A 3,450-mile journey across the country going 30 mph

11/18/2016 9:00 AM |

Doug Bassemir of Aqueboque crouched in his driveway Friday in front of the 1917 Maxwell touring car he and his brother Rich have been working to restore since they purchased it eight years ago.

It’s the same model the car enthusiasts’ grandfather C.W. Tuthill drove across the United States exactly one century ago.

In just five days, the men would be setting off from Newark, N.J., to Los Angeles, retracing their grandfather’s tire tracks on the anniversary of his trip.

“We feel ready,” Doug said.

C.W. Tuthill, who was born in Jamesport, was a Maxwell Motor Sales Corporation salesman on a mission to prove the Maxwell could serve the average family. He figured a 3,450-mile trip across the country with his colleague P.G. Scull — coupled with the chance of harsh weather — was the way to prove it. The men completed the journey in 10 days and 16 hours, save for a three-day stop in Arizona for mechanical fixes.

The idea to recreate the trip was sparked in Doug Bassemir’s mind around 2007, when the 56-year-old was visiting his mother, June, in Jamesport and found a January 1917 article about the journey from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Despite being a self-described “car guy” who learned about the event as a child, Doug admits he never researched his grandfather’s trip until he found the 99-year-old clipping.

Doug turned to the internet to find out more. He Googled “1917 Maxwell Tuthill” and said he nearly fell off his chair when he discovered a collectible toy car had been made to commemorate the trip. The toy’s packaging depicts Mr. Tuthill and Mr. Scull on their journey and describes their feat. He suspects he likely walked past the collectible at various car shows over the years.

Rich Bassemir (left) and his brother Doug with their 1917 Maxwell touring car in Aquebogue last Friday. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Rich Bassemir (left) and his brother Doug with their 1917 Maxwell touring car in Aquebogue last Friday. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

The toy, made in 1997, served as the catalyst for Doug’s interest in his grandfather’s trip. He learned his mother still had her father’s diary and photos, which mentioned 36 cities and landmarks the men stopped at across the country. He pored over the documents, which included postcards written to his girlfriend “H,” or Helen, who would later become his wife and the Bassemirs’ grandmother.

T“I just read it all,” Doug said. “It was then that I figured, ‘We really have to do this.’ That was years ago, so it was easy for me to say then. I said, ‘Oh, we’ll do it in 2016.’ ”

“It was eons away,” added Rich Bassemir, a 61-year-old retired IBM employee who lives in Austin, Texas.

The brothers began their trip Wednesday, departing from Newark at 6:30 a.m.

Five days before her sons started the car’s engine for real, June Bassemir, in a bright blue peacoat and red hat, looked on as they worked to prepare the vehicle, which they bought in 2008 after writing to nearly a dozen 1917 Maxwell owners listed in a registry. It’s unclear what became of Mr. Tuthill’s car.

There’s a gene for restoring cars in the family, which Ms. Bassemir described as full of “old car nuts.” She herself once restored a 1931 Model A Ford, having picked up an interest in how things work from watching her father solve problems as simple as straightening a bent nail.

“He showed me in a very small way that all things were possible, that you didn’t have to give up,” she said.

The brothers began working on the Maxwell this past spring. The car was pale yellow when they purchased it, so in June they repainted it black to match their grandfather’s vehicle. They also added hand-lettered signs to the side of the car, as he had, reading “Newark, N.J., to California” and “Across United States on Firestone Tires.”

In much the same way his grandfather documented his road trip, Rich recorded the car’s transformation online, providing updates on milestones such as marrying the engine to the transmission, which was performed by Jay Tranchina at T-Jay’s Transmissions Inc. in Riverhead.

The trip will replicate Mr. Tuthill’s as closely as possible, as the brothers plan to stop at places their grandfather noted in his diary, including St. Louis, Santa Fe and the Grand Canyon. Their goal is to travel around 330 miles a day at 30 mph, which should get them to the West Coast in the same number of days. Of course, they don’t anticipate as many tire changes as Mr. Tuthill had to endure because roads have since been paved.


Follow along

Subscribe to email updates from the brothers’ road trip at rtbassemir.com.


Strangers across the country have helped the Bassemirs identify sites that have changed since 1916, including the Savoy Hotel in Lamar, Colo. A photo taken Nov. 22, 1916, shows Mr. Tuthill, hand on hip, posed next to the Maxwell in front of the hotel. According to Mr. Tuthill’s diary, the thermometer read 10 degrees that day and the car’s radiator froze as they pulled into town.

Rich went through a chain of people to find out where the hotel was. He started with the local chamber of commerce, which could confirm it existed but didn’t have an address. After connecting with a local museum, he learned that the hotel itself is gone but the original building remains.

“Although our roads will be a lot better, I think it’ll be neat to stand where Grandpa stood a hundred years ago in front of the same building,” Rich said.

Despite Mr. Tuthill’s diary, the Bassemirs said they have some unanswered questions about his trip. For example, how many times did he have to sleep in the car?

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Some of those questions may be answered along the way.

“For me, it’s just to relive what he did,” Doug said. “I can’t wait to get out where the roads are kind of barren and flat. Just to think, ‘Maybe he and Scull lost his wallet on this road.’ I just want to experience it.”

The trip will offer a chance to develop an appreciation of what the two men went through all those years ago, Rich added.

“Just to see the countryside, we’ll be able to see lots of it,” he said. “We’ll be able to take in all sorts of things at 30 miles an hour.”

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