22 May 2009

The Forgotten Joys of the Brass Era

Although the number of global automobile manufacturing companies has dwindled to fewer than two dozen, there was a time from about 1900 to 1916 when there were more than 1,000 independent automobile manufacturers in the United States alone. The cars from this period of motoring growth and innovation known as the Brass Era are distinguished by their large brass radiators and highly polished brass trim. Competing automobiles had little else in common as convention had not yet been set. The steering wheel could be on the right or left, if there was a steering wheel at all. Meanwhile, the engine could have one, two or four cylinders and it could be mounted out front, in the rear or beneath the body. Inventors and manufacturers were also competing to determine whether steam, electricity, or internal combustion would rule the world of the automobile.

At the beginning of the Brass Era most vehicles simply looked like the horse had run away from the carriage—hence the nickname “horseless carriage.” Only the inventor himself or the wealthy owned an automobile, and very few people even knew how to drive. This was also a time before the advent of professional mechanics, networks of paved roads or a series of service stations offering motoring basics such as gasoline or motor oil.

By the end of the Brass Era the age of the horseless carriage had ended, and a car looked much more like what we know as an automobile. With very few exceptions the steering wheel was on the left-hand side, vehicles had four wheels with an internal-combustion powered engine mounted out front, and windshields and headlights became necessary equipment. Meanwhile, the country was racing to build an infrastructure of roads, auto dealerships and service stations.

With each passing year, cars became more powerful, increasingly reliable and vastly more affordable. Before long, the automobile and the country’s rapidly expanding infrastructure facilitated inland shipping of goods by road and the ability to socially interact outside of one’s home and immediate community. With the necessary services springing up, the automobile also helped to give birth to a national tourism movement.

Owning a Brass Era vehicle isn’t just about the vehicle itself, it is about embracing a simpler yet exciting time in the early history of the automobile. Many modern day collectors (especially younger ones) tend to shy away from Brass Era vehicles when they first get into collecting. If they do happen to own a Brass Era vehicle it tends to get driven either very little or not at all. This is due to a combination of a lack of understanding and a fear of driving something that does not accelerate, handle or stop like cars from later eras. However, there are still gear heads and historical buffs like me that want to experience the thrills and tribulations of early motoring.

The beauty of driving brass cars is everything is mechanical. The vehicle will neither compensate for driver error nor automatically adjust itself as parts wear. From the driver’s seat you constantly monitor and adjust the ignition timing, the fuel mixture for the carburetor, and have to be aware of the next time you need to adjust the brakes, clutch, or transmission bands (such as in my Model T).

Even though we are the minority of collectors, we are a dedicated group that will continue to preserve, restore, and drive our Brass Era vehicles. And if you ask nicely, you may get a chance to come along for a ride and experience some of the exhilaration that made auto travel so exciting for the earliest motorists.

Visit carsthatmatter.com to access Hagerty’s Cars That Matter price guides -- your best resource for accurate and up-to-date collector car values.
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1901-07 Oldsmobile Model R Curved Dash $35,000 $40,000 $55,000 $50,000
1903-05 Cadillac Model A $85,000 $95,000 $100,000 $100,000
1908-15 Ford Model T Roadster $85,000 $25,000 $30,000 $35,000
1911-14 Mercer Raceabout $1,250,00 $1,500,000 $1,600,000 $1,750,000
1912-17 Stutz Bearcat $350,000 $400,000 $450,000 $500,000
Average Price $ 348,000 $412,000 $447,000 $487,000

1 Reader Comment

  • 1
    TBOU USA April 23, 2014 at 15:32
    Decent article, but why those year cutoffs? The table is entirely misleading as the average price is driven entirely by outliers and doesn't take into account that most cars from this era are reasonably priced today. A Stutz/Mercers is also hardly "average" from this era. How many of these were made vs Model Ts and mass market cars? Average prices of normal cars puts brass era vehicles around the price of a new middle class sedan.

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