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Oldest surviving gasoline-powered automobile manufactured in Los Angeles

The Smith Automobile and Machine Company

The photograph above is Miss Alice Graf sitting in a runabout car with tiller steering on a Los Angeles street in an area called South Park where the Smith family resided.
The photograph above is Miss Alice Andrus sitting in a runabout car with tiller steering on a Los Angeles street in an area called South Park where the Smith family resided.

It was Christmas Day in 1909.  Reuben Stanley Smith took the above photograph.  Little did Alice or Reuben know at the time that this period photograph would be the only one in existence of this very special automobile that now resides at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

Alice Andrus was one of Reuben Stanley Smith’s first cousins on his mother’s side that lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  More than likely, Reuben escorted Alice to Los Angeles for the holidays.  At the time, Reuben had just started his career with his uncle’s firm in Milwaukee, the A.O. Smith Company.

 

The above is the envelope containing the glass plate negative of the Smith runabout. The runabout even had a family nickname...Ethel.
The above is the envelope containing the glass plate negative of the Smith runabout.

The runabout even had a family nickname…Ethel.

History of Ethel

image1
Excerpt taken from Los Angeles Directory, 1906.

Alonzo Smith moved his family from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Los Angeles, California at the turn of the century.  He nearly immediately went to work with one of his sons, Reuben Stanley Smith, and started the Smith Auto and Machine Company.  They shortly produced the runabout model shown above named Ethel.  Thus far, no records have been found on whether the company produced this car in any quantity, but the assumption is that very few of them were made available to the consumer.  One documented source (Automobile Manufacturer’s Worldwide Registry) states that only one car was made.

Ethel was fitted with an engine designed by Reuben

Classified advertisement taken from Los Angeles Directory, 1906.
Classified advertisement taken from Los Angeles Directory, 1906.

Stanley Smith.  It was an air-cooled, opposed two-cylinder engine using a Tilotson carburetor.  The engine produced a whopping 5 horsepower.  The “transmissionless” Ethel was designed with belts from the engine to   the rear axle.  A lever on the driver side of the car was used to either tighten or loosen the belt drive via a pulley, with such tension used to make the car go faster or slower.  Another belt from the camshaft provided reverse motion.  Tiller steering was used in lieu of a steering wheel.

We surmise that Alonzo and Reuben were having the same difficulties most car manufacturers shared back then…finding companies willing to invest in the distribution side of the business; in other words, dealerships.  So, in 1906, the two started their own dealership to not only sell the runabout, but also a truck they began producing as well. They called their truck the “Pacific”.

Left: Reuben and Alonzo Smith, first Pacific truck manufactured in 1906. Middle: Nameplate affixed to truck front. Right: Second Pacific truck manufactured, 1906.
Left: Reuben and Alonzo Smith, first Pacific truck manufactured in 1906.
Middle: Nameplate affixed to truck front.
Right: Second Pacific truck manufactured, 1906.

The Smith Auto and Machine Company produced at least two known trucks.  The company advertised through 1910.  However, it all stopped in 1911 and the Smith Auto and Machine Company ceased to exist any longer.

Ethel comes back to life

It is not known what happened to Ethel after the period photo was taken in 1909, until twenty years later.  In the late 1920’s a truck driver spotted her in the back yard of a farm in the San Fernando Valley, not far from downtown Los Angeles.  The owners of the farm were cleaning up the place and collecting a pile of trash to burn.  Ethel was on top of this pile.  They sold Ethel to the truck driver who promptly took her home.

But the driver’s wife was not pleased so Ethel was traded to a local car dealer for a truck tire.  There Ethel sat for many years and then found her way to another farm in the area.  Ethel was in poor condition, partially disassembled and crumpled from having been backed into by another car.  This is when Mr. Ray Nelson found Ethel and began the tedious process of restoration in the 1950’s.

The Petersen Automotive Museum recently acquired Ethel and opted to engage in a compassionate restoration process to preserve the oldest known gasoline powered car manufactured in Los Angeles.  Ethel is on display at the museum.  She is a lucky survivor.

Permission to use the above image was granted by the Petersen Automotive Museum at 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, Ca., 90036.
Permission to use the above image was granted by the Petersen Automotive Museum at
6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, Ca., 90036.

 

The Smith family would like to thank the Petersen Automotive Museum for preserving and presenting this wonderful example of a very early automobile.