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Chasing Grandpa: The quest to replicate a century-old cross-country roadtrip in a 1917 Maxwell

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[Editor’s Note: Last year we mentioned that the grandson of an adventurer who undertook a transcontinental road trip in a 1917 Maxwell was planning a centennial celebration of that trip by replicating it in another 1917 Maxwell. That grandson, Richard Bessamir, completed the trip late last year and has now released a book, Chasing Grandpa, chronicling both trips, which he’s allowed us to excerpt below.]

It was early morning and the rising sun cast a long misshapen shadow across US 1. At a glance it looked like two gents in frock coats and caps were hunched over the darkened silhouette of a 1917 Maxwell convertible. Rich gave Doug a poke in the ribs and pointed to it. “Look! Grandpa and Scull are following us.”

Indeed, as the next week unfolded, it would certainly appear to unbiased eyes as if the two brothers were being guided, inspired and protected either by luck, coincidence or by supernatural forces.

Consider the following:
. . . a man just happens to find a six year old newspaper article about the planned trip and sends an email to Doug just days before they leave with an invitation to provide assistance in the Indianapolis area. This was an offer the boys needed.
. . . a spur-of-the-moment purchase of a tire repair kit for seemingly no reason turns out to come to the rescue three days later.
. . . the Chevy support vehicle develops an intermittent problem while on a deserted road but miraculously manages to keep running to get the boys to their destination.
. . . finding a store open on Thanksgiving day with urgently needed repair parts.
. . . thirteen days on the road with cold but clear weather and only two small rain showers. The only storm that they encountered passed over them while in the warmth of a shop while repairing the Maxwell.
. . . failed radiator fan bearings were replaced with bearings from a damaged radiator fan they just happened to have.

Could the boys just have been extremely lucky or was there someone really watching out for them as they chased Grandpa? You decide.

Chapter 4 – The Trip
Author’s Note: All entries from the diary of C.W. Tuthill will be worded and spelt exactly as taken from the diary. No additions or corrections will be made to that text. The term ‘Therm’ refers to the temperature at that time of the day in either the CWT diary or the Team Maxwell entries.

November 15th was a cold damp day with rain showers expected for most of the day. The boys loaded up the Maxwell in the morning on the trailer that proudly was named, “Team Maxwell.” The excitement of what they were about to undertake was exhilarating. The cold, wet weather did not hamper their spirits at all.

Loaded up for Newark, New Jersey

The plan was to trailer the Maxwell to Newark, New Jersey. Doug and Rich would pick up John in Massapequa. They would stay at the Robert Treat Hotel, just a block away from 544 Broad Street, the planned starting point. Ricky Principi, Rich Pisacano, and Jimmy Waters decided not to spend the night in Newark. Instead, they planned to leave Long Island at 2 AM in the morning, so they would get to the hotel in Newark by 4:30 AM. They would follow along for the first day then turn back for Long Island as Doug, Rich and John continued west.

The ride west on the Long Island Expressway was not difficult. It was 11 AM, and the worst of the rush-hour traffic had subsided. John had suggested they all eat lunch at his house before pushing on to Newark. The Newark Historical Society asked to meet the boys that evening at 5:30. There was plenty of time for lunch at John’s. John had a great spread of sandwiches and salad. With full bellies, they headed back to the Chevy bound for Newark. With all three in the cab, it was the first test of the folding chair between the bucket seats. With Rich in the middle seat his head would touch the roof if he sat up straight, but with a little lean forward, he had a clear view of the Chevy’s hood and about twenty feet of the highway immediately ahead of them. No problem though, Newark was only a couple of hours away.

The historical society location was situated right next to the Robert Treat Hotel where the boys would spend their first night. The hotel was downtown just a block away from 544 Broad Street where the adventure would start. Although it was conveniently located, parking presented a problem. The hotel parking was not designed for a truck and trailer. The parking attendants found room that almost put the trailer on the sidewalk. Doug slipped the attendant a twenty in hopes he would pay a little extra attention to the Maxwell. It was dark already, and the Maxwell was covered up and locked down. Although no one said it, all three guys were hoping the car would be there safe and sound in the morning.

Doug, John, and Rich barely had time to take their bags up to the room before they had to head out to meet with the Newark Historical Society. The Society location was in the same block as the hotel. It took ten minutes to walk to their office. They were greeted by Steve Tettamanti, Greg Guderian, and Doug Oxenhorn, who showed them around the multiple floors that made up the Newark Historical Society. They had a friendly chat about Grandpa and the pending adventure. By eight, they were done and headed across the street for a meal at Blaze Pizza. After dinner, it was back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.

