VINTAGE SNOWCATS OF YELLOWSTONE

Paul d'Orleans with a 1967 Bombardier B12 Snowcat in Yellowstone National Park

I’ve visited Yellowstone National Park 5 times in my life (including the team Oily Rag/Vintagent Cannonball Rally), and until last week, every time had been on a vintage motorcycle.  Wyoming winter weather precludes two-wheel transport, so if you’d like to see Yellowstone in all it’s snowy magnificence, you’ll arrive snug inside some kind of tracked vehicle.  The best option by far -from Oily Rag’s point of view- is to enter via Jackson, WY, as the few visitors who brave winter’s chill are herded from the southern park entrance to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge in magnificent vintage yellow Bombardier B12 Snowcats.

A trio of Snowcats outside Old Faithful Snow Lodge

In continuous use by Yellowstone Park since new, their fleet of 21 Snowcats is the world’s largest, and their drivers a dedicated and enthusiastic lot.  They love their machines, which are still about the swiftest people-carriers on snow, and the grooviest by a long shot.  The earliest Snowcat in their fleet is believed late 1950s, with most built between 1965 and 1974.  They use a Chevrolet 350cu” motor, with dual high-rise exhaust stacks, giving a ‘hotrod’ sound which, while not especially loud, gives a thrill to anyone with a touch of Gearhead in the soul.  Fuel mileage is thirsty at ~3mpg, but the little yellow bugs are darned fast over the unplowed roads of Yellowstone, even when speed-governed to 35mph…they are clearly capable of more!

While in the wilds of the Park, the primary goal is seeking wildlife (wolves, coyotes, foxes, river otters, trumpeter swans, elk, and bison were spotted at close range on my visit),  enjoying the thermal features which pump steam columns skyward, and the many icy waterfalls and snowy vistas; still, catching sight of a Snowcat flying past is also a thrill!  Better yet, catching a ride via Snowcat to view distant geysers or to a remote spot for cross-country skiing adds a certain panache to the experience; everyone loves them.

In it's element; a 1972 B12 Snowcat in Norris Geyser Basin

Joseph-Armand Bombardier, born in 1907, was obsessed with making winter travel as easy as summertime, and while he had no engineering training, invented and built his first snowmobile (propeller powered!) in the early 1920s.   By 1937, the first Snowcat was built, the B7 half-track with room for 6 passengers and a driver; this type of Snowcat was their first commercial proposition, introduced just before WW2, as a way to get children to school, and to keep essential services mobile in the far north of Canada.  Prior to tracked snow vehicles, horses and sleighs were the vehicle of choice, well into the 1940s.  In 1942, Bombardier’s business was incorporated as L’Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée, which began producing a larger Snowcat, the B12, as seen in these photos.

Armand-Joseph Bombardier, in his B12 Snowcat, identifiable by the porthole windows, later changed to a more open design, which reduced a slightly claustrophobic feeling!

 The postwar world brought modernization to the world’s roads, and a commitment from most Northern cities and towns to plow the roads free of snow in winters.  While this impacted Bombardier’s business, there were still obviously many areas which were too remote for frequent plowing, and the Snowcats were produced until the mid-1970s; around 3000 were built.

The original sketch for the B7 of 1936; definite aeroplane influence, albeit with an all-wood body

If you’re interested in visiting Yellowstone Park in Winter, you’ll have to make all the arrangements beforehand, as there’s only one hotel, with 102 rooms, and access is via a once-daily Snowcat ride from the South entrance.  Plan on two days to get to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge from wherever you are; one day to get to Jackson Wyoming, and another day to catch the Snowcat.  My stay was 4nights, which seemed about perfect; we fit in a full day of snowshoeing independently, a half day showshoe tour of wildlife spots, a 105-mile snowmobile tour (amazing!), and some night-time stargazing and geyser-visiting.  This was an ‘always wanted to’ holiday for me, and it fulfilled my expectations 100%.  The landscape is breathtaking in any season, but Winter is the only time you’re ever going to watch Old Faithful with your sweetie, some bison…and nobody else!

