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1895 Buffum 4-cylinder Stanhope: Selling the Icon of American Motoring

Bonhams is auctioning a piece of automotive history with the 1895 Buffum 4-Cylinder Stanhope, the world’s oldest four-cylinder functional automobile.

Buffum 4-Cylinder Stanhope
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As an indicator of rarity, the most casual internet search of “H.H. Buffum Co” will take the user to a dozen websites with information about the pioneering auto maker, Herbert H. Buffum. Originally hailing from Hanover, Germany, Buffum set up shop in Abington, Massachusetts in 1890 and proceeded to make automotive history.

These websites will, generally speaking, credit him with building his first automobile in 1902. Predating this engineering feat by seven years, an extraordinarily rare specimen recently went up for auction: the 1895 Buffum 4-cylinder Stanhope.

Featuring an in-line, four-cylinder, gasoline powered engine the design was a first for the nascent auto industry. With automobile engineering being a cut-throat industry in those early days, Buffum was very secretive about his inventions and kept this beauty under wraps from the avarice eyes of his competitors.

In fact, this car was never sold and it stayed largely behind protective walls in storage until his widow sold the car to Harry Bell in 1934. Bell was a collector who had assembled a respectable inventory of antique cars by this time.

Not that a sale would have significantly boosted the overall financial record of the company. In its thirteen-year run they only produced for purchase, seventy automobiles.

Buffum 4-Cylinder Stanhope 2
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Known for his exacting engineering standards, Buffum was a strict taskmaster when it came to his cars. The 1895 Buffum four-cylinder Stanhope, which went on the auction block last August, features rear axle drive and tiller steering along with designed auto controls that proved an innovative engineering marvel.

The car is neither an automatic nor a traditional stick-shift and the modern driver would have a difficult proposition reconciling the mechanism to a modern-day gear shift as it closer resembles the inner-workings of a Victorian era pipe organ.

It was on display at the Princeton Auto Museum for many years prior to that institution’s sale to the Zimmer Museum in 1963. The vehicle bounced between several private parties prior to landing in the ownership of John Swan of Highland, Maryland who did the heavy lifting to get this piece of history operable.

At this point the car disappeared from the public eye, with the exception of a brief stint on loan with the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum, Maine. Its long time in storage during Herbert H. Buffum’s life and subsequent internment in various museums have left the condition of the vehicle in good stead for auction.

Although a more recent paint job can be discerned from some time in the past, the leather seats and dash are original to 1895 and are in remarkable condition.

The winning bidder not only wins the bragging rights of ownership to one of the most historical automobiles in America; they would earn the distinction of owning the oldest four-cylinder gasoline powered car ever offered for auction.

Pre-auction estimates suggested the car would go from between $250,000 and $350,000. Bonhams Auction House’s website doesn’t show a result for the bid and there is an indication that the vehicle is no longer on the market.



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