Alan Travis: Real-Old Cars That Really Run

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 02/2017
  • posted in: Great Garages

Alan Travis lives for 1915 and before. After-1916 cars are just too new to spark his interest.

The Phoenix native and master of the automotive time machine collects and restores pioneers of car transportation, often one-off versions with provenance worthy of a king’s attention.

Or a tsar’s, such as the fated Nicholas II, one of whose super-luxe Delaunay-Bellevilles is part of Travis’ extraordinary collection of fully operable classics a century old or older.

Captains of industry, too: His 1907 racing Renault was owned and driven by William “Willie” Kissam Vanderbilt II (1878–1944), son of railroad king Cornelius Vanderbilt and automobile devotee, and Travis’ 1906/07 Stevens-Duryea was owned by the Rockefeller family and handed down to Winthrop, and, after his death, purchased by William Harrah, the businessman and car collector.

“The history of transportation is my interest: extremely significant running cars that tell that story,” says Travis, who in retirement spends most of his time restoring and driving them in rallies and events worldwide. In his first one, the Great Race in 1984, he drove a ’36 Ford to his first award, accompanied by wife Mary, and he went on acquiring older and older cars. In 1987, his first win brought him $100,000.

Travis keeps his 1915 and earlier cars in his Phoenix garage, where he works on them and stores one of the world’s great private collections of printed material on the cars, such as magazines back to 1889 and books, many long out of print but in extraordinarily good condition. The library contains 5,000 to 6,000 items, which he uses for his restorations. The post-1915 cars, by the way, are stowed in his garage in the White Mountains a few hours north of Phoenix.

For instance, he has two early all-wood Mitchells, a 1903, and a 1905, both 4-cylinders. The second, now in stunning blue, was the first car in northern California and badly damaged during a major early-20th-century California flood.

That Mitchell was found covered in mud and placed in a basement. “I was invited by the owners to fabricate and repair it,” Travis recalls. He walked the property and found most of the original parts either buried or adaptively re-used, such as for a gate hinge.

The hickory-spoked wheels were not restorable, however, so he traveled to Ohio to meet with an Amish-owned company, one of the only ones who do this work, as the buggy remains a vital part of their lifestyle. “That’s the way it is in the restoration industry,” Travis says. “Often there’s just one or two people in the world who do the work you need. You’ve got to know them.”

He’s also proud of his rare early motorcycles and bicycles. One of the latter is an 1882 Columbia High Wheeler. “You had to be at least 6 foot tall and willing to risk it,” he says, “but this was a breakthrough in transportation, following the horse and the railroad. This was freedom.”

A rare 1910 Pierce-Arrow 4-cylinder luxury touring bike is also prized, and a 1915 Harley with a 3-speed transmission. “It’s the most desirable of the early Harleys; it runs and sounds like a modern one,” Travis says.

He says the Pierce-Arrow is 99 percent dead-on accurate. The other 1 percent is the original correct one-barrel carburetor, which he stores in a safe. “I found that one in New Zealand and haven’t seen another since,” he says. “They’re impossible to find.”

His 1914 Excelsior motorcycle board track racer, one of three or four in the world, has no brakes and no transmission –– by design. “I once raced it from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to Marina del Rey in California. It can do 100 miles per hour, but I kept it at a safe 70,” Travis recalls, smiling.

So how do you stop it with no brakes? “A kill switch.” And good shoes. And prayer.

Keep Your Hands on the Wheel and Your Rare Parts Safe

The car love and hands-on predilection began early. His dad was in the military and then had an upholstery store in Phoenix in the 1950s, always working with his hands. In the Boy Scouts, Travis earned merit badges such as for electricity, then built radio kits and attended ASU’s engineering school.

He owned a consumer-electronics store for 35 years, 1971−2005, in Paradise Valley. “I’ve never worked for anyone. It’s in my blood,” he says.

People who know classic cars know Travis. Entertainer and car lover, Jay Leno, is a friend and admirer who’s done YouTube spots with him. “Jay and I share the love for the cars –– cars that work, cars that just don’t sit in a garage,” he says. “They must be real cars and they must drive as real.”

In this way, the classics don’t have to be classically perfect to an American-concours standard. “They just have to be perfectly running,” he says. That is: “Perfectly working, as exactly what the inventor made it, and they can be driven today and you can have the same experience as 110 years ago. And I do what it takes to make it perfect.”

Travis refers to the vast material in his library to think like the engineer and designer of the vehicle. What was going through his mind when he built this engine, this suspension, this gearing?

His is a good-old-American, get-your-hands-dirty, can-do-it attitude: “I believe I can restore any car. I can take it apart and make it work,” he says. “I can take on any project and figure it out. Even if it’s the only one in the world, I’m going to be able to make it run.”

Crank it Up!

Let’s sit shotgun and take a quick spin in some Travis classics:

•1898 Jeanperrin –– Built in 1897, this all-wood car is the oldest running Jeanperrin and one of the earliest production automobiles in the world. The other is in a Swiss museum, and it doesn’t run, Travis says.

The chain-driven 600-pound classic French car, with wooden fenders, was built just on the Swiss border and has a 1350-cc single-cylinder engine and a 3-speed column transmission. “It has a centrifugally actuated intake valve and no camshaft, so as the rpm increases, more air is taken in,” explains Travis, who’s driven it in the London to Brighton race. “The car buzzes down the road at 30−35 mph cruising speed.”

Jeanperrin started production of motorcycles in 1893 and graduated to cars three years later, he says. This is built in vis-a-vis style, with the occupants facing each other, similar to buckboard wagons or stage coaches of the previous generation. “You can even hitch a team to this car and pull it by horses,” he says.

