Dick Cooper - May 2010

 

After Hard Times, A European Royal Roadster is Reborn to a
Grand Life on the Eastern Shore
by
Dick Cooper

 

The bright spring sunlight makes the highly varnished coach of the vintage touring car sparkle as it roars up the road. The design is so exotic, with its polished aluminum hood and fenders and body of Spanish cedar, your first impulse is to exclaim “Wow,” and your second is to ask “What is it?”
Judge John C. North, II of St. Michaels, the classic motorcar’s owner, is eager to tell you it is a 1925 Hispano Suiza. If that doesn’t help, he goes on to say it is a French luxury car that was custom built in a factory outside of Paris for a member of the Italian royal family, one Prince Cito. North says he and other Talbot County craftsmen lovingly restored the motorcar over three decades.
Visitors to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum watched as the movable masterpiece starred in a recent photo shoot to promote the 2010 St. Michaels Concours d’Elegance, set for September 26 on the Museum grounds. North says the award-winning vehicle turns heads wherever it goes.
The painstaking process to restore it started in 1966, when North says he spotted a classified ad in a car magazine headlined “Need a Project.” He called the owner in Sacramento, California. “He accurately described it as being in terrible condition,” North says. “It had been stored outside for years and had been in a brush fire. Its steel touring body was deteriorated, but I figured for $1,000, I couldn’t get hurt too badly.”
He says he had the car trucked to St. Michaels, and he found the seller had indeed been very truthful in his description. The body was not salvageable, but the rest of the car was complete, right down to original instruments and graceful flying stork hood ornament.
The Hispano Suiza was an early French rival of Rolls Royce and was often preferred on the Continent because it was sportier than its English counterpart. Both companies built aircraft engines during World War I. After the war, it became common for car companies to put aircraft engines on car chassis, some with 12 to 16 cylinders.
North explains that before World War II, European luxury car manufacturers built the drive train and chassis, but custom coachbuilders built the rest of the vehicle. As a result, the vehicles were similar mechanically, but different in design and accessories.
George M. Walish, Jr., the chairman and founder of the St. Michaels Concours, said that the vintage auto shows across the country, including Pebble Beach, California, and Amelia Island, Florida, are throwbacks to the 1920s and 1930s. Annual auto shows in Paris and elsewhere were used by coachbuilders to showcase their works to the public.
North, who is on the board of the Concours, says that in the 1920s, most of the car bodies were made of steel or aluminum, but many had bodies made of wood. “Most of them were called skiff bodies because they resembled boats in that they had pointed tails,” he says. “I decided it would be a good plan to have a wooden body constructed locally.”
He says he consulted with a local boatbuilder, Don Loweree, who had a shop in the Brookletts Building in Easton. “He had recently completed the wood body for a 1939 Rolls Royce, and I was impressed with his work.”
Together, North and Loweree studied photos of Hispano Suizas and worked out a design for the body that included features of cars of the period, including small slanted doors and a boat-tail rear. “We decided it would be constructed of Spanish cedar, a wood that was once used in the construction of rowing shells,” he says. “Light, straight-grained, a nice wood to work with.”
Loweree and his then-apprentice, Tom Campbell, began work on the body, said North. “Before starting, Don laid out the design as though he were lofting a boat. They did a superb job in both the lofting and construction.”
But after finishing the construction, Loweree moved out of the area. North says he turned to another local boatbuilder, John Todd, to complete the project. He and Todd designed the aluminum fenders that were fashioned by Ram Mosier, a metal craftsman in Dover, Delaware.
He sent the instruments and a fragment of headlight glass to specialists in England who restored, rebuilt or reconstructed them. The instruments are repeated on a dashboard in the rear cockpit so that the passengers could monitor the speed of the vehicle. “It was fairly common in high-end cars,” North said. “Just one more luxury.”
The flying stork Hispano icon is not only captured by the hood ornament, but is also inlaid in the interior door panels. North says that the French fighter squadron that used the Hispano Suiza engines in their planes used the stork as their emblem. The company incorporated it as their logo after World War I.
When the Hispano restoration was completed in 1999, North says he and his wife, Ethel, held a coming-out party for the car at their home before the public unveiling at that year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
The car was such a hit that the promoters of a major car show in Esse, Germany, who were attending Pebble Beach, arranged to have the car shipped to Germany and paid for the North family to fly over for the show.
North says he has corresponded with the family of the Italian prince to confirm it was built for him, but he is not sure how the once-prized thoroughbred wound up as a derelict in California.
North and Walish say they are looking forward to the 2010 St. Michaels Concours as it moves away from the Inn at Perry Cabin to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum campus. Walish says plans are underway to increase the size of the show from 50 cars, a limit that was partially caused by the limited space. “The 18 acres of the Museum grounds will give us more room for displays.” He says he hopes to attract more classic antique boats to the docks at the Museum as well. The show will continue to focus on vehicles and vessels built before 1942.
North continues to show his prized vintage cars at shows around the country. That 1939 Rolls Royce he so admired is also now in his fleet. In March it was an award-winner at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
More information about the St. Michaels Concours d’Elegance can be found at www.smcde.org.

Dick Cooper spent 36 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, and in 1972 won the Pulitzer Prize for General Local Reporting. He and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, Maryland. He can be reached at dickcooper@coopermediaassociates.com.