TEMPE, Ariz. – You won’t find the Olvera auto company or its vehicles in the Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, nor are they included in the 2,100-plus pages of the four-volume Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile. And yet, there was a 1903 Olvera, at the Catch-A-Wave car show in Kiwanis Park here in the Phoenix suburbs.
The Olvera, owned by Kempton and Eileen Asburn of Casa Grande, Ariz., is believed to be the oldest car in Arizona and was showcased with other historic and dozens of much more recent yet nonetheless classic vehicles at the eighth annual show sponsored by the Kiwanis Neuvo Club of Tempe.
According to Eileen Asburn, at least five Olveras remain in existence.
“Some had electric motors, some had gas, like ours, with chain drive,” she said, wearing a period costume as she stood next to her car.
As the story goes, the Olvera was manufactured in Casas Grandes.
Note, however, that’s Casas Grandes, not Casa Grande, the town between Phoenix and Tucson where the Asburns live. Casas Grandes is in Chihuahua, Mexico, not far south of the “boot heel” of the state of New Mexico.
Of course, when Olvera was building its cars, neither New Mexico nor Arizona were states. They were, however, American territories, and Casas Grandes became a destination for Mormons who emigrated to Mexico from the United States. It is believed it was some of those Mormons who produced the Olvera vehicles, perhaps under license from Ransom E. Olds, who started building gasoline, electric and even steam-powered cars in Lansing, Mich., as early as 1896.
Translate Olds into Spanish, or at least into “Spanglish,” and perhaps you get Olvera.
Not only the first letters of the car’s name, but much of its design are reminiscent of the turn-of-the-century Olds.
The Ashburns’ Olvera spent the last half of the 20th century deteriorating in a mechanic’s garage in northern Mexico. It was brought to Arizona in 2000 and restored to its current condition.
To help celebrate Arizona’s centennial as a state this year, organizers of the Catch-A-Wave show sought out the oldest cars in Arizona. In addition to the Ashburns’ 1903 Olvera, Jim and Donna Bunch of Glendale, Ariz., brought their 1909 Sears Motor Buggy.
From 1908-1912, the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog included item No. 21R333, a four-wheel motorcar powered by a two-cylinder, 10-horsepower engine.
The one the Bunchs’ own originally was delivered to Marysville, Pa., where it reportedly was the first motorcar on the road. Donna Bunch’s grandfather, James Roberts, bought the car from its original owner in 1929. He eventually sold the car, but Jim and Donna found it and bought it back.
Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at email@example.com.