Last of the Luvernes

KIP SUNDGAARD REACHES through a broken window on his garage door and throws a switch. "High security," he jokes, as the door hums open. It's dim in the garage; light filters in through a blue plastic tarp that substitutes for a door on one of the stalls. A jumble of old motorcycle parts and glass jars of miscellaneous hardware fills the shelves. Skis are stacked across the rafters, a testament to Sundgaard's Olympic ski-jumping days. At one end of the garage stands a late-model Chevrolet; the other end serves as a stable for a pair of skittish horses.

Amid the clutter and lovingly swaddled in tattered quilts is Sundgaard's treasure: a 1909 Luverne 30--the last surviving touring car built by the Luverne Automobile Company, Minnesota's lone attempt at car manufacturing. The Luverne is longer than the Chevy, taller than the horses, and better-looking than either: Its sheer size and gleaming brass make it seem more like a ship than a car.

Around the turn of the century, when it was built, the ability to motor a half-dozen people and a heavy wooden contraption over country horse-tracks was far from settled. Companies out east were still toying with steam and electric cars, while others tinkered with simple gas-powered models. Ed and Al Leicher, Luverne's founders, were busy at the time making horse carriages. Legend has it that when the richest farmer around announced he'd be switching to motorized transportation, a light bulb went on. "It started me thinking," Al Leicher explained in a 1953 interview, "maybe we should get in on the ground floor building cars."

It's a little bit like worship to fold back the Luverne's bonnet and admire the 30 horsepower engine, its gritty cylinders big as liter bottles, spark plugs as wide as shot glasses. To drive a car like this, Sundgaard assures me, you have to be an engineer: It's got a hand-cranked starter, a geared hand choke on the steering wheel to adjust carburetion, plus the throttle, the clutch, and a blow-by (early carmakers thought the exhaust system stole power from the engine and let drivers bypass the tail pipe on steep hills). All this adjusting, along with the car's own fits and starts, gave early roadsters a jerky, slapstick air.

It isn't the engine, however, but the body itself that shows off the Leichers' carriage-making abilities. It looks like they simply started fitting their standard buggies with motors instead of horses. The Luverne 30 features a design that became the company's signature: It's boxy, with a clean, sharp line running from the radiator to the back seat. In later models, the Leichers eliminated outside door handles for a sleeker effect. The running board makes a parallel, and the fenders ride independent from the body. The hood and the doors are faced with sheet metal, but the rest of the body--including side panels, wheel spokes, the steering wheel, and even the frame--is fashioned by hand out of poplar and ash.

The engine, transmission, and clutch were all shipped in from other manufacturers. The brothers would attach the imported parts to a dummy car and perform test runs on the back roads of Luverne, Minnesota. A team of about 20 workers pitched in on the handiwork, stitching cloth tops, soldering the copper tubing for the engine-cooling systems, and fashioning the wooden bodies. The paint job alone took two full months; workers applied 22 coats, and hand-buffed between each one. Unless a customer paid for a custom job, the Leichers' cars came out of the shop "Luverne brown." (Sundgaard's model was repainted robin's egg blue by his father some years back.) The color gave the company the slogan that graced its advertisements: "They are big, and long, and brown, and strong."

This motto, with its clumsy rhyme scheme, says a lot about why the company failed. While Henry Ford built Fords, Ransom Olds built Oldsmobiles and the Dodge brothers built Dodges, the Leichers took the name of a dusty one-horse in southern Minnesota. And in the end, they were simply no match for the tycoons of Detroit, building only a few hundred cars before going out of business in 1916.

Thousands of small automobile companies had sprung up at the turn of the century, bridging the gap between the age of craftsmanship--when small-town carriage makers built cars to order--and the age of mechanized assembly. One of those little companies was the Ford Motor Company, formed in 1903, the same year Luverne opened its doors. But unlike the Leichers, Henry Ford was a new-world industrialist, using low-cost materials and new ideas about labor (he invented the assembly line, for one thing) to build cars quickly and cheaply. The Ford Model T came out in 1908, costing a mere $650 compared to the Luverne 30's price tag of around $1,500. Over 15 million Model Ts were sold over the next 20 years.

Fighting for survival, Luverne went after the high-end market. These were the days before "hand-crafted" was a selling point; it was just the way things were done in small towns in the midwest. The company emphasized the ruggedness of its cars. An ad for the Luverne Montana Special, for example, boasted of its monstrous 50 horsepower engine and its 126-inch wheel base (two feet wider than that of today's average truck). At $3,000, the Montana came delivered and equipped with a windshield, a bumper (a Luverne innovation according to Curt McConnell's Great Cars of the Great Plains), and the standard Luverne paint job and mohair top.

Despite these efforts, the final nail was driven into the Luverne coffin when the General Motors alliance was forged. With its standardized parts and pockets deep enough to buy everything from tire manufacturing plants to congressmen, GM drove small car manufacturers out of business everywhere. The Leicher brothers threw in the towel and turned their attention elsewhere--to outfitting fire trucks and to car repair. For years, there remained a handful of Luvernes in the basement of their old factory. But in 1936, according to Al Leicher's grandson, Jim, at the height of the Depression, a junk man bought all that was left. "I still have a vivid memory of the junk man pulling those cars out," he said in Great Cars, "and with a torch, cutting them in two, right out in front, and hauling them off."

Barring another depression, Sundgaard figures he can protect this last remnant from the junk man, although it's pricey keeping the old car running. A few years ago a main bearing went out, and Kip spent hundreds having it fixed: Replacement parts must be hand-made. And as he freely admits, he's no mechanic. Sundgaard can't even get the Luverne started with the hand crank, but tows it with his tractor until the engine coughs to life. His dad could start it with the flick of a wrist, he explains apologetically. "I never paid that much attention to it. My dad knew how to keep it going, and I guess all the secrets died with him."

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