The F.C. Deemer, Honeymoon Roadster, ex-Dick Teague and W.K. Haines
1907 American Underslung 50hp Roadster
Engine no. 1402
476.5ci T-head 4-cylinder Engine
Listed as 50hp
4-Speed Manual Transmission
Front and Rear Underslung Leaf Spring Suspension
2-Wheel Drum, and Transmission Brakes
*Oldest existing Sports Car in America
*Iconic early 'Speedster', with revolutionary 'underslung' suspension
*Known history from new
*Formerly in the famed Deemer Collection
*Recent Concours show exhibit and prize winner
The American Underslung
The innovative American Automobile company of Indianapolis, Indiana is best remembered today for their famous "Underslung" models. These striking designs placed the frame rails below the axles, giving a significantly reduced center of gravity along with a sporting profile. The problems of ground clearance were remedied by the use of significantly oversized wheels. This design innovation resulted in a chassis with remarkably sure handling while still retaining the necessary clearances to handle the poor road conditions of the day.
The effect of the underslung chassis, with its big wheels, was dramatic and memorable and helped make the Underslung both a style and performance icon of the pre-war era. These charismatic machines have been prized since the day they were built, evidently by the list of the car's owners - a who's who list of automotive luminaries. Captain Larz Anderson bought one new, and another became one of Briggs Cunningham's first and most prized antique automobiles.
Today the American Underslung is regarded by the Museum's founder, historian and collector, Dr. Fred Simeone, as the first American sports car. In his book The Spirit of Competition he states "...the American Car Company only made an automobile specifically for sport, at least in 1907 when the famed underslung chassis was introduced. Thus, arguably they are America's first exclusive sports car maker."
The Motorcar Offered
The Deemer family name will forever be associated with the American Underslung model, for they were serial buyers of these cars and the discovery of their cache of four Underslungs in the 1960s is one of the legendary tales of 'cars in barns' in America.
The origins of that find and the Deemer association with the brand began with the very car offered here, when a young Frank Deemer purchased this early example of American's sports model with its revolutionarily designed chassis. As today, it was quite common for those who earned their livelihood from this new industry to understand and benefit from the best of the technology that it created and to invest and support it themselves. It can safely be assumed that F.C. Deemer, whose business was in oil and natural gas, and in some part would have earned his living from the burgeoning automobile business, would choose what he felt to be the best automobile of its kind. As for any driven, young, up and coming individual, the freshly christened term by American of a 'sport' car would have appealed most.
And so he chose to purchase the very latest from American. On the basis of latter research it seems likely that this was one of the first such cars that the company had built, and was a pre-cursor to 1908 production.
He clearly appreciated this fine automobile, so much so that one of his first excursions would be to escort his freshly anointed bride on their honeymoon. Over the generations of coachbuilding design, a married couple's honeymoon has long been associated with two seater bodywork - the carefree newlyweds needing a motorcar with little more than a seat each and modest luggage space. F.C. Deemer may well have coined this phrase as it doesn't get more spartan than his American Underslung Roadster.
A few snapshots from the start of the honeymoon show the happy couple posing for each other after an undoubtedly routine tire change, "full of the joys of spring". And then one night on their journey they laid the car up in a barn in Oil City. Rather sadly, a fire in the barn that same night would curtail their journey albeit briefly for it is said that the bride and groom simply hopped on a train and headed to American's Indianapolis base to acquire another in its place. Surveying the factory, Deemer elected to buy the last of their 1908 production Roadsters and, liking the look of the next season's Traveller model that was being built, placed an order for one of those also. But Deemer had clearly already grown attached to this car, such that he chose to keep his 'Honeymoon' roadster and had it shipped back to his home. Indeed, he must have approved of the '09 also as a 1910 Traveller was later added to the stable. Loyalty and a 'word is my bond' attitude were known to have been some of Deemer's strongest qualities.
