed such as anti skid tyres and large headlamps for night driving. The first lamps were literally a lit flame of acetylene gas in a box with a mirror. Similar to a miners carbide lamp acetylene was created by dripping water onto a piece of calcium carbide which made acetylene gas.

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This is a Stanley steamer, as its name suggests it is steam-driven and the jacketed boiler lives under the bonnet where the engine would normally be.

These cars apparently worked extremely well and were quite economical and easy to drive. A Stanley steamer held the land speed record at 127.6mph in 1906 which was an astonishing speed at that time. That record stood for 5 years and this road going version was capable of a remarkable 70mph. Their downside was the fact that it took some time to achieve steam pressure when first started so there was no jumping in and turning the key to start one. For a while it looked like steam cars might be the way forward but ultimately the gasoline engines convenience won out.IMG_0037


You may think electric cars are a modern invention but this 1913 Arco might make you re assess that misconception. In fact many different methods of propulsion were tried but largely due to the limitations of battery technology gasoline engines won again. This Arco (one of only two remaining in the world) could cruise at 30mph and had a 75mile range which was impressive in its day.


These two are a good representation of the transitional era between horseless carriages and what we would recognise as an automobile.


This car had an interesting history in 1910 two young lads “Bud”10 and Temple 6yrs old set off from Fredrick Oklahoma on horseback to meet with the president in Washington after which they rode on to New York and met with an old family friend Theodore Roosevelt. In New York city they purchased a car a two seat Brush automobile and after an afternoon of learning to drive in the city set off home. They set a record 2,512 miles in 23 days even though young Temple was so small, he perched on the edge of the seat against the steering wheel in order to reach the pedals, they praised their car wherever they stopped on route.


The next cars in the collection are from the 1920′s and 30′s. Cars from this era are moving works of art, modern cars have made leaps and bound in reliability and economy but stylistically we have been going backwards ever since then in my opinion. Modern cars are amorphous non-descript blobs compared to the beauty of these. They were incredibly sophisticated to for their time, some the cars pictured here featured 16 cylinders, superchargers, electric starting and lighting and automation of ignition timing and carburation which previously was manually controlled by the driver. Some of the great names of automobile design are featured here like Cord, Chevrolet, Stutz, Hispano Suiza and Cadilac amongst many others.IMG_0145

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Of course cars like these were only available to the rich, they were enormously expensive hand-built luxuries. It took Henry Ford and his eponymous Model T Ford and its production line assembly to bring motor cars within the reach of the normal working man or woman. Here are two examples of Alaskan early Fords, one is fitted with tracks and skis for use in the winter and the other a commercial vehicle referred to as a hack. This had a model T chassis engine and running gear and a body made by a coach-builder to suit the application required.


The other all Alaskan car of note is this 1905 Sheldon. It was built by a 22 year old man who had only ever seen a car in pictures. He built it to try to impress a young lady and thought it might gain him favour over her other suitor.Working from pictures in magazines Sheldon built a wooden chassis and attached four buggy wheels and barroom chairs to sit on. He powered it with a marine engine salvaged from a sunken boat and made a chain drive system to propel it along.

Evidently it worked quite well as he took the young lady in question for several rides in it. Did he get the girl ? well actually no, she went on to be married to three other fellows so you can make of that what you will.

Sheldon went on to be one of Alaska’s foremost automotive pioneers.

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Modifying and driving automobiles up here at that time was seriously difficult, there were no sealed roads and spares and gas were few and far between.

The Alaskan highway was yet to be built so cars had to be driven up along roads that were sometimes so bad they had to be dragged through with winches and blocks and tackle.

There were pictures in the museum of new cars being ferried across rivers strapped across two boats as there were few bridges. No wonder some Alaskans opted to build their own from what was available.


Here is another couple of examples of their ingenuity, the first is a sawbench powered by an automobile gasoline engine probably from a written off car. The second is a strange looking tractor designed for moving on snow, its rollers rotated and the scroll pattern pushed against the snow moving it forwards or backwards. The large surface area would not sink like wheels and these were a predecessor to the caterpillar track.

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At a rough estimate probably a third of Alaska is still inaccessible by motor vehicle today, there are still many settlements up here that are only reachable by aircraft or dog sled or snow machine in the winter.

The museum has its own fully equipped workshop to maintain and restore the collection, there is even a window so you can watch work in progress.


Another interesting exhibit detailed the history of midget racing, these pint sized cars made racing affordable to the masses and many people built their own cars from various parts including motorcycle engines so no two cars were ever the same. The cars were small, light and fast and the sport grew incredibly popular all over the United States. In its heyday in the 1930′s and 40′s midget racing tracks sprang up in most small towns and it was the start of many a motor racing career. I am not aware of it carrying over to England (although I could be wrong) but we did see a midget racer in Australia so they definitely made it out there.

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We are really glad that we got chance to look around this fascinating museum before we left Fairbanks, thank you Marianne and Rad for all your help and friendship.

Next up – Leaving Fairbanks heading to Denali


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