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Off to Owl's Head

Walt in Gertie

I awoke at 5:25 to find that it was a surprisingly mild 65° F. inside Gertie. Got myself showered and dressed and entered the house at 6:20 as Walt was finishing his breakfast. We were off by 6:40, heading south on coastal Rt. 1. Walt passed the time by reading a 1937 issue of Popular Science I'd brought along—these old science and technology magazines fascinate him as much as they do me.

RVing in 1937

By coincidence, this issue turned out to have an article on RVing! Written by the great naturalist Edwin Way Teale, it describes his adventures as a novice RVer, as he and his wife tow a trailer from New York down to Florida and back. (When I get home, I'm going to put the entire article online...it makes fascinating reading!)

Once again the Street Atlas software's travel time estimate proved overly optimistic: we didn't arrive at the Owl's Head Transportation Museum until close to noon, and by the time we arrived, we were starving. So we went in, bought our tickets and then came right back out, and sat down to a nice lunch in Gertie: alphabet soup, Triscuits, vegetable dip, celery and half of the turkey club sandwich left over from the Wa-Co Diner yesterday. I had raspberry applesauce for dessert—it's one of the staples I always carry in Gertie, because it doesn't require refrigeration. Then we strolled back inside to enjoy the museum.

Packard

The first thing we saw as we walked in was this long, lean, aristocratic Packard touring car, and it stopped us dead in our tracks. What lines! Every smallest detail is curved, blended and polished to a fare-thee-well, from the teardrop-shaped headlight pods to the downward swoop of the rear fenders. I had to spend a few minutes just quietly contemplating its classical beauty before proceeding.

Looking at the front of the car, I noticed the glint of an aluminum tray on the floor underneath it. This mundane detail reveals something important about the Owl's Head Museum: almost all of their vehicles are in operating condition, and are driven or flown regularly. Most museums display cars and planes with the oil and coolant drained—undrivable, unflyable. Not this museum! The crankcase drip pans testify to the fact that these are not just display models...they are ready to drive off the floor and out onto the road. A small thing perhaps, but knowing it makes a difference—it makes these cars seem that much more real.

Pakard skirt

Visiting technology museums with Walt is a real treat for me, because he knows the machinery inside and out. He's the perfect guide and traveling companion for this kind of jaunt. As we walked around, he would stop and exclaim "Oh! I had one of those!" and proceed to regale me with stories of the places he went in it and the things that went wrong with it. This happened with about every third car, so I got plenty of stories for the price of admission. No museum docent could have given half as good a tour!

'40 Ford woodie

In addition to their extensive collection of airplanes, automobiles and machinery, the museum was having a special exhibit of "woodies"—station wagons with wooden sides—and they were gorgeous! I especially admired the '37 Ford's sleek lines. Up till now 1940 (shown here) had been my favorite year for Ford, but I think I'm changing my preference. On the other hand, the '40 Ford on display here was a rich chocolate brown, whereas the '37 was a pale celery color—boring! Of course, the cafe-au-lait '34 Ford had a slightly old-fashioned charm all its own...

To tell the truth, I've always been a sucker for the streamlined cars of the late Thirties—although oddly, the 1934 Chrysler Airflow that started the whole trend has never especially attracted me. But the Fords and Lincolns (especially the Zephyrs) from that era just melt my heart. A purist would be horrified, but I can't help thinking: "If only I could get one of these on a Honda Accord chassis!" Beauty and reliability—that would be the perfect match for me.

In addition to classics, there were also plenty of oddball items, such as the minuscule Isetta 300 "bubble car" (from BMW, no less!), a 770-pound gumdrop of a vehicle that looks as if it has three wheels, but actually has four (the rear ones are very close together). Isetta 300This tiny, tinny econocar is hardly what we associate with Bayerische Motorenwerke today...but in the years immediately after WWII it was these 297cc putt-putts that pulled the company out of the postwar economic chaos and put it on its feet again.