At this point one can 'fast forward' to the 1960s, when the second generation of car collectors were in full swing of sleuthing old cars in the manner of which their forebears such as Cameron Peck, James Melton and Henry Wing had done in the 1940s. One particular enthusiast, Walter Seeley, for the most part was interested in more humble automobiles, having previously restored cars including 1910 and 1914 Model T Fords and a 1914 Studebaker. Despite the 'car is king' culture in this nation, there were far fewer people interested in old things, and with no internet, enthusiasts relied on tip offs that the broadly defined 'old car' might still belong to an old family or suchlike. Of course many might have referred to these as rotting classics, but for the lucky Walter Seeley it was more like finding Tutankhamen's resting place.
Seeley was first alerted to the possibility of there being an American still with the Deemers in 1960, a year after F.C. Deemer Sr. had passed at the age of 89, though he would eventually wait until the estate was settled before pursuing this lead. One summer's day, Seeley was lead to a multi-story outbuilding on the Deemer family property, where the caretaker took him to the top floor and the treasured 'gold'. He is quoted as saying 'Incredible as it seemed we were looking at not one or two, but four early American Underslungs, - two completely original cars and the remains of two more'.
As it happened, the Deemers were not actually intent to sell any of the cars, but perhaps nostalgically following the death of their patriarch, were more interested in finding someone that could restore them. Over time, Seeley was able to negotiate a deal where if he were to complete this work for them, then his prize at the end of the exhaustive exercise would be one of the four.
The full tale of Seeley's find and the subsequent restorations of the Underslungs is well documented in the Antique Automobile in 1979, a decade or more again after the rebuilds were finished. In the manner of a true artisan, Seeley proudly details his workmanship and the reviving and rebuilding of all four cars. Such is the quality of his work and the time that has elapsed since that today it seems hard to believe that as much was required as he suggests. What is certain is that the workmanship was very fine.
It is of course logical that this car, which had suffered in the day, would have required the most work. However, with the resources of the other cars at hand Seeley was able to ensure that the rebuild and completed car was as accurately executed as it possibly could have been.
A further breakthrough for Seeley came three years into the rebuilds when he discovered that the family of Fred Tone, who had designed and built these cars, still retained drawings and even some parts from American production.
The Honeymoon Roadster was delivered to F.C. Deemer Jr. in 1968 at the Fall Meet of the AACA in Hershey, 47 years ago. It arrived sixty years after it had blitzed its way along the roads on his father's post wedding jaunt.
In the nearly five decades that have elapsed since this time, the car has had only a handful of owners, those including noted collector Dick Teague up to 1986, the late W.K. Haines, and the present custodian who acquired it in 2004 from Haines.
Its old restoration has recently been freshened and once again the car has returned to the show circuit, where it has as ever continued to be lauded and coveted at local events such as the Elegance at Hershey, the Keeneland Concours - where it was given the Chairman's award - and in the run up to the auction it is anticipated to be presented at the Radnor Hunt Concours d'Elegance. It is featured in numerous magazine articles including the aforementioned Antique Automobile article in 1979 and more recently in their November/December 2010 issue, where it is illustrated on the cover.
If one places this car in the context of its contemporary offerings by other manufacturers, it is the equivalent of a rocket ship in an era of turbo propped Constellations, and has all those wonderful hallmarks of sports cars that have followed in its footsteps, such as a Shelby Cobra. Sitting in a mere 110-inch wheelbase is a 50-60hp, 476.5 cubic inch four cylinder T-head motor, with mechanical valves and four speeds with which to enjoy its sheer performance. In this time such motors were usually created to ensure that the chauffeurs of behemoth limousines might convey their passengers at speeds faster than their recently obsolete horses and carriage. Here, all that may detain its miles per hour are a modest pair of bucket seats and the car's limited wind cheating capabilities.
As with many automobile designs, the original drawing board concept is its purest form. This was certainly the case with American, and it was not long before practicality in terms of touring coachwork became the norm for their models, and that also fashion began dictating coachwork that become closed in and more 'slab sided'. In the same way that we see a snapshot of this car on the honeymoon, so the model itself is a snapshot of an era.
As sporting a car as existed in its day, with a known history from new, the sheer style of the Honeymoon Roadster continues to hold its appeal today, wherever it is seen. Be it for tour or show, this car is sure to reward its next custodian.