A Generational Ride

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Ocala Style Magazine.


Heads turn when Richard Marr occasionally drives his unique automobile through his Ocala Palms neighborhood. The 1914 cycle car is more than just a collectible, though. It’s all about keeping family history alive.

At a recent classic car show in The Villages, the crowd around a small two-seat auto was so deep that it was nearly impossible to find the owner Richard Marr. His derby hat and warm smile gave him away as he climbed behind the wheel of a 1914 Buick “light” car designed by his late grandfather, Walter L. Marr, who was the chief engineer for Buick from 1904 to 1918.

From a distance, the narrow vehicle looked like an elongated golf cart. Up close, however, bystanders knew the tan convertible was something really special. The one-of-a-kind car is a priceless heirloom to the Marr family.

“My grandfather designed it as an experimental cycle — or light — car for Buick,” says Richard. “He drew the original plan on a napkin around 1912, with details that were unbelievable. It looked like a finished drawing.”

Buick built the prototype in 1914 in Flint, Michigan. The napkin is now in Flint’s Sloan Museum

Intended for the European market where streets were narrow, the cycle car has a 100-inch wheel base and weighs only 600 pounds. In the early 20th century, it was not unusual for cars to get stuck in buggy tracks. Two people could easily pick up the cycle car and move it to solid ground. The lone passenger seat was directly behind the driver, and that may have been its undoing as automotive manufacturers were moving toward mass production.

“Buick decided not to continue building the car because it was more economical to build a four-passenger car than a two-seater,” explains Richard. “The car, which Buick called ‘Walter’s Baby’, was returned to my grandfather.”

The car had many firsts, according to Richard. It was the first to have a curved radiator, a slip transmission, an electric starter, and a very unique telescoping steering wheel.

“I would not be able to get in and out of the car if the steering wheel didn’t move in and out,” says Richard. “General Motors brought those steering wheels back briefly in the 1960s.”

The car eventually was passed down to Richard’s father, Walter D. Marr, who restored it in 1946. Richard remembers riding in the car as a youngster and as a young man. He also has fond memories of his grandfather.

“When he would pick me up, I’d pull his goatee and he’d stick out his tongue,” Richard remembers with a smile. “He was very soft-spoken and very loving to all his grandchildren.”

Along with eventually inheriting the car from his father, Richard also is the keeper of many of the family memories and legends about his grandfather, who partnered with David Dunbar Buick at the turn of the 20th century to build valve-in-head engines. Their engine design was considered superior to the conventional L- or T-head engines of the time.

Buick’s Amazing Engineer, a 2007 book by the late noted automotive historian Bev Kimes, describes Walter Marr as a brilliant and innovative engineer whose “contributions made the Buick one of America’s most desirable automobiles in the early part of the 20th century.”

Even before he became Buick’s chief engineer, Walter Marr was a tinkerer. His grandson still has a carburetor built by the W.L. Marr Company in 1902. Walter Marr also created the Marr Auto-Car Company in 1903-04. A Friday, the 13th, fire wiped out the Marr-Auto Car factory but one car survived. Years later, the Ford Museum acquired the unusual auto, believing it to be a Ford. However, as they started the restoration they realized it was a Marr-Auto Car. The vehicle eventually came back into the family and a cousin of Richard’s now owns it.

“When my grandfather had an idea — whether it was a car, plane, or a part — he would sketch what he wanted it to look like on a piece of paper and then give it to his draftsman,” says Richard. “He was a perfectionist, too. Every detail had to be just right.”

Although the Marrs originally hailed from Michigan, Richard describes his grandfather as a “true Southern gentleman.” Illness forced Walter Marr to retire to a warmer climate and he chose Signal Mountain, near Chattanooga. His custom-built home, ‘Marrcrest,’ has stayed in the family since the elder Marr’s death in 1941. Richard says it was not unusual for the Buick Corporation to ship cars down to him when they couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

“Today, he’d be called a consultant,” says Sue Marr, who has been married to Richard for 54 years. The couple grew up in automotive families, and her grandfather actually worked for Walter Marr at Buick.

“Cars are the thread that runs through our family,” she said.

Indeed that thread will continue as the antique car will stay in the family for quite awhile. The couple’s youngest son, Peter, is next in line to get it. According to his parents, Peter inherited his great-grandfather’s engineering talent and keeps the car running smoothly.

But for now, Richard and Sue still enjoy driving the diminutive automobile in Ocala Palms’ Christmas and July 4th parades. Although they participated in GM’s 100th anniversary parade in 2008 in Flint, the Marrs usually stick to classic car shows closer to home.

“I trust the car, but I don’t trust other drivers,” says Richard, whose regular means of transportation is still a Buick.

A former corporate yacht captain and horse trainer, Richard spends much of his time in his home woodworking shop. He is a noted wood turner whose unique pieces sell around the country. Although his medium is wood as opposed to metal, Sue says her husband shows the same attention to detail and perfection that his grandfather did.

“Those traits didn’t fall far from the tree,” she says with a smile.

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