BMW licensed the Isetta's design from Italian scooter maker Iso (hence the name, which meant "Little Iso") and made some enhancements—like adding a larger engine to improve on the original Isetta's 30-second zero-to-30 mph peformance! Between 1955 and 1964 160,000 BMW Isetta's were sold—not bad for a car that scoffers dubbed "das rollende Ei"—the egg on wheels.

Stout Scarab

Here's an extremely rare example of the super-streamlined Stout Scarab, looking beetle-like as its namesake. Only nine of these advanced cars, which embodied designer William B. Stout's motto "Simplicate!", were built in the mid Thirties. In addition to technologically advanced features such as a V8 rear engine and unit body construction, the Scarab had a spacious, almost minivan-like interior.

Stout intended the Scarab to be a luxury touring car, so he gave it movable seats and a flip-up table, among other amenities. Care to stop for lunch on the road, or perhaps a game of cards in the evening? The Scarab was just short of being a mini-motorhome...all it needed was a fold-out bed. But at $5,000 this innovative but odd-looking beast cost a thousand dollars more than a top-of-the-line Packard. Not enough wealthy buyers were attracted to the innovations, and the Scarab soon scuttled off the stage of atomotive history.

Scripps-Booth Bi-Autogo

Arguably the single most peculiar vehicle in the museum was the mammoth 1913 Scripps Booth Bi-Autogo, a 3,200-pound cross between a car and a motorcycle. Intended as a three-person sports car, this monstrosity cost $25,000 to build (in 1913 dollars!) and never got off the ground commercially. It had two main wheels, making it technically the world's largest motorcycle (by far!)...but since there was no way anyone could deal with a 3,200-pound dead weight when the thing wasn't rolling, it also had a pair of "training wheels" (visible at the rear) that kept it balanced until the driver got the beast up to speed...at which point he would retract them.

But guess what? The chief engineer for Scripps-Booth in 1915 was...William B. Stout! The design wasn't Stout's, though—that dubious honor goes to company founder James Scripps Booth. It's a good guess that Stout was probably brought in to try to fix some of the Bi-Autogo's many quirks, including its chronic steering problems. (Reportedly the front wheel caster was such that the front end dropped about two inches on turns—and in order to straighten out again, the driver had to apply enough muscle power to lift the Bi-Autogo's ton and a half mass back up by that amount!) But even Stout's engineering brilliance was not up to the task of turning the Bi-Autogo into a going proposition. The example shown here is the only one ever built, something for which we can all be grateful.

Model "A" snowmobile

Since this was Maine, there was also a Model A snowmobile conversion, looking like a smaller cousin of the massive steam-powered Lombard Haulers—railroad locomotives converted to tracks and skis, if you can imagine!--that once pulled skids of lumber through the New England woods. The nifty thing about the "A" snowmobile was that you could easily take off the skis and treads when the snow thawed, and use it as an automobile again in the warmer months...something that wasn't possible with the Lombard Haulers!

I've focused here on the cars of the Owl's Head Museum, but there were plenty of aircraft, plus steam engines, an Edison dynamo, and lots of other mechanical goodies. I just don't have room for them all! You'll have to go see them for yourself.

bookmark

Before leaving the museum, I bought three very pretty bookmarks in the museum shop. These had been made by a local artisan from thin wafers of wood, with silhouettes of flowers, maple leaves and so on cut out with a fine coping saw. Nowadays when one sees such things one is apt to assume that they're laser-cut. It's nice to know that there are still craftspeople doing it the old way with simple hand tools.

We left earlier than expected—around 3:30—which was a good thing, because the drive home was a very long and tiring five hours. Walt's bad back was giving him considerable pain...the jouncing on the bad stretches of road, plus walking around the museum for hours, had really done a job on it. By the time we finally got home, he was in considerable distress. Fortunately, he has a physical therapy appointment scheduled for tomorrow. As for me, I was about at my limit of fatigue by the time we rolled into Eastport...any further, and I would have had to stop and take a nap. But we finally made it home around 8:30, and both crawled off to our respective beds.

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