Ed and Karen Archer show off their classic 1917 Auburn on a recent visit to a senior home in Union City. Karen Archer says she values the time these cars represent: "Families were closer and neighbors were closer." (Laura Klivans/KQED)
On a warm Saturday in Union City, Gudveig Wixson takes in the Cadillac in front of her. It’s from 1913.
“I like this one because I was born, let me see here, 11 years after that,” Wixson says.
The 91-year-old is a resident of a Masonic senior home. She's originally from Norway and grew up in a family that didn’t have a car. “So once in a while we would stop, and we’d look out the window because we saw a car.”
Today members of the Bay Area Horseless Carriage Club (BAHCC) are showing off their beloved vehicles to senior home residents like Wixson. What she refers to as a car, they call a "horseless carriage."
“When you’re in a modern car, we're all in a hurry,” says club member Ed Archer, “and we all jump on the freeway and go from point A to point B.”
But in a horseless carriage, with speeds maxing out at around 50 mph, Archer says it’s easier to take it slow.
“We may go 200 miles in a day over some desolate roads,” he says, often accompanied by a whole group in what the club calls a tour.
Ed’s wife, Karen, is also a club member. “People from that era, they lived such a slower life,” she says. “Families were closer and neighbors were closer.”
The Archers work to recreate this aesthetic, not only through their car, but in their home and even through how they dress.
Karen Archer gives me a tour of her outfit. “To start from the top, I have a parasol to keep the sun off my beautiful complexion,” she says. “I have a hat that's from 1915. And my dress is about the same era. And of course a lady never went anywhere without her gloves on.”
She advises that when looking for period clothing, it’s best to closely inspect the condition of these 100-year-old items.
Ed Archer is dressed similarly. He dons “suspenders, a tie, a stick pin, cufflinks.” Back then, he says, “Nobody went around with open collars unless you were a real slob.” He completes his look with a handlebar mustache, maintained for 54 years.
While BAHCC members don’t have to dress in period clothing, they do need to have a love for these cars. The vehicles can be expensive, ranging from $8,000 into the millions, says Ed Archer.
Beyond the hefty price tag, the cars can be unpredictable. Bill Brommer, also a club member, says each vehicle has a distinct personality. He says his is cantankerous.
Brommer and his wife, Kaaren, had a business restoring antique cars, but they say they couldn’t fully enjoy the cars until they retired.
Bill Brommer restored his first car more than 50 years ago. It was a Model T that he later sold to a friend in Chicago.
Remarkably, the car found its way back to him when he spotted pictures of it on eBay a few years ago. “I said to my wife, 'You have to come see these pictures. I think it's the same car that I owned,' " Brommer says. "They had about 75 pictures of it and there was no question about it.”
Bill Brommer bought the car once again. Now, Kaaren Brommer says, he drives it whenever possible.
“He owned something like 40 to 45 cars -- all different years, all different kinds,” Kaaren Brommer says. “For this one to find him after all these years, we definitely feel like it was fated for him to have it.”
Bill Brommer opens his car door and points out the minimal features. “Inside we have a wonderful dashboard that has one gauge on it. It says whether it's generating current or not,” he says. “We have a speedometer. And besides that there’s no other instruments.”
There’s not even a gas gauge or a glove compartment. Three short pedals jut out of the floor -- prehistoric versions of today’s neutral, reverse and brake.
“That's why, when they talk about driving these cars, they call it dancing,” Kaaren Brommer says. The pedals make these cars much harder to manipulate, she says, “because you have to put your feet either on one or the other or all at the same time.”
The cars don’t brake well either. That’s part of the skill of driving, too -- doing it defensively. On tours, parts fall off or the tires rimming the wooden spoke wheels go flat.
But club members say it’s worth the trouble -- in part for the responses they receive driving down the road.
“We get a lot of high-fives, an awful lot of them,” Bill Brommer says. “Most people love them. They just love seeing these cars. And we like to show them off, too.”
Today, driving isn’t much about showing off or celebrating. For most, it’s a lonely commute with varying amounts of road rage.
But for Bay Area Horseless Carriage Club members, driving means feeling the wind on your face, the bumps beneath you, and the weight of the hunk of metal you command. It’s about the smiles and waves you exchange with people. It’s about the trip itself.