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Touring America in a Maxwell: 1909 and 2009

by Terry Parkhurst

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Many people still remember the Maxwell only as the old car Jack Benny was too cheap to sell. It must have been a pretty sturdy car, since Jack Benny was making those jokes into the 1960s, and Walter P. Chrysler ended the brand in 1926; it became the Chrysler Four in 1927, and the Plymouth in 1928.

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, Alice Ramsey drove a 1909 Maxwell DA touring car across America. In many places, paved roads were still to come; and it was over a decade before women were allowed to vote, making the trip more than just an automotive event.

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In 2009, Seattle resident Emily Anderson made the same trip in another 1909 Maxwell DA touring car, following most of the same route, from New York City to San Francisco. In fact, she started 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 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 had never known about Alice Ramsey until her father, Dr. Richard Anderson, showed her an article in an airline magazine; the elder Anderson happened to be restoring a 1906 Maxwell. When her father gave her that page in the magazine, he also suggested that his daughter might want to recreate the drive in 2009. The article spurred Emily's interest, but that anniversary was still 14 years away.

Then, in 2003, Emily saw a 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.

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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 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."

Getting a car to complete the journey would be a challenge in and of itself. Alice Ramsey's car was destroyed in a garage fire back in the 1920s, and only one other 1909 Maxwell DA appeared to have survived. It was owned by a friend of the Andersons; 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 - 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.

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The car that was built for the journey was 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 2008 and then at Hershey, Pennsylvania.

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 returned the Maxwell, it was time to make the first few runs on the open road to sort things out. Tim Simonsma, the mechanic, drove the Maxwell on several 20-mile jaunts, and found that the car had plenty of power even in third gear.

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90 miles were accumulated on the Maxwell with no major problems before the trip; the original radiator leaked somewhat, giving six miles per gallon of water (a new core was obtained before the trip).

The journey was designed to stay in most of the same towns, on the same dates as did Alice Ramsey and her passengers did; Emily Anderson had not only two female friends along, but will also have mechanic Simonsma and a trailer equipped with spare parts following. An empty seat was left in the Maxwell for occasional (female) passengers. The route included trips to Alice Ramsey's alma mater, Vassar College, 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. The 36-year-old Emily Anderson was used to planning, being an event manager for Event 360, which stages three-day long breast cancer walks across America.

Emily herself prepared for driven the "new" 1909 Maxwell by driving her father's 1910 Maxwell model E.

Emily Anderson said, "I don't see this as my journey. It's everyone's journey."

Also see our Maxwell page and New Castle plant page.

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