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By Brian Earnest
Patrick Hopkins had been around his grandfather’s spectacular 1912 Buick his entire life. The car was, as the cliché goes, just another member of the family. He had even been warned that the car would be his when his grandfather finally decided he had owned it long enough.
Still, when the day came for the car to officially become his, Hopkins had a hard time processing it all. “I just kept running myself repeatedly into the wall,” he recalls. “It was just such a shock to end up with this car. Even when he told me it was mine, I still didn’t believe it.
“Even now, when I walk out into the garage and see it sitting there … I think, ‘This is Grandma and Grandpa’s car.’ It will always be their car. They did everything together in this car.”
Robert Hopkins Sr., had actually owned the car “only” since 1963, but it probably seemed like forever to those who know him. That’s because he drove the car everywhere – around his Sacramento home, on numerous tours throughout California and nationwide, and to just about any old-car gathering he could find. “About five years ago, I asked him how many miles he had on it, and he didn’t hesitate to say 172,000!” Patrick said. “It’s been across the country. It’s been driven across country in a van and then taken from Portland, Maine, through Canada, all the way to Portland, Oregon, and then home again.
“It’s been on Five Red Rock Run tours, which are a month long. The car is so reliable it’s unbelievable.”
According to his grandson, Robert Hopkins Sr. actually became enamored with the venerable Buick long before he was able to buy it.
“A family friend, back in maybe 1948 or ’49, saw the car at the California State Fair,” Patrick said. “At that time, it was still a totally original car. And Grandpa fell in love with it at the time. He was probably 13 or 15 — somewhere in there — and he just fell in love with it and always wanted one.”
The car wound up in the hands of another Sacramento man, then was sold to another car buff in the 1950s. By then, Robert had his own 1909 and he and the owner of the Buick toured together and became friends through the Horseless Carriage Club. “They drove the cars everywhere,” Patrick said. “They were all over.”
The Buick’s owner died in 1963, however, and it wasn’t long before the man’s family was offering Hopkins a chance to buy the car. “The man’s wife called Grandpa and said, ‘Art always wanted you to have the car, so if you want it, it’s for sale.’ He paid $7,500 for this car in 1963. He could have bought a Ferrari for that, but he loved the car. Of all the cars he had, that was his favorite car.”
Buick was certainly putting its best foot forward with its top-end Model 43 five-passenger touring car in 1912. The car was the biggest and fanciest in Buick’s lineup, carrying a price tag of $1,725 — far more than any other Buick that year.
The cars featured the cutting edge “valve in head” inline four-cylinder engine. The engines displaced 318 cubic inches and were rated at 48 hp. They were mated to a three-speed manual transmission.
The big, 3,600-lb. Buicks rode on 36-inch wooden-spoked wheels with four-inch-wide tires. The cars were outfitted with large, two-piece windshields and folding tops which collapsed accordion-style behind the rear seat. Large carbide headlamps were perched between the flat, prominent fenders in front, just above the signature “Buick” badge on the radiator and the crank starter. Acetylene lamps were mounted off the corners of the windshield with another one on the driver’s side behind the back seat.
The Model 43s came with either blue or gray bodies. Hopkins’ car wears the blue-with-black-fenders combination and yellow pinstriping to match the yellow chassis and wheels.
“This car came with every option on it, it was top of the line in 1912,” Hopkins said. “It’s got the 100-mph speedometer … and, of course, top and windshield. I still have the original jack and hubcap wrench that came with it.
“The Buick blue and gray — it sounds like it would be nice, but trust me, it wasn’t. You could get a blue or gray chassis. I think this car came with a blue chassis, so it would have been a gray body, blue fenders and blue chassis. The splash aprons were blue, and the headlights were blue.”
As far as Hopkins can tell, that’s the way the car looked for the first 47 years of its life. “It was a totally original car until 1959, that’s when the car got repainted,” he said. “The body has never been taken off the frame … They painted it with a brush, and you can still see, underneath the car, the original blue paint.
“The front seat cushions and rear seat cushions were reupholstered when my grandfather got the car. The seat backs and all the door panels are still original. The rear carpet and top got replaced in 2000 and the wheels were re-spoked in ’84 … I don’t think the fenders have ever been off this car, with the exception of the left rear. We had it taken off so a friend with the same car could copy it and make one for his car.”
Parts such as fenders are certainly hard to come by for such a rare beast. Only 1,501 of the cars were built 89 years ago, and only between 10 and 15 survive. “And four of those are in California,” Hopkins said. The engine has been rebuilt twice, but it’s still ticking. “The crankcase has broken, but it’s always been able to be saved,” Hopkins said.
“Grandpa electrified the lights and put on a lot of extra horns on it and turn signals, and I’ve taken most of that off trying to put the car back to the way it was. I replaced all the water hoses and put a new fan belt on it. Beyond that, basically I just put gas in it, check the oil and let’s go. This car loves to be driven.”
Hopkins volunteers at the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento, and has been around vintage cars as long as he can remember. He’s already taken the Buick on one five-day tour and estimates he’s put about 1,200 miles on the car in the past year. “Back in September there was a tour in Truckee, Calif. It was, like, 580 miles, I think,” he said. “That was the first big tour I was on. Everybody knew I had the car, and everybody was really delighted to see the car out again.”
Regardless of how many times he gets behind the wheel, however, the novelty of driving his old Buick, and the 1915 Overland speedster he also owns, never seems to get old. “I love driving the Buick. I’m still getting used to it, but it’s a great car,” he said.
“The first time I drove this car … Oh my god, I remember that day! My grandmother was still alive and she was in the back seat and my grandfather was next to me, and it was just a local tour through the neighborhood … It was maybe 25-30 miles at the most, just a very short tour, but for the next three days, I couldn’t move. I was so sore. My shoulders hurt so bad, I literally couldn’t move.
“It’s a real treat to run around in cars like this. It’s an experience, and it gives you a whole new mind set on how travel was back then and how important these vehicles were to people. Now, you are rolling around in history – in art. And to see the faces on the generation that remembers the old cars, it’s really eye opening.”
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