14.5-litre six-cylinder American LaFrance Speedster began life as a fire appliance
This American LaFrance Speedster looks more like something straight off a Raiders of the Lost Ark movie set, but it's a 101-year-old fire engine turned racing car.
Owner Craig Marshall is clearly a petrolhead -- his garage houses an immaculate and original 1948 Buick 8 Roadmaster and 1930 Chrysler Boat-tail Speedster, and there are more vehicles at another site, including the 1937 Dodge Coupe in which he and his wife, Nicky, tackled the Peking to Paris Rally. That's where he first encountered an American LaFrance. "Every morning you would hear it start up, popping and banging. It was the first to leave in the morning and the last to arrive. You could hear it coming across the Gobi Desert. I said I'd love to get one."
The marque began life as a fire appliance. The company started out in the 1830s, manufacturing hand-drawn, horse-pulled and steam-powered fire engines, and remained in operation -- under various owners -- until January 2014.
When this 1915 LaFrance was decommissioned in the 1920s or 1930s, the racers of the day valued the model's mighty engines, and so the water tanks, ladders and other paraphernalia were stripped, leaving little more than the running gear to turn the LaFrance tenders into race cars. That's how Vanderbilt Racing first made its mark, Marshall said.
Driver shelter is minimal, so Craig Marshall wears a leather flying helmet. Picture / Jacqui Madelin
The lure was the 14.5-litre six-cylinder motor under the lengthy bonnet. The set-up uses three spark plugs per cylinder, and a three-speed transmission delivering power to the rear wheels via chain drive. The engine's speciality is low-revs torque, its flywheel is massive. It idles at an almost unbelievable 300rpm, and tops out at 1800rpm.
Marshall started it with an almighty pop and a bang, and soon it was chuntering away as we scrambled atop. And I really do mean atop, you're sitting almost on its back, legs stretched in front of you, and only the driver has any sort of wind protection. These things must have felt rather hairy at the 160km/h at which they allegedly topped out when racing. Marshall says it feels hairy enough on the motorway at 100km/h.
It's a long reach to the gear lever and the hand brake, which he uses alongside the foot brake, given modern traffic isn't suited to old-fashioned rear-wheel-only stoppers. The advance-retard dial on the steering wheel needs constant adjusting -- for low revs you retard it, and it backfires if you go too far.
Now also consider that the right pedal is the brake, the middle one the accelerator, the reverse of a modern manual, and that it's 6m long and weighs 2.35 tonnes. "It's a challenging car to drive, but rewarding."
Marshall often wears an old-style leather flying helmet, gauntlets and jacket when driving. Despite the 'monocle' windscreen for the driver, there's not much shelter from the wind.
It was too hot when we met for the jacket, though he donned the rest for a laugh. It's no wonder they trailered the car to Napier's Art Deco weekend. Apart from the tiny luggage compartment, the passenger has no protection from the elements, and at speed would have to cling on to the single brass handle bolted to the outside flank.
The car wasn't in this condition when Marshall bought it. It had been found lying in a Missouri field and when he bought it three years ago was still "totally dilapidated." He'd expected to have to go overseas to find one, but there it was, in Paihia.
The owner had been working on it, slowly, but "I think it got too hard..." Marshall got a friend, Trevor Gordon, to restore it.
Picture / Jacqui Madelin
He wanted to keep it as original as possible, following the condition of the bonnet. It had started life working for the Colorado Springs Fire Department, hence the CSFD lettering, and he used that original bonnet to guide the paint scheme.
He wanted to match the look of that old-paint patina on the rest of the car, and says the painter struggled with it. "He said, 'it's the only shitty job I've done, and I'm congratulated on it.'"
And there were other tricky tasks. The 37-inch wooden wheels had to be made by a craftsman in Feilding.
It comes as no surprise that Marshall's loved old cars since childhood. "The simplicity appeals to me. I like the fact you are really connected to the tarmac, they take skill to drive, you can hear every movement -- the leaf springs, the chain rattling -- and they are a pleasure to drive, unlike a modern car in which you are cocooned, and you can't hear a thing."
No chance of that with the LaFrance, and I can see why he loves it.