Firsatsaatleri archive – October 2, 2008 issue
When Dr. Philip Ruben decides to head out to his garage and take one of his antique cars for a spin, he’s got several pretty appealing options: old, really old and ancient.
Ruben, a prominent Beverly Hills dentist who says he has “been one of those lucky guys who had a lot of celebrities for patients,” looks at his 1931 Model A coupe as a relative youngster in the fleet — middle-aged at best. And his ’67 Mercury Cougar and 1970 280 SL Mercedes — which he got in 1980 from Dean Martin, one of his patients — are practically new cars.
That’s what happens when your definition of an “old car” is slightly skewed by the venerable 1904 curved-dash Olds and brassy 1910 Buick Model 14A “Buggyabout” that occasionally roll down your driveway — much to the delight of your neighbors.
“For me, it’s just wonderful to have these things and see how much cars changed over the years,” noted Ruben. “I have the 1904, and you can see all the improvements up to 1910, and then looking at my ’31 Ford, you can really see how far we’ve come. It’s truly amazing.”
The apple of Ruben’s eye for many years has been his curved-dash Olds, which he has owned for about 25 years. A year ago, Ruben couldn’t resist the urge to bring home a brass-era companion for his Olds and purchased a beautifully restored 1910 Buick. As might be expected with cars of this vintage, the Olds and Buick both have interesting stories to tell.
Ruben’s fascination with the 1904 Olds actually began during his college days in the Pittsburgh area when he and a friend got a look at a curved-dash Model B replica. “My buddy’s father was in the steel business, and when we saw that car we thought, ‘Hey, we could actually build a car like that.’” Ruben said. “The next thing you know, we were renting a garage for $10 a month in a condemned building and bringing in all this equipment and we started to build this car. It was like Tom Sawyer! We had all these friends coming out of the woodwork to work on it. It was a riot.”
Before the car was finished, however, Ruben got the call that he had been accepted to dental school and he had to get down to the business of learning to fix teeth before he could fix up any more old cars. “Since then, I’ve always wanted one, because I didn’t get to finish it.”
That chance finally came years later when Ruben was visiting with a friend, Robert J. Gottlieb, a prominent attorney and an avid car collector who just happened to have a 1904 Olds of his own that he was willing to part with. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Ruben. “I said, ‘You’ve got a curved-dash Olds? I want to buy it!’ I didn’t even ask him the price.”
The elderly Olds, it turns out, had several claims to fame. It may have actually been the car that inspired the oft-heard claim that it “It belonged to a little old lady from Pasadena,” because, in fact, it actually had belonged to a lady from Pasadena. It appeared in the 1905 Rose Parade and eventually spent time in the National Automotive Museum in Reno as part of the Harrah Collection.
When Ruben finally got his hands on it, he decided to do a complete restoration that dragged on for more than 20 years. “I started it in about 1983,” Ruben laughs. “I took it all apart down the last screw and put it all back together. It took me years, because I kept working on other projects.
“I finally set a goal to get it finished in time for the 2006 London to Brighton (Veteran Car Run). It had always been a dream of mine to do the London to Brighton. In 2005, my wife said we should go over to England to check it out before we shipped the car over there. Then in 2006 we shipped the car over … It was fabulous. I took my son, and we broke down (from a minor choke wiring problem) in front of Big Ben!
“To be able to do something you’ve dreamed about your whole life … with all the accomplishments I’ve have in my life, that’s certainly been one of the highlights. But it took a goal like that for me to ever get the restoration actually finished.”
As he does with his Buick, Ruben drives the Olds regularly as a member of the Western Gaslight one- and two-cylinder group that is part of the Horseless Carriage Club of America. He says the Olds needs to get driven occasionally, as much for the benefit of the driver as the car.
“Every few months or so I like to fire it up and take it out, just to keep up my skills of firing it up and driving it,” he said. “The hardest thing in those cars, of course, is the tiller. You have to get used to it. It’s very quick. Remember when you were a kid and you had a wagon and people would push you from behind or you were rolling downhill, and you had to try to steer? It’s like that … When you start rolling in one of these cars, you are pretty exposed in the front. You start getting up to 25, 30 mph, things can happen pretty quick.”
Ruben has certainly found things to be quick in his two-cylinder Buick, as well — a lot quicker than he expected. The Model 14A is a little two-seat roadster with a removable canvas top that was originally designed in 1908 and finally debuted in 1910, when Buick was well on its way to adopting the four-cylinder as its engine of choice. Ruben doubts the decision to pull the plug on the Buggyabout after the 1911 model year was made because of its performance, however.
“I can run away from the four-cylinders in this thing!” he notes with a chuckle. “It moves fast — faster than I want to go. That’s probably because it’s so light. I was used to my curved-dash, which is a single-cylinder. With this car, once you’re in the higher gear, my gosh, it will pull almost any hill without any problem.”
While Ruben had lusted after a curved-dash Olds since his college days, his longing for a Buick Buggyabout goes back even further. “Since I was a little boy and built models, I wanted to have this, or a Maxwell,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed of having this car.”
The opportunity finally came last year when a fellow southern California enthusiasts, Jack Robinson, was ready to part with a beautiful Model 14A that he had purchased and lovingly restored a few years earlier after the car had been ravaged by a fire in the warehouse where it had been stored. According to Ruben, Robinson scoured the country for parts and advice about how to correctly rebuild and restore the wreck, even working with historians at Buick to get every nut and bolt correct.
Ruben eventually worked up the nerve to make an offer to buy the car, but Robinson wasn’t quite ready to let go. “We got together and talked about me buying the car and negotiated a price. And he said, ‘Phil, I want to hold out and drive it one more year. I think my health will hold out one more year.’ Then last year, he said, ‘Phil, I’m ready to sell it.’ … In the meantime, he had been offered more money for the car from some other people who wanted it, but he came back and said, “No, Phil deserves it for the amount of money we agreed on.’ Now that’s a real gentleman. You don’t find too many people like that.”
Ruben has made a couple of minor tweaks to the Buick to accommodate his desire to drive it regularly. He has installed a small alternator to keep the battery charged, and a small switch to run turn signals. The car is also equipped with a valve and oil collection setup to keep the oil off the ground.
“The turn signals are just for safety,” he said. “It’s just too dangerous where we live. People just don’t pay attention. We have so many tourists that will just pull out in front of you to take pictures. They don’t realize how long it takes to stop these cars!”
Buick actually built two versions of the Model 14. The 14A had the gas tank under the seat with a storage area in back. The 14B had the gas tank in back, rather than under the driver. There are two forward speeds plus reverse, and controls are on the steering column. Motivation comes from a 127-cubic-inch, inline two-cylinder engine, which turns the rear wheels through a dual chain-drive arrangement.
Only 2,048 of the Buggyabouts were produced for the 1910 model year, and it’s anybody’s guess how many remain. Clearly, it isn’t many. Ruben says he rarely sees any other 1910s during his travels.
If nothing else, Ruben jokes that the old Buick and Olds have given him options if his dental practice ever dries up.
“I give all the neighborhood kids ride,” he says. “They love it.
“One time a lady came running out and met me in the street, and was asking, ‘Do you do birthday parties? I had to tell her, ‘No, I don’t do birthday parties,’ he adds with a chuckle. “But who knows, maybe someday.”