By Roderick Sergiades.
This used car may be a tough sell. It doesn’t have power brakes or steering, forget about power windows and locks, and doesn’t have air conditioning or even an automatic or synchromesh transmission. And if that’s not bad enough, this car comes sans radio.
I can put up with a lot, but that last point should have been the deal breaker for me, as I can’t imagine motoring along a glorious country road without being accompanied by my good friends Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike and Al (The Beach Boys). Installing an aftermarket radio into the dash would be awkward at best and downright frustrating at worst.
Nevertheless, this automobile caught my attention like few others. Why? Good question. This four-door sedan comes with four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes (I must have those), can travel a mile a minute (speed is almost everything), and has shock absorbers (I don’t want my backside too tender).
Being an older luxury car it may fit my budget, as I can’t afford the newer and more expensive Cadillacs or Jaguars with all their fancy electronics. At least I don’t have to hand crank this car because it has an electric self-starter.
This car screams ‘presence’ and its manufacturer was at one point the preferred mode of travel for Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly solo across the North Atlantic. Aviatrix Amelia Earhart appeared in company advertisements extolling the benefits of her car’s air-cooled motor, the same feature most aircraft of the day possessed. “I like new things and modern methods – that’s why I bought an air-cooled Franklin”, she said.
Yet this restored 1928 Franklin 12B Series Airman four-door sedan may not be your cup of tea, but it’s mine. Now I’ve got to convince my better half it’s in her best interests to haggle over the reasonable $21,500 asking price. Well, I can dream, can’t I?
Franklin was one of America’s premier luxury cars, although not quite as ritzy as Packard or Pierce-Arrow. In the Gatsby era they were nevertheless a symbol of refined elegance and style. When an economical Model A Ford sold for $600 or so, a Franklin could command up to ten times as much. Founder Herbert H. Franklin prized his firm’s reputation for fine materials and scrupulous workmanship.
Franklins were always air-cooled and popular with doctors because they never had to be drained of water coolant in the days before the invention of anti-freeze.
The Syracuse, New York-company had many engineering firsts to their credit, including the first U.S. production of a four-cylinder car, in 1902. This development eliminated the ‘bouncing’ associated with the then common ‘one-lungers’. That same year they pioneered the first valve-in-head cylinder and three years later the the first 6-cylinder motor.
Such innovation was not surprising. Franklin, who founded the H. H. Franklin Manufacturing Company in 1893 (which later spawned the Franklin Automobile Company in 1902), was the first company in the world, in 1893, to perform machine die-casting, which revolutionized metal manufacturing.
Over the course of their lifetime Franklin built about 150,000 cars, averaging a very respectable 8,000 a year during the Roaring ’20s. By the late ’20s, Franklin was the only American automaker still producing air-cooled engines.
Inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s pioneering transatlantic flight in ‘The Spirit of St. Louis’ in May 1927, Franklin named their new Airman model that same year after him.
(Interestingly, the day after Dominion Day (now Canada Day), Charles Lindbergh flew his famous airplane to Ottawa and was chauffeured to Parliament Hill in a 1926 Franklin to celebrate Canada’s Diamond Jubilee.)
The Port Perry, Ontario-area Airman featured here was owned by John Schewaga for over 25 years and since his passing two years ago, his sons Merle and Tim have become the Franklin’s guardians, along with Merle’s son, Johnny.
The family believes the Franklin has had only five owners in its nearly 90-year history. John drove the pride of Syracuse less than a hundred miles a year and did only minor mechanical work to her, as she was essentially a restored car when he acquired her. Today, the car shows only 54,900 unconfirmed miles. Naturally, the Franklin also saw stately use for various family and friends’ weddings over the years.
John had a soft spot for vintage vehicles and aside from the Franklin also owned a 1951 Mercury pickup, ’53 Chev Belair hardtop and an uncommon 1973 Chevrolet Caprice Classic ragtop. His sons now own his collection, but could find no room for the air-cooled wonder.
With a hearty and healthy ‘oogah’ horn, this Franklin sports a two valves per cylinder OHV straight 6-cylinder, 236.5-cubic inch engine. The 7-main bearing motor has a 4.25:1 compression ratio producing 46 horespower at 2,500 RPM. Using a manual three-speed floor-mounted shifter, the Airman can achieve a top speed of over 60 mph or 96 km/h. Riding on a 119-inch wheelbase, the Airman weighs only 3,800 lbs and, beginning with the ’28 models, was amongst the first to use four-wheel internal-expanding hydraulic brakes.
Franklins were known for their high power-to-weight ratio, which made them more economical to operate and easier to drive, as well as faster. Weighing 15 to 25 per cent less than comparably-sized sedans, Franklin promoted their ‘scientific light weight’ in their advertising.
The Airman was no different. In 1928 one such example crossed the United States averaging 36 mpg (Imperial), setting a new cross-country economy record. This was partially due to its aluminum body, doors, crankcase, transmission and differential case, as well as aluminum pistons.
In 1928, Franklin ads promoted their cars as “The most comfortable mile-a-minute car ever built”, when that feat was a relatively new phenomenon. Not surprisingly, on cars equipped with the rearing lion hood ornament, Franklin used the Latin slogan: Aura Vincit (“Air Conquers”).
The Series 12B Airman, introduced in July 1928, continued with its distinctive Frank deCausse styling that had made the venerable firm a fashion leader by the late ’20s (Franklin was the first to offer a boat-tail speedster). Famed stylist Raymond Dietrich further refined the 12B appearance.
Two years later, a new Franklin powerplant debuted, which showcased the first airplane engine (modified for automobile use) ever placed in a car. This allowed the luxury-car builder to boast the highest power-to-weight ratio in its class and more power per cubic inch of cylinder capacity than any other automobile.
Despite these advancements, the wheels began falling off with the advent of the Great Depression. In 1931, Franklin posted a substantial $1 million loss, and during 1933 sold a paltry 1,330 cars. When April 1934 rolled around the automaker, like many that decade, closed their doors forever. A quarter-century would go by before another American air-cooled car would appear, with the debut of the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair.
Although the Schewaga family’s Franklin is now an orphan, they’re hoping they can find a new parent to proudly take the wheel of this used car for many a country drive, even if it’s not blue-tooth compatible.