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From the Robert W. Valpey CollectionE. Lee Center, Vermont (acquired via Chalmers Motor Company in 1923)Henry C. Wing Jr., Massachusetts (acquired from the above in 1945)Robert W. Valpey (acquired from the above in 1985)
Sheepshead Bay Speedway, New York, 1917, Dawson/Gardham (12 New Mile Records, and 3 New Time Records, 1,898 Miles Covered in 24 Hours)
New York State Museum, “Racing Across New York: Competition Automobiles, 1903-1985,” 1988–1989
The history of the Chalmers Motor Company can be traced to 1908, when Hugh Chalmers, CEO of the National Cash Register Company, purchased E.R. Thomas’ controlling interest in automaker Thomas-Detroit. Over the next few years, Chalmers flourished in the burgeoning American automobile industry, specializing in well-made, mid-priced cars. Chalmers, whose slogan was “Quality First,” recognized the importance of motor racing and was quite successful in its efforts, racking up wins at the Glidden Tour, Vanderbilt Cup, and Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
In 1917, the company took direct aim at crosstown rival Hudson, which was co-founded by Howard Coffin and Roy D. Chapin – two former Chalmers executives. A year earlier, Hudson introduced its Super Six model and boasted of setting AAA-sanctioned records at Sheepshead Bay Speedway in Brooklyn, New York. Not to be outdone, Chalmers developed a “Special Speedster” based on the Model Six-30, which was powered by a 224 cid L-head straight six.
The Chalmers Speedster was designed and built specifically to beat Hudson’s 24-hour speed record. The Chalmers engine was upgraded with lightweight Lynite pistons, a two-stage Stromberg carburetor, and a full-pressure oiling system, which combined to produce a reliable 55 hp at 2,600 rpm. To increase its top speed, the Speedster was equipped with a special 3:1 final drive ratio and fitted with a lightweight roadster body with exotic-looking cycle fenders, an aerodynamic radiator cowl, and staggered seating.
The factory hired 1912 Indianapolis 500 winner Joe Dawson to drive the car for the record run, with engineer Joe Gardham as a relief driver. On the afternoon of August 1, 1917, the Chalmers Speedster, finished in a dashing black and white livery and stripped of any nonessential components, set off on its record attempt.
In a remarkable feat of endurance, Dawson drove the car for 19 continuous hours and set a blistering pace. At the end of 24 hours, the Speedster had covered 1,898 miles at an average speed of 81.09 mph. This result was deemed the highest performance ever made under the observation of the AAA; 15 speed records were set – 12 for mileage, and three for time. Most importantly, Chalmers’ performance shattered the record set by Hudson in May 1916, and did so with an engine 64 cid smaller.
Hugh Chalmers was elated with the performance achieved by the Speedster and took full advantage of the publicity. In addition to being covered by nearly every motoring magazine and many major papers, Chalmers’ record-setting run was trumpeted in the company’s advertising.
The Record Speedster remained in Chalmers’ ownership until 1923, when the company ceased production after a merger with Maxwell. It was then sold to E. Lee Center, a Chalmers engineer who had been involved with the Speedster project, and he drove the car to his home in New England. After much enthusiastic use, and an encounter with a stone wall, the Record Speedster finally came to rest in a barn on Mr. Center’s property.
In 1945, Henry C. Wing Jr., a pioneering early car collector and member of The Veteran Motor Car Club of America, discovered the Chalmers after following a lead from a friend who had heard about a “noisy hot rod type of car driven by an old man in Readsboro, Vermont.” Although the car had fallen into disrepair, Mr. Wing came upon a brass plaque on the dashboard that told the story: “Chalmers Record Speedster Driven by Joe Dawson at Sheepshead Bay, 1917.”
Recognizing the significance of his find, Mr. Wing bought the car and trailered it home, where it was kept in storage for the next three decades. In the early 1970s, Mr. Wing had Hollis Simonds restore the Chalmers to its original splendor. After several years of showing and driving the Record Speedster, Mr. Wing sold the car to Robert Valpey, who was enamored with the car’s fascinating history and sporting character.
For the past three decades, this automotive treasure has resided as a fixture in Mr. Valpey’s New Hampshire-based collection. Under his ownership, the Chalmers was featured in the pages of Automobile Quarterly and displayed in a special exhibit on historic race cars at the New York State Museum in Albany. Today, it remains in outstanding order in all respects, and is accompanied by a collection of Chalmers literature, magazine articles, a folding soft top, and a spare high-speed rear differential.
Never before offered for sale, and with just three private owners from new, this Record Speedster is an outstanding example of a factory-built Nickel-Era racer, a lasting tribute to the great Chalmers marque, and a rare prize for collectors.