It's not everyday you experience the sound of a 110+ year old piece of machinery, let alone get to ride in one. But yesterday we did both. Willy and Charlie got the 1899 Hertel operational and we went for a ride - albeit a slow and gentle one. For a brief history of our Hertel check out Nancy's blog post from when it arrived in Fairbanks back in October of 2009. Now then, first thing you'll notice about the Hertel is that she appears to be a fragile, pair of bicycles with a motor. But it was actually constructed quite well, as her endurance to this day can attest. Next, you might wonder how the thing could work at all without a carburetor, distributor, spark plugs / wires, starter, and no real transmission. Then you take a closer look at how the mechanicals operate and you really start to appreciate the tremendous effort that went into this machine in order to make it gloriously simply to operate. And it does operate, perfectly well in fact.
The starting 'lever' is a tad inglorious in operation, but you start it from the seat by adjusting the 'air' setting with a little lever, twist the 'throttle' dial on the handle, squeeze the handle, then just pull back on the lever (20 or 30 times) and it'll fire right up. (Getting the proper fuel and air setting proved to be challenging.) Willy, of course, failed to read the manual first which clearly states how to start the engine ---- "The handle having a rotary motion with an index on top to gauge the position of the charging valve. The helical slot is shown in the handle at the right. The small hand clip when closed upon the handle lifts the rod linked to it and the stop on the steering pawl, when the pawl drops into the teeth of the geared crank wheel and a fore and aft motion of the lever starts the motor in motion; at the same time a twist of the handle by the hand opens the the gasoline regulating valve by the movement of the rod and attached bell crank, shown at the left in figure 182, by which the long lever shown at the bottom of the cut, is given a horizontal movement that operates the plunger in the gasoline regulating valve shown at the lower left hand corner in the cut." Pretty straight forward I thought.
But it does start, eventually, and the first thing you notice is a VERY unusual sound, mainly attributable to it's 'atmospheric' intake valves. Anyone who has seen the movie 'Flubber' will have a pretty good idea of what the engine sounds like. I tried my best to capture the sound in a video which I'll post to our YouTube Channel in the near future. Once started, just push the lever forward to engage the drive pulley to the wheel and you're off. It does have two forward speeds which are - Slow and WAY faster than you should probably drive this thing. The video I took was in 'slow' speed and the front wheels shake, shimmy and rattle like you might think it's coming apart. And in fact, in just a few laps around the parking lot we lost a couple screws from the 'fuel system' (using that term loosely). I told Willy before we started that he had a few screws loose, but that's a different story.
The experience of riding in the little carriage is very difficult to describe. In some respects it's a very odd and slightly unnerving experience. The Hertel is, after all, an antique piece of American History. Something you've always come to understand as a 'display' in a museum that you don't get to touch, let alone startup and actually drive. On the other hand, it's like an exhilarating time warp to the past allowing one to feel, smell and experience what it was like to drive an 'automobile' 110 years ago. That was before the Wright Brothers flew the World's first powered airplane; when Electricity was a novelty in many cities; the crank telephone was 'cutting edge'; and the automobile as a form of transportation was just an experiment - by putting two bicycles together and adding an engine.