Jay Leno loves “Fatty” Arbuckle’s century-old car
Hoping to convert his carriage business from horse power to horsepower, Harry McFarlan went big. Huge, actually. The McFarlan Motor Car Company of Connersville, Indiana, produced large, luxurious automobiles from 1910–1928, and one of them was a perfect fit for Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle, the 300-pound silent-film star and comedian.
One hundred years later, Jay Leno snags an opportunity to drive Arbuckle’s 1923 McFarlan Knickerbocker Cabriolet Model 154 in an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage.
“I’m the second comedian to drive this car …,” Leno jokes. He may actually be the only one to drive it, considering Arbuckle’s size and the lack of legroom up front in the normally chauffeur-driven automobile. Although conceptcarz.com says 50 were built in 1923, the McFarlan is a rare breed, perhaps the only one.
“How rare is it?” Leno asks. “I’ve never seen one before.”
Hagerty senior auction editor Andrew Newton says there’s plenty to like about McFarlan automobiles. “McFarlan isn’t a well-known carmaker, as it didn’t produce many cars and didn’t even make it to the Great Depression, but it made advanced, well-engineered cars for wealthy clients.
“Part of what is so neat about the built-to-order, coachbuilt nature of the top-end cars of the 1920s and ’30s is their wide range of cool and interesting body styles and features. Arbuckle’s car not only features McFarlan’s signature Twin-Valve Six engine, which was very advanced stuff for the ’20s, but its Knickerbocker body includes flamboyant stuff like six fenders.”
Cameron Richards, vice president of the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar, California, northwest of downtown Los Angeles, says the Knickerbocker Cabriolet Model 154 on this episode of Jay Leno’s Garage is “the only known survivor.” It was also the only one built for Arbuckle, who likely enjoyed the car’s plush passenger compartment.
Fatty Arbuckle likely gained his nickname early on, as he weighed in excess of 13 pounds when he was born on March 24, 1887. His size shocked his parents, both of whom had slender builds, and Arbuckle’s father was so convinced—and angered—that his wife had cheated, he named the boy Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle, after New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, a known womanizer.
Thirty-four years later, another accusation of infidelity (and much worse) ruined Arbuckle’s reputation and essentially ended his acting career. In 1921, Arbuckle—by then a star—was accused of raping actress Virginia Rappe after Rappe was found seriously ill in Arbuckle’s hotel room after a night of partying. Rappe died three days later, and a friend of Rappe’s claimed that Arbuckle was responsible. He maintained his innocence through three trials, the first two of which ended in a hung jury before Arbuckle was ultimately acquitted in April 1922.
Will H. Hays, who served as the head of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) censor board, decided that regardless of the court’s ruling, Arbuckle embodied everything that was wrong with Hollywood. Hays banned Arbuckle from ever working in U.S. movies again, and all of Arbuckle’s previous films were prohibited from being shown. Public pressure forced Hays to lift the ban in December 1922, but it was too late to save Arbuckle’s career. He later worked incognito as a director by using his father’s name, William Goodrich, after Arbuckle’s friend Buster Keaton suggested he go by “Will B. Good.”
Arbuckle’s reputation may have been destroyed by the Rappe scandal, but he still managed to purchase his luxurious 1923 McFarlan Knickerbocker Cabriolet Model 154, thanks to the $1 million annual contract that he had secured from Paramount in 1920 (that amount would be more than $15 million today).
Arbuckle’s 5200-pound McFarlan is powered by a 572.5-cubic-inch, 120-horsepower six-cylinder engine with a 4.5-inch bore and 6-inch stroke. The T-head engine features 18 spark plugs and four valves per cylinder.
“This is an enormous engine for the period,” Leno says. “… T-heads were popular because the gas was not very good; the octane was very low. With a T-head, the piston is in the middle and the valves are on the side …. The cars would run cooler because there’s a lot more space for the water to go around and keep the valves cool.”
The car also had a custom canopy that attached to the rear, along with a matching director’s chair, so that Arbuckle (who passed away in his sleep on June 29, 1933, at the age of 46) could also stay cool by sitting in the shade and enjoying a beverage.
After Leno and Richards discuss the finer points of the McFarlan, Leno starts the car and immediately notices a hissing sound coming from beneath the hood. “One of your primer cups is open,” he says. The show’s head mechanic, George Swift, confirms that Leno’s ears are correct. After a quick fix, Leno chauffeurs Richards around L.A., causing Richards to joke that his career has just peaked.
“I’m being driven around by Jay Leno. I could get used to this.”
Leno’s attention is glued to the car.
“You know, this has got a lot of power—well, I guess torque is what it has, really,” he says. “It feels like [it needs] just a little gas and it pulls right away … Boy, I’d put this right up there with the (Rolls-Royce) Silver Ghost.”
Leno praises the quality of the McFarlan, which he says compares favorably to other high-class luxury cars of the period and predates the Duesenberg Model J. “These things were bulletproof—built to run and start under any circumstance. The quality just oozes out of this car.”
A century ago, another famous comedian thought the very same thing.