Going home: Cary shop restores last-of-its-kind 1911 Alpena Flyer
By Fred Blumenthal
The first time I saw this Concours Show-ready automobile was in the summer of 2008, but it was in less than show-ready condition at the time. The car had been taken apart by its owner, Ron Winter, and shipped in boxes to Restorations Unlimited 2 in Cary.
It didn’t resemble an automobile at all. Now, I’ve seen quite a few cars over the years that I thought would be a huge challenge for a top-level restorations shop to try to bring back to life, but this one topped them all. I asked shop owner Ralph Morey, who was examining what remained of the vehicle, what it was, how old it was and was he really supposed to restore this?
I looked at the meager remnants. They consisted of a pair of very rusty frame rails and boxes full of loose and broken parts. Items such as two completely worn-out seats, three broken and rotted wooden spoke wheels, a couple of hunks of metal that I assumed must have been the car’s engine and transmission at one time, and two very wrinkled and rusted front fenders. Because of the wooden spoke wheels, I figured the vehicle was a Brass Era car (built from 1905 to 1915). I also thought this relic from the past was a two-seat roadster of some sort.
Ralph’s brother, Ray, the shop’s supervisor, could see I was really excited. He waited for me to take a deep breath as I asked all sorts of questions about the car’s history. Finally, he explained that the car was Brass Era: a 1911 Alpena Flyer built by the Alpena Motor Car Co. of Alpena, Michigan. It was not a two seater at all but originally was a very elegant four-place, full-size automobile.
Only 480 Alpenas were manufactured between 1910 and 1914, and he said the story just got better. The one sitting in shambles at Restorations Unlimited 2 was the only one left in the world, a fact confirmed by the Horseless Carriage Club of America. Ray Morey agreed to give me first crack at a story, but when I asked how long a restoration on a car in this condition would take, he looked me in the eye and said, “Years.”
More than six years, in fact.
To find a car like this today and have it brought back to life as it was in 1911 is no easy feat and something for which everyone should be thankful. Cars that are restored to a level that Restorations Unlimited 2 has restored this Alpena usually are limited to early model Ferraris, Corvettes and Shelby Cobras, for example – cars that were manufactured in extremely low numbers and lusted over by car lovers everywhere. So when one is found in any state of repair, those who have sufficient funds and are passionate about the automobile step up to save it.
Winter would not say where he found the Alpena, but he immediately knew what a treasure he had. And there was a reason he wanted it saved for posterity. It was more than his love of vintage automobiles. This rare piece of American history was built in Winter’s hometown of Alpena, Michigan, and because it is the only one left in the world, he felt it was his duty to save this car for future generations, and especially for the citizenry of Alpena.
To restore a car like this is a grand undertaking for all involved. The one thing the automobiles owner must have is patience while the car is being restored. The most important thing for the restoration shop is accuracy. When you are recreating automotive history, it better be right.
The Alpena was one of hundreds of new car companies that were just forming at the dawn of the 20th century. Self-propelled vehicles had been around since the French Cugnot in 1769. But it really wasn’t until Ransom Olds in 1901 came up with idea of the modern production line, when he built his curved dash Oldsmobile, that a way was found to make cars for the masses.
Back in its time, the Alpena Flyer was considered a light, inexpensive automobile. It was manufactured as a Standard Touring Car for four or five passengers. In addition, there was a four-door, five-passenger Touring Car and a Roadster. The Roadster and “Flyer” Standard Touring car were priced at $1,450 (about $36,000 today), and the four-door, five-passenger Touring went for $1,600 (about $40,000 today). One of the car’s marketing slogans was “The Greatest, Biggest and Most Sensational Actual Value in the Automobile World” – pretty heady stuff back in the day.
The largest employer in the town of Alpena in 1914 was – and still is – the Besser Company. At the time, Besser, which made concrete blocks, was growing like crazy and needed to expand. After the Alpena Car Company folded, its factory sat empty, so the Besser Company bought the building in which the cars had been manufactured. Unfortunately, those given the task of cleaning out the former car manufacturing site did too good a job and threw out everything that was left behind, including all the blue prints on the Alpena automobile.
Both Ralph and Ray Morey said the restoration process would have been a lot easier if they would have had those precious prints. Instead, all they had to go by were a few old brochures and copies of a few original drawings.
Ray Morey said an ironic twist of fate caused the Alpena Company to fold. It seems the powers that controlled the Alpena Motor Car Company failed to obtain permission to use a new three-point rear suspension system that was invented and patented by Emile Huber. The system, which consisted of two semi-elliptic-mounted springs and a single transverse spring, help give the car a very smooth ride.
It was a major selling point for this car, but no one at the company received permission from Mr. Huber to use the setup. Emile sued and won his case, forcing the car company into bankruptcy. While that 3-point platform is no longer used, Restorations Unlimited 2 replicated it exactly.
I asked the brothers what the most challenging part of the restoration was. They both agreed it was the broken gears from the transmission to the differential and everything in-between. All of the Alpena’s gears had to be handmade – quite a formidable task. They overcame this dilemma with the help of Jerry Chase, they said, the best in the restoration and refurbishing of gears in the antique automobile business. Jerry owns Lab Threads and Gear Works in Wallingford, Connecticut, which has been making gears since 1907.
Ralph Morey said everyone at the shop had a hand in restoring this car. Long-time employee Joe Mangano was responsible for body and paint work. Jason Price did mechanical, detail and final assembly. Chris Tapp did metal fabrication, and the engine rebuild was done by John Blaesing.
The back half assembly of the car was reproduced in wood by Terry Martin of Martin Carriage in Levittsburg, Ohio, by blueprints drawn by Ray Morey. Once completed, the unit was shipped to the restoration shop in Cary, where it was fitted to the car. Ralph Morey said Nex Gen Manufacturing of Wauconda did an excellent job on all the extra special machine work that his shop required on this restoration.
Ralph and his entire crew at the shop are extremely proud of the way the restoration turned out.
As I was taking a few last photos, the driver of the car hauler arrived to pick up the Alpena. He came into the room where the Flyer was sitting and simply said, “Stunning!” I think that’s what anyone who sees this magnificent automobile will think.
If you would like to see this car for yourself, it will be featured at the 37th annual Concours d’ Elegance of America on July 27 at St. John’s Inn in Plymouth, Michigan.
After the show, it will be time for the Alpena to finally go home for the last time. It will be displayed for all to see at the Besser Museum on the shores of Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay in Alpena, Michigan, where it came from 103 long years ago.
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