Small Towns: A century-old car’s incredible journey home

Small Towns: A century-old car’s incredible journey home
Published: Nov. 16, 2023 at 6:33 PM CST
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NEENAH, Wis. (WBAY) - A father and son from Neenah say they still can’t believe it: they’re now the proud owners of a car, the only one of its kind in the world, built by their great, and great-great, grandfather more than 100 years ago.

This week in Small Towns, we follow the incredible journey home for 1915 Harding Roadster.

For more than a century, it remained an unknown family treasure.

“We didn’t even know it was a piece of our history or part of our family because we didn’t have that connection with my great-great grandfather, my great-grandfather died when my grandpa was two years old, so this has kind of been a side of the family we never really knew about,” says Scott Harding.

But that began to change in 2015 when a relative living in Illinois called the Harding family.

“I have these documents and I want someone in the family to have them,” recalls Scott about the conversation.

When the family received those documents, they couldn’t believe what they learned and discovered.

“The blueprints for the car, you know it’s something we didn’t know about,” says Mark Harding, Scott’s father.

In 1915, Mark Harding’s great-grandfather, Samual Harding, owned an Oshkosh Company called Harding Machine Works. Samuel had invented a safety device for cars, and to showcase his invention, he built a car that he called the Harding Roadster.

“I went online right away, and I just started searching,” explains Scott.

“I really didn’t think we were going to find anything after all that time, for something to survive I thought was next to nothing,” adds Mark.

But then, a glimmer of hope.

“About after a year I found one on a pre-work car website where a guy said hey, I’m getting this orphan back on the road and he knew a lot of details about the car and he said this was Mr. Harding’s personal car and he had the picture there and I’m like that’s it, that’s the car,” recalls Scott.

Unfortunately, desperate attempts to message, email, and call the owner proved unsuccessful.

“That’s kind of where it went and the years went by and I kept looking but I wasn’t really finding much, so it went from this is going to be really easy to well, who knows, good luck, yeah needle in a haystack,” says Scott.

In 2019 though, it finally had a solid lead. A Flickr account tied to Bernick’s Beverage Company in Minnesota posted a picture of the car.

Scott left a message for owner Roy Bernick.

“And then months went by and I didn’t hear anything and then on my birthday with my family in the Dells, I got a phone call and it was an area code I never recognized and opened up my voicemail and here it’s Roy and he says, yeah it’s Roy, I got your car, give me a call, and that’s where it started,” says Scott with a smile.

“Told me about it so it started to get exciting then,” adds Mark.

In the fall of 2020, Mark and Scott paid Roy a visit. Not only did he have the car, but all the documentation detailing its journey from Samual Harding’s garage in the 1920s to Roy’s pole barn.

Previous owners included a Green Bay family, the founder of Harrah’s Casinos, a museum in Canada, and a car collector in New York. Before leaving, Mark and Scott asked Roy if he’d consider selling the car back to the family.

Roy’s response: give me a number.

“I said I don’t want to offend you so just think about it and let me know what you’d have to have for it and if we can make something work, we can make it work, so that’s kind of where we left it,” says Scott.

A few months later, Roy was back on the phone.

“And he said nope, I’m not hanging up this call until you give me a number, so I gave him a number and he said yep, that’ll do, come pick up your car, I think I could’ve told him $1, and I think he would’ve said come pick up your car,” says Scott.

With the car back in Neenah, it was now time to see if it would run for the first time in at least 40 years. A lifelong mechanic, Mark took over.

“I just started looking at stuff and just started taking stuff apart, you know getting stuff to work again, pieces, linkages, and stuff that were seized up, and it’s a beast of an engine, it’s just, it’s massive, in the day it would’ve been somewhere between 50-60 horsepower which in 1915 is just unheard-of horsepower,” explains Mark.

After several months of elbow grease, replacing rotted floorboards, and machining engine components, the moment of truth arrived.

“Took the carburetor off, went through the carburetor, and eventually got it to a point where I think I’m ready to see if this thing will fire up,” recalls Mark.

It’s a day Mark and Scott will never forget.

“Cranking it over and it’s barely going and all of a sudden it pops, and it fires right up, and my dad yells out and I was just in disbelief that this thing came to life,” says Scott.

“I let a few choice words fly from excitement,” adds Mark with laughter.

A test drive around the block proved the Harding Roadster was ready for the road, and she’s been all around town ever since.

“This year we’re going to have about 100 miles on it so far, which for a 108-year-old gal that’s pretty good,” says Scott.

A father and son filled with pride and having a ball, in a car that bears their name.

“Not too many people get to say that, and I think for me it’s even more neat to be able to drive a car that my great-great-grandfather had his hands wrapped around all those years ago that he built, so the Harding on the radiator, that’s just a bonus,” says Scott with a beaming smile.

“It’s roughly 89 years it was out of the family and to get it back is pretty incredible,” adds Mark, fighting back tears.