The company had built clock gears, so the car’s gears are similar to those found in churches throughout Europe. “They’re perfect and quiet,” Travis says.

Kept in a barn and covered with canvas, the car survived the first and second world wars. “In the 1950s, the owner wanted to get it out of Europe to the United States, and it hasn’t left,” Travis says.

•1915 Scripps-Booth Vitesse –– Advertised as “The First Multi-Cylinder Speed Car,” the 2,100-pound racer has an overhead-valve V-8, the only car with a hemi that was cranked in the early tradition. Built as a concept car for the 1915 International Auto Show, it was sold through the Isotta Fraschini dealerships in the United States for $1,250, in the same range as today’s Corvette.

Inventor and entrepreneur, James Scripps Booth, also designed a motorcycle, a rocket and four cars, including a 1925 DaVinci, costing $100,000 to build and marketed by Stutz, Travis explains. The Scripps family is internationally known for its business and philanthropic interests.

Travis acquired this one-only concept car from the Kleptz Auto Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, about five years ago. As a concept car, it had never operated, but the consensus of the family that owned the museum was that Travis could get it up and running as it should, up to 75 mph, in fact.

Four months later, Travis finished the project, including the engine, 3-speed-forward transmission, all-original instrumentation from Reliance and Steward and even a Klaxon horn as well as the original 1914 Arizona license plate. The car idles neatly at 900 rpm at the stoplights.

“I had four members of the family here and took them for rides,” Travis recalls. “It was 100 years to the day from the concept car to finish, and we celebrated with a birthday cake.”

•1907 Renault –– This 3,700-pound “monster” is powered by a 528-cubic-inch, 60-horse flathead 4 cylinder and a 4-speed transmission. Marcel Renault, one of the founding brothers of the 1898-founded company, was also a successful racer.

“It’s unbelievably powerful and a monster on the road and can do up to 85 mph,” Travis says. “It sounds like a NASCAR car.”

After one of these cars won the Grand Prix in 1906, WK Vanderbilt II ordered this $15,000 car and nine other participating cars of similar cost. Vanderbilt, who founded the Vanderbilt Cup for racing, helped build the Long Island Motor Parkway, one of the country’s first paved parkways and designed to be used for the race as well as everyday driving to Long Island, where the Vanderbilts had one of their mansions.

The car has an early drip-oil system, used before today’s pressurized oil systems: The oil drips from the car onto the surface below and needs to be replaced about every 250 miles, Travis explains.

“We’ve had it at the Monterey Historic Races at Laguna Seca and The Great Race,” Travis says, noting that he taught the great Sir Stirling Moss how to operate it a few years ago. “It’s always full of oil, gas and the insurance is paid. I’m incredibly proud to own it.”

•1907 Delaunay-Belleville –– Czar Nicholas II shipped this 4-cylinder, 4-speed car to Australia in 1914 as World War I began. Travis has a painting of the last tsar sitting in the $15,000 car. A later model, with a 6-cylinder, became known as Type SMT, or Sa Majesté le Tsar, because Nicholas purchased one.

Automobiles Delaunay-Belleville was based at Saint-Denis, France, north of Paris, and was formed in 1903 by Louis Delaunay and Marius Barbarou. The first car was exhibited at the 1904 Paris Salon. Other royal owners included King George I of Greece and King Alphonso XIII of Spain. The last cars were offered in 1950.

William Harrah shipped this car back to the United States in the 1950s, and Bud Eakins, a stunt driver for actor Steve McQueen, acquired it next.

Connections: In February, Travis is hosting Sergei Sikorsky, now 90, son of the great airplane innovator and inventor of the helicopter, Igor. “The tsar had given Igor a watch and told him it would be in his best interests to leave the country. We will have Sergei sitting in the car owned by the man who gave his dad the watch more than a century ago.”

•1909 Delage Type R Voiturette De Course–– This is the oldest Delage in North America from Automobiles Delage, started by Louis Delage just four years earlier than this car. The four-cylinder, with a dry-sump oil system, has the original Ballot-Delage racing engine –– Delage immediately started racing his cars with success, then offered them for the well-heeled –– and easily does 60 mph. The fenders are aluminum.

“It’s perfectly running, goes fast, and all of the instrumentation is real,” Travis says.

Also included is an 8-liter 1898 gas tank buddy for hill climbs, mounted high to take advantage of gravity as the car ascends. Another innovation in this forward-looking car is that the gas, always cool, is used as an oil coolant.

“The Delages and Bugattis were held in especially high esteem during the early years, and although I love all of my cars for different reasons, these two would be the last to go from my collection,” Travis says.

•1913 Type 22 Bugatti –– Bugatti, Ford and Ferrari are probably the great triumvirate of car names 130 or so years after Carl Benz’ first motor car. Bugatti, after working for a variety of companies and people, including Baron de Dietrich, opened his famous shop in Molsheim, France, in 1909. In 11 years, he sold 400 cars, including Types 13, 15 and 17.

The 900-pound car, the oldest Bugatti in North America, has an aluminum engine, transmission and differential for weight savings and has all original gearing. “It can reach 6,000 rpm,” Travis says proudly.

“They were fun cars, expensive like the Mercedes and had a tremendous following,” Travis says. “Pilots bought them.”

He acquired this one from a Swedish family, who had stored it for 60 years. He’s working on it now, tearing everything down, including the engine and chassis.

Making it particularly rare are the Bugatti-signed valve covers, one of only five cars in the world carrying the signature of the great carmaker. But you won’t find them on the car.

“They’re in the safe.”

Travis will, by appointment, give hour tours to 20−30 people:

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