Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 6, 2011

Speed racers

Vintage Vehicles festival showcases the swift this year

by Kareem Yasin

Not many can resist the magnificence of a fully functioning antique vehicle, not least when it is coated in hot red paint and kept in as pristine condition as James Cesari's 1919 Buick Racer. When Cesari took this reporter out for a spin recently, passersby and other drivers waved and sometimes cheered, as the deep roar of the engine propelled the auto enthusiast and his vintage race car down the streets of Palo Alto.

Cesari's project is one of more than 100 classic vehicles and related pieces of equipment that will be showcased on May 22 at the Vintage Vehicles & Family Festival. The free annual event is organized by Palo Alto's Museum of American Heritage and held at El Camino Park across from Stanford Shopping Center.

"This year's event focuses on the history of racing vehicles," said Gwenyth Claughton, the museum's executive director. On display will be a number of racing vehicles dating back as far as 1912, including a Franklin Torpedo Phaeton from that year, which is still taken out in vintage races today, she said.

"Also featured is the 1915 Ack Attack Streamliner motorcycle that in September 2010 became the world's fastest motorcycle by reaching a land speed record of 376 miles per hour at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah," Claughton added.

Cesari, who used to do a bit of racing himself with a 1955 Alfa Romeo Super Sprint, spent a little over a year revamping his 1919 Buick Racer. But while he had previous experience restoring a number of cars, including a 1912 Michigan, the Buick project represented a unique challenge.

"With the first five or six cars I worked on, which I've since sold, I wanted the final product to be as authentic as possible, the way they came out of the factory," he said. "With this one, I was converting a standard showroom touring vehicle into a race car." Such changes were standard practice in the 1920s, Cesari noted.

"Back then, there were over a hundred auto makers. In order to really distinguish their vehicles, many including Buick relied on auto racing to demonstrate their reliability. It was a form of advertising," he said.

Today, the vehicle's furnishings echo Cesari's inspirations, with the number 19 emblazoned in white on its radiator and in yellow on its sides. There are advertisements for Master Lubricants — an old company with offices in San Francisco that used to advertise on such cars — professionally pinstriped on to its body.

But Cesari said he faced some challenges just getting started in the restoration project. "My friend had a chassis and a transmission and engine. But I had a long way to go," he says, noting that at first he found little success in locating the necessary parts.

That is, until he heard from a man in the Central Valley who said he owned such a model, albeit of the standard, H-45 five-passenger showroom variety. "At first he said it was restorable, so I didn't want it," Cesari said. "I didn't want to destroy a good car to build something like this."

It was only upon seeing the man's vehicle that Cesari was convinced he could make use of it — although for what some might consider unconventional reasons: "It was trashed."

"They'd taken the whole interior out, welded the doors shut, and been using it on a farm to haul melons and other produce," he said. Of the exterior, Cesari would use only the radiator shell and hood, along with a stock drive train. The rest he built himself.

A new body was constructed based on pictures from the era. He also carved wood impressions of how he wanted the vehicle's two seats to be arranged, before constructing a cardboard mock-up of the body. After locating and arranging the sheet metal, he then dismantled everything to paint it.

Other adjustments included taking advantage of the Buick's retractable steering wheel by lowering the seats, shortening the body of the car, and installing a higher gear ratio typical of the era's race cars. Cesari also modified the exhaust system. "I wanted the engine to breathe better, so the hood is split and each pipe feeds directly into the exhaust," he said.

"It ended up costing about $20,000, which was a lot but much less than if I had hired someone else to do it for me," said Cesari, who retired 10 years ago following a career in software sales.

Though Cesari said the vehicle has a very smooth ride and is capable of driving up to 75 miles per hour, he does not take the antique vehicle out as much as he used to, partially because of a lack of roads appropriate for the slower speeds of older cars. He cites an accident two years ago, in which a friend driving an antique vehicle was rear-ended by a semi, as one of the reasons behind his decision to slowly give up the hobby.

But he is keeping his Buick. "I've had some really great times with it," he said. Amongst the memories is the time he recreated an iconic moment in the automaker's history, racing his car against an unlikely rival: an airplane.

"We were attending a rally in Half Moon Bay, and at lunch we met a gentleman who had a hangar nearby. After some talking, we thought, 'Wouldn't it be fun to try to recreate that?'" Cesari said. Racing down a runway, the land-based challenger was obviously no match against a supercharged smart plane, but provided some worthy competition in keeping with the Buick's reputation, he said.

Cesari also said the Buick was in 1911 disqualified by other racers in a precursor to the Indianapolis 500 — because it was too fast. With a qualifying time of 93 miles per hour, the Buick outmatched the race's eventual winner by almost 20 miles per hour, he said.

You would be lucky, Cesari added, to find a speedometer for vehicles of that period capable of measuring speeds above 60 miles per hour, which is why he sent one up to specialists in Oregon to get the Buick's recalibrated for speeds up to 100 miles per hour. Testing its accuracy, he recalled, was an interesting experience for his wife.

"She was following me on the 280, and every time my speed increased by 10 miles per hour I would raise my hand and she would check her own speed," he said with a laugh. "When I reached 70 miles and kept going higher, she refused to follow me anymore and turned off."

Despite her apparent concerns, however, the Cesaris have entered the vehicle in a number of antique-car tours and endurance rallies, often taking older roads with less traffic on visits to Oregon, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and elsewhere in California.

Cesari, who has lived in Palo Alto for 35 years, said he hopes the Vintage Vehicles event brings visitors a sense of what it was like in the 1920s. "You really get a sense of the era, not just with the cars, but with the other items including what kinds of equipment and toys people used to use," he says. "These kinds of shows help people keep in touch with their heritage."

What: Vintage Vehicles & Family Festival 2011, with vintage cars, vehicles and other equipment on display, and science demonstrations and other activities planned

Where: El Camino Park, across El Camino Real from Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto

When: Sunday, May 22, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Call 650-321-1004 or go to http://www.moah.org .

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