CWT diary entry Day 1:
Thursday, November 16, 1916. Therm 50 Weather Clear Started from Newark 7:30. Phila 12 o’clock Gettysburg 4:30 Arr’d at Pittsburgh after some high climbing at 1:20. Had lunch and went within 17 miles of Wheeling and slept outdoors. Had supper at Chambersburg.

Team Maxwell Day 1:
Wednesday, November 16, 2016. Therm 45 Weather partly cloudy

Ricky, Rich, and Jimmy arrived outside the hotel at 4:30 AM after leaving Long Island in the wee hours of the morning. The Team collected in the hotel lobby. It was still dark when they left to walk around the block to the parking lot. Although no one said it, there was a sigh of relief when the team found the Maxwell, the chase truck, and the trailer right where they were left. All wheels were accounted for, and nothing had disappeared over the night. The Maxwell was uncovered, straps holding the Maxwell to the trailer were removed, trailer ramps put in place, and the batteries were connected. After a couple of attempts, the Maxwell sputtered to life. There was no stopping Team Maxwell now!

Doug backed the Maxwell off the trailer and pulled it out of the way along the curb. The trailer ramps were secured back on the trailer. Safety lights were turned on and put on the trailer fenders. Much like a parade, the Chevy pulled up behind the Maxwell followed by Ricky in his SUV.

The morning dark was giving way to daylight as Doug and Rich lead the parade from the hotel parking lot around the block to 544 Broad Street. This was the address of the Maxwell Dealership where Tuthill and Scull worked and where they had started their trip 100 years ago. The moment was captured in a flurry of photographs, and the trip began. Steve and Greg from the historical society were there to send the Team off on their adventure.

Ready to depart from 544 Broad Street

The Team decided that to avoid morning traffic they would get on the road early and look for a place for breakfast after getting a couple of hours into the day’s trip. The sun came out, and the weather was cool but comfortable. The traffic was heavy with morning commuters. The team worked their way south on US 1 for 43 miles and at 8:30 stopped at the Corner Bakery Cafe just south of Princeton. After a delicious breakfast, the oil was changed in the Maxwell there in the Cafe parking lot. Because it was a newly rebuilt engine with a few hours on it now, putting in fresh oil was the right thing to do. Doug also drained the oil in the wet clutch and to his surprise drained two and a half quarts of oil out of the clutch that should have only had a pint of red transmission oil. Oil apparently was making its way from the crank case to the clutch. This was not something that could be fixed on the road so the team decided to keep an eye on oil levels at every stop.

Rich left behind gold stone #13 in the Cafe parking lot and Team Maxwell was back on the road by 10 AM after adding gas and fresh oil. Doug and Rich were riding in the Maxwell enjoying the sunny weather, honks, and waves of the passing cars. The Team traveled south on US1 as the morning sun was rising higher. Rich looked to his right and saw the sun was casting a silhouette of the Maxwell and two men against the road bank. Rich taped Doug on the shoulder and pointed to the shadow. “Look, Grandpa and Scull are riding with us!” Future coincidences gave the boys the distinct impression Grandpa and Scull were looking out for them.

Looks like C.W. Tuthill and P.G. Scull are with the Team

An hour into the trip Ricky pulled up alongside the Maxwell at a traffic light and Jimmy rolled down his window and yelled, “Your rear left tire appears to be wobbling.” As Doug pulled away from the light, he noticed the Maxwell did, in fact, have a bit of a shimmy. Doug and Rich pulled into the Faulkner Hyundai dealership and drove the Maxwell towards the back lot. The Chevy with John and Ricky in his Tahoe paraded behind the Maxwell. Once stopped the problem was obvious. The left rear tire split the side wall and the fifty five pounds of air pressure on the tube inside was bulging out. The folks at the dealership shop came out to see what was happening and offered help. The bad tire was replaced with the only spare that was brought while Rich called Coker Tire and made arrangements to have a new tire shipped ahead to Bob Larimore in Springfield, Ohio. Bob was the Maxwell owner the Team planned on visiting. The spare tire was installed in minutes, and the Team was back on the road.

