This article was originally written in the Victoria Daily Colonist Magazine, November 27, 1955, written by G.E. Mortimore.
Phil Foster grew up with the automobile. He was born at the start of the automotive age, in 1900, and he took up the mechanic’s trade because he was intrigued by the way mechanics had to lie full length on the running board of early-day cars to adjust the cumbersome old carburetors while the vehicles were in motion.
As some boys want to be a policeman or a fireman, he wanted to be a mechanic. Later, when the army kicked him back into civilian life in 1915 after finding that he was only 15 years old, he returned to that dream.
The makers of cars brought out an improved carburetor, and mechanics no longer had to be running-board cowboys, but by that time Phil Foster liked the trade.
Too young to take part in the war, he sought some activity with a touch of danger in it. He got his thrills from private flying (at one time he hankered to be a professional pilot) and from building racing cars along with Jack Smith, and driving in races.
But he stayed in the automotive trade, and some time in 1936, when he was beginning to feel he had had enough of car racing, he got interested in another hobby: collecting old cars.
“That was about the time old cars began to be looked upon as antiques,” he says. “Up to that time they were just old cars.”
IN THE MARKET
Himself a service station operator, Phil was in a good position to keep
an eye on old cars. He told dealers that he would be interested
in old vehicles.
The first elderly car he bought was a 1906 Model N Ford, which he later christened, “L’il Abner.”
In the 19 years that followed, he amassed 15 old cars and two antique motorcycles. Some of them were in fair condition and other were dirt-encrusted mouldering wrecks when they came into his hands.
He went over each one with slow patient skill, taking it to pieces, cleaning, repairing, scouring the country for parts, studying old handbooks, consulting experts, until the veteran car was near as possible to factory new condition.
Some of the cars are housed in Phil Foster’s basement, covered over with dust cloths to protect their gleaming paintwork and brass trimmings. Several more have temporary quarters in a barn.
For years Phil Foster has dreamed of setting up an antique car museum in Victoria. He hopes to do it before he is too much older. The only other automotive museum that he knows about in the West is the one sponsored by the Saskatchewan government. There are two ways you can collect and recondition cars,” Phil Foster says. “You can do it 100% for a lot of money; or you can do a nice job for a little money and a lot of time and hard work.”
He uses the latter method. “What I spend is mostly beer and cigaret money,” he observes.
It’s the labor of reconditioning that puts much of the value into an antique car. All collectors cherish visions of stumbling on an aged model in mint condition, but such a thing seldom if ever happens.
A typical case was that of a 1908 Buick which Phil Foster tracked down in the Comox district and managed to buy after negotiations extending over several years.
Phil and a friend traveled up there with a trailer to fetch the car. They found it stowed in a leaky implement shed, minus tires and altogether in a state of advanced decay. Some of the parts were scattered over the farm, in the tool-shed, in the hayloft, and elsewhere.
The “Sad Sack” as they christened the car, took two years of spare-time work to get in shape. “We had every bolt, nut, screw, and spring-leaf apart,” Phil Foster says.
Collectors insist on restoring a car to exactly its original condition, from engine to paintwork. It took some correspondence with fellow collectors to settle the correct color scheme for a 1912 Mitchell that Phil Foster is working on now. The car was made with several color options. Phil settled on yellow with black fenders.
The old cars must be in running order, too. Most of the items in the Foster collection have popped along in May 24 parades. In some years Phil holds them out of the parade, on the theory that the people might get tired of old cars if they saw them too often.
He may have inherited some of the skill and spirit of a craftsman from his father, Walter Foster, who was a cabinet maker in London, England, before he emigrated to Canada, and practiced his trade in Victoria.
Philip J. Foster was born in London, second in a family of nine. He was four when the family moved here. He went to Bank Street, Strawberry Vale, and Boys’ Central schools, then left school at 13 to help contribute to the family income.
He had several jobs, including some time as a farm hand and as an assistant in a jewelry store. Then he managed at the age of 15 to bluff his way into the 143rd Battalion Bantams, a unit with a height limit of five feet four. But they learned his age and sent him back to civilian life.
Then he had himself apprenticed to a garage run by Arthur Dandridge; later he worked in one or two other garages until 1922, when he and a partner, Bob Frayne, set up business for themselves at the Fernwood Garage.
In 1930 Phil went his own way and took up the Speedway service station on Douglas, which he has operated ever since. The Speedway Station was a landmark on Douglas St. for many yearsHis wife, the former Ella Scroggie, shares his interest in antique cars. She even carries the theme into household affairs. Visitors get table napkins that bear pictures of old cars. Once she discovered some cloth with an antique car design.,, and gleefully made Phil a shirt of the material.
Her brother, Cliff, is a car-collecting crony of Phil’s. He owns a number of antique cars himself. He and Phil have worked together on several projects. Cliff has moved to Vancouver now, but when the brothers-in-law meet, they kick the subject of old cars around for several hours; with special attention to their plans for an old car museum.
Phil has a fair sized library about old cars, and is something of an authority on the history of the automobile.
