The Columbian Wagon - Aluminum Wagon 

Studebaker Museum


After Treatment Of AluminumThe Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing Company, based in South Bend, Indiana, was established by Henry and Clement Studebaker in 1852. The company originally started as a blacksmith shop and the business subsequently grew to become one of the largest manufacturers of wagons and carriages in the world and the only manufacturer to successfully transition from horse drawn vehicles to gasoline powered automobiles.

This vehicle, based upon the company's farm wagon, was custom built by Studebaker for the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The box body was made from Brazilian Rosewood inlayed with American Holly; in addition the body panels were decorated with thirty-five gold, silver, and bronze medals that had been awarded to the company since its founding. The company name and location were applied to the sides and rear panels using gilt cast brass lettering.

The Columbian Exposition Wagon was more commonly referred to as the “Aluminum Wagon” because all metal components were made from cast and hand wrought aluminum which was considered to be a rare and precious metal at that time. Iron components, needed for structural integrity, were painted with aluminum powder oil based paints.

Factory records indicated that 422 ½ days were required to hand build this vehicle at a cost of $2,110.00, making the Columbian Wagon approximately $1,900.00 more expensive than the farm wagon used as its pattern.

The wagon was used as company advertising at manufacturer's expositions around the country and has been exhibited at the Studebaker Museum since its creation in 1893.


Recreating LetteringThe wagon was found to be structurally sound; however, many of the decorative elements were loose, lifting, tarnished, or lost. The natural finished wooden components had been re-varnished at least once since its completion. The over varnish had darkened, developing a moderate to heavy crazing pattern which scattered the light, subsequently causing a disfiguring of the once highly reflective surface coating. The second varnish layer was haphazardly applied to the polished aluminum fittings, darkening and dulling their appearance.


The inlaid medallions had been irreparably damaged by repeated polishing, wearing through the silver and gilt plating which exposed the brass or bronze substrate. One medallion was missing from the rear panel and several appear to have been damaged by someone attempting to remove them from the wagon.


Several sections of gilt brass lettering, “USA” and “Mfg Co”, were missing from the rosewood side panels as evidenced by “shadows” on the varnish layer, their points of attachment, and historic photographs.


The finish or varnish layer, in addition to its darkening and crazing, had numerous scrapes, abrasions and polish residue that covered its entire surface, diminishing the visual impact of a once stunning example of Studebaker craftsmanship.


Darkened Over-VarnishOnce received into the studios of B. R. Howard & Associates, Inc., the wagon was digitally photographed, thoroughly examined, and documented prior to treatment. The box body and seat platform were removed from the running gear. In addition, many of the aluminum components were removed from the body and the running gear in order to safely reduce the darkened varnish coating without damaging the varnished wooden surfaces.


The darkened over varnish and polish residue, found on the wooden elements of the body and running gear, were cleaned using both solvent and aqueous based cleaning systems.


Sections of loose or detached holly inlay were cleaned of old adhesive residues and readhered using hot hide glue. Rosewood inserts, missing from the outer edges of the dash panel, were replicated and adhered. After cleaning, all natural finished wooden surfaces were polished with a microcrystalline wax containing a mild abrasive.


The darkened varnish was removed from the aluminum fittings using a proprietary stripping gel. The metal was then polished using cotton wadding.


The missing gilt brass lettering was replicated using molds taken from extant elements or patterns based upon historic photographs of the Columbian Exposition Wagon. Replicas were cast in synthetic resins and oil gilded to blend with the original elements and attached using the holes made during the time of manufacture.


Upon completion, the vehicle was once again photographically documented prior to its return to the Studebaker National Museum.

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