The Team crossed into Pennsylvania by 12:30 PM and picked up Route 30 West. They were done with New Jersey. Rich looked at Doug and said, “One state down, eleven to go.” But the next state was expansive Pennsylvania: it would be a while before the Team was done with state number two.

The Maxwell was running well and logged 107 miles by 2 PM. The Team pulled off Route 30 for another gas stop. This time the Maxwell gas tank was filled to capacity, which was eight gallons. Before pulling away Rich noticed the Maxwell was dripping fluid from the steering column. It took one sniff to realize it was gasoline. It was running down the steering column, but why? Since the boys had never filled the gas tank completely before they did not realize the tank had a hole on the upper half that was allowing the gas to run out, down the tank, over the floor board and along the steering column. Pulling out the gas tank was not an option so for the next two hours the aroma of gasoline was with the Team. Needless to say this was not helping the Maxwell’s gas mileage. From then on the Team would only put four to six gallons of gas in the Maxwell at a time.

As they progressed west on Route 30, the weather started to change. The sun had given way to clouds. The Maxwell was running well maintaining a 30-35 MPH pace. Not the fastest car on Route 30 but not the slowest either. It was along Route 30 when the Team experienced a first. They passed another vehicle! That is if one considered an Amish horse and buggy another vehicle.

The clouds got heavier and darker eventually leading to rain just outside of Lancaster, PA. With just 138 miles into the trip, it was time to put up the Maxwell top and side curtains. Doug pulled off into a Walmart parking lot and he and Rich raised the top and buttoned the side curtains while Ricky and Jimmy picked up some Wendy’s burgers and fries. It was 3:30 PM before the Team was back on the road pushing on through the rain.

First rain on the Lincoln Highway (Route 30)

Thankfully, the rain did not last and once west of York, PA the Team pulled off again but this time to take the top back down.

Driving with the top up created a bit of a problem because it meant Doug and Rich had to hunch over more. Without the top, there was more head room making the drive more comfortable. Grandpa was six foot two and that probably explained why in most of their pictures, they, too, drove with the top down. It was 5:15 PM when the rain stopped and appeared that it was not coming back so the top was put back down and the side curtains stowed under the back seat. It was getting dark. The Team had only logged 185 miles at this point. This was a far cry from their 330 mile goal for day one.

Driving in the dark posed another issue. The headlights were not the brightest. The fact that they pointed high and to the right did not help with the visibility. With still over 100 miles to meet their goal the decision was to sandwich the Maxwell between the Ricky’s Tahoe in front and John with the Chevy warning lights flashing in the back. The Team pushed on in this formation. By 6:00 PM they reached Gettysburg but kept pushing west. The Maxwell needed gas by 6:30 PM and it was at this point the Team decided trying to drive in this formation was difficult. As much as they were hoping to make Laughlintown, PA at the 330-mile point, it was not safe. Plus half the Team had been up since 2 AM and was reaching the point of exhaustion. They called ahead and found a hotel in Chambersburg, PA. By 7 PM, the Maxwell rolled into the Country Inn and Suites in Chambersburg. They had logged 225 miles the first day and after only one day were behind Grandpa’s pace. The Maxwell was covered, the Chevy truck buttoned up, and the Team headed off to the Texas Road House for a late dinner where Rich left another “golden rock” before returning to the hotel.

End of Day 1, Maxwell covered for the night

CWT diary entry Day 2:
Friday, November 17, 1916. Therm 35 Weather Snow Got up at 7:30 Had breakfast at Wheeling left there 8. Had accident with sheep at 8:30 Cost $8.25! Had dinner Columbus and supper at Eaton, O. Made Indianapolis 1:15 Stopping at Hotel Oneida. Broken fan, leaking radiator, loose steering. Made 802 miles to here. Sent cards home & H., Mr. Porter & Mr. Parrish. W. Va & Ohio

Team Maxwell Day 2:
Thursday, November 17, 2016. Therm 43 Weather sunny

In reviewing Grandpa’s dairy the Team realized that Chambersburg, where they stopped, was where Grandpa had supper before continuing on their journey on day 1. Grandpa and Scull did not stop during the night until they were just east of Wheeling, West Virginia. The Team estimated they were close to 200 miles behind Grandpa. The Team was chasing Grandpa, right from the start. With clear skies and cool temperatures, the Team was optimistic for a good day of driving that would enable them to gain on Grandpa or at least not lose any more ground. So they thought.

