Sewickley Heights tradition features memorable motors
September 7, 2013 8:00 AM
G. Whitney Snyder Sr. in 1936 with his 1931 Austin.
In this photo from around the 1930s, participants in the Sewickley Heights Riding and Driving Party wore silly costumes.
By Marylynne Pitz Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
G. Whitney Snyder Sr. never forgot his 14th birthday.
On July 12, 1935, his parents gave him an American Austin made in Butler. Although he lacked a driver's license, the exuberant teenager spent most of that memorable day tooling around in the roadster, getting to know its three-speed transmission and 14-horsepower engine.
"He drove that car 200 miles around Sewickley Heights on his birthday. Most people don't drive 200 miles in one day," said his son, G. Whitney Snyder Jr.
Next Saturday, the American Austin, which has an English engine, will lead a parade of about 15 antique and classic cars starting at 1 p.m. Car owners will gather at noon at the Sewickley Heights History Center at 1901 Glen Mitchell Road. The parade will wind through Sewickley and return to the history center.
The automotive nostalgia kicks off a daylong event called the Riding and Driving Party, a Sewickley Heights tradition begun in the early 1900s by Mary and William Christopher "W.C." Robinson. Mrs. Robinson was a granddaughter of steel tycoon B.F. Jones.
On the day before a large competitive horse show at Allegheny Country Club, the Robinsons often invited as many as 700 people to their home for dinner and dancing. Guests often wore silly costumes and arrived at the Robinsons' home either in horse-drawn carriages or cars.
At 4 p.m., members of the Sewickley Hunt will demonstrate horse jumping and dressage and also stage a mock hunt. A catered dinner will be served outdoors at 5 p.m. and there will be a silent auction. Afterward, Robbie Klein and the All-Stars will play swing music.
Many of the antique cars in this year's parade were made before 1912, a time known as the brass era because all of the cars were trimmed in that metal. Following the parade, a 2 p.m. reception just for the antique car owners will be held at the history center.
Alvin Zamba, a retired dentist, and his wife, Mary, of Evans City, will drive their 1912 Pierce Arrow, which is black with a red stripe and has its steering wheel on the right. He bought it in Cleveland in the 1990s and, with the help of a mechanic, took apart the entire upper engine and also installed the correct pistons to make the car run properly.
"I saw my first Model T when I was 12 years old and that did it. It's the large cars that really intrigue me," the dentist said, adding that he believes his 1912 Model 48 Pierce Arrow is only one of three in the U.S. that retains its original cast aluminum body. He takes it out for many brass-era car tours on back roads. After 1912, he said, cars were trimmed in nickel and around 1925 chrome came into use but was not universal until 1929 or 1930.
Owning an Austin launched the elder Snyder's lifelong love for cars. He took the Austin, which cost $450 in 1935, to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, where his prank-loving fraternity brothers often lifted the 950-pound car up and carried or pushed it to hidden spots on campus where he would have to find it.
Rick Brown of Sewickley, who worked on the Austin to make sure it ran smoothly and test drove it this week, said it has a short wheel base.
"It steers more like a go-cart or a bicycle," he added.
Mr. Brown was a friend of the late Snyder because the two men shared a passion for cars.
Mr. Brown recalled that old-timers who saw the Austin often remarked to its owner, "Oh, how sweet. Does it run on gas or milk?"
Snyder died in 1999. He gave his antique car collection to The Frick Pittsburgh, which opened its car and carriage museum in 1997.
In the fall of 1998, as his health was failing, Snyder agreed with his son that it would be a great idea to set up a history museum in Sewickley Heights. He donated the gently rolling land for the museum.
Event proceeds benefit the Sewickley Heights History Center, which opened in 2001. The museum's displays include a vivid mural that stretches across two walls and took artist Richard Smith three years to create.
There are numerous objects, vintage pictures and a three-wheeled gas-powered horseless carriage made in Springfield, Mass.