- Paul d’Orléans

You'll suffer an hour of the Teton Range as you travel from Jackson to the Yellowstone border…surely one of the most spectacular, and unspoiled/untravelled ranges in the US

 

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Family Tradition, Travel, Uncategorized 2 Comments

WILTON’S GRAND MUSIC HALL

The Automobile magazine, father of the Oily Rag movement, recently celebrated its 30th Anniversary. Its publishers have produced a special 200 page Anniversary Edition, in addition to the regular monthly magazine. The Oily Rag’s website editor has written a paen to both the culture and celebration of ‘Oily Rag’. Available at all good news stands…commercial over!
To mark the occasion in a most suitable manner and also to launch a documentary film about one of Britain’s most respected and long-lived automobile journalists, Ronald (Steady) Barker, the event was held in what must surely be the Oiliest Rag location in the whole of London – Wilton’s Music Hall. Tucked away in the East End, just off historic Cable Street, Wilton’s is not easy to find. An extremely rare survivor, the building was once a public house (c.1828) becoming a Music Hall in the mid 1800′s. Once, the largest London pubs had ‘entertainment galleries’ but this is the only one left in its original state. Nearly lost to either re-development or neglect, it is a miracle that the fabric of the building and its unique interiors have survived. Wilton’s now has Grade 2 listed building status which affords it some protection, but it still requires huge sums of money to be spent on its restoration and stabilisation. The saucy, smoke-filled, beer-fuelled atmosphere of Wilton’s in its heyday is almost tangible when you enter, no wonder the Can-Can was first performed in London here…and promptly banned!. There is a bar and they also serve what looks like rather good food, so it’s no museum piece. There is also a full programme of shows throughout the year…to find out what’s on visit http://wiltons.org.uk.
 
If you’re visiting London, a visit to Wilton’s should be on your agenda. You can rent it for yourself just as The Automobile did. It’s unique – and Oily Rag in the extreme.
Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Architecture, Family Tradition Leave a comment

THE BAR ORIGINAL

Do try Gordon’s. No not the famous London Gin, although with a tonic water and a slice of lime there’s nothing quite like it after a challenging day at the typewriter…but Gordon’s Wine Bar. Gordon’s is an institution for those in the know. Situated in Villiers Street next to London’s Charing Cross Station, this place is a temple to the Oily Rag. An unassuming door hard on the street and a disarmingly simple enamel sign give no clue to the delights within. It always looks closed – closed as in ‘not open for trade’ from this angle – try the handle and the door swings inwards to reveal some huge and tatty posters on the wall and a near vertical flight of stairs leading down to where the serious business takes place. Wow! This place is humming! Crushed with people from all walks of life but rumoured to have once been the favoured watering hole of the security services –

“Where’s Bond?” asked ‘M’ wearily,

“Oh probably down at Gordon’s with a floozie” replied a secretary…

well, it could have happened!

A Gordon’s, it’s not only tourists who are beginning to discover its delights, but couples who probably shouldn’t be there and lone drinkers thoughtfully toying with bottles of something red – and French. And men whom it might be better if you didn’t speak to, unless you want a tip for the 4.30 at Kempton Park…or need someone ‘taking care of’.

You see Gordon’s is a wine bar. It sells wine and port and sherry and not a lot else. By the glass, by the bottle, by the magnum. You feel as if you really are drinking in a ‘cave’ too, for after you’ve bought your bottle and received the requisite number of glasses you pass from the bar area to a series of inter-connected low-vaulted chambers and if you’re lucky, find a seat. There you can people watch and so the hours pass with no sense of time whatsover. The place is candle-lit, not in some hugely romantic way but in the practical sense, augmented by some very low powered electric light bulbs. There are no windows and thus no reference to time of day. The peeling emulsion paint on the brick vaults has long since rejected its substrate and has developed a rather pleasing patina of gentle decay. Intriguing paintings and ancient advertising posters adorn the walls, some so stained from years of being exposed to cigar, cigarette and pipe tobacco fumes, that their images are barely discernable. This place has an atmosphere unlike any other drinking establishment in London.

