Gordon Langeneger sits on the floor of his beige-and-tan carpeted garage, thumbing through a stack of loose photos and photo albums from family vacations spent traveling cross-country to California, North and South Dakota, New England and Canada in Lil’ Red, his 1909 EMF Roadster.
One-hundred years after its inception, the tangible, Brass Era classic rests a few feet away from Langeneger and boasts a shiny coat of red paint, which Langeneger painted while it balanced atop four tires with ivory wooden spokes. There is no battery, no turn signal, and the driver’s seat sits on the right side, next to a horn that resembles the top of a turkey baster. It still houses a piston engine and brass kerosene lamps that appear to be polished daily, and with a single, counterclockwise heave of the crank, Lil’ Red launches into a steady purr.
Outside, Langeneger’s son, Scott, has pushed his one-of-a-kind black 1908 Double Rumble Roadster out of its space in the barn. He cranks it up and waits for his daughter, Kylee, and stepdaughter, Sabrina, to join him for an evening drive in the soothing leather seats.
Both members of the Horseless Carriage Club, the Langenegers have been touring the country together in their classic cars for the past 20 years, a tradition that Langeneger started with his father, also named Gordon. The custom has since become a third-generation tradition, one in which the entire family participates.
Langeneger’s mouth curls into a smile as he admires several photos of him and his wife, Linda, and the rest of the family, dressed in period attire from the early 1900s. For some regions of the Horseless Carriage Club, dressing up is a mandate.
“It’s something the women like to do,” he said. “My wife has a number of original outfits, even one from her grandmother that dates back to 1910. It’s a great part for women.”
The full-time hobby also focuses on the historical aspect of the era.
“We’re driving around history,” Scott Langeneger said. “The idea of what a carriage used to look like, if you took the motor away and put a horse in front — it’s remarkable.”
Langeneger bought his first car — a 1931 Chevrolet Roadster named Eloise — at age 13 from a sea captain who cried when Langeneger drove the car away. Although he had no license or license plates to speak of, Langeneger paid $75 for the car. The car is now worth about $40,000.
“I’ve driven to Canada three times, New England more than 20 times, toured Jay Leno’s private car collection and presented my car in the Disneyland parade in California,” Langeneger said. “I discovered the best part of the hobby — if I wanted to keep my wife — was touring.”
To this day, the car fanatic has managed to keep Linda Langeneger around, even though she once came home to find her candlestick holders missing because her husband had melted them down and shaped the wax to make door handles for his 1911 seven-passenger Touring. Most women might have been miffed, but not Linda — she laughed it off and said she’d rather not have to polish them again anyway.
“One day, my wife came home and the house was in smoke,” Langeneger said. “I didn’t know she was coming home early, and I had the engine in the oven, heating up (to bake and dry the enamel paint). It was a high-temperature paint, so when I drove the engine in the future, it wouldn’t deteriorate.”
The paint on the engine is still perfect, partly because of Langeneger’s background as an artist and art teacher (he taught for 13 years at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, in Bradenton) and partly because his hands can work magic with cars.
“You see people who are just in awe,” Scott Langeneger said. “People can’t identify with or even fathom this type of car because they think old cars are from the ’50s and ’60s.”
The boys get thumbs up, waving and yelling almost everywhere they drive, whether they’re pulling through a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through or dropping kids off at prom. The No. 1 question asked is, “Where do you rent these things?”
Between traveling and touring, the Langenegers have marveled at private, never-before-seen car collections, taken behind-the-scenes tours of sugar cane plants and, in a sense, gone back in history to learn about the era during which their cars were created.
“The biggest thrill is driving throughout the country and going on vacation,” Gordon Langeneger said.
“There’s no top on the car, and we’ve been caught about three times in the rain. When that happens, my wife and I look at each other and say, ‘Well, what would we rather be doing — working, or driving in the rain?’”