Steve Weber remembers when the mighty Columbia rolled from coast to coast.
It was in 1985 when he and his wife backed the Columbia’s rear wheels into the Atlantic Ocean at Portland, Maine and pointed the antique car west.
After nearly 4,000 miles and more than a month on the road, the car arrived at Portland’s West Coast namesake city, and then steered for a quick dip in the Pacific.
And that’s when trouble hit.
“It got stuck,” says Weber with a laugh. “It was really about the only problem we had during the entire trip. It took a few extra people to push it out of the sand.”
Today the 1911 Columbia sits in Weber’s shop on the eastern edge of Oregon City, where it is surrounded by other vintage parts and cars.
It is one of only two 1911s known to exist, he says. Weber bought it in 1975 because he was looking for a vintage hot rod.
“My wife and I wanted to do some long tours with antique car clubs,” he says. “Everything I owned to that point was really too slow for the job.”
The Columbia, in contrast, was high speed luxury.
Weber says that back in 1911, the car cost about $3,500.
“For half that amount of money you could buy a huge lot and have a house built on it,” he says. “A car like this was really a major investment.”
Today it is a timeless classic, with flowing lines, a massive radiator topped with gleaming brass, cut glass lanterns and soft leather upholstery.
Weber opens the hood to reveal a massive 430 cubic inch four-cylinder engine, equipped with multiple spark plugs for each cylinder.
“The pistons are so large that the best way to get the fuel to fully combust is to fire multiple spark plugs,” he says.
And just getting them to fire is a bit of an operation.
Weber opens a valve to begin the fuel flow.
“There is no choke, so you just let the gas run until it makes a puddle on the floor,” he says. “It kind of floods everything.”
He pulls hard on the crank to get everything working together, and switches on the ignition.
With one more yank on the handle, the engine chugs to life and settles down to an erratic idle.
“It doesn’t run well ‘til it gets warmed up,” he says, “and all that cast iron takes a while to warm up.”
On the road, the car glides down the smooth pavement, the engine turning almost lazily in front of the polished wood dashboard. People on sidewalk stop and wave or fumble for cell phone cameras to get a picture of the piece of rolling history.
Everyone who sees it grins and waves.
In spite of the skinny wheels (think of a 4,000-pound car riding on four tires the size of motorcycle treads) and high seating position, the Columbia is surprisingly stable around the curves.
“It can be a handful on bad roads,” Weber says as he works it around potholes on the street leading to his house, “but out on the highway, it is a lot of fun.”
He says is will easily hit 70 on the open road, which was part of the car’s appeal.
“I’m a hot rodder at heart,” says. That’s a bit of an understatement. He cut his teeth drag racing and then went on to set land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Weber loves working on the machinery. His shop and garage are filled with projects he’s taking apart, putting together or just thinking about. He’s a retired machinist and tool maker, so there isn’t much he can’t build himself.
He eases the car down the long driveway, past the picket fence and the large garden to the shop decorated with vintage posters and an old-fashioned gas pump.
Does he ever worry about taking an almost irreplaceable piece of automotive history out on the open road?
“If you don’t use it,” he says while the engine snaps and crackles as it cools, “there’s no sense having it.”