Touring America in a Maxwell: 1909 and 2009
Many people still remember the Maxwell only as the punch line to an old Jack Benny joke about the old car he was too cheap to sell. It must have been a pretty decent and sturdy car, since Jack Benny was making those jokes into the 1960s, and Walter P. Chrysler bought the company that made it in 1920; and then used the four-cylinder engine found in Maxwell’s low-end models in his beloved Plymouths.
The car advertised as “Perfectly simple and simply perfect” broke ground for women drivers, over a decade before they achieved the right to vote.
One hundred years ago next June, Alice Ramsey drove a 1909 Maxwell DA touring car across America. It was a time when there were no Interstates across the country. In many places, paved roads were still to come. It was also over a decade before women were allowed to vote, making the trip more than just an automotive event.
In 2009, Seattle resident Emily Anderson plans to do the same thing in another 1909 Maxwell DA touring car, to commemorate the first journey. Anderson plans to follow most of the same route, from New York City to San Francisco. In fact, she plans to start at the exact address Ms. Ramsey did: 1930 Broadway Avenue.
Ramsey’s car was a 1909 Maxwell model DA, a touring car with just 30 horsepower, able to achieve speeds of 30 mph – not bad for the times. The Maxwell-Briscoe company gave her a brand new car for the journey, as a publicity stunt. It was hoped that it would attract the attention of women, who would then persuade their husbands to buy a Maxwell. Women were not looked at as generally having the strength to operate automobiles, back then.
Three female companions accompanied twenty-two year old Alice Ramsey when she started out. 59 days later, Ramsey and her Maxwell entered the history books.
Emily Anderson admittedly had herself never known about Alice Ramsey until her father, Dr. Richard Anderson, showed her an article on the Ramsey drive, in an airline magazine he’d brought off a plane on the way home from the Hershey swap meet in Pennsylvania. At that same time, the elder Anderson happened to be restoring a 1906 Maxwell.
As Emily recalls, when her father gave her that page in the magazine, he also dropped the suggestion that his daughter might want to recreate the drive in 2009 – the 100th anniversary. While the article did peak Emily’s interest, she filed it away, since that anniversary was still 14 years away. Besides, she wasn’t quite certain how serious her father was about it.
Then in June of 2003, while living in California, Emily saw a television news item about the 100th anniversary of Horatio Jackson’s trip across America; he’d been the first person to drive a car across the United States. Someone was recreating Jackson’s sojourn, leaving San Francisco in a 1903 Winton – the same car he’d driven back then – and heading to New York, using the same route as Jackson.
This brought back her father’s suggestion of recreating the Ramsey journey, to Emily. She called her father on the telephone and asked him if he’d been serious.
“I am, if you are,” was Richard Anderson’s reported reply.
Further inspiration came when Tom Thoburn, a friend of Emily’s father, mailed Richard a copy of Alice's Drive: Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron, a copy of a book Ramsey wrote in the early 1960s, about her cross-country journey. Thoburn wrote that he wanted to donate the book to support their dream. Emily recalls it as “the spark that we needed to get our passion burning for this adventure.”
In 2004, Richard Anderson made a presentation to those assembled in New Castle, Indiana for the Maxwell Centennial – 100 years since the founding of the Maxwell automobile company. It piqued the interest of many other Maxwell owners; and led to many offering their support. But getting a car to complete the journey would be a challenge in and of itself.
While the journey will take perseverance, just getting a car to make the journey again has been an exercise in both patience and perseverance.
The car that Alice Ramsey actually drove was destroyed in a garage fire back in the 1920s, according to Richard Anderson. There was only one other 1909 Maxwell DA left, owned by a friend of the Andersons, in Baltimore; while he didn’t want to sell it, there was a template for them to work from.
That meant that the Andersons were left to build a “bitsa” Maxwell – one put together from pieces of what was left of others. Richard Anderson, a longtime antique car afficionado, literally scoured the world for parts, with the help of the owner of that sole remaining DA and other Maxwell owners. Parts came from as far away as Australia.
The car that was built for the proposed journey next year is essentially the same model, year and color as what Alice Ramsey drove. It has been replicated right down to the license plate numbers.
Jay Larson, a master machinist, and Larry Sitauer, an antique plane builder and metal fabricator, helped machine pieces that couldn’t be found, using measurements from the original car.
Everything came together and the car they built was on display at the Kirkland (WA) Concours d’Elegance in early September of 2008.
After the Kirkland Concours, the Maxwell was picked up by FedEx Concours Transport and delivered to the swap meet at Hershey, Pennsylvania. There, it was on display for an entire week.
For the first three days, it was on display, along with a display of items concerning the centennial drive as part of the Antique Car Club of America Museum display. On Friday of that week, it was inside the Horseless Carriage Club of America tent.
When FedEx Transport delivered the Maxwell back to Washington State, it was time to make the first few runs on the open road to sort things out. Tim Simonsma, who is serving as the mechanic for the car, drove the Maxwell on several 20-mile jaunts, at places such as the Ebeys Landing Historical Reserve; and reportedly found that the car had plenty of power – output for a Maxwell DA is only about 30 to 40 horsepower – even in third gear. Cruising in the Maxwell also allowed Simonsma to ensure that electrical output went from the battery to the magneto, seamlessly.
As of Thanksgiving, 90 miles had been accumulated on the Maxwell with no major problems. According to Richard Anderson, the brakes need a bit of adjustment, the oil needs to be checked often to ensure proper lubrication and the radiator, an original item, is leaking a bit. They’re getting about six miles per gallon of water. They’re hoping to have a new radiator core by the time of the trip.
The planned journey next year is to stay in most of the same towns, on the same dates as did Alice Ramsey and her passengers – two other women – did, so many years ago. Emily Anderson will have not only two female friends along, but will also have mechanic Simonsma, and a trailer equipped with spare parts, following behind for assistance if needed. There will be an empty seat in the Maxwell for occasional passengers but they will have to be women.
While the Antique Car Club of America has lent its name to this effort, the Andersons are still actively looking for sponsorship of a corporate nature; which is a difficult thing in America’s current troubled economy.
The exact route is still being planned, to include places such as Alice Ramsey’s alma mater, Vassar College, as well as the Women’s Rights Museum in Seneca Falls NY, the Pierce-Arrow Museum in Buffalo, NY and the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana. While the trip may require some complex planning, Emily, at 36 years old, is no stranger to that: she is an event manager for Event 360, which stages three-day long breast cancer walks across America.
Emily has driven the “new” 1909 Maxwell very little, so far. She has acquainted herself with Maxwell's unique driving characteristics by driving the 1910 Maxwell model E that Richard, her father, owns. He said that the two cars drive and shift identically.
Richard himself lives on Whidby Island, Washington; he and the mechanic who will be following Emily have taken the 1909 Maxwell DA on shakedown rides on two-lane blacktop roads, ideal for getting the bugs out of a Brass Era car.
Despite the difficulties, Gregory Franzwa, author of six books on the old Lincoln Highway, thinks he knows why the Andersons keep pursuing their idea. Speaking of the original journey in comparison to the planned one, Franzwa said, “Oh she was out to have a good time and I guess they are too; but they want to do more.”
To that, Emily Anderson added, “I don’t see this as my journey. It’s everyone’s journey.”