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All steamed up: Brothers to recreate 1st car trip from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon's South Rim

All steamed up: Brothers to recreate 1st car trip from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon's South Rim

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Nick (left) and Chris Howell pose beside the 1902 Toledo steam car that is believed to be the first car to ever drive to the Grand Canyon. The two brothers plan to recreate the trip. They will be in Flagstaff Aug. 25-27. (Courtesy photo)

When English fish wholesaler Nick Howell purchased a 1902 Toledo steam car from an Internal Revenue Service auction in Michigan in 2004, he knew he had something special.

He just didn’t know how special or that the car would wrap him and his brother, Chris, into a wild adventure to the Grand Canyon. 

Turns out the steam car was the first car to ever make the trip from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon and the brothers have brought the car back to the U.S. to recreate the trip. They plan to arrive in Flagstaff Monday afternoon and start for the Canyon on Aug. 26.

The public is invited to visit with the brothers. They’re expected to arrive in town at 3 p.m. Monday at the Courtyard by Marriott, 2650 S. Beulah Blvd. A Darracq roadster that will follow the Howells on their trip will also be there. 

Residents may also see the brothers driving around town in the historic car. They’ve got other photo ops set up for the Coconino County Courthouse and the Weatherford Hotel. 

The crew will start their trip at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday at Hart Prairie Road (FR151) and Highway 180. They will be followed by the Darracq and a couple of other chase vehicles with cameras. They’ll drive until 7 p.m., then haul the car on a trailer back to Flagstaff for dinner.

Wednesday, they’ll start at 7 a.m. where they left off the night before and hope to arrive at Grandview Point at the Grand Canyon at 4:30 p.m. 

At 5:30 p.m. they’ll load up the car and trailer it back to Flagstaff. Details of their schedule can be found on the Howells’ blog, www.toledosteamcar.com.

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The Howell brothers live in England. Nick owns a fish wholesale business in Penzance and his brother does gardening and landscape design. 

According to an interview with the London Sunday Times, Nick is a bit of a classic car enthusiast. He told the paper that he’s owned classic cars before and has several friends who own steam cars. 

Steam cars were some of the first automobiles made. They burn gasoline, which heats water and turns it into steam. The pressure generated by the steam pushes a series of pistons that move the wheels of the car. The cars lost favor after the internal combustion engine was invented. 

According to the brothers’ blog, when Nick unpacked the car in England, he noticed that the wheelbase was about six inches longer than the specs listed for a Toledo. The car also came with a newspaper clipping describing a similar car that was supposed to make a trip over the Rocky Mountains. 

Using the Internet, Nick was able to contact 13 other Toledo owners around the world, who were just as puzzled as he was about the length of the car. 

After eight years of research, Nick found a 1901 story in the Los Angeles Herald that described a Toledo steam car that was custom built for an Oliver Lippincott. Lippincott was a photographer who planned to make the trip over the Rocky Mountains. In order to make the trip the car’s chassis had to be lengthened by six inches. 

A later article states that Lippincott canceled his Rocky Mountain trip in favor of proving to the public that a car could make the trip between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. Lippincott wanted to start a steam car line to the Grand Canyon. He needed a way to prove that the feat could be done and done faster than the stagecoach and cheaper than the train that made the run on a regular basis. 

According to his blog, Nick thought his car might be the actual Toledo that made the trip to the Grand Canyon. He started fixing it up in preparation for showing it in a few car shows. For a 112-year old car, it was in pretty good shape. Nick only had to replace three pieces of wood on the body — two pieces were split and the third was scorched from the engine. He also rebuilt the engine. 

* * *

Then this year, Howell and the Toledo were invited to participate in the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance car show in California. He jumped at the chance and thought it might also provide him and his brother with a chance to recreate the Flagstaff to Grand Canyon trip by  Lippincott. 

He contacted the Arizona Trail Association and was able to recreate most of the trip on Google maps. He won’t be able to stick to all of the original route because of the terrain, but he plans to follow it as much as possible. 

The Howells hope their trip to the Grand Canyon will be less eventful than Lippincott’s.

According to the book “Mountain Town,” Lippincott arrived in Flagstaff on Jan. 2, 1902, with the car and Winfield Hogaboom and TM Chapman from the Los Angeles Herald

The three men hired a local man, Al Doyle, to guide them to the Grand Canyon. Lippincott boasted that the car would make the 67-mile trip in about eight hours, so extra food and water were not necessary. In the end, it took the men four days to reach the canyon. 

According to Hogaboom’s tale in a Feb. 2, 1902, edition of the Herald, the trip started out all right until Doyle recommended the men stop because night was starting to fall. The men stayed the night with a couple of cowboys at “Moodyspan’s cabin.”

The next morning, the car was frozen stiff. The men used most of the gasoline they had to thaw it. Once they got started, they traveled another 10 miles before the water gauge broke and they lost all of the steam the car had generated. 

At the same time, the car had used up the last of the gasoline the crew had brought from Los Angeles. They poured in some “gasoline” they had bought from Flagstaff to restart the car. 

“When we started again it was plain to be seen that this fuel was not going to give the amount of heat required to keep up sufficient steam,” Hogaboom wrote, “Besides, it produced a dense volume of smoke that poured out of the ventilators and enveloped us.”

* * *

The car chugged along slowly for a few more hours, but before long the men had to abandon the luggage.  About a mile after abandoning the luggage, the car’s sprocket chain broke.

The men were able to fix the chain but the next morning the car only went two miles before it stopped working again. The four men abandoned the vehicle and set out to cover the remaining 18 miles on foot. 

One by one, the men, who had had nothing to eat or drink for the last two days, sat down and refused to walk any further. The only man to actually make it to the canyon on foot was Hogaboom. A team of horses was sent out to recover the car and the other men.

According to “Mountain Town,” the men and the car stayed at the Grandview Hotel at the Grand Canyon for four days before most of them returned to Flagstaff via a train to Williams and then Flagstaff. 

Lippincott drove the car back, after a supply of good gasoline came to the hotel on the train. The trip from the canyon to Flagstaff took him about seven hours. His dream of starting a motorized bus tour to the canyon later failed. 

* * *

According to their blog, the Howells’ trip to the U.S. is also turning out to be quite the adventure. 

On Aug. 4, a few days before the brothers packed up the car to make the trip across the ocean, they received a call from former late-night talk show host Jay Leno. He had heard of their trip and offered them the use of his garage. 

Leno collects classic cars and apparently has a few steam cars of his own. He picked up the brothers up from their Los Angeles hotel on Aug. 8 in a White steam car and gave them a tour of the town. 

The next day, the brothers found out that their car was stuck in U.S. Customs. The car was released on Aug. 11. The brothers then had a bit of trouble installing a new gas burner in the engine and getting the car to run properly. On Aug. 13, they loaded the car onto a trailer for the trip to the car show the next day.

The first day of the car show, they ended up getting lost and then arrived before the rest of the classic cars at the gathering point. Then they had trouble finding the right fuel for the car. But they ended up winning the Chairman’s trophy.

The brothers plan to trailer the car to Flagstaff. They hope to arrive Monday afternoon and start their trip to the Grand Canyon on Tuesday.

Suzanne Adams-Ockrassa can be reached at sadams@azdailysun.com or 556-2253. 

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