1908 Sharp Arrow Runabout
Engine no. 2108
In the earliest days of automobile competition the drivers and their mechanics were epic heroes. Their vehicles were essentially unlimited in size or displacement, subject only to maximum weight limits that served little purpose except to keep the vehicles from becoming road locomotives. Their cars were generally powered by four cylinder engines of immense displacement, had no safety equipment and rode on tires that today would be considered unsafe on bicycles.
Bodywork was an afterthought, barely enough to cover the engine and give the sign painters space to inscribe an identifying number. The driver and his accompanying mechanician sat high on top of a limber frame in seats that barely kept them in the cars on curves. They bundled themselves in thick coats to protect their bodies from the exhaust fumes spewing forth in garbage pail sized clouds from the ignition of each cylinder and the rocks and dirt thrown up by the unprotected tires off the rude tracks that passed for roads. So tenuous was their perch atop the thundering, shaking, bouncing automobiles that they were appropriately described in press reports as on their automobiles.
When they crashed they were thrown violently from their mounts, landing in the ditches, brush, grass and rocks that lined the roads closed down for competition and hoping desperately that the three-ton behemoth that had failed them didnt end up on top of them instead of the other way round.
After crowds engulfed the Long Island circuit of the Vanderbilt Cup in 1906, cutting the race short after only two cars crossed the finish line, the 1907 Cup race was cancelled, then renewed in 1908 on a different 23 1/2 mile course that included a long stretch of the recently constructed Vanderbilt Motor Parkway, the privately funded and fenced road which Willie K. had built so he and his pals could exercise their powerful cars between Queens and their palatial homes on Long Islands North Shore. It was famously won by George Robertson in the Locomobile Old 16.
Competing for entries and attention with the Vanderbilt Cup was Savannah, Georgia which promised competitors a rigidly policed, purpose built road circuit with mannerly Southern spectators, in sharp contrast with the unruly Long Islanders. Organized by the Automobile Club of America, Savannah called its race the American Grand Prize, put up a $4,000 prize and built a 25.13 mile circuit, then lined it with 16,000 Georgia Militia troops to keep order. The race was won by Louis Wagner driving a Fiat. The competitive cars came from European marques like Benz, Renault, Fiat and Isotta-Fraschini. The American entries were production based cars from the likes of Buick, Marquette, Chalmers, Lozier, National and Simplex with prepared engines and lightened chassis mostly achieved by the simple expedient of removing everything not essential to driving.
The next Grand Prize race in Savannah was in 1910. The course was shortened to 17.3 miles and the race was scheduled for 26 laps, a total of just over 415 miles. The race again featured entries from Benz and Fiat with all-star drivers. As in 1908 the American entries were primarily stripped, modified production cars from Marquette, Marmon, Lozier, Alco and Pope Hartford.
The average engine displacement of the 15 starters was 571 cubic inches, ranging from the 318 cubic inch Marmons to the winning Benz of American driver David Bruce-Brown, a four cylinder that displaced an amazing 920 cubic inches, one gallon per cylinder. Among the European specials and American modified stock cars was one American special, the Sharp Arrow of Trenton, New Jerseys William H. Sharp.
Sharp was a photographer who doubled as a driver, testing the Walter and Roebling-Planche automobiles built under the enthusiastic leadership of Washington Roebling II, grandson of Brooklyn Bridge builder John A. Roebling. Sharp and his brother Fred built a sparse, lean racing machine in their spare time and achieved success in races around New York including the 1908 Long Island Sweepstakes that supported the Vanderbilt Cup, fifth overall in the Vesper Club Trophy race in Lowell, Massachusetts on September 8, 1909 and winning its class in the 1909 Riverhead-Mattituck Automobile Derby on eastern Long Island. Eventually they moved into a corner of the Walter factory in Trenton. It was built around a Continental L-head four-cylinder engine and soon its racing success led the Sharp brothers to contemplate series manufacture.
Initially located in Trenton, Roebling agreed to build the Sharps automobiles in the Walter (soon to be Mercer) factory. Speed demon that it was, the Sharps named their new marque Sharp Arrow and gave it the snappy slogan Speed King of American Stock Cars. After some 25 Sharp Arrows were built in Trenton they were encouraged to relocate to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania in an arrangement with the International Boiler Company there. But before the move could be completed William Sharp entered the 1910 Grand Prize race in Savannah.
He crashed during the first lap of pre-race practice, killing his mechanician, Albert Fuchs, instantly. Sharp himself died two days after. The Sharp Arrow marque died that day, with its production of Trenton-built cars from the Walter-Roebling factory being its whole history.
The Sharp Arrow is, however, celebrated as the inspiration for, if not the direct ancestor of, one of Americas great sports cars, the Mercer Raceabout, which rose from the ashes of the Walter company and was, in concept and execution, the image of the Sharp Arrow. Mercer Raceabouts, in both the original Etienne Planche L-head Model 30 and in the subsequent and best known Type 35 T-head generation designed by Finley Robertson Porter, would go on to become a champion of the open road and closed course circuits of the second decade of the century, giving an entire generation of drivers the opportunity to prove their bravery, talent and heroism.
The Paine Collections Sharp Arrow Runabout was acquired by Richard C. Paine, Jr. from W.J. and Genevieve N. Boden in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Its prior history is unknown although there was (and still is) a hand-lettered sign under the seat which states This car was formerly owned by a Stanley Tarnapol [sic], who displayed the car at The Historic Car Club of Pennsylvania. Tarnopol was a collector in the Fifties for whom the CCCA has established the Stanley Tornopol Award for the highest CARavan participation among CCCA Regions. Other information indicates it may have been discovered long ago by Blackie Shaffer and sold to a collector in Philadelphia named Robinson who had it restored.
It is powered by a 5x5 inch L-head four-cylinder engine of 393 cubic inches and exactly 40 ALAM horsepower with a Stromberg carburetor and dual ignition by magneto and battery and coil. Righthand drive, it is equipped with Rushmore acetylene headlights, and a cowl-mounted Rose acetylene searchlight but does not have an acetylene generator or Prest-o-lite tank. The live axle suspension has semi-elliptical leaf springs at the front and 3/4 elliptical leaf springs at the rear, shaft drive, a 3-speed transmission and mechanically operated brakes on the rear axle. The two seat runabout body has a pair of bucket seats, dual spare tires mounted at the rear, a luggage or tool box and a cylindrical bolster tank.
It was restored some time ago and now evidences age and some use although it has not been used to any extent since joining the Seal Cove Museum display. With attention to mechanical re-commissioning and completing needed items like lighting it will make an attractive and highly unusual automobile for tours or competition events where the important history of the Sharp Arrow would make it a highly appreciated participant. It is a memorial to an early independent racer, special builder and competitor whose vision and ability helped inspire one of Americas most famous and important automobiles, the Mercer Raceabout.
The Sharp Arrow story deserves more recognition than it has gotten and this handsome, powerful, sporting runabout has the style and performance to give renewed life to the marque.
- Upon inspection, we have determined that this vehicle is largely assembled of proprietary components. The gearbox for example is of Locomobile manufacture. The car is known to have been in existence in its current configuration since the 1960s and suggestion has been made during the viewing that it may be a faithful recreation of a sharp runabout.
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