Talk about a quality used car! This rare Oakland Model 50 has served as a link between four generations (this blog content comes courtesy of Autoweek).
The plan was simple: Meet up with our mechanic in the evening. Leave the next morning. Take one day to get from our place near Minneapolis to the northeast corner of North Dakota, one day to extract the car, and the third day for the return trip.
But anybody can tell you that a road trip never goes exactly as planned. Anticipation and excitement got the best of us: We piled into Wayne Koffel’s truck and hit the road the very afternoon he arrived. Thirty hours later, we were back in Minneapolis with what turned out to be an amazing piece of history.
This 1916 Oakland Model 50 V8 was purchased brand-new by my great-grandfather, John Gapp, and delivered to Walhalla, North Dakota, where he and his family farmed. With a family of eight children, a car of this size was a necessity. It is believed he never had a driver’s license, so the behind-the-wheel duties fell to the eldest son, Henry, my grandfather. The car was driven consistently until 1934, the last time it was officially registered. It participated in a few Fourth of July parades afterward, usually advertising the local Pontiac dealer, but for the most part it sat in a barn, well-protected from the elements.
Growing up, my father Frank remembers, there was always this grand old automobile in the barn. He’d stand on its seat and pretend to motor along on exciting adventures at the highest of speeds. These memories were so deeply rooted that when the opportunity came to inherit the car directly, he did, and in 1987, Frank became only the second official owner of the car (the title had stayed in John’s name the entire time).
It was then placed in a sealed crate for better protection, and it remained dormant until Aug. 12, 2014, the day of our whirlwind road trip. When we loaded it onto the trailer and drove off, it was likely the first time the car had left the state of North Dakota since it was delivered new some 98 years ago.
Koffel, the Oakland expert brought on to bring the car back to life, didn’t initially believe the car could be a V8—they’re somewhat obscure cars, to put it mildly. As the story goes, after William C. Durant was forced out of General Motors in 1910, Charles Nash took over and wanted an Oakland to compete with the V8-powered Cadillacs. The V8-powered Oakland Model 50 came to be, and 2,000 serial numbers were set aside for this model. The car was canceled not long after Durant returned to run GM in late 1915, and a fire destroyed most of Oakland’s factory records, so it’s unclear how many of the 2,000 were produced.
In any event, when we removed the car from its storage crate after some 25 years and looked under the hood, the V8 engine parked before us settled any debate.
Since the car hadn’t been started for at least half a century, waking it up it wasn’t a matter of the old “add some gas and oil, change the spark plugs and give ’er a go.” Koffel took the car back to his shop in Pennsylvania to determine what it would take to get it running again. Upon putting a battery in, all the lights worked, the horn worked and the starter even turned—already, the car showed signs of life!
Fortunately, the oil pan yielded no indication of engine failure, and running kerosene through the cylinders freed up the rings. About three weeks after it was removed from storage, and with the fuel tank cleaned and vacuum pumps and carburetors overhauled, the car started for the first time in untold decades. It ran with astonishing smoothness.
That hurdle overcome, we could focus on what it would take to get it back on the road, all the while keeping the car as original as possible. The water pump and distributor needed to be rebuilt, new tires were put on and the top was repaired so it could be opened fully without creating additional tears. The exterior was cleaned. In just the right light, you can see the original rich coach green color. The upholstery was also conditioned and buffed to its former luster.
After decades out of the public eye, the Oakland is making up for lost time. In April 2015, it went to its first show in Charlotte, North Carolina, where it won a Historical Preservation of Original Features award. It racked up similar awards in Louisville and at the big annual meet in Hershey, Pennsylvania; the year culminated with the AACA National HPOF award for 2015.
There was something else special about the Hershey show that October. After the meet, I drove the car myself. It’s hard to describe the feeling of grasping the wheel and sliding into in the seat just as my grandfather once did. Most of the time, he probably sat there like I do today in my own cars; driving is usually a mundane thing that merits little reflection.
But if steering wheels could talk, they’d tell of the days when driving was more than an everyday event—the first time the proud new owner takes a hold of it, being inches away from someone’s first kiss, or the first time a son or daughter grabs on to learn the art driving. That day in Hershey, as the fourth generation of hands took hold and directed a mechanical piece of history a century down the line, was one of those rare special occasions.
1916-2016: It may read like a tombstone inscription, but it’s hardly the end for this car. Oakland was the featured marque at Das Awkscht Fescht in Macungie, PA, this August. To celebrate its centennial triumph, our 1916 Model 50 was the feature car, where it won the President’s Award from the Oakland Owners Club International.
Not bad for a car that’s spent decades collecting dust. And who’s to say what the next century has in store. One of Oakland’s advertising slogans was “Sturdy as the Oak.” Oak trees commonly live around 200 years—many last longer than that. We’re halfway there …
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