After breakfast in the hotel, the Team uncovered the Maxwell and went through their pre-start rituals. They again found over 2 quarts of oil in the wet clutch. Two quarts of oil where there should have only been a pint and a half. It was obviously engine oil that was still seeping into the wet clutch. A pint of fresh transmission oil was added to the clutch, and the engine oil was topped off. The floor boards were pulled up and the gear box oil was checked. It was at a good level. With all the oil levels checked and the Maxwell started, it was time to start the day. Ricky, Jimmy, and Rich had decided this would be as far as they would go. From here on out it was up to Doug, Rich, and John to finish the journey.

The Team is ready to start day 2

Ricky headed east on Route 30 while Doug, Rich and John continued west on Route 30 with expectations of logging 300 miles or more on this sunny day. The cool and sunny weather was ideal for a drive in the Maxwell. Engine heat passed under the floor boards and into the cab, adding extra warmth for the boys’ feet. Add in the long underwear and ski pants made the ride comfortable. In order to get their 300 miles today it would be necessary to average 35 miles per hour. Not hard for today’s cars, but the Team soon put the Maxwell to the test going up the mountains, just west of Fort Loudon. The Maxwell ran well on all four cylinders but that 24 horsepower engine could only muster 25 MPH, sometimes even slower as it tackled the Pennsylvania Mountains. It was a slow ride up the winding Route 30 two-lane road with very little shoulder. On the plus side, there was not a lot of traffic so the slow pace did not result in a long line of cars following the Maxwell.

It was a good test for the Maxwell. Doug thought the clutch might be slipping so they stopped to give the Maxwell a bit of a rest and give the Team a chance to check oil levels. Rich switched places with John and climbed into the Chevy van while John hopped in the Maxwell with Doug. The Team pushed on up the mountain. It was not long before the uphill climb turned into a downhill rush. Rich felt a short term sense of relief as he followed the Maxwell downhill. Down a narrow, winding road with very little shoulder and steep drop offs. Turns were marked with huge signs posting truck speed limits of 20 MPH and giant black and yellow arrows. Many turns were blind turns some as sharp as ninety degree turns, which prevented a view of oncoming traffic. Rich was praying the oncoming traffic was staying in their lanes. Now instead of doing 25 MPH coming up the mountain the Maxwell wanted to go 40 MPH and faster. This was not the road to do 40 MPH, maybe if riding with James Bond in his Aston Martin but not in a 1917 Maxwell.

It was not long at all before Rich noticed a slight plume of smoke from the passenger rear tire. It quickly grew into a definite white stream of smoke. Honking the Chevy horn, he tried to get Doug and John’s attention. With the breeze in their face and the smoke trailing behind them, they did not realize what was happening. The smoke turned into billows of white smoke as Rich continued to honk and flash the truck’s lights. The wooden wheels had been soaked in kerosene and linseed oil on the advice of other car owners to keep the wood wheels from drying out and splitting. If the brakes got hot enough, a tire fire was entirely possible. Although the Team had a spare tire, they had no spare wooden wheel. It would be the end of the adventure. Fortunately, Doug and John heard the racket behind them and quickly found a place where they could just barely get off the road. Rich and the Chevy could only get partly off the road. A crisis was avoided, and the Maxwell’s brakes got a much-needed rest.

Much-needed stop to let the brakes cool

Once back on the road Doug used second gear a lot more down the rest of the mountain with no more brake smoke. At 9:30 AM, Doug and John pulled over into a vacant gravel parking lot. The sun was out, and the weather was nice so the Team decided to drain and refill the clutch oil after that grueling test up and over the mountain. They also pulled up the floor boards, so they could get to the clutch inspection plate and adjust the clutch hopefully to correct the slip Doug felt going up the mountain. The procedure for adjusting the clutch tension was not difficult. It basically meant having to equally tighten three bolts that can be seen through the access panel under the floor board. With the clutch adjusted and fresh oil in the clutch the Team was back on the road by 10:30 AM. They crossed over the Sideling Hill Summit on the Blue Ridge Mountain and stopped for a photo opportunity at an elevation of 2195 feet.

