August 19, 2014

News & Features

Pebble Beach brings together rare Ruxtons

New York Times News Service

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Ruxton collector Jim Fasnacht, pictured with his 1930 multicolored Ruxton, brought seven models to Pebble Beach. (Michael Stravato / The New York Times)

With its pioneering front-wheel drive, low-slung silhouette and cat's-eye headlamps, the multicolored Ruxton automobile seemed destined for greatness in 1929.

"The styling and engineering were years ahead of most other cars," says Skip Marketti, chief curator of the Nethercutt Collection, an auto museum in Sylmar, Calif.

Indeed, the Ruxton's breakthrough technology and dashing looks have led experts including Marketti to rank the Ruxton among the elite vehicles of its era, alongside names such as Packard, Duesenberg and Ruxton's archrival, Cord.

It helps, of course, that Ruxtons are also exceptionally rare. Automobile Quarterly titled a lengthy 1969 feature about the car this way: "A superb automobile that never had a chance."

California's Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance recently displayed at least 15 of the 19 Ruxtons known to still exist, in what is believed to be the largest-ever gathering of the marque.

"It will be something to see," says Jim Fasnacht, 59, a retired oil executive in Houston. Fasnacht owns seven Ruxtons: both of the only four-door convertibles, called phaetons, ever built; three of the seven surviving roadsters; and two sedans.

In addition to Fasnacht's cars, four auto museums showed Ruxtons at Pebble Beach, and four privately owned cars came from collectors in Florida, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

"In my research, I've never uncovered even a single photograph with more than two Ruxtons in the same frame," says Fasnacht, who may be the marque's leading authority as well as its No. 1 collector.

The cars' history is "cursed and confusing," says Fasnacht, who was smitten at his first sight of a Ruxton 12 years ago.

"The more I looked, the more fascinated I became," he says. "Today, seven out of 10 autos use front-wheel drive. Yet this car, with its advanced engineering, was completely off the collector radar screen."

Like the better-known Tucker that came nearly 20 years later, the Ruxton made a splashy debut before its fortunes quickly reversed. Both cars were innovative and attractive, and both ceased production amid lawsuits and questions about financial irregularities.

Ruxton made headlines in April 1929 as the first American automaker to announce a front-drive passenger car, soon followed by Cord.

But less than two years later, the snazzy Ruxtons were remnants of history.

The Ruxton was the creation of Archie Moulton Andrews, a pitchman and stock manipulator, and William J. Muller, a gifted, mild-mannered engineer. The car was named after William Ruxton, a Wall Street investor on the board of the car's parent company, New Era.

Although Fasnacht documents only 11 cars as having been built in 1929, Ruxtons appeared at car shows and promotions around the country. Splashy advertisements declared the vehicle "utterly different" and with "perfect cradling of the body." An effusive four-page ad in Fortune proclaimed, "In all the vocabulary of motordom, there are no new nouns or verbs or adjectives to describe this new car."

Just 96 autos were produced in the marque's 20-month lifetime, Fasnacht found in his research.

"I don't think anyone alive has spent more hours on these cars than I have," says Fasnacht, who does much of his own mechanical work. "If I don't leave a record of what I've learned, who will?"

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