Top Brass

Horseless Carriages 1890-1915

November 4, 2006 through May 31, 2007

Even though these timeless treasures have left us, we still have exciting new exhibits visiting us all the time!

pic_topbrassThe AACA Museum is switching gears and turning back the clock with an exhibition of “horseless carriages” from the Brass Era. Following right on the heels of “American Muscle: Factory Performance Vehicles 1964-1972,” the new exhibition serves as a striking counterpoint that helps bookend the history of antique automobiles.

The Brass Era is the first period of automotive manufacturing. It takes its name from the prominent use of brass fittings during this time for vehicle components such as lights and radiator; later vehicles would use nickel and chrome in place of brass. The era begins with the first commercially manufactured vehicles of the 1890s through about World War I. Many people view Brass Era cars as quaint relics of an earlier time. However, this period ranks as one of the most innovative and progressive eras in the history of the automobile.

pic_brassDuring the Brass Era, several thousand different makes of automobiles were produced throughout the world. In the United States alone, there were over 1,000 documented car builders. A quick glance through the Standard Catalog of American Cars or an inspection of back issues of Antique Automobile will reveal the historical richness of this period in pictures and words. One of the Museum’s largest sources of unsolicited email is from people with old photographs featuring known relatives with unidentified cars. I am sure this phenomenon is also experienced by our colleagues at the AACA Library and Research Center. An attempt to identify one of these vehicles can prove extremely frustrating – there were a lot of different car manufacturers in the first 30 years of the automobile’s history!


The automobile began as a product of the backroom workshop, assembled by innovative craftsman and tinkerers eager to make their mark and possibly their fortune. Production later moved to carriage builders and finally to purpose-built factories. Many earl autos looked like carriages without horses; others resembled four-wheel bicycles. They were powered by steam, electricity and the internal combustion engine. Many failed in the market place or never achieved true production. However, in the process, Brass Era vehicles introduced, tested, and perfected the systems and pieces that would eventually be used to build the modern automobile. Top Brass: Horseless Carriages 1890-1916 celebrates the diversity and innovation of the Brass Era by presenting a selection of approximately 20 vehicles borrowed from private collectors and the GM Heritage Collection. We wish to acknowledge and thank the following individuals and organizations for committing their cars to “Top Brass.”

  • 1895 Chicago Benton Harbor (Museum Collection, donation of David & Janet Kolzow)
  • 1898 Riker Electric (Dragone Classic Motorcars)
  • 1903 Cadillac Delivery Truck (Frank Ricciardelli)
  • 1903 Oldsmobile Pirate Race Car (General Motors Heritage Collection)
  • 1904 Franklin (Tex Sorrell)
  • 1905 Buick (General Motors Heritage Collection)
  • 1906 Pierce Great Arrow (Ralph DeStefano)
  • 1907 International High Wheeler (Museum Collection, donation of Hollis Henderson)
  • 1908 Oakland (Bob Roughton)
  • 1908 Mora (Steven and Pamela Heald)
  • 1908 Stanley Steamer (Charles Marshall, Auburn Heights Preserve)
  • 1911 Oldsmobile Limited (General Motors Heritage Collection)
  • 1912 Argo Electric (David Berg)
  • 1912 Chevrolet (General Motors Heritage Collection)
  • 1912 National Race Car (Jim Grundy, Grundy Worldwide)
  • 1912 Overland (Nick Rein)
  • 1912 Stearns-Knight (Museum Collection, F.B. Stearns Supporting Organization)
  • 1912 Thomas (John Jones)
  • 1913 American Underslung (Corky Coker)
  • 1913 Mercer (Fred Schumacher)
  • 1914 Ford Model T (Norman Hutton)
  • 1914 Overland (Barry Eash)
  • 1914 GN Cycle Car (John Moir)

pic_brass3These early cars are at the heart of what the Antique Automobile Club is all about. Some of the exhibition’s cars are unrestored, original vehicles. Others have been meticulously restored. Many are one of a kind vehicles that present special challenges to today’s collectors. You can’t go to your local Pep Boys or NAPA and purchase service parts. Replacement and restoration parts must nearly always be handmade and basic specifications and technical information on some of these cars has been long lost (if it ever even existed). To illustrate these points, Top Brass includes a car that is undergoing a body off restoration along with a sample of historical wooden molds, hand crafted for the reproduction of restoration parts.

pic_brass4AACA members are invited to visit the Museum between November and the end of May, 2007, to view this exhibition. We also appreciate your help in spreading the word about Top Brass. This display offers a rare opportunity to truly step back in time to the automobile’s formative period. Some nameplates in the exhibition are familiar. Others are known only to collectors and automotive historians. All of them, however, have something to say about the origins and technology of the car that you drive today. They are also some of the most colorful, visually interesting vehicles ever produced.