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Back to the streets of yesteryear

Debbie and Sam Tzountzouris in their 1914 black Ford Model T, part of the Horseless Carriage Club of America gathering in St. Jacobs. [Leah Gerber]

Colleen McTavish adjusted her chic cloche hat and arranged her skirt as she sat in one of the earliest cars Henry Ford ever made: a Model A Runabout. This horseless carriage, as it’s classified, is barely recognizable as a car by today’s standards: the small red body has a snubbed, flat snout, the steering wheel rises up like a dandelion in the middle of the carriage, and a curled brass horn with a bulbous rubber ball is positioned next to the occupant’s knee. 

To say it looked a little out of place in the parking lot outside the St. Jacobs Peavey Mart is a bit of an understatement.

The southern Ontario chapter of the Horseless Carriage Club of America landed in St. Jacobs last weekend, bringing 22 of the first cars to ever drive on a road,  ranging in years from 1903 to 1915, to the Courtyard Marriott Hotel.

The club came to the area for a hub tour, which is a weekend of day trips touring the horseless carriages and returning to the same location each night. The trips are small, under 100 kilometers, says Kim Baechler, the vice-president of the Horseless Carriage Club of America’s  southern Ontario branch. This was the first event of its kind since the pandemic began.

Larry Lautenschlager of Elmira drove a car in the hub tour that he says was his grandfather’s car, a black 1914 Model T.  Lautenschlager says the car was built in Walkerville, now a part of Windsor, sold out of a dealership in Berlin, now Kitchener, and delivered to Petersburg for his grandfather.

The oldest car present was the McTavish’s 1903 Ford Model A Runabout, but others included 1911 Model T Torpedo Runabout, a 1915 Overland 83- Touring, a 1913 REO The Fifth – touring, 1909 Oakland, 40F Touring, 1913 Renault AX, 1909 Brush Runabout Roadster, 1913 McLaughlin 25 Touring, and a 1905 Buick C, among others.  

Each car has a long, long history, and whether they came by the vehicle through family, a museum or a collector, all the drivers cared about their horseless carriages like members of their families.

“It’s a living museum,” Baechler said of the club. “We try to get them out so everyone can see them run and enjoy them.”

From the Courtyard Marriott, the group toured the area’s back roads: a trip to Stratford with lunch scheduled at the park on Cobourg Street on Friday, making stops at Castle Kilbride and New Hamburg along the way, while on Saturday the horseless carriages were on display at the Market Road Antiques until 10 a.m. before going off to tour the surrounding area. Elora was scheduled for Sunday.

Debbie Tzountzouris and Sam Tzountzouris were wearing matching safari-style straw pith hats while they prepared for their Stratford road trip in their 1914 black Model T in the parking lot of the hotel. Debbie said they bought their car from a collector who had wanted a red Model T instead of a black one.

When asked about the work involved in keeping a car like this on the road, Debbie said “the average backyard mechanic can do a lot of the work themselves.” She added, “the brass is a little bit of work to keep clean and shiny because it goes dull.”  

She stood up to demonstrate where the gas tank is: under the front seat of the car. To find the gas tank, the seat had to be fully removed. Then Sam demonstrated how to gauge how much gas is left in the tank, by removing the cap and dipping a specialized wooden ruler with lines indicating how much fuel remains.

The 1915 model year is roughly considered the cutoff point of the horseless carriage designation, because at this point, the technology for the vehicles started to evolve very quickly, said Baechler.

 By 1916 the lights in the vehicles were regularly electric, and the cars were also able to reach faster speeds, he said.

“The car’s evolution became very quick in the early part of the year and before World War One. And so the cars started moving faster and faster – even in 1915, the cars were moving at speeds of about 50 kilometres, 55, even 60 kilometres an hour.

“But after that they started to move even faster. So the dedication to the touring prior to 1916 is really because of the age of vehicles all run about the same speed and truly are considered more the horseless carriages, i.e. the migration from horse-drawn to horseless. Then the automotive industry really started to pick up after that.”

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