The manufacture of automobiles in North America started about 1895. It was 1900 before American factories turned out vehicles in any quantity. Henry Ford founded his company in 1903.
Some 2,000 different makes of cars have been made on this continent. This total included 100 makes of electric cars, 125 steam cars, such oddities as the Reeves Octo-Auto, which had eight wheels, four in line at each side; the Metz Friction Drive, which had no transmission or clutch and passed along its power through a small friction wheel sliding on a large face-plate; and the Owen Magnetic, which had an electric coupling between motor and rear axle.
One manufacturer named his product, with fine simplicity, “Rigs That Run.” Another early-day car snorted along under the name of “Seven Little Buffaloes.”
In the parade of vanished car names were Autobug, Autogo, Bacon, Blood, Dan Patch, Foos, Henrietta, Sun, Moon, and Star.
What may have been history’s longest automobile race was the New York
to Paris marathon in 1908. Competitors drove from New York to
Seattle; took a boat to Vladivostok; then drove through Siberia to
Paris. The total distance was 21,000 miles, of which 13,000 was
on land. The winning car, a Thomas Flyer, got there in seven
months. For 8,000 miles it never got out of low gear.
Phil Foster claims he has a poor memory and depends a great deal upon books for information like that; but he seems to have a massive store of facts. Phil, a short, dark man, conducts a visitor through his collection of cars and comments briefly on each in his slow, deliberate voice without any display of enthusiasm.
BY THE WAY
Every now and then he stops to make an illuminating remark. He points out that many of the supposed “new” features of modern cars are revivals of old gadgets that were shelved; recalls that up to 1910 such items as windshields, headlights and tops were optional and cost extra; that early tires were good for only 3,000 to 10,000 miles, and three to five punctures a day were not unusual; that a Stanley Steamer set a speed record of 120 miles an hour, in 1907.
One of the most prized cars in his collection is a 1910 Stanley. Under its hood is nothing but a big boiler, heated by a gasoline flame (later kerosene was introduced). Steam is piped direct to a two-cylinder engine on the back axle. There is no clutch, no transmission. The engine develops tremendous power. It takes half an hour to build up enough steam, before it can be started. It is completely safe.
“Until 1909 or 1910, there were more steam and electric cars on the road in North America than gas cars,” Phil says.
His other cars include a one cylinder De Dion, 1900 (“Little Lulu”) steered by a tiller instead of a steering wheel; the 1906 Model ‘N’ Ford, with its gleaming brass lamps - carbide headlights and oil side lamps with handles on them so they could be lifted off and used as trouble lamps; and a 1910 Russell touring car which Phil Foster took over to Vancouver to drive around James Melton, opera star and antique automobile collector, as part of the British Empire Games publicity.
The 'DeDion' has since been correctly
identified as a 1902 Holley
There is a 1912 Mitchell roadster, being reconditioned. The giant 34 by 4 ½ tires, carrying 70 pounds pressures, were hard to get, but Phil located a few of them up-island; and now Harvey Firestone, an antique car zealot himself, is making various outsize tires specially for the cars that need them.
There is a 1910 Hupmobile and a 1910 Buick awaiting beauty treatment. Housed elsewhere are a three wheel English Auto-Carrier; a 1912 Detroit Electric run on batteries (once the property of the late Cecil French); a 1923 Franklin air-cooled; and a 1912 Model T in which Mr. and Mrs. Foster and Mr. and Mrs. Scroggie went on a tour of Washington State four years ago, for fun.
Phil Foster and "Elizabeth," his 1912 Model T Ford which is now on
display in the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria
They got a cordial reception everywhere. It is another of Phil Forster’s dreams to persuade an antique car club from the U.S. to make Victoria a stopping place for an international tour.
One difficulty about this is licensing. Few aged cars are licensed. Some American states allow antique cars (generally, by definition, 1912 or older) a special $10 licence, good for the lifetime of the vehicle. Since these cars are seldom driven, they do not place much burden on the roads. No such special rate has yet been granted here.
A number of unofficial scouts- chiefly traveling salesmen - keep their eyes and ears open for old cars on Phil’s behalf. Phil thinks he knows the whereabouts of all the old cars worth having in B.C. - some 15 or 16. But he admits that there may be some that haven’t come to light yet.
Only one out of every 20 tips brings results. Sometimes there is a rusty skeleton where the old car used to be; or the car is a comparative youngster after all; or the owner wants too much money; or, for sentimental reasons, he refuses to sell at any price.
But Phil remains alert, questioning his friends, scouting during his holidays. Sometimes a rumor of a car appears like a will ‘o the wisp, fades away, then materializes again. One ghostly old Ford around Duncan has been playing hide and seek with Phil for some years. He believes it is owned by an Indian.
A tip came to him once that there was a 1901 - 02 Galloway at Craig’s Crossing. He interviewed a man who had sold it to someone else 10 miles farther on. The man in turn had sold it to a man at Errington, who in turn had sold it to a man in Parksville.
“The man at Parksville laughed at us, and pointed to a couple of chunks of metal. ‘That’s the car,’ he said. ‘I just scrapped it.’”