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Ripley Light Six

Ripley Light Six

By Jack Nerad

Ripley Light Six In a belated April Fool's Day tribute, Jack Nerad honors the Ripley Light Six.

Many of the greatest cars of all time are household names with recognition on a scale of Cheerios or Kleenex or Mr. Clean, but there are a select few among the hallowed list of the world's top vehicles that are so obscure as to be almost unknown. So it is with the Ripley Light Six of 1927, an unappreciated gem that has gone almost complete unnoticed for 75 years.

It wasn't always thus. By the mid-1920's when the Ripley Light Six appeared, the Ripley name had gained a panache that other vehicle makers might well have envied. To get the full story, we must go back into the late 19th century when the Ripley name first came into prominence. Born the son of a piano tuner, Thomas A. Ripley worked in a Boston accounting office, shuttling papers from one desk to another. Fastidious to a fault and an inveterate tinkerer, he was always dismayed when the stacks of papers he carried around became shuffled or unruly, so he set about to find a solution. After months of labor in his basement workshop, he devised an arrangement of folded wire that we now call the paperclip. (He originally dubbed it the "Clip for Holding Papers Together," but then his long-suffering wife, Hermione, came up with the simpler name.)

Ripley scraped together some capital (the princely sum of $45), went into business, and by 1901 he was a millionaire when that term really meant something. Unfortunately, Ripley had failed to patent his breakthrough properly, and soon copycats were also manufacturing the newfangled "paperclip," competition that proved more than troublesome to the Ripley Paper Clip Manufacturing Company.

The Panic of 1906 sent the Ripley concern into receivership; the Ripley family fortune was reduced to a pittance, and Thomas A. Ripley, a broken man, would spend the rest of his life in a sanatorium convinced that he was Abraham Lincoln's tailor.

But by then his offspring, Thomas B. Ripley, had developed a taste for the high life. The son of a son of a piano tuner, Thomas B. Ripley liked wine and song, and he first became involved in racing in an unusual way, speeding away from the scene of a crime. Who committed the crime still remains a mystery, but Ripley's reaction to the ride was no mystery at all -- he was hooked. At the wheel of a borrowed Jewett, he began to enter hill climbs, trials and stakes races in the early 'Teens, though his entry in the stakes races angered many jockeys. By 1915, as President Woodrow Wilson declared that the United States would never enter World War I, Ripley was a renowned sportif driver, who was offered factory racing rides by the prestigious Mudd, Dertt, and Drivelle brands of motor cars. After placing 33rd in the 1916 Indianapolis 500, a race he finished in a few minutes short of 19 hours at the wheel of a Dertt Adequate Six, he decided to start his own car company.

Most men with no engineering training and only a rudimentary knowledge of how cars even worked would find starting a car company a daunting challenge, but Ripley jumped into the endeavor with his characteristic sloth. Rather than designing a car of his own, he simply had his development staff, which consisted of a blacksmith, a bartender, and a young farm boy named Joe, simply trace around the parts of the Adequate Six. The result was, well, somewhat less than adequate, if you will excuse the bad pun, and the Ripley Automotive Works got off to a slow start, eventually selling its first car by pretending it was a Dertt and offering it at cost to a blind man who wanted to learn to drive.

Improved models soon followed, some of which would actually operate for several days without major mechanical breakdowns. Convinced that competition was an avenue that would lead to greater sales, Ripley decided to become a world-class barrel jumper, only later realizing that jumping over barrels on ice skates had little or nothing to do with the car business. But Ripley emerged undaunted (if bruised), and he vowed to himself that he would make his fledgling car company a success if it killed somebody. (He didn't really care who.) Instead of resorting to murder, however, he decided to copy better cars. In the course of the next several years, his concern produced credible knockoffs of Marmon, Stutz and Packard motorcars, keeping his lawyers busy with litigation but filling the sales till nonetheless. Flush with success in the booming stock market, Ripley decided that his next car would really make a statement, so he hired Ludlow Chumley, who had formerly served as chief engineer at Campbell's Soup, to design what would be Ripley's signature vehicle, the fabled Ripley Light Six.

Spurred by Ripley's desire to break new ground (if not new wind), Chumley decided to throw all of automotive convention out the window. Instead of the conventional metal-over-wood body sitting on a sturdy steel frame, Chumley drew up the new Light Six as a cylinder of tinplated iron, an elegantly simple design whose one drawback was the complete lack of windows. (That failing was remedied after the prototype stage.)

Chumley was just as innovative in the engine compartment, where, reasoning that two powerplants were better than one, he specified a five-cylinder "primary" engine backed up by a one-cylinder "secondary." The set-up anticipated today's powerboat practice of using two different-sized outboards, and it proved to be equally effective.

The five-cylinder displaced 340 cubic inches and produced a rather unimpressive 14 horsepower (Chumley's team forgot to install pistons in three of the cylinder bores, limiting its effectiveness), but it was unusual in that it ran on chicken broth rather than gasoline. The one-cylinder engine, specified "for emergency use only," didn't actually run at all.

Still the Ripley Light Six was better than many of the automobiles of the era, especially those being built simultaneously in the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan. The interior was a cozy, cavelike place to be even on those frequent occasions when the car failed to move at all.

The car had a successful debut at the 1927 New York Auto Show where it was billed as "The Car Lucky Lindy Would Drive if He Decided to Drive a Car Shaped Like a Soup Can." The catchy slogan obviously caught on with the public, because more than 17 Ripley Light Sixes were sold prior to year's end and of those, nine were actually delivered to customers.

Sadly, that was the zenith for the Ripley Motor Works. The stock market crash of 1929 sent sales reeling, and Thomas B. Ripley lost control of the company and was forced to return to piano tuning in his native Boston. His son, Thomas C. Ripley, soon followed in his footsteps before emigrating to Italy in the mid-Fifties. Now ensconced in a comfortable manor house in Villeperce, France, Thomas C. Ripley is not only a student of the human condition but also an automotive correspondent for Driving Today, proving yet again, what goes around comes aground.

Long a fan of the Ripley motorcars, Jack R. Nerad met Tom Ripley in the late '90s, and they have been fast friends ever since.
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