Gordon’s decays delightfully – and positively, because it is kept vibrant by the passage of human beings with their conversations, their trysts and their indiscretions.

If you’re in London, and if ever you have an afternoon – or even an hour to kill, try Gordon’s

- John Dudley

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Architecture, Family Tradition, Good Bars! Leave a comment

‘THE DERELICTS’

Here’s a spin on the Oily Rag theme; purchase a rusto-wagon (preferably from SoCal, where the oxidation is merely cosmetic), remove the body in your high-tech shop (in this case, Icon), have your laser system digitize the chassis, and create an entirely new undercarriage and power system to hide beneath your ‘oily rag’ 1950s car.  Not preservation, certainly, especially when the engine is a new Chrysler V10 and the interior is based on an Hermés crocodile dye briefcase made for JFK…

The Derelicts a short film by eGarage from eGarage on Vimeo.

Love to hear your thoughts on this one.

- Paul d’Orléans

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Cars, Hand Made Leave a comment

THE SPIRIT OF THE OILY RAG

Lovely Aston Martin DB2 in green and rust…

This year’s Oily Rag Run, the third of an annual series promoted by The Automobile magazine (www.theautomobile.co.uk), was the most successful yet. Fifty ancient cars in varying stages of decrepitude descended on the sleepy north-east Essex village of Great Easton, some 45 miles from London, where Paul and Andrew Wood, proprietors of the eponymous Rolls-Royce dealership of worldwide fame, had bravely opened their immaculate showrooms and workshops to these alien invaders.

Practically the whole of the extended Wood family, plus several employees, had responded to locally-based historian David Burgess-Wise’s request to serve as the focus for the Run, offering, tea, coffee and home-made refreshments to participants and hangers-on throughout the day.

Paul Wood’s own collection was on display, in addition to many tens of millions of pounds’ worth of customer cars and a number of perfectly restored Rolls-Royces of all ages lined up for sale. These included the ex-Stanley Sears 1926 Rolls-Royce Phantom I, currently on offer with very low miles and its original coachwork by Charles Clark of Wolverhampton. The interior has to be seen to be believed, a Louis XV fantasy, all gilt and gingerbread, commissioned originally by one of the co-founders of Woolworths.

From the Wood family collection; fantastic Bugatti Royale

Award winners included specialist wheeler dealer Neil Tuckett with his rusty but complete and totally original 1924 English-built Model T (Most Feral Car); Dutchmen Henk Afink and Ernst Jan Krudop who set out to drive all the way from eastern Holland in their 1920s Morgan Aero three-wheelers, only to have one of them break a crankshaft en route (Most Travelled); and L Dean, driving Tom Fryars’s 1914 Crossley RFC light tender which came complete with contemporary ordnance (Car We Would Most Like to Take Home). A special award went to Ron Mellowship, who finished the course, believe it or not, in his ultra-mature 1896 Bergmann Orient Express dogcart.

- Jonathan Rishton

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Cars, Museums Leave a comment

A HAND-MADE WORLD

Jeff Epps and his ca. 1956 Ford F350 flatbed truck…

We’d been looking for a suitable Desert Racer, planning on some fun in the Southwest in two weeks.  I already have my original-paint ’73 Triumph TR5T ‘Adventurer’ purchased at the Bonhams Las Vegas auction last January, part of the du Pont family estate motorcycle liquidation.  Conrad wanted something similar, as he’s planning to spend a little time in Cali next year.  Whole container loads of Britbikes have been poached from California garages since the 1980s, and we don’t see many pre-unit Triumphs or much from the 50s and earlier, but ‘overlooked’ machinery is still to be found, in abundance, and fairly cheap.  BSA A65s, B50Ts, Triumphs post 1970, etc…derided in their day, but with modern eyes, well designed and fun machines.  Since we’re not seeking high performance or drag-racing with Kawasakis at every stoplight,  such motorcycles provide spirited riding indefinitely, and are easy to maintain, with parts readily available.

