Story by Brian Earnest
Photos by Alan Johnston
The radiator badge on John Smith’s marvelous 1911 roadster spells out “E-M-F”, but still he knows the questions are coming. “What is it? … E-M-F? What’s that?”
Even at car shows, most hobbyist and car buffs aren’t all that familiar with the long-gone E-M-F brand name or the cars that they later fostered. Even fewer would recognize a Canadian version. But Smith is happy to oblige with a history lesson. As the car’s longtime owner — he’s actually owned it twice — he’s well-rehearsed in reciting the back story of the brand, and the splendid tale of his white roadster.
“I usually just say it is a predecessor of the Studebaker, which it is — more or less,” laughs Smith, a resident of Orillia, Ontario. “Most adults have heard of Studebaker, but these days almost no one has heard of E-M-F. I’m kind of the only kid on the block with one.
“There are probably several hundred E-M-Fs still in existence … They were big production cars back at the time, along with Ford and a couple others. In Canada there aren’t as many, maybe 10 that we know about. And mine is the only roadster from Canada.”
It’s also probably the only E-M-F still living that was rescued from a chicken coop. That adventure came courtesy of Smith’s father, Gord Smith, a well-known radio station owner and personality. Gord Smith owned and operated CFOR-AM and was a bit of a radio pioneer in Canada. He found a way to marry his love for old cars with his zest for the airwaves and the result was a huge collection of cars that John says surrounded the family for most of his childhood.
“My dad was one of the first antique car collectors in Canada, actually,” Smith says. “He did his own program every week called ‘Motor Memories.’ He’d talk about trivia from automotive history in North America and so on and tell stories — he was a great story teller — and at the end of each program would end with ‘And if you know of any antique cars in the neighborhood let us know!’ [laughs] He’d get all kinds of leads on cars including, this one which was in a chicken coop in the greater Toronto area. … We’ve actually got film footage from 1952 of it coming out of the chicken coop being winched out on to the old horrible farm wagon that he used. And we actually have footage of my grandfather driving the car in unrestored condition after they got it running. We’ve got footage of him driving it around in about 1953 or so.
“Dad wound up doing an early restoration on it. Back then I loved the car. I grew up around all these old cars. He had, like, 50 at a time … but there was a core group of cars that were ‘keepers’ and this was one of them.”
Smith eventually wound up buying the roadster from his father, kept for a time, then dealt it back to him “when our children came along and we couldn’t all get in it to go get an ice cream cone.” He traded it back to his father for a touring car. The roadster was later sold to another collector, “but he didn’t do anything with it. He never used it and pretty much just covered it up,” Smith notes. When that owner passed away, Smith decided to buy the roadster back and own it for a second time. There were only about 26,000 E-M-Fs built combined for the 1911-1912 years before the marque disappeared, and only a small percentage of those remain today, so Smith knew his chances of finding another little E-M-F roadster with so much originality and appeal were somewhere between slim and none.
The E-M-F brand received its moniker from the three men who founded the company — Detroit auto body builder Barney Everitt, former Cadillac sales whiz William Metzger, and ex-Ford plant production chief Walter Flanders. The company was launched in June of 1908 in Detroit with big plans to become a power player in the medium-priced car field. The company bought out the plants, tooling and equipment of the Wayne and Northern companies and used them to build the fledgling Model 30, a four-cylinder, 30-hp offering available as a five-passenger touring car, four-passenger tourabout, four-seat demi-tonneau and three-passenger roadster
Production grew to a promising 15,000-plus assemblies for 1910, in spite of a few bugs that included some overheating issues, but infighting between the three founders would soon derail the entire venture. Everitt and Metzger soon bolted and went into business building cars under the Everitt name. In these early days, the cars were sold at Studebaker wagon dealerships, and when the founders began to split up, Studebaker — unhappy with some of E-M-F’s quality control issues and production missteps — was able to take control of the company.
By 1913, the E-M-F name was phased out and the cars coming from Detroit and across the river at the Walkerville, Ontario, plant all carried the Studebaker name.
Smith’s 1911 roadster was one of the cars that was assembled on Canadian soil, and he has yet to see another like it. “I don’t really know how much of the car they would have built in Walkerville, other than assembling it, but they did use different lights and different windshields, and I would imagine they built their own bodies, but I don’t really know that for sure,” he said.
Smith has never given the E-M-F a nuts and bolts restoration. Instead it has been more of a rolling remake that has never taken the car off the road for long. He’s redone the radiator; fixed the magneto, coil and other electrical components; ground the valves; replaced the fire wall and kick panel and given the car plenty of other little tweaks. “I’ve probably done a 100 little things to it, and it looks pretty good from feet 50 away,” he says. “The last few years I’ve been doing upgrades on it to make it reliable and improve its appearance. The car could really stand to be taken apart and be cosmetically restored and I hope to do that some day. In the meantime I’m sort of working away at it a little at a time.”
Any ride in the driver’s seat is pretty much assured to bring a smile to Smith’s face, but sitting shotgun and trying to teach somebody else how to drive it is another story. He has found that experience is the only teacher when it comes to truly mastering a Brass Era machine.
“There is way to shift gears and you’ve to do it that way — or else,” he chuckles. “I tried to teach a friend of mine a couple weeks ago to drive it and wasn’t too successful. You have to double-clutch and have to do it quickly and it’s a coordination thing. I learned when I was young and probably when I could learn things easily.”
Smith also owns a 1913 Model T Ford and a Model A Ford roadster that he calls his “summer daily transportation.” He generally reserves his E-M-F for special occasions and Brass Era gatherings, but he insists he doesn’t treat it with kid gloves. “I do drive it on a pretty regular bass. The paint has got lots of marks and scratches, so if the grandkids get in and climb on it and scratch it, ah, who cares. And they love it.”
So does their grandfather.
“The whole family connection and the story of how my dad got it … and I’m a proud Canadian and I’m a pretty proud of its Canadian heritage,” Smith concludes. “It sounds a bit like bragging, but I love it the way it looks. It’s really appealing to look at and it scoots along the road pretty well. It’s fun to drive. It’s really fun to drive.
“I really do love the car. To be really honest, when I first bought it back I wasn’t sure how long I’d want to keep it, but I’ve become very attached to it.”
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