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Battling the Big Boys

The ’31 Hupmobile Could Hold Its Own

Bill Holder - August 01, 2011 09:00 AM

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“I wanted a car that had an ‘Al Capone’ look about it and this model came pretty close in my eyes.”

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“It took some time to get used to the spooky way it feels. I think the best way to describe free-wheeling is to compare it to a bicycle.”

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History tells us the car was named for its designer, Robert Hupp, who had a storied automotive career before going out on his own. He first worked for REO and Ford before setting up his own company (the Hupp Motor Co.) in 1908, which would produce cars for the next 32 years.

His initial goal was to compete with the Ford Model T, which he undercut in price by $75, big money for the day. Production would continue at a high level for a number of years, topping out in 1928 with 55,000 built.

Devastation fell on Hupp with the start of the Depression. A strike in 1937 slowed production to a crawl. The company was also saddled with a high cost of research and development. But the models the company did produce were something else in quality and performance. They were built to compete with Buick, the small Chrysler and Pontiac models.

Jack Dwyer of Centerville, Ohio, owns a fine example of the breed, an immaculate ’31 model. “I purchased the car in 2000 in pretty good condition with a new interior, new paint, and the engine compartment had been detailed,” Dwyer revealed. “I bought it from a man in South Bend who wanted a Corvette more than this machine. I wanted a car that had an ‘Al Capone’ look about it and this model came pretty close in my eyes.”

A stickler for the history of the car, he found that he was the fifth owner of the car that had been purchased at an Atlanta dealer. “Then, for some unknown reason, that owner parked the car in a barn where it sat for 50 years.

“During the 1980s, the second owner bought it and painted it a terrible-looking yellow color. A later owner would turn it back to its original color, black. Finally, in the late 1990s, it would have its finest hour, being on display at the Studebaker Museum in South Bend.”

Dwyer came into the picture and made the purchase of the then 23,000-mile car. Happy to have the car, he quickly found out there were problems. “A couple years later, I found out there was no compression on two of the cylinders as the valves were burned. I ended up replacing all 12 valves. No problems since.”

It wasn’t easy to do. With no valves available, he had to use exhaust valves from a 351 Ford V-8. They had to be considerably modified for their new job.

There was also a problem with the single-barrel Stromberg carburetor. “I couldn’t find an original, so I ended up using a replica which I paid $1,200 for!”

There was trouble when he had to replace a rear wheel. “The spokes were loose on the wheel, and I couldn’t get it off. Also, the hub had seized on the tapered rear axle. Finally, I ended up cutting off the hub and destroyed the wheel in the process. It took four months to get a new wheel manufactured.”

Driving this almost 3,000-pound car is one of the joys of owning this classic machine. “I cruise along at about 50 miles per hour and kick it up to 55 on the interstate. Get any higher and the engine tends to shake, which comes from the fact that the engines were not balanced during assembly.” A period sales brochure indicated that the engine was capable of cruising at 70 miles per hour with bursts up to 78 miles per hour. The 211ci valve-in-head engine is capable of about 70 horsepower with the generator being driven off the timing chain and the fuel pump being vacuum-operated.

The Hup gets about 10 to 12 miles per gallon, burning modern regular gas as the valves were already hardened. There is a 16-gallon fuel tank, and the engine requires six quarts of oil. The tires are about the size of those used on modern restomods at 19 inches in diameter.

Some of the interesting aspects of this model are the running lights on the top of each fender on either side of the hood. They stay on with the headlights.

“It took some time to get used to the spooky way it feels. I think the best way to describe free-wheeling is to compare it to a bicycle. You stop pedaling and the bike coasts. The same concept occurs here when the car is running faster than the engine. At that time, the engine is disengaged. But when the car and engine have the same speed, the transmission automatically re-engages them.”

He continued that you don’t have to use the clutch to shift between second and third gears when you are free-wheeling. “Finally, when you hit the accelerator at the bottom of a hill, the transmission automatically shifts back into gear.”

The concept seems attractive, but there is one major drawback. “It is very hard on the brakes, because the engine doesn’t completely hold you back,” he said.

Dwyer explained that his research shows there were about 562,000 Hupmobiles built during its production years. However, there are only about a thousand of them known to exist today.

A little-known fact is that the Hupmobile was an international car being sold worldwide to over 50 countries. There are reportedly about 50 of them still being used in Australia and New Zealand, with others in England, South Africa, Germany, Peru, France and Sweden.

“Certainly glad mine is one of that thousand left,” he proudly stated.

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