Relive the earliest days of motorsport with a Brass Era race car

Photography by Chris Tropea

The low-back bucket seat feels like something found in your grandmother’s living room. It’s comfy and cozy the way it kind of snuggles around you. 

But this is a race car–state of the art for 1911, in fact. In the end, though, the driver sits up there in the elements: no windshield, no roll cage, no seatbelts. If the prospect that people raced these things wheel to wheel didn’t terrify you, the situation could almost feel benign, like sitting atop a plus-sized garden tractor.

The car is from a builder called E-M-F Company, a firm absorbed by Studebaker in 1912, and we’re back at a city that played an important part of this car’s history: Savannah. 

Thanks to the efforts of Mayor George Tiedeman, Georgia’s coastal city was one of the first to witness the early days of motor racing, hosting the first American Grand Prize in 1908. This particular car finished third at Savannah’s 1911 Tiedeman Cup–a support race to the Vanderbilt Cup–while sister cars  claimed first and second. 

 

I don’t get into the E-M-F as much as I get onto it. As car owner Dale Critz reminds me, cars built for both road and track were quickly evolving during the period this one was made. Its connection to the horse and buggy is still apparent. 

I need to watch myself, though, as the hot, open exhaust header sits right there. Like a Cobra with side pipes, the E-M-F will inflict a permanent mark on those not careful. 

The huge, twine-wrapped steering wheel sits prominently. It’s nearly as thick as a baseball bat and a challenge to grip. 

At the center of that four-spoke wheel sits brass sliders reminiscent of an old sailing ship. One adjusts the spark advance and the other operates the throttle during starting–the latter a two-person process, as someone else needs to prime the cylinders and spin the hand crank. 

The pedals, perhaps, are the most perplexing. The clutch pedal sits on the left and has about an inch of travel. It doesn’t feel fully depressed, but my co-driver assures me that I have it matted. The brake is all the way on the right. Between them sits a barely perceptible sliver of brass that operates the throttle. 

Once ignition occurs, the brutality begins. I release the emergency brake, depress the scant clutch and grind the shift lever into first. I suggest to the car owner that I might try double clutching. “Just mash it into gear, let out the clutch and go,” he screams over the cacophony of the engine.

I do just that, and with a less than smooth chirp we are underway. Throttle response, oddly, is relatively linear and works rather well. 


Savannah has hosted motorsports contests since the earliest days, with this very 1911 E-M-F finishing third in that year’s Tiedeman Cup.

At anything above 10 miles per hour, Dale says, I should shift the towering lever into the second gear–about a mile up the pattern and over to the right. I find the gear, still attempt to double clutch and match revs, and mash the lever into position.

Once at speed, the transmission jumps out of gear. They all do that, Dale says. That’s when I start to realize that racing one of these machines–one hand on the wheel, another on the shifter–isn’t for the timid. 

Dale tells me we don’t need third gear at the speeds we’re travelling. I ignore him, raise the speed a bit, shift into third and leave it there. Now I can get both hands on the steering wheel and see how this thing really drives.

The steering is very heavy, which surprises me. With that huge steering wheel, the car’s skinny but very tall tires and a curb weight about on par with an early Miata, I expected much lighter. It is anything but.

But I’m equally surprised that the steering feels quite direct and the ratio is pretty good. I move the wheel, and the car changes direction. On other century-old cars, this is not a given. 

The engine offers more power than I expected and can cruise at highway speeds. “If you’re going 70 mph in one of these things, you feel like you’re going 120,” Dale notes. (Why does he own Brass Era race cars? “They’re a blast to drive,” he says. “It just gets you back to the basics of driving.”)

The original Savannah race course ran through downtown’s unpaved streets and has since been consigned to history, so we’re across the Savannah River on Hutchinson Island–within sight of the city itself–at the Grand Prize of America Track. This one opened in 1997 to host the Indy Lights Dixie Crystals Grand Prix, and for several years it infused some extra excitement into the Hilton Head Island concours weekend. Likewise, though, it has gone largely quiet.

Compared to a modern race car, the E-M-F looks rather terrifying: small footprint, tall center of gravity and positive camber up front. It handles the track’s turns with more capability than I expected. Dare I call it confidence-inspiring? 

While I can’t really see the tugboat-like tachometer, Dale tells me that we’re turning near 3000 rpm, close to maximum speed for this big old four-cylinder engine.


Bringing the E-M-F to life is a two-person affair: one to prime the cylinders and another to work the spark advance.

And now comes the true test: stopping this beast. Today we have four-wheel, power-assisted disc brakes backed by all sorts of electronics. Since the front axle usually handles the bulk of the braking, it often gets the larger components. 

In this machine, braking is achieved by a couple of pieces of leather strapped over each rear drum. No brakes at all up front. Stopping distances are measured in miles and not feet. (Again, how in the world did they race cars like this?)

When asked about the dangers of racing in the ’50s and ’60s, Brian Redman once told me that he had it easy; it was those before him who were truly brave. 

A few laps in the E-M-F fully crystalizes that sentiment.

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