Conrad Leach seals the deal with Jeff Epps on the '71 Triumph TR6R

A scan of Craigslist revealed a likely candidate; a ’71 Triumph TR6R ‘Trophy’ with high pipes, looking complete and in decent shape, in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains, in Sonora, CA.  I have family in Sonora, the 2.5 hour drive isn’t daunting, and I had a feeling it would be worth the trip, as the area is full of ‘mountain men’ and eccentrics.  An empty van, a full tank, a few tie-straps, and a wad of cash; we were en route.

A neighbor's 1963 Willys Wagon, which has been sitting a long time, but is rust-free. We are inquiring!

Jeff, the vendor, was shocked that Tom Tom brought us right to his door, on the dirt road with no signs, in the hamlet of Soulsbyville.  His compound, one /fifth acre of dry dirt, a few trees, two wooden shacks, and a couple of old trucks, was clean-swept, with neatly stacked cordwood, a pile of which formed a tall curved wall keeping his home from view of the world.  Clearly, the man is organized and tidy, even if the grounds are humble dirt and wood.  Sonora is dry, with Scrub Pines and Manzanita dominating the foliage, and little grass; I knew the Triumph would be rust-free, at least.

The single male is prone to keeping a motorcycle in the kitchen…

Jeff’s home is entirely hand-built of plywood and studs, and he keeps a BSA Victor in his kitchen – it’s his pride and joy, shiny as a new apple.  A stack of Classic Motorcycle magazines decorated his den table…clearly he’s an old biker, and a real enthusiast.  The Triumph looked good, we did the deal, and shot some Wet Plates (our official ‘oily rag’ photo technique) of the man and his world.

Wet Plate photo of Jeff Epps, with BSA flat-cap, and his 'new', 1960s, Ford truck…

He’s thinking of selling up the whole place – yours for $55,000 – and moving higher up the mountain, so he can ski daily in winter. Sonora is slowly changing, with miles of anonymous strip malls and chain stores, looking like every other boring suburb on the planet.  We’ll have to drive a little farther to find the likes of Jeff in the future…

Wet Plate image of Jeff and his Ford F350; he's built a wooden pent-roof house on the flatbed, for toting snowmobiles and cordwood…

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Architecture, Cars, Family Tradition, Hand Made, Motorcycles Leave a comment

THESE BOOTS WERE MADE FOR…

…and that’s just what they did. And more… In 1965 my late father-in-law made a very wise investment. Enjoying tramping the Downs, as the hills around this part of Southern England are called, he decided to buy some appropriate footwear. The boots needed to be rugged, waterproof, long-lasting and comfortable – a combination not cheap. Whilst he was about it, and thinking of the future, he also bought a pair for his son.

Jon Dudley's hand-me-down Veldtschoen boots…

What he purchased were two pairs of Veldtschoen boots by the Northamptonshire maker, Lotus. The name Veldtschoen refers to its construction and although the term is thought to have come back from the Boer war as an Afrikaans name, it may have been an older Dutch description; the method of construction can be traced back to the 15th century. Lotus, once a proud British shoemaker, were a common brand on the high street of the 50’s and 60’s. These boots are I believe still being made in smaller numbers as the Lotus lasts are now in the possession of another quality bootmaker. Often called ‘Officers Boots’, Veldtschoens were bought for young men in the trenches of world War one in an attempt to keep their feet dry.

The boots in question did sterling service for nearly fifty years under my father-in-law’s ownership. They’ve covered literally thousands of miles throughout Sussex and were the spur to his writing one of his books, ‘Across Sussex with Belloc’ in appreciation of that great walker, poet, author and historian, Hilaire Belloc. When my brother-in-law moved house I found his ‘twin’ pair of contemporary and very worn Veldtschoens put out for the refuse. Snatching them from the jaws of death I had them totally rebuilt by a rural cobbler in the French village in which my sister lives. What a fabulous job he made of them too! So good that when I inherited the other pair he did those as well. I re-presented my bro-in-law with his old boots and he became quite moisty-eyed with the thought that he had so nearly and needlessly cast them aside.

Of sturdy constructions, to this day Veldtshoens are guaranteed waterproof. Good leather care means generations can enjoy a good boot.

