Let’s go Metz: Museum celebrates Waltham family’s role in automotive history

Daily News Tribune
Posted Mar 29, 2009

His is a story that is often left out of the American automobile narrative.

One day in 1898 Waltham resident Charles Metz put a motor on the back of a bicycle and created both what some historians believe to be the first motorcycle and the Metz Automobile Company.

At the Waltham Museum yesterday antique car enthusiasts from near and far gathered to compare notes and stories of the Metz Automobile Company.

“This family was an exciting part of Waltham history, they changed the city” museum director Al Arena said to the group yesterday. “Everything was horses and wagons when they came in here, and it was all automobiles by the time they left.”

“People usually think of (Henry) Ford when they think of American cars,” Waltham native Howard Randall said. “But, really, New England was a hub for automobile manufacturing in the early 1900s. There’s a history here that needs to be told.”

Randall, who owns a seven-seater bicycle made by the Metz family in the 1890s, has been interested in Metz creations since childhood. Randall said his family would ride the bicycle down Moody Street in the Waltham Christmas Parade.

“That bike had only one handlebar for seven people, and the bike itself weighs 300-some-odd pounds,” he said. “My biggest nightmares came out of riding that bike and trying to steer without killing people.”

Arena opened yesterday’s event with a Metz family slide-show that explained the family’s transition from bikes to motorcycles to automobiles. Arena said the company hit its peak in 1914 when it was manufacturing 7.5 million cars a year(correction:7,500 cars a year) and was the largest automobile manufacturer east of Detroit.

In 1915 when the Lusitania, a British ocean liner, was sunk by a German U-boat, Arena said Metz sales dropped. Area attributed this decline to Americans not wanting to buy cars with German-sounding names and opted for Ford motorcars instead.

Those who collect Metz cars have formed a “grass roots support system” for tips on how to restore, rebuild and repaint cars with appropriate colors explained Eric Haartz of Concord.

Haartz is a second-generation antique car collector and said the first car he drove was a 1912 Metz Roadster “at the ripe old age of 12.”

Haartz’s Roadster is no longer running, but he hopes to have it ready for the July’s Historic Waltham Days celebration.

As part of this annual celebration, the Waltham Historical Society  (Correction: Waltham Museum not historical society) plans to show some restored Metz cars and bicycles on July 11 at the Gore Estate, which was the Metz family home from 1911 to 1922.

While most of the group assembled yesterday was from New England, Michael Patris, who works for the Mount Lowe Preservation Society in California, traveled from Los Angeles to attend the event.

Patris, who is a third-generation antique car collector, learned about Metz when he was researching the history of a railroad for a preservation project. Patris said that in the early 1900s, the Metz company drove one of their cars over the railroad tracks “to prove the car could go over anything. And it did.”

Patris said he then became obsessed with the company and bought two cars for the Mount Lowe Preservation Society, one of which is “100 percent original.”

Patris said he was happy to meet the people he’s been e-mailing with for years.

“It’s great to be able to put some faces to names,” he said. “We’ve got a small group of people with a common but rare passion. Now we can finally say we know each other and, of course, get some restoration tips.”

Arena, who helped organize yesterday’s event, said he was glad that so many people could come from so far away, and that he could share with them one of the treasures of Waltham.

Arena said the Waltham Museum on Lexington Street is home to the only 1905 Waltham Orient in existence. Though the car is worth up to a quarter of a million dollars, Arena said the museum would never sell it.

“It’s a part of history,” he said. “It’s a part of the city.”

Published in: on May 31, 2009 at 4:28 am  Leave a Comment  

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