Recently, I travelled to Reno and visited the National Automobile Museum, which is certainly one of the best automotive museums within the United States. While there I saw tons of amazing automotive art, however one car above all the others stood out: The 1925 Julian Sport Coupe.
This car, which I had never heard of, had such a unique appearance and configuration that I knew I had to learn more. This week’s History Hits is detailing the facts I learned about one of the most interesting American vehicles ever created.
The creator of the Julian Sport Coupe, like many businessman and automakers, lent his name to his company; however, he took the unusual step of using his first name, rather than his last. Julian Brown was the son of a wealth industrialist, and at a relatively young age he inherited a not-inconsiderable sum of $2.5M USD. Julian used this money to live an interesting life, owning a number of night clubs, marrying four times, and starting a number of vehicle companies.
These vehicle companies included an electric boat project—how scary does THAT sound with early 20th century technology—as well as two attempts at an automobile and a separate attempt at an automotive engine. His first foray into the automotive world was in 1912 with this engine, which he planned to sell to luxury carmakers. This large-displacement inline-6 supposedly produced 45hp ‘conservatively’ and as much as 100hp at ‘2,200 RPM’ and was billed as ‘America’s Most Expensive Engine’ in their own company publications.
Predictably, it failed to enter production.
In 1918 Julian Brown attempted to launch an actual automobile. This vehicle was of a roadster design and featured a number of stylish design choices. For power it used another engine of Brown’s design, this time being a “Twin Three” V6 engine. From the sounds of it, this engine was similar to the Alfa Romeo Monza engine of the 20’s and 30’s, which combined two straight-4’s to make one straight-8 via a common crankcase.
This too failed, and no cars survive, if any were produced.
Then, in 1922, Julian decided to go big. Wanting to try his hand at another automobile, he set up shop in his hometown of Syracuse, New York and hired machinists and foundryman to create an actual industrial force. Here, he and his team spent the next three years creating his legacy: the 1925 Julian Sport Coupe.
This car’s distinction from the other small-marque automobiles of the time—and all-time—is its unique drivetrain layout and design. Predating the Beetle that made such a layout famous, the 1925 Julian used a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine powering the rear-wheels through simple U-joints attached to swing axles. On top of this departure from the norm, the engine used in this unconventional layout was extremely unconventional itself.
The Sports Coupe used a radial, flat, six-cylinder engine that lay horizontally behind the passenger compartment, directly over the rear wheels. The crankcase of this engine was cast aluminum, cast in two banks of three positioned one above the other. The engine displaced 268CUI or 4.4L and produced a healthy 60hp. It had a high (for the day) compression ratio of 4.8:1 and featured an assortment of high technology features, such as hemispherical combustion chambers, a hollow camshaft, and a remote oil sump.
Continuing the strange powertrain layout, the flywheel was located beneath the engine, and beneath that was a wet cone clutch, finally ending in a three-speed transaxle, all housed in the same aluminum case. The transaxle contained a normal differential, and, as stated earlier, powered the rear wheels through the swing axles. Interestingly, the brakes were contained in the wheels of the car, much like early Bugatti race cars.
The location of the brakes is not the only interesting thing about them. Julian Brown felt that because so much of the weight of the vehicle—about 66%–was located over the rear, rear brakes were sufficient. Luckily, the drum brakes were sturdy units, featuring four shoes each, two for normal service and two for the emergency brake.
On top of designing the chassis and engine, Julian also designed the body. Rather than build it himself, he made the choice to have the famous U.S. coachbuilder Fleetwood produce the body. Commissioning it out of aluminum and utilizing the metal extensively in the powertrain, Brown hoped to keep the overall weight of the vehicle to around 2400lbs. Instead, the finished car weighed 3450lbs.
As a testament to his confidence, Brown shipped the running and driving chassis to Fleetwood in Pennsylvania, when the body was completed, and the coachbuilder fit the painted and trimmed body on the car. Brown then hopped in his car and drove back to New York. In 1925, Pennsylvania to New York would be quite the test for a new vehicle.
The interior of the Julian continued the strangeness of the overall vehicle. The driver sat in the center of the vehicle, with two adult-sized seats behind him. Flanking him to either side on the left and right are fold-out jump seats, with their backs to the dashboard. These seats were meant for children and could NOT have been fun. Brown called this a ‘Reverse Cloverleaf’ seating arrangement.
Luckily, it did not catch on.
In 1925 Julian Brown announced that his namesake vehicle would go into production ‘soon’ at a price of $2500. Brown would advertise that the car had 473 fewer parts than cars from the era, and its rear-engine layout left such unsavory things as noise and exhaust behind. While this was a pricey sum in the 20’s, it was nowhere near the reported $60,000 it cost Julian to build his first vehicle. Likely due to this lack of a profitable future, the project stalled and eventually died, with Julian Brown moving on. After the company declared bankruptcy, the prototype Julian Sports Coupe sate in the Lincoln Garage in Syracuse for the next 24 years.
The car was eventually sold in 1949 in a bid to recoup some of the storage costs, and was sold at least one more time before ending up in Bill Harrah’s collection of automobiles in 1966. There, Harrah and his craftsman restored the car to running condition, repainting the body to original colors, and reupholstering the interior in period style. The National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, recipient of some of Harrah’s collection, now owns and exhibits the car in the condition that Bill Harrah restored it to, which is very near the specifications laid out by Julian Brown himself.
As for Julian Brown, he moved to California after World War II and finally retired to Daytona Beach, Florida, where he passed away in April 1964 at age 77.
Like the article? Want to read more like it? Check out my website thespeedtrap.net, for weekly history articles and more besides. If I missed something or if you have a question, feel free to leave a comment below, and don’t forget to hit the like button. If you would like to plan your visit–which you should–you can visit this page here, and if you would like to donate to the National Automobile Museum, you can do so here. Want to check out more museums? I have also covered the Petersen Automotive Museum, which you can check out here!
I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.