Since then we both use them for their original purpose. They are supremely supple, comfortable and waterproof. Doubtless, generations of applying dubbin helps. In addition I always wear them when riding my motorcycle, for which, with ample ankle protection, they are admirably suited. These are surely ‘Oily Rag’ boots sans pareil. I will treasure them always and my youngest son is already eyeing them enviously – but I’m not ready to give them up yet. In my search for Veldtschoen information I was inspired hugely by Paul Trynka’s blog http://loomstate.blogspot.co.uk which is worth a look.

- Jon Dudley

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Uncategorized Leave a comment

BONHAMS ‘PRESERVING THE AUTOMOBILE’

Bonhams auctions are singing the Oily Rag tune at the Simeone Foundation just outside Philadelphia on October 8, 2012.  With 63 unrestored cars (and a single Sears motorcycle!) coming under the hammer, anyone looking for an ‘as found’ project should give the catalog a good look.

The 1932 Aston Martin LeMans 'barn find'…

The Simeone Museum, site of the Auction, is an impressive collection of racing cars from the turn of the Century to the 1980s, most of which are in original, unrestored condition.  Mr. Simeone is well known as an advocate for many years of a ‘don’t restore’ policy, which has at times aroused controversy and even derision in the magpie world of megabucks collector race cars.  He is to be saluted for his steadfast adherence to his principles, a keeper of the flame of originality, and his museum is truly a must see if you’re in Philly.  I visited the museum in 2011; for photos from The Vintagent, click here.

From a Simeone Museum tour in 2011

The Bonhams lineup fits well with the Simeone philosophy, and the cars range from as-new looking Ferraris, to a barn-find 1932 Aston Martin LeMans, an Isotta Fraschini 20s limousine, a Ford Model T with Raceabout Speedster body , to  Cadillacs and a Thunderbird ‘Thelma and Louise’ convertible.  All gloriously original. Plus of course, Bonhams usual massive array of automobilia and spares, some for the very cars on sale. Check it out here.

From the Simeone Museum; a lovely unrestored Alfa 1750

- Paul d’Orléans

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Auctions, Cars, Museums Leave a comment

THOUGHTS ON ‘OILY RAG’ PHOTOGRAPHY

 

Effects of chemistry and light which cannot be duplicated – or predicted – are part of the charm of 'obsolete' photo processes

Note; this article originally appeared in an abbreviated form in Men’s File magazine.

Mo-Ti, a tool-handy Chinese philosopher espousing universal love, constructed the first pinhole camera obscura around 400 BC, naming it the ‘locked treasure room’ (soding sang bao shu). Aristotle and Euclid also played with light in boxes, but it took another fifteen hundred years for Persian scientist Alhazen to accurately describe the geometries and properties of light, in 1021.  Eight hundred years later, an inveterate French tinkerer fabulously self-named Nicéphore Niepce, managed to fix an image from a lensed camera obscura onto paper. After ruining that first print in 1822 (while attempting its duplication), by 1825 he had his ‘heliograph’ sorted, with only 8 hours exposure time required per image.  Capturing the souls of people had to wait until after Niepce died, when his business partner Louis Daguerre perfected one of their experimental processes, using fumes of iodine and bromine on polished silver, with exposure reduced to seconds.  Humbly-named, Daguerreotypes were the first commercially successful photographic process, and exploded in popularity.  You can still make a Daguerreotype today, with a little low-tech equipment and a few very toxic chemicals; the resultant image is elusive – the surface is a mirror, with only ‘whites’ captured on the light-altered silver, the ‘darks’ supplied by reflections of the viewer’s clothing, and shadows.  Of all photographic processes, a Daguerreotype requires viewer participation; the magic mirror only works with an audience.

