Martinsburg group forms to return rare antique car to area

August 09, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. -- A homecoming is being planned for a luxury car that was built in Martinsburg more than 90 years ago and could be the last known antique vehicle of its kind in the world.

The return of a canary yellow 1914 Norwalk Underslung Six manufactured by the Norwalk Motor Car Co. is being spearheaded by members of the Martinsburg antique car club that adopted the long since defunct company's namesake.

The newly formed Friends of the Norwalk Foundation was born from the Norwalk Antique Car Club this summer as part of an effort to purchase the car from a Longmont, Colo., woman, according to foundation President Frederick "Freddie" Gantt.

"We can make it happen - she made it reasonable enough to make it happen," Gantt said of private fundraising now under way.


Car owner Shirley Hoffman confirmed in a recent phone interview that she agreed to sell the car to the foundation for $300,000 and had worked out a $50,000 installment plan over the next five years to make the deal possible.

"I hope it works out," Hoffman said. "I think it should go home."

Hoffman said she received several offers from Europe for the car after placing an advertisement in Hemmings Motor News, but she turned them down.

"I really wanted it to go (to Martinsburg) because its the only one of its kind," Hoffman said.

Organized in Norwalk, Ohio, in 1910, the "brass era" auto manufacturer relocated to Martinsburg after experiencing financial trouble almost immediately, according to records provided by the Automotive Research Library of the Horseless Carriage Foundation in La Mesa, Calif.

Bankrupt a year later, founder Arthur E. Skadden took his concept for the Norwalk to Martinsburg, where he attracted a new set of investors. In 1912, the car's most famous feature, its Underslung frame, was introduced, according to the Standard Catalog of American Cars 1905-1942. Marketed with the slogan "The Car of Absolute Exclusiveness," the 1914 six-cylinder models ranged in price from $2,750 to $3,750, according to the third edition of the catalog. Henry Ford's Model T cost less than $1,000 at that time.

About 75 of the Underslung Six models were assembled at two Martinsburg locations until 1922, according to state historical accounts. One of the buildings burned in 1989 along what is now known as Norwalk Avenue.

Norwalk's fade into oblivion came about in October 1922, when Skadden's widow dissolved the corporation rather than allow a takeover in the works by individuals who were registered Socialist Party members, according to the catalog. The Skaddens were staunch Republicans.

Gantt said he discovered in June that fellow antique car club members had known about the car for about 10 years, but little money had been raised to try to purchase it.

"You got to decide if you want it and then you got to decide if you want to work hard enough to get it," said Gantt, who plans to haul the car back to Martinsburg next month and have it in the Mountain State Apple Harvest Parade in October.

For the last 18 years, the Norwalk has been parked in Hoffman's garage after she purchased it to save it from foreclosure.

"I want people to see it," Hoffman said of the car's unique features, which include an electric shift and 40-inch wheels. "The man that ordered it originally ... wanted heads to turn when he drove down the street," Hoffman said of the vehicle's bright color.

Except for the seats, ragtop and rebuilt windshield, everything is original on the convertible, said Hoffman, who said she was the third owner.

While the Norwalk in Colorado might be the only one left in existence, Antique Automobile Club of America librarian Kim Gardner said last week that it would be difficult to be absolutely certain that one isn't stored in a barn or somewhere else.

"I haven't seen one go through our judging system," Gardner said. Based in Hershey, Pa., the AACA is the oldest antique car club in the nation and claims about 60,000 members, but the cars they own are not listed with the organization, Gardner said.

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