Humankind is unique among animals for its need to stamp out a legacy for itself; after all, few willingly meet death’s long embrace without raging against the dying of the light. Unfortunately for most men, anonymity is all that the grave can offer, even when said men have accomplished something staggering in their lifetimes. This humble Hupmobile may be almost forgotten in the basement of a Cleveland auto museum, but its historical significance practically oozes from every blemish, and the voices of the men who drove it echo from the walls of its long time domicile.
The Crawford Auto Aviation Collection in Cleveland houses this unassuming Hupmobile, a car that traveled roughly 47,000 miles under its own power and another 25,000 plus miles in the holds of ships to circle the globe between November 1910 and January 1912. Three hardy men were in charge of whisking it around a world with few good roads and much political mayhem: Thomas Hanlon, a crack driver and mechanic; Thomas Jones, a young reporter for The Detroit Free Press; and Joseph Drake, a Hupp vice-president and brother of Hupp’s president, J. Walter Drake.
Few amateur automotive historians will recognize those names, but the difficulties and adventures they faced over the course of their travels render them immediate unsung heroes, enduring discomforts that 21st century travelers could barely imagine. They christened their mount “Little Corporal,” after France’s famous dictator, a man who was unafraid of adventure and danger.
The car they used for their trip was unlike the famous Thomas Flyer that completed the “Great Auto Race of 1908.” Where the Thomas was large and powerful, the Hupp was light, agile, and efficient. Indeed, the three intrepid drivers suffered few mechanical maladies as they circled the globe, a broken axle being the most troublesome. Hanlon and his crew literally bought a pottery shop in Japan for its tools and spent more than a week fashioning a new axle. They spent much of their time in the far east, Australia, and New Zealand before touring India, much of Africa, and Western Europe. On the whole, the worst roads they encountered were in the United States, especially out west, proving that if America was to embrace the automobile, it had to embrace a massive expenditure on infrastructure.
The brass era was an age of automotive adventure, with every bold automobilist dreaming of a cross-country or round the world journey. The Hupmobile was not the first car to perform either of these feats, but it showed the world what an American automobile could do. Unfortunately, Hupmobile neglected to truly capitalize on their grand achievement, as internecine strife hobbled the company for much of its existence from the time Robert Hupp left his company, which he did while his Model 20 was abroad. Hupp Motor Car Company underwent a restructuring while our three heroes completed their journey, and a decision to focus on more expensive and powerful models contradicted everything their reliable little car was proving around the world. Hupp would have likely sold many Model 20s, but they instead abandoned this market (that admittedly would soon be dominated by Ford). The 1913 Model 32 pictured above is indicative of the larger vehicle the reorganized management favored.
Hupmobile groped through the Depression before breathing its last gasp in the form of this Hupmobile Skylark, which used Cord body dies atop a rear-drive architecture. It was a beautiful but bittersweet end to an automaker that once attempted a risky marketing sideshow, led by some average guys who performed a Herculean task, driving around the world in a car with about as much horsepower as a modern riding lawnmower.
Upon returning home from Cleveland, which the “Little Corporal” has called home since 1946, I was determined to discover the story behind what appeared to be a decrepit relic. Little is to be found online, and only one book has been written on the subject, Three Men and a Hupp by James A. Ward, and he covers the car and men involved in a way that one could hardly improve upon, and I’ve used his book as my source. Even he, in his detailed research, found difficulty in characterizing Thomas Jones, as he died fairly young and left no descendants, proving that even the greatest feats are soon forgotten, even when one leaves as palpable a legacy as this old Hupmobile.
Then again, if a man doesn’t truly die until his name is spoken for the last time, I’m happy to keep these three heroes going for a little while longer.