Car buffs rebuild unique Canadian car
If it’s Thursday night, it’s “car night” in Oro Medonte Township and Barrie, north of Toronto. That’s when five men shut themselves inside Murray Irwin’s shop to coax a treasure from a few scraps of rust.These modern-day Rumplestiltskins have been in the miracle business for about four years now, pooling their talent to recreate a rare piece of Canada’s automotive heritage – the only Barrie-built Bell motor car in existence today.“I don’t think people realize the significance of this work,” says Brian Jackson, chairman of the Barrie Bell Restoration Committee. He’s the man who found the car – or what remained of it – and brought it to his cousin’s workshop. (This is a family affair, as you’ll see.)All that survived was the paper-thin body of the car’s rear end. No engine, no drive shaft, no wheels, and no windshield. Every single fitting, clamp and component has since been bought at flea markets or fashioned by hand.
The enormity of the task never fazed Murray Irwin, a builder and “natural born” mechanic, as his wife Mondy asserts.
“I haven’t started many things that I couldn’t finish,” Irwin says,ith calm assurance. Besides, Murray and his brother Jack were the ones who tore the Bell car apart in the first place. The car originally belonged to their grandfather, William Irwin, and ended up at the family farm, located just a short drive from Irwin’s present home on Lake Simcoe.
When Jack Irwin was a teenager, he cut the car in two and converted the front end into an auto-trac (half car, half tractor). He stuck the rear end in his father’s drive shed and there it sat for many years. Meanwhile brother Murray – just a kid of eight years- took the engine apart to see what was inside.
“I wrecked it,” he admits. “When I wanted to get it running again I couldn’t.”
Murray figures he owed it to the car to put it back together again. Of course, the Irwins can be excused for their childhood shenanigans. How were they to know that their grandfather’s car would be such a unique piece of Canadian history?
When they left the family farm, the Irwins sold the running gear for scrap. The rear end stayed in the drive shed gathering dust as the new owners came and went. And there the story may have ended had not Brian Jackson, a geologist and mayor of Innisfil, entered the story.
Tracing the car
In 1990, Jackson read a book on Canadian auto history that described the automotive activity in the town of Barrie.
“My interest was sparked,” he says. He started a letter-writing campaign to see if any Barrie Bell cars still existed. A man in Quebec told him there might be one in Orillia. And so there was. Gordon Smith had come into possession of the very car that had been left on the Irwin farm so many years before.
How Murray Irwin’s grandfather, William, acquired the Bell car in the first place is a bit of a mystery. One thing was certain, he had to have some cash. A 1917 Bell Touring Car sold for $1,185 – more than twice the price of a Model A Ford.
“That was a lot of money for those days,” Irwin says.
Those who could afford to buy the car had a narrow window of opportunity. The cars were assembled at the Barrie Carriage Works for about five years.
Canadian auto history
The owners of the carriage works, the Dyments, made the leap to automobiles in 1916. That’s when Simon Dyment negotiated a contract with the Bell Motor Car Company in York, Pennsylvania.
Although the car components were made in the States, the Barrie cars looked somewhat different than their American counterparts. The upholstery and convertible roofs, for instance, were fashioned in Barrie.
The Dyments also had some latitude in choosing paint colours. While the American Bell cars were blue, the Barrie Bell was forest green, with a gold pinstripe. It also had white rubber tires – white being the natural colour of rubber.
Dyment borrowed three quarters of a million dollars to finance the operation, which turned out to be the ruination of the family business and the family fortune. Only 27 to 40 Bell cars were assembled before the carriage works went bankrupt and production stopped around 1921.
Although the car was a luxury item, it was not a lack of demand that killed the Bell enterprise in Barrie. Rather, it was an inability to get the components shipped from Pennsylvania, Irwin says.
One of a kind
Considering the limited production run, it’s quite amazing that even one Barrie-built car remains today. “It’s one-of-a-kind,” says Jackson.
Only one other Bell car is known to exist – an American built model, owned by W.F.O. Rosenmiller in York, Pennsylvania. The Barrie restoration team sketched and measured every inch of Rosenmiller’s car to make an authentic reproduction. Rosenmiller also allowed a restoration team to dismantle his car and make castings of certain components.
“If it hadn’t been for that generosity, we would have had a tough time of it. It would have been impossible,” Irwin says. The lovely brass fittings on the car today come from casts made from the original pieces on Rosenmiller’s car.
Jackson and Irwin have clocked thousands of kilometres looking for parts.
Search for parts
“We drove all over the place,” Jackson says. “We went all the way to Oklahoma and ended up with just one piece – a muffler. But at least it was the right muffler.”
Their luckiest find was a trip to a farm in Lucknow, Ont. They went looking for a Lycoming engine.
“It was a wild, wild place,” Jackson recalls. Car bits were strewn on either side of the farmer’s lane. But the engine was there, and so was a Covert transmission. A bonus!
“I didn’t think we’d ever find that transmission,” Irwin admits. “We were so excited,” Jackson adds. “We hardly dared say a word.”
The cost of parts has sent the restoration bill through the roof. Not counting volunteer time, the group will put close to $70,000 into a car that will possibly have a market value of $35,000 to $40,000, Jackson says.
“People say we’re nuts,” Irwin notes. “They’re always asking us why we’re bothering. Well, you have to love doing it, or you wouldn’t.”
Fortunately, the Bell car has a loyal group of financial supporters, as well as volunteer mechanics and fundraisers. Janice Laking, the mayor of Barrie, has thrown her support behind the car and, when completed, it will be donated to the City of Barrie for education, heritage and civic promotion purposes.
“The restoration committee is a hard-working group,” Jackson says. ” We also have a group of Super Donors (those who contribute $1,000 or more). They’ve been very helpful. Then there are the four or five guys who are making it happen. Without those people, we couldn’t have built the thing.”
The group is rounding up the final parts needed to complete the restoration. At best guess, the job will be finished by the end of the year. And when the sleek, green car finally rolls down Barrie’s main street, there will be a few proud “parents” standing on the sidelines. Because of them, a piece of Canadian history will be running again. And you can’t put a price tag on a miracle like that.