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1914 Underslung Six returns home to Martinsburg

Only known remaining Norwalk automobile back in the city where it was built

Only known remaining Norwalk automobile back in the city where it was built

September 29, 2008|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- After being owned by a Colorado rancher 1,700 miles from Martinsburg, the car was back home.

The bright yellow 1914 Norwalk Underslung Six with its Vulcan electric shifter -- considered to be an advanced concept for its time -- sat under a pavilion at Poor House Farm Park on Sunday and those responsible for its return could hardly believe their eyes.

"It's almost like a dream," said Chris Breeze, vice president of The Friends of the Norwalk Foundation Inc.

"This is just a great opportunity and just a great day for Berkeley County and the city of Martinsburg. This car doesn't need to be anywhere else but here," said Martin Frye, treasurer of the organization.

Breeze, Frye and dozens of others were celebrating the successful acquisition of the only known Norwalk vehicle to exist in the world -- a lasting glimpse of the automobile production plant that operated in a huge brick building near the intersection of Porter and John streets in the city.

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The Norwalk Motor Car Co. started in Norwalk, Ohio, in 1910, but soon ran into financial trouble and folded quickly, according to a historical account from The Friends of the Norwalk Foundation.

Investors in Martinsburg bought the company and its remaining parts, and moved the operation here, according to the account.

It was a unique, small-town story about a car company that struggled with money problems and had slow production but was considered a pioneer in automobile design.

The car's Vulcan electric shifter -- which was only on 25 of the cars -- allowed the driver to select speeds from a silver mechanism attached near the steering wheel. The driver would push button one to start out and push the clutch to engage the gear. The driver would repeat the process by going to buttons two and three as speeds increased.

That was much simpler from other cars at the time -- like Ford's Model T -- which used a complicated shifting procedure.

"The weakest woman can handle the car without extending her strength in the remotest degree," according to an old Norwalk magazine advertisement that offered two models for $2,650 and $3,500.

One of the most important features of the car was its "underslung" chassis design, which placed the frame of the car well below the spring suspension and axles, lowering the center of gravity and making the car practically rollover-proof, according to The Friends of the Norwalk Foundation.

"This car's got class," Garry Murphy, historian of Friends of the Norwalk Foundation, said as he looked at the 1914 model at Poor House Farm Park.

Murphy, a 69-year-old Berkeley County resident who has been researching the Norwalk Motor Car Co. since he was in high school, said the cars were painted with a varnish-type paint, which took a long time to dry. To speed up the drying process, workers poured fuel in troughs around the perimeter of a room in the Martinsburg plant and lit the fuel, Murphy said. They would then close the room and let the heat dry the paint, Murphy said.

Parts for the cars were obtained from various sources and some parts came from a brass foundry in Ranson, W.Va., foundation members said.

About 35 workers produced two cars a week and the company -- which was never financially stable -- was forced to close by a judge in 1915 as part of a bankruptcy case, according to the historical account. The company reorganized and continued production but was closed for good in 1922, according to the account.

It is not known how many Norwalks were made because the company's records were eventually hauled off to a dump, Murphy said, and the old Norwalk building was destroyed by a fire in 1989.

Few people locally are aware of the company's existence here, Breeze said.

When Freddie Gantt, president of The Friends of the Norwalk Foundation, was raising money to buy the yellow 1914 model, he went to a local salvage yard business to see if it could help, Breeze said. When Gantt showed a man at the salvage yard the round Norwalk emblem that appeared on the cars, the man remembered when his business was asked to help clean up a site in the Back Creek area where there was an old truck with the Norwalk emblem. Trucks also were built on the Norwalk chassis.

"He said it was sent up to the salvage yard and it was crushed," Breeze said.

About six years ago, Breeze, also a member of the Norwalk Antique Car Club, said he discovered that the last known existing Norwalk car was owned by Shirley Hoffman, a rancher in Longmont, Colo.

Hoffman owned the car for about 18 years and bought it from a man to help him through some bankruptcy problems, foundation members said.

Breeze discovered that the car almost went to auction and contacted Hoffman, pleading with her that the car should be returned to Martinsburg.

Breeze said Hoffman told him the selling price was $300,000, but the Norwalk Antique Car Club didn't have that kind of money.

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