Over the Pennsylvania mountains

After traveling another thirty miles the Team reached Bedford, PA. It was here that the Maxwell engine had developed a tapping noise. Doug pulled off the road to investigate. Not sure where the noise was coming from, Doug called Tony the engine builder for advice. Although Doug was able to send Tony a video of the running engine, it was difficult to diagnose. Tony suggested a valve adjusting locking nut might have worked loose. The decision was made to operate on the engine to inspect the locking nuts on the valve adjusters. This required removing the carburetor and intake manifold in order to get to the valve adjuster cover panel. The weather was still sunny and comfortably cool so the operation began. It took a significant effort to remove the panel and finally get to the valve adjusters. None of the locking nuts were loose, but the gaps were larger than what was called for in the Maxwell instruction manual so Doug proceeded to readjust the valve clearances.

With the engine parts spread out on the ground, a passerby stopped and asked if the boys needed any help. The gentleman was Jim Diehl from Shiny Nickel Customs just two miles away. Some may say it was luck, and others might say it was divine intervention but Jim’s arrival was a blessing. Doug was having a problem adjusting the valves. Doug needed a thinner open end wrench to do the valve adjustment. Jim left and came back with a wrench to enable Doug to adjust the valves. Jim left, and the Team promised to return the wrench once done but Jim insisted they keep the wrench should we need it again. Gratefully, the Team took the wrench not realizing that it would be needed again.

Roadside adjustment of the valves

All in all, this stop took three hours of daylight before the Maxwell was back together and back on Route 30 west towards Wheeling, West Virginia. It would soon be dark and with less than 100 miles logged so far, it was evident that they would not catch up to Grandpa today. The reality is that the gap between them, and Grandpa was widening. They were still chasing Grandpa.

The original goal was to be in Wheeling, West Virginia before dark. Jeanne Finstein, a member of the “Friends of Wheeling” wanted to arrange for an antique car escort across the 1849 Wheeling Suspension Bridge. The same bridge Grandpa would have taken in 1916 but now was a historic landmark with strict traffic rules ever since a heavy Greyhound bus used the bridge causing some damage. Rich reached out to the Friends at Wheeling and explained the delay. Clearly, the Team would not make Wheeling before dark. The idea of an escort over the bridge sounded great but was not at all likely. However, Jeanne Finstein and Joanne Sullivan were still anxious to meet the Team and see the car across the bridge. They asked to be kept informed as the Team approached Wheeling.

It was close to 5 PM when it was getting dark, and the Team decided for safety sake to load the Maxwell on the trailer and head to Wheeling. Calling ahead to Jeanne and Joanne the Team made plans to meet in the parking lot of the Knight Inn a block before the suspension bridge. They would then unload the Maxwell and even though it would be dark, drive it across the suspension bridge just like Grandpa.

The Team arrived at the Inn by 7:30 PM, and was happily greeted by Jeanne, Joanne and others. Their warmth and excitement to see the Team was not dulled by the late arrival. After introductions and a quick recap of the day’s events, the Maxwell was unloaded. With Jeanne in the front with Doug, John and Rich took up a seat in the back. With the GoPro camera running the Team drove over the suspension bridge, just like Grandpa did 100 years ago. The bridge was old and sturdy, clearly a product of 1849 engineering. Once crossing the bridge Doug circled back for a return trip over the bridge and around a block of downtown Wheeling.

Across the suspension bridge with Friends of Wheeling

It was a delightful visit with the Friends of Wheeling. Jeanne gave the Team a tour of the Robert W. Hazlett house that was just two blocks from the suspension bridge. It was a house Grandpa most likely passed as they approached the bridge. Also noted was that the Team approached Wheeling through a tunnel into downtown. A passage not available to Grandpa in 1916, as the tunnel was built in the 1960s. Grandpa would have actually had to go not through the mountain but around it on Route 40 or what was known in 1916 as the National Old Trail Road.

After leaving the Hazlett house it was back to the Maxwell. Loaded on the trailer the Team decided it was time to push on towards Springfield, Ohio. The engine noise was still present after adjusting the valves. Bob Larimore and his Maxwell were in Springfield. If they could make there by the end of the night, they could visit with Bob in the morning and get his input on the engine noise. Plus Bob had received the spare tire and tube from Coker Tire that needed to be picked up.

The Team made it to the Marriot Courtyard around 10 PM after a less than exciting meal at Bob Evans. They had connected up with Bob and planned on driving to his Coachworks shop first thing in the morning. Grandpa had spent the night in Indianapolis. Grandpa had about a 130 mile lead on Team Maxwell even though they had an accident with a sheep. By the end of day two the Team was still chasing his pace.

[Make sure to check out Chasing Grandpa, available in print and digital versions on Amazon.]