30 June 2014

Lindbergh, the Franklin Car and Magic Moments in Time

 (Editor's Note: It was on the 2nd of July, 87 years ago, that Charles Lindbergh came to Ottawa for Canada's Diamond Jubilee, celebrating the country's 60th anniversary of Confederation.)

This story is about the power of cool. Cool air, that is, and how it shaped an American icon, the Franklin automobile. Plus a page in history that could easily have been forgotten were it not for one collector with a devotion akin to monastic for the celebrated marque. Meet André Audette of Ottawa, Canada, whose dual career as archeologist and architect remains grounded in a central belief: the importance of protecting for the future monuments from the past. So it's no surprise that André's evolution in the world of vintage vehicles bears the stamp of his mission to safeguard the integrity and authenticity of what he strives to preserve.

Interestingly, the man's avowed passion for the Franklin bloomed tardily, making his permanent conversion to the brand appear improbable. In fact, André's teenage flame for wheels began as a burning, albeit pre-empted, desire for something radically different — a Honda 50 motorcycle — greeted with stern opposition by a father fearing for the boy's safety. So a deal was struck between the two: instead, the 16-year-old, who also cherished pre-war American cars, would get himself a good old Ford Model A in exchange for unlimited usage of the family garage to do his thing. One thousand miles of hauling and a fistful of dollars later, André's first automotive project got under way and life for him was about to change, irreversibly.

Over the years of juggling family and work that followed, several unique vehicles would be acquired, restored and sold, including a hot 1936 Ford Three-Window Coupe, a handsome 1929 Cord Brougham L-29 and a rare 1923 Moon Touring 6-40. As the second millennium slid into a third, fate brought along an unexpected encounter of... the third kind. That episode occurred in summer 2000 when André set forth to check out a 1951 Rover in Syracuse, N.Y. — ironically, the birthplace of the Franklin. Upon scrutinizing his British prospect, he quickly realized that, though he liked it, he didn't truly love it. Big difference. Seeing this, the seller suggested it might be unwise to close the deal, but why not pay a visit to a friend nearby who had some pretty sharp antiques of his own. André agreed and upon meeting his host, eyeballed a 1930 Franklin Cantrell Suburban Woodie whose looks and inner workings mesmerized him. So much so that, a week later, he rushed back towards Upstate New York and joined the H.H. Franklin Club's annual Cazenovia trek. All of which soon led to a relentless quest aimed at finding the object of his newfound dream.

After months of on-the-road hunting, in a case where the car seemingly found its owner rather than the opposite way around, there it was: a 1925 Franklin Series 11A Sedan popping out of the proverbial blue, oddly enough, in his very backyard... Ottawa! Eventually, a second Franklin, this time an all-original 1926 Series 11A Sport Touring, unearthed fortuitously in Quebec City, would forever clutch his archeologist's heart. The Franklin Club later named André Vice President of its Board when decisions were being taken about opening a new building on the campus of the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Mich.

The Franklin Automobile Company of Syracuse was the brainchild of Herbert H. Franklin and engineer John Wilkinson, who introduced their revolutionary air-cooled engine from the get-go in 1902. During the early part of the 20th century, nearly 900 intended or established car manufacturers populated the Empire State alone — a staggering number — meaning fierce competition for anyone crazy enough to get into the game. The Franklin group, which was going after high-end Cadillac and Packard, were reputed as innovators par excellence, ushering in a six-cylinder block, pioneering closed bodies and developing aluminum pistons, among numerous technological breakthroughs. But it was the air-cooled engine that set them apart, as symbolized by the Latin slogan Aura Vincit (“Air Conquers”) accompanying the rearing lion hood ornament. The company managed to crank out some 150,000 units during its 32 years of production. But despite sales in 525 American cities and 12 countries, not unlike other luxury brands, it folded in 1934, a victim of the Great Depression.

The car's aviation-inspired technology appealed greatly to Charles Lindbergh, an enthusiastic user of the marque, especially its famous Airman model released in 1928 as a tribute to illustrious achievements in the skies such as the famed aviator's 33½-hour solo crossing of the Atlantic. Countless celebrations of this death-defying feat followed his return home from France on May 29,1927. North of the border, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King had invited the planet's hero to celebrate with citizens for the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation — the country's 60th birthday. On that glorious Dominion Day of July 1 in the Capital, the Houses of Parliament were coming back to life after years of reconstruction due to a massive fire which, in 1916, gutted the main Centre Block building. Standing tall in its midst, the Peace Tower was inaugurating its freshly installed Carillon of 53 bells chiming out their joyful tunes — an extraordinary musical interlude shared by millions thanks to the first-ever coast-to-coast radio broadcast. Effervescence filled the air, literally.

Across that festive air on the morning of Saturday July 2, Lindbergh flew the Spirit of Saint-Louis from Selfridge Field near Detroit to Ottawa, flanked by a squadron of 12 escort planes. Crossing over Parliament Hill, the thunderous multi-winged display caused thousands of admiring spectators to roar with excitement below. The formation advanced south toward the Hunt Club Landing Field. But there, minutes later, tragedy struck. It happened when one of the aircraft flown by First Lieutenant Thad Johnson collided with another in an inadvertent maneuver just before landing. As Johnson attempted to eject, his parachute wouldn't open fast enough and the poor man fell to a horrific death just as his leader was landing ahead of the pack.

After much discussion, officials decided to proceed with the scheduled program and Lindbergh was driven downtown to Parliament in a Franklin 1926 provided by the local dealership. An enchanting day suddenly turned grim for Canada's honored guest, whose characteristic “Lindy smile” had conspicuously vanished. Deeply touched by the accident, Prime Minister King called for an official state funeral — unprecedented for any foreign visitor — organized in earnest overnight. All of which, it is said, was met with profound gratitude by President Coolidge. The press reported that Colonel Lindbergh's plane swooped low as he dropped flowers over the funeral train departing for Michigan from Ottawa's Union Station.

When such intense echoes from days gone by still resonate through the present, a modern cruise in an all-original Franklin 1926 can create profound connections with the past. André puts it best: “My beloved Franklin converts to a time machine rekindling a significant page of Canadian history. As I ride on the roads of Ottawa traveled by Lindbergh 87 years ago, in the same make of car and of the same year, a casual trip often turns into a voyage far greater than the sum of its visible parts.”

A man of both thought and action, Lindbergh once wrote: “Whether outwardly or inwardly, whether in space or in time, the farther we penetrate the unknown, the vaster and more marvelous it becomes.” That being so, one can only wish that the Lindy smile is back for the “air man” as he whisks gracefully among the heavenly clouds, his old stomping ground.

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