Sculptor Jeff Decker just outside Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park

Frederick Scott Archer rendered polished silver plates ‘obsolete’ in the 1850s by suspending silver nitrate in a sticky liquid (collodion, the first ‘plastic’), which was poured over a glass or metal plate, exposed to light, and fixed by salts.  ‘Wet Plate’ photography became the new standard, producing very fine images, the only disadvantage being collodion’s need to remain wet while in process – if the plate dried, no image – thus photos were taken near a darkroom for immediate development, or mobile darkrooms hauled to sites of interest, like Civil War battlefields, where cannonballs and bodies were typically re-arranged for proper effect.  You can still make a Wet Plate photo today, with a few chemicals and a box camera; as the silver nitrate solution is sensitive only to the blue end of the spectrum (much of it invisible Ultraviolet), the resultant image is unpredictable – we literally cannot see what will be captured.  Thus Wet Plate sees something we cannot, which is its mystery, and its charm, especially in portraiture, where natural variations of skin pigmentation enhanced by UV add ‘character’, much loved by men, and dreaded by women.

Philanthropist and eugenicist George Eastman perfected a method of fixing silver nitrates into a flexible, if flammable, nitrocellulose film, and sold a cheap box camera to hold that film in rolls, and by the 1890s his Kodaks had rendered every other type of photography obsolete. Eastman’s invention was the standard for 100 years, until digital cameras appeared in the 1990s, and film became obsolete. You can still take photos with film; it has beautiful qualities – Polaroids too. Each successive iteration of photography, from those first, day-long sun engravings on bitumen-coated stone slabs in the 1820s, thru the latest variable-focus light field cameras (coming shortly to your nearest cheapo electronics megastore), renders the previous method completely obsolete; this is Progress.  No?

Publisher Buzz Kanter and his hot Harley JDH; Burns, Oregon

But the notion of Progress is itself obsolete; we are inundated by a growing pile of ‘improved’ stuff, and question its contribution to our quality of life; is our 20 megapixel iPhone camera making us happy?  Old photo techniques require a bit of skill, time, and practice, all qualities our elders from Confucius to Ben Franklin have told us develop our souls.  Likewise for old vehicles; we love a vintage motorcycle partly because it needs us, and rewards our effort with an almost Buddhist experience; simply enjoying the ride, having let go the expectation of being fastest or best.  Same with an old car, or hand tools, or words written on paper, all consigned to the scrap bin by the New, yet, when the ceaseless chatter of Capital’s media is brushed aside, all these things are perfectly reasonable options for using as their makers intended.  Because they require our attention, they cannot be taken for granted, and because you have ignored the demands of Capital on your process of choice, you have ceased for that moment to be a credit card automaton, and have become more human, understanding better the enormous range of choices within your grasp; the experience of such freedoms may yet become a habit.  For what is a man, if not the agent of his own destiny?

This is perhaps the first Wet Plate/collodion photograph of a moving motorcycle, taken outside Burns, Oregon, with a 1960s era Speed Graphic 4"x5" camera; as the ASA of silvered collodion is about '1' (as opposed to 100-400ASA typical of roll film), exposure tend to be 1 second in full sun. That's a long time to catch something moving without a massive flash array…but I'll keep experimenting. It's possible!

- Text; Paul d’Orléans.  Photos; Paul d’Orléans and Susan McLaughlin

 

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Motorcycles, Photography Leave a comment

CANNONBALL REPAIRS…

Claudio is the lone Italian entrant on his lovely Sunbeam Model 5

A day off in Sturgis, South Dakota was a welcome opportunity to take care of mechanical issues, and it seemed every bike was in some state of disassembly today, but a remarkable number of them were back together by evening.

Buck celebrated his 21st birthday, while I celebrated my 50th; milestones, and a similar choice of venues. Buck is riding a BSA

Public interest in the Cannonball Rally is high, and a downtown lineup this afternoon drew hundreds of local admirers of old machinery.

One of the armada of BMWs competing this year; this is an R11 with pressed steel frame and 750cc sidevalve engine

The Team Oily Rag/Vintagent Velocette KTT took a day and a half of solid workshop duty to be sorted, but she sounds fantastic again, and I’m excited to hit the road tomorrow towards Yellowstone National Park.  Further Westward!

Doug Wothke is a serious world motorcycle traveler, and rode his Indian 101 Scout from Alabama solo, and has no support crew or even hotel reservations…

Excelsior-Henderson 4 undertaking repairs…

Posted on by Paul d'Orléans in Uncategorized 1 Comment