1911 Oldsmobile Autocrat "Yellow Peril"
- One of the most legendary Brass Era racing cars extant
- Known history since new, documented by Beverly Rae Kimes in Automobile Quarterly
- Original mechanical components and period competition coachwork
- A long-time active participant in cross-country tours
- Massive, powerful, and unquestionably genuine
John Henry Greenway Albert was the kind of man who, had he not been well-to-do, would have been considered an odd character of the American West, but he had money, so he was termed an eccentric. It did not hurt that by most all accounts he was a gentleman and a scholar, as well as a man of considerable, insatiable curiosity and passions. Among his greatest loves were automobiles, and as Mr. Albert had come from a wealthy Maryland family and achieved success of his own as a mining engineer, he had the funds to afford most whatever he could afford. It says a lot about the depths of his pockets that in 1929, the year of the Great Depression, he purchased a brand-new Cadillac dual-cowl phaeton. He also had the time to found a celebration known as Helldorado in his adopted hometown of Tombstone, Arizona.
The majority of the automobiles that Greenway Albert purchased remained with him for the length of his life. Among these was this Oldsmobile Autocrat, which he had purchased new in 1911. The Autocrat was the “junior” model of the famed Olds Limited, but it was not its junior by much, as the thumping T-head four was essentially a Limited engine but with two less cylinders, being capable of displacing 500 cubic inches, and the tires spanned 38 inches across.
Yet, Albert and his chauffeur, Columbus Ridge, went to work modifying the new car, stripping its coachwork and installing a “boattailed” aluminum body of the owner’s own design, which would be lighter and afford better performance. To the same end, Albert put his engineering mind to work on an unusual gas generating system for the engine. In this system, the heat from the exhaust was used to make a producer gas, which, when added to hydrogen and free oxygen, produced a vapor that was drawn into the cylinders by a vacuum. The hydrogen kept the cylinders entirely free of carbon, allowing for durable, long-lasting performance.
“Yellow Peril,” as Albert dubbed his machine, was raced by its owner, with Ridge riding as mechanic, at events in Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., as well as on East Coast road races. Albert recounted later that the only race at which he had been beaten was in Washington on Labor Day, 1915, when the car skidded on a wet board track, went through a patch of honeysuckle, re-entered the track, and passed 17 cars in two laps before an engine fire forced it to the pits. He was a noted teller of tall-tales, and little actual records of period events survive to mention his name. But it is clear that he drove Yellow Peril, and did so with abandon!
Unlike most racers, who retired or junked their mounts once the cars had outlived their competitive usefulness, Greenway Albert not only held on to Yellow Peril but also kept enthusiastically driving it. In 1929, he founded the aforementioned celebration in Tombstone, Helldorado, and crowned a “Helldorado Queen.” Naturally, she rode through town in the Olds, which by this point had been fitted with a “mother-in-law” seat and an easily erected folding fabric top. The parade became an annual event and Yellow Peril an annual participant, being stored when not in use at a Tombstone garage and reconditioned each year by a local mechanic for the event.
In 1962, Albert “restored” the car over a two-week period, painting the body with new yellow and black enamel and fitting new tires. He continued to show it at local events until 13 August 1968, when a cerebral hemorrhage killed him, fittingly, at the wheel of an automobile, albeit a modern car and not his Oldsmobile. It was the only road accident in his long and accomplished life of fast driving.
Mrs. Albert relocated to Tucson following her husband’s death and continued to maintain Yellow Peril there for four years before selling it to Thomas Hubbard, the well-known collector and restorer and a long-time friend of the Alberts.
Mr. Hubbard eventually sold the Oldsmobile to Curtis Graf, of Texas, who performed a full restoration, replacing Albert’s fuel-injection system – never totally reliable – and the modified engine cover in the process. Mr. Graf then proceeded to continue the tradition of competition with the car, participating in the Great American Race from 1984 to 1986, finishing in the top 10 in 1985. The car was then sold to Bill Lassiter, in whose highly regarded Florida collection, of what historian Dennis Adler aptly dubbed “he-man cars,” it remained until 1999. Following short ownerships in New England, it was purchased by the late Phil Bray and his wife, Carol, of Grosse Ile, Michigan.
As devoted enthusiasts and passionate tourers, the Brays drove Yellow Peril over 15,000 miles across North America, including in such events as the 2001 Trans-Continental Tour and the 2002 Red Rock Tour, a 3,000-mile trip through the Canadian Rockies. They completed a new restoration of the much-driven automobile in 2008, and at completion, the car was displayed at the Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance, earning a Best in Class award.
The car was later acquired by a well-known Midwestern collector, who continued to actively and enthusiastically drive and tour with Yellow Peril, while also having the car properly maintained in his private collection. More recently it has been part of a prominent East Coast stable, alongside other great performance automobiles of all eras, and has been freshly serviced by the respected J.O. Classics of Kansas.
Perhaps because of its fascinating story, Yellow Peril has seldom been out of the news during its life as a collectible automobile. Fortunately, this means that its ownership history has been thoroughly discussed and researched, and is well known and authenticated. Thomas Hubbard’s article on the car for the March/April 1977 issue of Antique Automobile shows the Oldsmobile as Hubbard acquired it from its original owners; its boattailed racing bodywork is weathered but intact. Later, in the Brays’ ownership, the Autocrat once again found its way into print, as part of an article written by Beverly Rae Kimes and published in Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 4. With her typical thorough diligence, Ms. Kimes exhaustively interviewed those who had known the car at all stages of its existence, further confirming its history and authenticity.
As a result, despite many, many thousands of miles under its oversized wheels, it is clear that Yellow Peril remains one of the few Brass Era racing cars that are much as their original owner left them. It retains its original engine, drivetrain, and its original racing bodywork, with the only changes being the aforementioned new engine cover (of the original 1911 design) and the later Albert-installed road equipment and “mother-in-law” seat. It is indisputably the same car it was when its original owner last used it.
Ready for many more long-distance tours, in which it would certainly be a robust and thrilling participant, Yellow Peril is what it has always been: an authentic road-warrior, just as Greenway Albert would want it to be.