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History's Headlines: America on Wheels keeps on rolling

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Nov 15 2013 10:58:58 PM CST
Updated On: Nov 17 2013 07:34:00 AM CST
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

“The game’s afoot, Watson,” Sherlock Holmes once said to his colleague, Dr. John H. Watson. But after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective visited Allentown’s America On Wheels Transportation Museum, he might well have said, “the game’s on wheels.” But you don’t have to be a Sherlock Holmes to enjoy America On Wheels. Located on Allentown’s waterfront, which is currently planned to undergo a revival, AOW attracts between 30,000 and 35,000 visitors a year, according to Christine Bauder, its director of marketing and development.

Located on the site of the old Arbogast and Bastian meat packing plant, its offices are in the circa 1925 Art Deco office building originally designed for the company by local architect Tilghman Moyer.

Originally conceived in the early 1970s as a Mack Truck centered museum, AOW, a non-profit, retains strong links to Mack. Jack Curcio, the retired CEO of Mack, is the president of its board of directors. Among its board members are retired and current Mack executives.

AOW covers every type of over-the-road vehicle. It includes everything from racing cars to kid’s peddle cars, to fire engines, to luxury sedans.

There are exotics like the Stanley Steamer and some of the first electric cars that were produced over 100 years ago, represented at the AOW by a 1922 Detroit Electric. In that era electrics were popular primarily with doctors and with women drivers.

Physicians liked them because they did not have to be cranked like a gas powered car and promised a quick start in an emergency. Women tended to like them because cranks were not easy to turn and none was needed for an electric car.

Electrics were made fashionable by Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. Although known for being a liberated woman, she drew the line at gas powered cars. “It’s no child’s play to run a motor car,” Roosevelt told the press. “No license should be granted to anyone under eighteen & never to a woman, unless possibly for a car driven by electric power.”

Roosevelt was given an electric by her husband Nicholas Longworth shortly after their marriage. In 1910, it was reported in a popular magazine that she often drove up to the Capitol Building where he was member of Congress.  

Linda Merkel, AOW’s executive director, notes that many of the young brides who are married at the museum like to have their pictures taken alongside of the Detroit Electric.        

Merkel takes a great deal of pride in noting AOW’s links with so many volunteers, people in the region who are either collectors of rare and exceptional types of over-the-road wheeled transit, or automobile dealers, or those who are fascinated by what Merkel calls “the romance of the road.”

As an example Merkel points to the special exhibit space in AOW run by the Lehigh Valley Timing Association. The group was formed about 60 years ago in the golden age of the “hot rod” era. Young men with a yen to run their “rods” found that the police did not appreciate them doing it on public roads.

Thanks to a number of folks, among them the popular Pennsylvania Dutch humorist “Dopey Duncan,” aka Luther Gehringer, the then-largely unused airfield at what is now Queen City airport was given by the city as a place where the speedsters could run their cars against a clock. Today the graying group has made a loving contribution to the museum in the form of an exhibit of the hot rod era.

Perhaps the vehicle on display with the most local history behind it is a car owned by David K. Bausch, former Lehigh County Executive and Allentown City Councilman. The Nadig, a gas powered car, was built by Allentown mechanic Henry Nadig.

The late Allentown newspaper man Brit Roth, who was 28 years old at the time, recalled that it was in 1887 that Nadig began working on the car and had it running by 1889, a full four years before Charles E. Duryea unveiled his gas powered car in 1893, which is usually given credit as the first vehicle of its kind in America.

Bausch noted in 1989 that many auto historians today recall Nadig as the first builder of a practical gas powered automobile in America. Unfortunately Nadig never took out a patent on the car or began mass production. Local bankers refused to give him loans and public opinion forced him to drive the car only at night. Colonel Edward Young, General Harry Trexler’s business partner, told the Allentown police he did not want the car frightening his horses. Bausch was able to recover the car in the 1960s, but that was only after it had suffered years of neglect.

Along with its many permanent exhibits, AOW recently opened a new temporary exhibit titled “Brilliant Brass Beauties,” focusing on the great classic cars from 1905 to 1915. On loan for the exhibit that runs through April, those “beauties” include a Franklin and a Mercer.

The Mercer on display is a bright, yellow sports car that was a rival with the famous Stutz-Bear Cat for the title of handsomest car on the American road. For more information call AOW at 610-432-4200 or go online at www.americaonwheels.org.